A competency-based interview is usually a series of situational-style questions. They test a candidates ability to do what their CV and cover letter has stated. It works off the principle that past behaviours are a great indicator of future performance.

How do these differ from unstructured interviews? Instead of using open-ended questions, each competency-based question targets a skill needed for the job. It allows the candidate to relate it to previous real-life experiences or challenges. This means you dig deeper into how a candidate works.

These style of questions are normally favoured by large graduate recruiters, but we’re here to say why more companies need to embrace them!


What to look for in the answers…

It’s important to incorporate at least a few behavioural and competency-based questions during your interviews. They’re useful for working out a candidate’s ability to perform role-related tasks, and how they would react in work situations that could be integral to the job. For instance, how they react to conflict, high pressure or tight deadlines. It can also reveal other soft skills related to competency, such as strong work ethic, creativity or teamwork.

We recommend assessing answers with a points-based system that corresponds to each competency-based question you’re asking. The points should be based on the competency criteria you’re looking for in each answer. And each candidate should be asked the exact same competency-based questions to ensure a fair screening process. This makes life easier for you – you can make a quick record of a candidate’s competencies to refer to after the interview, and it’s easier to compare answers.

Candidates will be rehearsing how to answer these style of questions effectively, normally using the STAR technique – so it’s up to you as a hiring manager to ensure the questions you ask are directly related to the role. We’ve collected a few general questions below, but alter them (or use different ones) to suit your roles.

Remember, a good answer to any of the below questions should be clear, well-structured, and highlight a candidate’s abilities suited for the role. 


Our top 6 competency-based questions you should be asking…


1.Describe a time where you had various projects on your plate and you had to prioritise one over the other. How did you prioritise the tasks? Was it the right decision, and what was the outcome?

Let’s start with this classic…

Possible skills you’re likely looking for in a candidate’s answer: time management, organisation, decision making, problem solving / logic, calm under pressure.

We all know about the looming pressure of deadlines, or juggling more than one task. This question is excellent at understanding how a candidate prioritises their work, how they respond to pressure, and if they can reflect on where they could do better next time.

These do not have to be big challenges – a candidate who says they now use a stopwatch for projects, or a digital calendar to have set time, shows a good sense of how they remain organised. How a candidate chose which task to prioritise reveals a lot about their decisions under pressure – were they looking at overarching organisational priorities, pleasing a demanding manager, or to keep good client relationships?


2. Describe a situation which required you to use your creativity / creative thinking.

Possible skills you’re likely looking for in a candidate’s answer: creativity, problem solving, communication, calm under pressure.

This question is not just for creative positions – duh! Creativity comes in all forms, and it gives the perfect opportunity for candidates to show their out-of-the-box thinking and response to their environments. For instance, creativity could be shown in:

  • Devising a campaign for a new product.
  • Creating an anonymous survey to find out why a department has a high turnover rate.
  • Arranging a store display for maximum impact.
  • Utilising colour and charts to make reports to increase engagement rate internally.

This question offers a perfect opportunity to see if your candidate’s strengths match up to the skills for the role you are interviewing for. It’s a less challenging question (compared to the rest of our list), so is a good opener for candidates to feel relaxed. 

Ultimately, you want to see how a candidate thought about the creative process that brought about positive results. Answers could also reveal great communication (who else the candidate had to involve to pull it all together) and reacting calmly to pressure (if the situation was time-sensitive). Ideal candidate answers will talk through how their innovation had a significant or lasting impact for their team or company (e.g. increase in sales, decrease in costs, retention, engagement, etc.)


3. Give an example of a time you’ve had to improvise in your current role.

Which translates to: “Can you think on your feet and under pressure?”

Possible skills you’re likely looking for in a candidate’s answer: adaptability / flexibility, problem solving, independence.

Unexpected situations arise at work all the time. It’s super important that the candidate’s answer highlights that they will be able to react quickly, stay calm and still perform to a high standard. You may also want to see here if someone prefers to stick to processes, or creates new solutions off-the-cuff. Both can be good skills – but you may prefer one over the other.


4. Tell me about a time you had to deal with a difficult situation at work and how did you deal with it?

Possible skills you’re likely looking for in a candidate’s answer: problem solving, conflict resolution, decisiveness, communication, leadership.

All candidates should be able to reference a difficult experience during their career. It is open to give a wide range of answers – from being a good team leader, to dealing with conflict with a colleague.

This question will give your candidates an opportunity to show honesty if they had a clear and practical approach to dealing with the situation. They should clearly explain how they dealt with the situation and reflect on anything they could do differently next time something similar happens. 


5. Tell me about a time you supported a member of your team who was struggling

Possible skills you’re likely looking for in a candidate’s answer: teamwork, communication, leadership.

This question will test the ability to show compassion, while being strong enough to not let this interfere with a candidate’s own objectives. You’re obviously not looking for candidates who got annoyed at a colleague (after all, all employees may need help managing stress occasionally), but their emotional response will be a great indicator of if they are a good team player (or if they just use this as an excuse to blame a teammate!). 

Depending on the position you are interviewing for, those further along in their career or in higher positions should be able to reference any training or mentoring they have done. This question is great for people who are interviewing to manage other staff members.


6. Why are you a good fit for this company?

Possible skills you’re likely looking for in a candidate’s answer: commercial awareness, research (into your company!), persuasion, motivation/drive.

Okay – maybe not a traditional competency-based question! But asking this allows you to evaluate your candidates by how well they can convince you that their skills would be appropriate/transferable for the position. This will test both their awareness of their abilities and an understanding of what you are looking for from a new employee in this role. 

A standout candidate shows an understanding of your company values, missions and goals within their answer. And they will offer examples of how their skills can help you work towards those goals. They may also show awareness of:

  • Your competitors and what distinguishes your company in particular
  • Like your company working style (remote or hybrid for instance)
  • The social side of the company that they want to be part of
  • The corporate social responsibility your business is involved in

The candidate should be able to confidently explain why they want to work in this role, for your company, and convince you how they would fit your team culture.

Start asking competency-based interview questions now!

There are so many more competency-based interview questions out there. And the best part is that you can collect and tweak them to specifically fit any role you’re recruiting for.

Looking for more recruitment and remote interview advice? Need help with updating your business’ recruitment processes to be faster? Want to beat your competition to those ideal candidates? We’re here to help! 

RecruitmentJunky is a recruitment agency that works with ambitious startups and scale-ups (particularly those who are remote). If you’re interested in attracting and retaining the best remote talent, email us at info@recruitmentjunky.com.