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Are competency-based interviews dying out? Tips on a new approach

How to create better, and more meaningful, interviews

by Michael Caley

28th Nov 2017

Until recently, the “traditional” interviewing approach has been left unchallenged by many HR functions. As a result, the competency-based interview is a method that both candidates and Hiring Managers are overfamiliar with, resulting in highly-prepared, polished responses which often reflect a candidate’s ability to remember, rather than their true skills, motivations and abilities.

This type of questioning may provide some insight into a candidate’s ability to resolve a team conflict, win over a difficult customer, or promote change – but does it really tell you about how consistently someone does this? 

Most Hiring Managers are taught that past behaviour is the best predictor of a candidate’s future performance. Interview trainings preach the use of the “STAR” technique (Situation, Task, Action, Result) as a way of collecting evidence on how a candidate behaves in a certain situation, and, in turn, most recruitment agencies and career advice services run sessions to help candidates practice this.

 “Tell me about a time you had to adapt to a difficult situation.”

“Tell me about a time you needed to collaborate effectively with others.”

Everyone probably has one or two great examples up their sleeves that could wow any interviewer, especially if the interviewer doesn’t have other ways of probing beyond the rehearsed. With “same old, same old” interview questions, recruiters have a hard time differentiating the good candidates from the unsuitable. They also miss an opportunity to really get to know the candidate by limiting dialogue, meaningful conversation and thinking on the spot.

But there are other ways. A rising new technique over the past several years has been the practice of strengths-based interviewing, which focuses on what the candidate enjoys doing rather than simply what they can do.

“How do you get the best out of those you work with?”

 “What do you enjoy most about change?”

By exploring interests rather than capabilities, this approach looks to provide some more genuine insight into how a candidate performs.

However, this isn’t perfect, either. Without contextualising in real experiences, there is a risk of progressing highly motivated, well-meaning candidates with limited capability. We also very rarely see a pure strengths-based approach outside of graduate / emerging talent level, with good reasons – for starters, at senior levels, questions like this need to be framed carefully as to not come across as patronising!

Still, according to a survey by LinkedIn, 83% of talent say a negative interview experience can change their mind about a role or company they once liked, while 87% of talent say a positive interview experience can change their mind about a role or company they once doubted. Clearly, the interview is still hugely important, and that truth is here to stay (for the next few years at least). Employers recognise this, with 34% of recruiters in a 2017 survey, also by LinkedIn, listing investment in innovative interviewing tools as a top trend for the near future.

So what makes the best interview experience, and ultimately from the Hiring Manager’s perspective, the best quality interview? Some tips:
Challenge your candidates.
In recent economic research across six countries gathered by Glassdoor, an interview process rated as 10% harder and more rigorous by candidates is associated with 2.6% higher employee satisfaction. On a five-point scale, the optimal or “best” interview difficulty that leads to the highest employee satisfaction is 4 out of 5, with 5 being the most difficult.
Encourage thinking on the spot.
One way you can make the interview more challenging is to probe for more “authentic” responses. Using a less predictable questioning approach and a more natural, conversational flow prevents candidates from defaulting to the STAR technique and allows for more refreshing and interesting responses. At the same time, we don’t want to “trick” candidates with off-the-wall questions they inherently wouldn’t be able to answer well – we want them to be successful during the interview so use questions which help them “shine”.
Look beyond past behaviour.
Traditional competency-based interviews are becoming old-fashioned ad over-used, and are actually losing their power to accurately predict how the candidate will perform in the role as the rise in strengths-based interviewing demonstrates. Make sure you don’t disadvantage candidates who have strong capability, but limited past experience to draw on, or haven’t been given the opportunity.
Explore what the candidate enjoys.
Just because a candidate has done something, it doesn’t mean they enjoy it, or want to do it again! Ask questions which tap into the candidate’s strengths: their underlying natural preferences, energy and innate aptitudes, to uncover their overall growth “potential”, and measure this. Remember to combine with specific examples to root their responses in real scenarios, particularly when assessing more senior levels.
Remember the Hiring Manager’s experience.
 Couple interview questions with specific behavioural indicators that cover a range of responses and allow recruiters to differentiate between adequate candidates and the real top performers. Make their job even easier with easy to use interview templates, training in interviewing skills and aligning perceptions of “what great looks like” to ensure consistent decision-making.

After all, the role of the Hiring Manager should be to hire the person who is able to fill the job most capably, not the candidate who is best at interviewing.

Organisations need to recognise this and create an interview approach which explores critical capabilities beyond listening to a pre-prepared response, drilling down into the skills, attributes and behaviours that matter most. We partner with clients to create a unique blended approach – drawing on the positives of different questioning styles and techniques – adding variety into the process, providing a best-in-class experience, and yielding better results. 


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