Have Competency-Based Interviews Had Their Day?

Posted on: Friday, 17 April 2020 in Opinion Pieces .

Have Competency-Based Interviews Had Their Day?

For many of us in the world of identifying talent, competency-based interview techniques have been a great step forward from the unstructured “conversation”. For most of us gone are the days when managers would ask interviewees questions like: what would your last boss say about you? Or what is your greatest weakness? Unbelievable as it sounds, we still find that these types of questions occasionally being asked and there may be readers of this article who feel these types of questions offer true insight. They don’t.

And there can be no doubt, good practice interview training has practically eradicated the use of discriminatory questions about personal life, religious or political belief.  However, competency-based interviewing appears to have evolved and is now applied in such a simplistic and rigid format, often delivered by interviewers who sometimes get little more than a 15 minute induction into the process, that the result is a very bland interview where it is hard to differentiate and, ironically, bias can be reintroduced.

Competence assessment relies heavily on the principle that how people performed in the past regarding a situation is a reliable predictor of how they will perform in the future.  When doing this style of interview, interviewers are challenged with the task of listening and probing to seek reliable evidence of impact.  They then must seek to understand what the interviewee learned from that experience, and how they might apply that learning in some future role.   The interviewer should listen, probe the responses for validity and seek evidence of positive or negative behaviour.  The interviewer then ultimately arrives at a score based on the balance of positive and negative evidence that has been elicited through the probing of the response. 

That all sounds find in theory but there are so many challenges and complexities within this, it is no wonder why competency based interview techniques have evolved to become something that is so often poorly applied and fails what it is set out to do.

The assessment of competence takes time and a high degree of skill.   The whole process of competence assessment when hiring requires as a foundation a competency analysis for the role. 

Firstly, you must accurately identify what the actual competencies and then define them clearly.  You must then come up with a set of measures that can show what good performance, or a model answer might look like, and identify negative evidence that could be a barrier or limit candidates’ ability to really excel.

All of this requires the gathering of information from a range of sources, including people within an organisation who have a very comprehensive understanding of what the job at hand is really about, and who understand what is required to deliver good performance in the context of the environment.

This critical element of context is entirely missing from the recruitment processes that many organisations apply.   Therefore, we see employers using five or six general competencies and then apply this same set across the organisation, to a whole range of job families, ignoring the specifics of the position, rank, challenge or context.

Candidates too, having learned how to respond to competency-based questions, come very well prepared on a structure of answer and most can deliver a response that can stand up to gentle probing. 

In the Northern Ireland context, where this notion prevails, particularly within public sector organisations, that candidates must be asked, practically verbatim, exactly the same question, which removes the whole ability to probe.  Probing is where the real power of competence-based assessment lies.  Without it, the interview itself then becomes a dull regurgitation of heavily prepared answers which leaves the interviewer completely hamstrung when coming to making a determination. 

Some organisations provide candidates with the questions in advance, and even permit candidates to read answers from a script that they can bring with them –putting their answers on a postcard!   The outcome of all of this, is that candidates who succeed are those who better articulate a structured and heavily rehearsed answer.   And feedback for those candidates who don’t quite say exactly what they should say and get scored down on minutia can be every bit as frustrating.

The current approach and application of competence-based interviewing has become a sanitized process that is hugely frustrating for interviewers and interviewees alike.  Most importantly, there is poor validity and the approach is not improving hiring decisions. 

The huge challenge we all face is with trying to design and deliver an interview that validly assesses what a candidate has delivered in Organisation A and how this aligns to the requirements of the role and what they might deliver in Organisation B.

If both organisations are very similar in scale, culture, structure, market sector, and where they are in the change process, the task might be a little easier.  But the reality of life is that context changes everything with the approach that is required.  Therefore an approach that happened to work 5 years ago - in a completely different set of economic or resource challenges, under a different culture, or in an organisation of a different scale or using different technologies will in reality have little or no bearing on how to address challenge today.

New competencies and definitions have also emerged – around areas like resilience and interculturalcompetence– that haven’t yet made their way into most company’s competency frameworks.  There is then a whole range of discussions and debates about the critical importance of personal values like integrityempathy and humility and whether these can be properly tested in an interview situation.

We know for certain that you cannot remove risk from a recruitment process.  All you can do is make better, more informed hiring decisions. Few would argue that a more rounded approach which combines a range of assessment techniques and job-related challenges will provide a more complete picture and allow candidates to be viewed through the lens that a range of interviewers might bring.

This naturally takes us down a road of multi staged assessment processes with several interviewers contributing their perspectives to the hiring decision, and a lot organisations apply these multi staged processes well and get good results consequently.   There are numerous excellent tools and techniques that do provide significant insight to support recruitment or development decisions. We use a multi-dimensional approach in many of our assignment and feedback is always very positive. In general terms, however, this approach is not used widely enough, often seen as too costly, or resource intensive.

The cost of making poor hiring decisions, while difficult to quantify, will always be exponentially more than the cost of delivering a well thought out multistage selection process, that uses innovation, experienced assessors and tests candidates across a valid range of competencies and values.

Certainly, the way that competency-based interviewing is now being applied and prevails across many organisations in Northern Ireland, needs a fundamental refresh and while there is plenty of encouraging debate around this and no clear solution.   

Answers on a postcard please…

Ciaran Sheehan

Ciaran Sheehan

Ciaran Sheehan is Managing Partner at Clarendon Executive, specialists in executive search, performance and the provision of interim management in Northern Ireland. With over 20 years’ experience, Ciaran specialises in Board and Senior Management appointments across the private, public and voluntary sectors, both at executive and non-executive director level.

Tagged with: Clarendon Executive | competency-based interview techniques | Executive Recruitment | Hiring executive-level candidates | identifying talent | interview skills | job interviews

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