December 26, 2018

Wait, Competency-Based What?

By Juanjo Cardona

5 min

AssessmentsJob InterviewsMulti-Industry

A definition and review about the fundamentals of competency-based interviews, where questions are designed to assess whether the candidates possess the required competencies to perform on a particular job

Competency-based Interviews (CBI). In these types of interviews, questions are designed to find out whether a candidate possesses a particular set of competencies that are considered necessary to perform in a specific role successfully.


Taking into consideration the significant costs to any organization that come with wrong recruitment decisions it is critical that those decisions are as accurate, reliable and objective as possible.


The cornerstone assumption of CBI is that one of the best predictors of an individual’s future performance is to look at what she did in the past. That is why these interviews are also called behavioral interviews. Still, we prefer to refer to them as competency-based interviews since competency encompasses not only behaviors but also a set of skills and a stock of knowledge. 


As the above may have suggested, questions in CBIs are designed in order to get the candidates to elicit past work experiences and decisions they took to achieve a particular outcome under scenarios that were similar to the circumstances and situations they will have to face under the prospective role. Recruiters will use then the candidates’ answers to obtain a better understanding of their capabilities, including as well how they go about articulating thoughts and presenting arguments if that is also relevant for the position. The ultimate goal for the recruiter is to have a more reliable, valid indicator of how the candidate will act in the future.


The first challenge that CBI interviews pose is about having a proper definition of competencies. How can we define competency? Let’s start with one of the most straightforward descriptions: according to the Cambridge Dictionary, competency (or competence) is “the ability to do something well”. The Dictionary also offers a definition more appropriate for the purposes of this article: “an important skill that is needed to do a job”. Skills can be broken down into hard (technical) skills, such as the ability to write code or to operate a particular machine, as well as soft skills like communication, leadership, the ability to work on a team setting, interpersonal skills or creativity (combine facts and information – knowledge – in innovative ways). 


However, referring to competency solely as a skill seems a somewhat limited definition. The impression is that competency encompasses something larger than skill. We have mentioned knowledge. If knowledge refers to the cognitive ability an individual has to retrieve facts and information acquired through a theoretical or practical understanding of a particular subject, then it sure looks like knowledge also can play a role in defining what competency is.


The OECD defines competency as “something more than just knowledge and skills. It involves the ability to meet complex demands, by drawing on and mobilizing psychosocial resources (…) in a particular context”.  Psychosocial resources are motivations, desires, values, attitudes and even skills. An individual drawing and mobilizing those resources is what, in the eye of the beholder, translates in the observation of a behavior or a specific action.


Combining then behaviors, knowledge, hard technical skills as well as interpersonal skills in the context of this article leads us to the following definition:


Competency is the result of the combination of knowledge, behavior, tangible and interpersonal skills an individual needs to perform well in a specific job role


The same way an enterprise is more than the sum of its parts (i.e., 30 engineers will do more working together than each working individually) the combination of knowledge, behaviors, and skills will result in a competency that is higher than just the sum of these components.


“The basis for designing an interview should always be the specific job description to ensure interviewers aim to the relevant core competencies given a particular role”


A recruiter wants to put together those questions in the interview that will help her understand whether candidates possess a particular combination of behaviors, knowledge, and skills that will support the candidates to perform on the specific role. By focusing on how the candidates handled specific and relevant situations in the past, the interviewer can gather the evidence she needs to conclude whether the candidates have the competencies required. That is, in a nutshell, what competency-based interviews are about.


What is Special About CBI?


We summarize the advantages of CBI in three main points:

A) It uses the job description (analysis) as the source from where the recruiter can derive most of the questions, keeping questions in the interview relevant to the position;

B) It uses the same questions for all applicants;

C) It uses standardized scoring keys to evaluate the answers.


The basis for designing an interview should always be the specific job description to ensure interviewers aim to the relevant core competencies given a particular role. In turn, the job description is an outcome of the collaboration between the recruiters and hiring managers.



CBI questions should always be related to the job. Let’s suppose that one of the requirements is “leadership.” Interviewers then should make sure that in the interview there is at least one question that aims to assess this competency: for instance, “Can you provide an example in your role as X at company Y when you had to push others and yourself to achieve a certain goal?”.


Using the job description to design the interview will have the added benefit of providing interviewers with a consistent structure that later will facilitate comparisons between the performance of different applicants. Inconsistencies in the questioning (lack of structure in the interviews performed across a set of candidates) are, on the one hand, not fair to applicants and it will also make it very difficult to compare who did best in equal terms.


Finally, because CBI questions focus on facts from real situations and CBI questioning requires that interviewers design a set of scoring keys, this will result in more objective evaluation – away from biases and judgments. Developing a rating score requires a great deal of time and work in the preparations leading up to the interviews. It often feels troublesome for recruiters and hiring managers. However, the benefits of such investment will become apparent further down the recruitment process when, thanks to a clear set of rules, assessments will be based on objective, non-biased observations from the interview process. It should be clear though that CBI questions, by themselves alone, cannot completely prevent bias. Interviewers will be required to make a conscious effort to avoid falling for heuristics or stereotyping




There are some necessary conditions that need to be met for competency-based interviews to be effective:


Tearing down independent silos across the recruitment journey. Recruitment can bring value only if it’s grounded on the business goals. Hiring managers and recruiters need to engage one another: the latter cannot perform effectively without understanding the needs of the former. To quote Anne-Marie McCaughan, APAC Talent Head at Henkel: “I don’t believe in remote recruiting engines that do not engage with stakeholders. I have seen this two or three times in my professional life: recruiters locked-up in a room that is so far removed from the actual business that it is not possible for them to really engage with the hiring managers”. This necessary condition might strike the reader as a foregone conclusion, but we have experienced firsthand through some of our assignments instances in which the hiring managers were not even aware that their colleagues at recruitment had activated searches. 


A clear guideline on how to evaluate proficiency levels for each competency. All interviewed candidates should be measured against the same standard and all interviewers should share the same scoring scale. 




Juanjo Cardona

Editor at

L: English, Spanish

T: +86 21 6010 5000