What are competency questions?

Competency style questions are a standard interview technique in today’s selection processes and anyone familiar with job interviews will have experienced them to some extent.

Behind them is the premise that past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour – interviewers specifically measure a candidate’s responses against the competency framework of a role to ascertain their suitability for the job.

Competencies vary depending on company identity and the requirements of the role. If you are applying for a Senior Pensions Administrator role as part of a large team for example, then understandably the competencies that you are assessed against will be vastly different than for a role in a smaller company where you may also be taking on responsibility for leading and managing the team.

What competencies will be tested?

Competencies can be broadly grouped and although they will vary, you should be able to expect to be assessed against:

Your approach to your work and responsibility

This competency examines how you work independently and within a team. In addition, your ability to prioritise, schedule your workload and manage your time will be considered as well as your attention to detail.


This is a vitally important competency, irrespective of your actual role.  Whether you become an Accounts Executive dealing with clients or a Group Risk Administrator interacting with your colleagues, the manner in which you listen and tailor your communication according to the situation will be scrutinised.


If the role involves man-management, your interviewer will want to explore your ability to build and develop teams, and the relevant skills that you’ve developed in this field.  This will likely include any experience in training, mentoring or empowering through delegation that you’ve gained, whether through previous employment, voluntary work, or membership of university societies and extra-curricular activities.

Cognitive Competencies

These will include elements such as decision making, identifying problems and creating solutions, assessing and managing risks as well as your emotional resilience in stressful situations.

Preparing for a competency interview

These examples are indications of common competencies and you will likely be assessed against others as well. Practically speaking, the best preparation is revisiting the job description for the role. Look at the demands of the role, such as teamwork, technical requirements and possible man-management responsibilities and ask yourself what you need to do to fulfil these – they are the competencies most likely to be addressed.

It’s possible that the company you’re applying to will also have their own established framework beyond the role on which they also base their interviewing. Generally these are things that reflect the company values; if you were offered the interview through a recruitment consultancy, ask your consultant if they are aware of them when preparing for your interview, as they may be able to help you.

Common mistakes

When discussing your competencies during interviews, one of the things that most often trip the unwary is talking around the question asked, but not actually answering it. It is understandable: you’re in a pressurised environment and trying to demonstrate the breadth and depth of your experience and knowledge.

However, there are techniques to keep you on track and help deliver a really good, succinct answer.

Communicating your competencies

We recommend the SOAR technique to keep you on track. When you are describing the Scenario, Ownership, Action, and Result.

‘S’  Scenario
Choose a scenario that most appropriately fits the question asked. It could be an enquiry about your experience in a specific area, or when you have implemented new ideas or processes, try to keep it relevant.

‘O’ – Ownership
Ensure that it is clear that you took ownership of the scenario.

‘A’ – Action
What action did you take to resolve the situation and bring about a satisfactory conclusion?

‘R’ – Result
How did the outcome have an effect on the company or department?
This technique will help you to provide an answer that is succinct, is about two minutes long, contextualised and most importantly, actually answers the question!

Practice makes perfect

Don’t try to prepare specific answers in advance! There is a good chance that this would not actually answer the question posed in the interview. It is however, useful to practice the technique in advance to make sure you can apply it. We’ve included some questions that you might find useful to practice the technique with:

  1. Can you give me an example of when you failed to meet a deadline? What did you do?
  2. Tell me about a time when you’ve had to manage a complex workload and multi-task. How do you do this? What went wrong? How did you deal with this?
  3. Tell me about a time when a calculation you were working on didn’t go to plan. What did you do?
  4. Can you give me an example of how you contributed to a time when your department implemented a strategic objective? What difficulties did you encounter?

About the Author

  • About Kate Selleck: Alexander Lloyd has become one of the South East’s leading recruitment consultancies since its launch in 1999. With an unrivalled network of contacts and industry knowledge, they continually and successfully place the region’s top candidates in a range of companies.

Kate Selleck

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