Interview preparation and guidance

Company Research

Research should always be your first step. Gathering background information on employers is a crucial element in successful interview preparation. You will need to be prepared to answer the questions "What do you know about our company?" and "Why do you want to work here?" Knowing as much as possible about the company's past performance and future plans can make your interview more interactive and could be just the leg up you need in a competitive job market. Before the interview review the company's web site and don't be afraid to contact your prospective employer to request details on the position you are interviewing for or to ask for company literature. ‘Google’ the company to see what other information is available online.

Prepare For the Interview

It is very important to be on time for the interview. On time means ten to fifteen minutes early. If need be, take some time to drive to the office ahead of time so you know exactly where you are going. Know the interviewer's name and use it during the interview. If you're not sure of the name, call and ask prior to the interview. Remember to bring an extra copy of your resume and a list of references.

Body language

When you are being interviewed it is very important that you give out the right signals. You should always look attentive - so do not slouch in your chair. Never lie to anyone in an interview, your body language and tone of voice or the words you use will probably give you away - classic body language giveaways include scratching your nose and not looking directly at the other person when you are speaking to them.

Stay Calm

During the interview try to remain as calm as possible. Ask for clarification if you're not sure what's been asked and remember that it is perfectly acceptable to take a moment or two to frame your responses so you can be sure to fully answer the question.

End the interview with a thank you to the interviewer and reiterate your interest in the position. Then follow-up with a personal ‘Thank You’ note restating your interest.

Competency Based Interviews

Competency-based interviews (also called structured interviews) are interviews where each question is designed to test one or more specific skills. The answer is then matched against pre-decided criteria and marked accordingly. For example, the interviewers may want to test the candidate's ability to deal with stress by asking first how the candidate generally handles stress and then asking the candidate to provide an example of a situation where he worked under pressure

How do competency-based interviews differ from normal interviews?

Normal interviews (also called unstructured interviews) are essentially a conversation where the interviewers ask a few questions that are relevant to what they are looking for but without any specific aim in mind other than getting an overall impression of you as an individual. Questions are fairly random and can sometimes be quite open. For example, a question such as "What can you offer our company?" is meant to gather general information about you but does not test any specific skill or competency. In an unstructured interview, the candidate is judged on the general impression that he/she leaves; the process is therefore likely to be more subjective. 

Competency-based interviews (also called structured or behavioural interviews) are more systematic, with each question targeting a specific skill or competency. Candidates are asked questions relating to their behaviour in specific circumstances, which they then need to back up with concrete examples. The interviewers will then dig further into the examples by asking for specific explanations about the candidate's behaviour or skills

Which skills and competencies do competency-based interviews test?

The list of skills and competencies that can be tested varies depending on the post that you are applying for. For example, for a Junior HR Generalist post, skills and competencies would include communication skills; ability to organise and prioritise; and ability to work under pressure. For a senior manager, skills and competencies may include an ability to influence and negotiate; an ability to cope with stress and pressure; ability to lead; and the capacity to take calculated risks.

Here is a non-exhaustive list of the more common skills and competencies that you may be asked to demonstrate:

  • Adaptability
  • Compliance
  • Communication
  • Conflict Management
  • Creativity and Innovation
  • Decisiveness
  • Delegation
  • External awareness
  • Flexibility
  • Independence
  • Influence
  • Integrity
  • Leadership
  • Leveraging diversity
  • Organisational awareness
  • Resilience and tenacity
  • Risk Taking
  • Sensitivity to others
  • Team work

What kind of competency-based interview questions can you be asked?

Although most questions tend to ask for examples of situations where you have demonstrated specific skills, they can appear in different formats. Examples include:

  • How do you ensure that you maintain good working relationships with your senior colleagues?
  • Give us an example of a situation where you had to deal with a conflict with an internal or external client.
  • How do you influence people in situations where there are conflicting agendas?
  • Tell us about a situation where you made a decision and then changed your mind.

In many cases, the interviewers will start with a general questions, which they will then follow up with a more specific example-based questions. So, for example:

  • How do you manage upwards?
  • Give us an example of a situation where you had a fundamental disagreement with one of your superiors.

The key in answering all questions is that you are required to "demonstrate" that you have the right skills by using examples based on your prior experience, and not just talk about the topic in a theoretical and impersonal manner.

How competency-based interview questions are marked

Before the interview, the interviewers will have determined which type of answers would score positive points and which types of answers would count against the candidates. For example, for questions such as "Describe a time when you had to deal with pressure", the positive and negative indicators may be as follows:

Positive indicators:

  • Demonstrates a positive approach towards the problem.
  • Considers the wider need of the situation
  • Recognises his own limitations
  • Is able to compromise
  • Is willing to seek help when necessary
  • Uses effective strategies to deal with pressure/stress

Negative indicators:

  • Perceives challenges as problems
  • Attempts unsuccessfully to deal with the situation alone
  • Used inappropriate strategies to deal with pressure/stress

Preparing for a competency-based interview

Preparation is key if you want to be able to answer all questions thrown at you without having to think too much on the spot on the day of the interview; it requires several steps:

Make sure that you understand which skills and competencies will be tested. It sounds obvious, but some person specifications can be a little vague and you will need to do some thinking in order to ensure that the examples that you will be using hit the spot. For example, your person specification may say that you need to have "good communication skills in dealing with third parties". For someone who works in customer service and is expected to handle complaints all day long, this will most likely involve a mix of empathy/understanding as well as an ability to be assertive in a nice way whenever required; however for someone applying for a commercial law post, this will most likely involve an ability to explain complex matters in a simple way, and not so much empathy. Understanding the requirements for the post, whether they are stated explicitly or not in the person specification is therefore crucial.

Identify examples from your past experience which you can use to demonstrate that you possess the skills and competencies that you are being asked to demonstrate. You do not have to find hyper complicated examples; in particular the outcome of the story does not have to be extraordinary; what matters most is that the role you played in reaching the outcome was substantial.

Learn to narrate the story using the STAR method. This means setting the scene, explaining how you handled the situation by placing the emphasis on your role, and detailing the outcome/result

STAR Method

Situation: give an example of a situation you were involved in that resulted in a positive outcome
Task: describe the tasks involved in that situation
Action: talk about the various actions involved in the situation’s task
Results: what results directly followed because of your actions