The behavioural competency interview

Using behavioural competencies is probably the most popular current format for HR interviews particularly at mid to senior levels. In theory all interviews should have an element of competency focus insofar as candidates should be asked questions that allow them to provide evidence of their skills or experience in a particular field. Much has been written about this approach but, without even needing to check my stats, I can estimate that four out of five HR professionals that we interview fail this format.

This failure is ironic, given that a HR professional, of all people, really should have mastery of many interview techniques. But being interviewed is very different to being the interviewer. And the key reason behind the failure with this behavioural competency interview format, is a spectacular lack of preparation.

Here’s a very basic guide to help you to get it right:

The format of questions is typically along the lines of “tell me about a time when…”, “give me an instance of…” or “describe to me when you had a situation that..”

First and foremost the interviewer is not interested in your theoretical discourse of the skill or experience about which questions are being asked.  I cannot stress this enough.  You also need to focus on a very specific instance in your answer rather than talking generally about the many times you've faced the situation under inspection.

Think about your answers in 3 parts:


  • what was the business context that gave rise to the issue, what was the complexity that you had to factor into your decision making


  • what solution did you come up with and why – this shows your logical thought process and risk awareness


  • whenever you can, highlight quantifiable results e.g.: x increase in revenue, x increase in productivity, x savings of time – this will really evidence your commerciality.  If the outcome isn’t positive, be quick to throw in “in hindsight I would have….”


Too many people at senior level HR miss parts 1 and 3.  Missing part 1 indicates that you really don’t understand what the business pressures are, that you’re coming up with cute HR ideas that have no connection to the business.  Missing part 3 again indicates that you come up with cute HR ideas, or maybe even valuable HR ideas, but you don’t follow through and check their success.

It’s just another type of business plan really – what was the problem, what will I do about it, how will I know it has worked. I also liken it to the simple story format that so many children were taught at school - there needs to be a beginning, a middle, and an end.

You must do this preparation before any interview.  When you have a moment, use this 3 stage format to go through your CV and review your key achievements.  Think in advance of the strongest examples that have the most relevance to the challenges of the role you're being interviewed for. Develop and practice this kind of structure to your answers (without sounding scripted or rehearsed!) Get it right, and it will ensure that a someone who knows nothing of your experience and work pressures and reputation can see the evidence of the complex situations and logical thought and planning that you’ve put in to achieve the results you have.