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How to Ace Competency-Based Interview Questions (with 10 Examples)

Plus, why your answers matter so much to hiring managers

Woman standing in front of a colorful wall
Photo courtesy of Tyler Nix

Competency-based questions are the same as behavioral and situational questions. They explore the qualities you need to succeed at the job you’re applying for and are usually related to problem solving, people management skills, and teamwork.

You can expect and should prepare for these questions before going to any interview. We’ve asked some experts how to do this and have 10 sample Q&As below.

Read more: Ask a Recruiter: How Can I Find Out If I'll ‘Belong’ During an Interview?

What are competencies?

Competencies are characteristics that help you excel at your job. Skills are learned; competencies are more like inherent qualities that can be applied in work situations and improved over time. So, a skill is the ability to perform a task; competency shows how successfully you perform it.

We can all talk. Not all of us are good communicators.

Read more: 6 Soft Skills That Stand Out in Today's Job Market

Why do employers ask competency-based interview questions?

Executive career strategist Jacqui Barrett-Poindexter tells InHerSight that competency-based interview questions “help the recruiter identify a candidate’s abilities to hit the ground running on the job.” They also determine:

  • if an interviewee has potential to grow within a role or company;

  • if an interviewee has the temperament to handle various challenges and scenarios;

  • if an interviewee brings other soft skills necessary to succeed within the particular culture.

Barrett-Poindexter says one competency that interviewers may currently be seeking is stress management. It’s particularly relevant this year, she explains, with so many employees navigating the onerous impacts of the pandemic. “Addressing this competency enables an opportunity to illustrate candidate productivity and performance despite out-of-their-control difficult circumstances.”

Read more: How to Answer: Why Are You Interested in This Position?

How should job seekers answer competency-based questions?

Executive career strategist Maureen McCann tells InHerSight that employers are looking for examples, details, and proof that you can do what you say you can. They want your answer to include:

  1. how you’ve done the thing;

  2. where you’ve done the thing;

  3. and what results you produced for your previous employer.

They’re not only assessing your competence, she says, but also whether the way you work aligns with the prospective employer and if you’ll be a boon to that employer’s reputation.

The best way to prepare to answer competency-based questions is to use any version of the STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Results) technique. Tell a story that sets out the situation or task you faced, describe the actions you took, and give specific results.

McCann gives the following example of a STAR response:

Situation: Business growth had stagnated because talent was experiencing burnout.

Task: Analyze the team and improve profitability.

Actions: Met with key stakeholders to gather requirements. Identified top talent, replaced three leaders who immediately increased orders, revenue, and margins.

Results: Built, fostered, and strengthened high-performance team that delivered business 6 percent growth (on average) over five years.

Read more: How to Nail Interview Questions with the STAR Method

10 common competency-based interview questions with answers

1. Tell me about a time when you had to go beyond the call of duty in order to get a job done.

Situation/Task: Senior leadership’s formal and informal communication methods were not producing the results they had hoped. 

Actions: I offered to help modify and adjust the content for the multiple, diverse audiences our senior leadership was trying to reach. I wrote speeches, speaking notes, presentations, articles, briefing notes, memos, blogs, and Q&A on 10 different leadership topics. I acted as brand ambassador and ghostwriter for senior executives to ensure their communication efforts were accurate and on point. 

Results: The quality of information improved, and senior leadership engaged their teams and were able to secure both internal and external buy-in to move ahead on a $1 million project.

Read more: Does College Count as Job Experience?

2. Describe a situation where you were tasked with influencing a big company change that involved key stakeholders from different departments with diverse—even competing—agendas.   

Situation/Task: I was brought on to head uncharted digital transformation strategies within a matrix environment of stakeholders who held competing priorities, many who were resistant to any change. 

Actions: Applying a collaborative approach, I was able to compel strategic collaboration with and between the marketing, operations and finance groups. I gained buy-in primarily by using a “what’s-in-it-for-them” value proposition after careful evaluation of each stakeholder’s unique goals and objectives. Rather than diving in with a full-throttle approach that potentially could have been off-putting to the more vigilant stakeholders, I led the collaborative process with measurable small steps that preceded big leaps. 

Results: As a result, I was able to achieve a digital transformation strategy that saved nearly $500,000 in expenses while also propelling revenue by $3 million in the fourth quarter of 2020.

Read more: 16 Interview Questions & Your Guide to Crushing Them

3. Can you recall a time when you had a difficult or dissatisfied customer and found a way to turn the situation around?

Situation/Task: I was working in the customer experience department of a large ecommerce retail company. We received an email from a furious customer whose young daughter was heartbroken after a (very expensive) limited edition doll she received for Christmas had fallen apart within weeks. The customer threatened to blast us all over social media. 

Actions: I immediately issued a full refund; when sending, I asked the customer to return the doll to us for repair (by paid return courier). I also called our manufacturer, who discovered that a new glue used in their assembly processing was at the root of the problem. I obtained a companion doll, and overnight expressed it to the customer with a personal letter to her daughter, asking her to allow this doll to keep her company while she waited for her own doll to get out of the repair hospital. When the original was repaired, I courier expressed that to the customer, confirming that both dolls were theirs to keep, and apologizing for the inconvenience the situation had caused. 

Results: The customer said her daughter was delighted, and thanked me for the response. She said she was going to recommend us to all her friends.

Read more: Why 60% Qualified Is Enough, According to a Recruiter

4. Explain how you have handled a tight deadline at work, even when you were completely overwhelmed.  

Situation/Task: When I was working at a fintech startup, my team was assigned four projects, all due at the same time. If we concentrated on one project at a time, we would never meet the deadline for all four; and there was no budget to bring in contract workers. 

