Competency Based Questions for Recruiting Candidates

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May 17, 2018

Interview Questions

Recruiting the right candidates is critical to the success of any organization. Knowing how to conduct a competency-based interview of potential hires and what questions to ask them is key to understanding their relevant skill sets and if they are applicable to the job in question. According to recruiter Michael Page, "competency-based interviews are becoming increasingly popular as a way to predict a candidate's future performance." Also known as skills-based, situational or behavioral, Denise Brandenberg of Bizfluent states that, "The main principle behind a skills-based interview is that a job candidate's past work behavior is an accurate way to predict how he will perform in future jobs."

Implementing a skills-based assessment during an interview suggests that recruiters should focus on asking skills-based questions that are directly connected to the "core competencies that align with your company, as well as qualities related to the open role." This may require consultation with a subject matter expert or team leader to verify the specific skills needed for a certain position. A skills-based interview should be structured in a logical, progressive way that allows candidates plenty of time to answer each question completely. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, HR departments are increasingly preparing applicants for competency-based interviews by providing a general outline of the questions in advance; his helps to streamline the interview process and can give interviewers insight into whether or not the applicant embraced the opportunity to prepare in-depth answers to the behavioral questions.

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Top 20 competency-based questions

Here are some of the most commonly-used skills-based recruiting questions (adapted from Utah State University, Human Resources Department):


  • Tell me what type of communication you prefer and why?
  • Do you have experience speaking in front of large groups of people?
  • Describe a time when you misunderstood instructions provided to you - how did you resolve the situation?

Conflict Resolution:

  • Tell me about a time when you disagreed with a co-worker - what happened?
  • Describe how you deal with agitated clients/customers.
  • Give me an example of how you dealt with a disagreement you had with a supervisor (or teacher/professor) - what did you do, and what was the outcome?
  • How do you deal with stress?

Sales Skills:

  • Convince me to purchase this pen.
  • Tell me about the biggest sale you lost - what happened?
  • What are the most common objections you hear from your prospects, and how do you overcome them?

Management Skills:

  • Tell me about a time you had to discipline an employee - what was the issue, how did you approach the situation, and what was the outcome?
  • Describe your most notable achievement as a manager.
  • What type of manager are you and why?

Interpersonal Skills:

  • Tell me about your favorite boss - why did you enjoy working for him or her?
  • Describe a co-worker who you had difficulty working with.
  • What feedback would you give your current supervisor?

Exploring Other Types of Questions

Sometimes companies want to learn aspects of a candidate's life that they are simply not entitled--BY LAW--to ask about. Some questions can be quite problematic if asked. Consider the following:

“What is your religion?”
There is no reason for an employer to ask you about your religion or about any holidays you observe.

Fair questions: “Weekend and holiday work is required. Will this pose any difficulties for you?” Also, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allows religious organizations and sectarian educational institutions to express religious preference when hiring.

“Have you ever been arrested?”'
You are innocent until proven guilty; therefore, it is illegal for an interviewer to ask if you’ve ever been arrested.

Fair questions: Employment applications often include questions about felony convictions, along with a disclaimer saying that a conviction won’t necessarily remove you from consideration.

In accordance with U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) policy, employers must weigh a variety of elements when factoring convictions into hiring decisions. These include the nature and severity of the offense, the time that has elapsed, and whether the offense has any relation to the position advertised.

“What type of military discharge did you receive?”

An employer may not ask whether you received an honorable or dishonorable discharge.

Fair questions: The interviewer is allowed to inquire about your rank when discharged and discuss the skills you gained while in the military.

“Have you ever filed for bankruptcy?”
Questions about your financial status, whether you own a home, or have previously had wages garnished are off-limits.

Fair questions: If good credit is a requirement of the job, a company is within its rights to perform a credit check and may ask to perform one.

“Do you belong to any organizations?”
It’s inappropriate for an interviewer to ask whether you are affiliated with or are a member of any political, social, or religious groups- including unions.

Fair questions: An interviewer may ask you if you’re a member of a professional organization, like the American Bar Association.

“Do you have any disabilities?”
Under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an employer may not discriminate against a qualified candidate who is disabled, and must make “reasonable accommodations” for physically or mentally impaired employees.

The ADA also states that you can’t be asked about the existence, nature, or severity of a disability. The following questions are also unacceptable: “How many days were you sick last year? Have you ever filed for worker’s compensation? What prescription medications do you currently take? Are you an alcoholic? Have you ever been treated for drug abuse?”

Fair questions: “Can you perform the basic functions of this position with or without accommodation?” The ADA doesn’t cover illegal drug use, so it’s perfectly legal for an employer to ask whether you use these substances. Some companies also request all new employees to have a medical examination.

Knowing how to conduct an effective interview can enhance the hiring process, but knowing how to avoid asking questions that are off limits can save the company from legal hot water. Keep these questions in mind as you develop your skills-based interview questions for future new hires.


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