Actions: As team lead, I called a meeting, in which each project was broken down based on technical requirements. Then I assigned team members to the project that best suited their own technical strengths and abilities. 

Results: With the workload divided and each team member focusing on tasks for which they were best suited, we were able to complete all four projects satisfactorily and on time. The clients were extremely impressed and it was at this point we began to scale quickly.

Read more: How to Answer: Why Do You Want This Job?

5. Tell me how you solved a problem you were faced with, using your own initiative or out-of-the-box thinking.

Situation/Task: With the downturn in the economy, donations were falling off precipitously for the charity I worked for as a fundraiser. We were facing closure within 12 months. 

Actions: After a brainstorming session with volunteers and other stakeholders, I sent out a message to everyone who had ever donated in the past, asking them to network in order to attract the attention of a local (or national) celebrity. At the same time, I started a crowdfunding campaign. 

Results: When a former donor connected us to an influencer with a large social media following, our fundraising campaign went viral and we raised more in 30 days than we had in two years prior to that.

Read more: How to Answer 6 Common Situational Interview Questions

6. Describe a time when you had to think on your feet.

Situation/Task: A colleague and I were scheduled to give a workshop (on stress reduction in the workplace) for a new client. It was important to the firm to make a good impression, but at the last minute, my colleague called in sick. 

Actions: I made several calls to professionals I know in the industry—who were both knowledgeable and experienced at giving these kinds of presentations. I found one who was perfect and who dropped everything to help. With only an hour before it started, we reviewed the material and format of the workshop. 

Results: The event was a success: We received great feedback from participants and the company that hired us committed to several more presentations over the next few months.

Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Preparing for an In-Person Interview

7. Have you ever had to support change within an organization?

Situation/Task: We had a new department head at our store, who was eager to try out new approaches to improve sales and customer service. As floor supervisor, it was my responsibility to see that these new methods were implemented. Many of the employees were happy with things as they were and didn’t appreciate the changes. 

Actions: I led by example and by encouragement. While these employees were reluctant to incorporate change, they were still good at their jobs, and I didn’t want to see them quit. I attempted to motivate them by telling them we would test the results and measure the benefits.

Results: Once the employees saw that the new approaches actually worked, they were convinced. In fact, they became so engaged that they started making suggestions of their own to the department head for more changes.

Read more: 3 Right Ways to Answer: Why Are You the Best Person for the Job?

8. Give an example of how you overcame an obstacle when working with a team.

Situation/Task: As a college senior, I headed a group project in my economics course, which was worth 60 percent of our grade. We were given a case study and had to come up with a report advising the fictitious company what they should do to achieve higher employee morale and retention and to improve sales. The group was unable to agree on any approach, let alone an overall plan of action. 

Actions: We met daily for one week and discussed each team member’s ideas. We then rated those ideas on the basis of how grounded they were in business theory and how likely they were to succeed. We agreed to implement the top scoring ideas into our report. 

Results: We aced the report, and I took away how important communication, compromise, and joint decisions are to success when working with a team.

Read more: Do You Need an Interview Coach?

9. Describe a situation when the cause of the problem was not immediately apparent.

Situation/Task: Traffic at our online learning platform started dropping suddenly, and purchases slowed dramatically. I had to research to find the cause and suggest fixes. 

Actions: I conducted a site audit, measured negative mentions in social media, and analyzed our keyword standings. I found a new competitor was producing a lot of high quality content on their blog and in video format. They were ranking higher than us on several keywords. Our own content was extremely good, but much of it was hidden behind paywalls. I had the marketing team produce content in both blog posts and videos, introducing the concepts we detailed in our courses, and all freely available. 

Results: Within several weeks, we noticed a slow upward trend in terms of traffic and purchases. It took three months to regain our standing, but with a regular content publishing schedule we increased revenue by 10 percent within six months.

Read more: 22 Tips for an Easy, Breezy Job Interview

10. Tell me when you had to resolve a conflict between two or more coworkers.

Situation/Task: As HR manager, I was asked to manage a situation which involved a salesperson and the clerk who recorded the transaction and submitted it as an order to the manufacturer. The order was incorrectly produced due to a poorly worded order, and the salesperson and clerk were blaming each other. 

Actions: I looked at the original invoice written up by the salesperson and then at the order recorded by the clerk. It was clear that the invoice was correctly recorded; however, the invoice was not clear in exactly what was to be produced. The lack of clarity was not picked up on by the clerk, who recorded the invoice verbatim. 

Results: My findings were that both parties were equally at fault; in fact, the manufacturer was too. The lack of clarity originated with the salesperson, but was carried through the process by both the clerk and the manufacturer, neither of whom thought to ask for confirmation. I recommended a change to the invoice form itself, which would eradicate those types of clarity issues. I also encouraged more communication between the three parties, which would go to improve customer satisfaction, increase productivity and ultimately profits. On that basis, I recommended that company policy be changed to reward all three parties when there are zero mistakes over a period of time, as a form of incentive.

About our sources

Jacqui Barrett-Poindexter, CEO at CareerTrend, writes career stories for senior executives and composes marketing/blogging content for tech businesses. She has crafted over 2,000 career + company stories, using her BA in writing/journalism to apply a journalist's eye to your brand.

Maureen McCann is a nationally certified executive career strategist and founder of ProMotion Career Solutions. She is also a facilitator and teacher within the Career Development Certificate program at Career Professionals of Canada.

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