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10 Competency Questions to Assess Your Candidate’s Key Skills

By Charles Trivett | Feb 8, 2016 | Assessing Applicants

star with situation, task, action, result written on itWe need to talk about competency questions…

Competency questions can be used to assess a wide variety of skills and require candidates to give real-life examples to justify their claims.

What’s most appealing is that you can use them to standardise your entire interview process.

This week, I’m revealing everything you need to know about competency questions, including some specific skill-based examples for you to use and/or adjust for your own needs in the future.

The STAR Method.

To get the most out of competency questions, you should use the STAR method of delivery, which basically involves asking a broad question (like the examples later) followed by more specific follow-up questions leading candidates to describe…

  • A Situation they have been in that demonstrates the competency in question.
  • The Task that, as a result of that situation, they were challenged to complete.
  • The Action they took to successfully complete the task.
  • Followed by the Result of that action (hopefully a positive one!)

Situation and task tend to be intertwined and it’s very rare that a candidate won’t address both in response to your first, broad question.

An Example of a Competency Question and Answer.

For example, to assess a candidate’s problem solving skills…

Situational/Task Question:

When was the last time you had to really think on your feet?

Situational/Task Answer:            

A colleague and I were supposed to be performing a sales presentation for a really important potential client, but he called in sick that morning (situation).

It was left to me to resolve the situation in a way that wouldn’t make our entire company look bad! Bearing in mind, we had two hours till our slot (task).

Action Question:            

So how did you manage to resolve the situation?

Action Answer:                                

I called another colleague who I knew was an expert in this field and she agreed to back me up (especially for any technical questions that might be asked at the end).  Then I spent the hour learning and rehearsing the rest of the presentation, as best I could.

Result Question:                             

How did that work out for you?

Result Answer:                                                

The presentation was certainly not perfect, but we were complimented on how natural it seemed and that we were clearly very passionate about the subject. We ended up getting the sale in the end – so it can’t have been that bad I suppose!

So, as you can see, the broader question gives candidates an opportunity to talk about a certain situation they’ve been in, and then your follow-ups will reveal their subsequent action and whether they were successful or not.

A bonus question…

I also always throw in…

“If you could do it all again, would you do anything differently?”

Great candidates will be willing to admit to their mistakes and be able to show that they’ve learnt from them.

For example, “I’ll make sure that we always have a stand-in who knows the presentation inside-out, just in case any unforeseen circumstances put the main speaker out of action!”

What a superstar!!!

(If you’d like more examples of STAR answers, click here.)

10 Sample Competency Questions.


Good candidates will be able to methodically walk you through their decision-making process, highlighting instances of initiative, creativity and reason…

Question 1: “Can you tell me about a situation when you personally had to solve a problem at work?”

Question 2: “Could you tell me about a mistake you made in work and how you rectified the situation?”

Look out for decisions that are made thoughtlessly or based on arrogance (“I just knew I was right”) and employees who appear to run to their manager at the first sign of trouble.

And don’t forget to ask those all-important Action and Result follow-up questions!

(Need more creative-thinkers in your business? Click here to discover how to find them!)


I’d say that for pretty much every role, you need a team player. Even if the majority of their workload is completed alone. You don’t want someone who’s going to step on toes the whole time.

Question 3: “Tell me about a project you completed as part of a team.”

Question 4: “What’s the most difficult team you’ve worked with?”

A great team player will be able to reflect fairness, honesty and respect for other people; even if they’re actually leading the team.

Look out for anyone who attempts to scapegoat and badmouth others. They probably don’t play very nicely!


You’re looking for a balanced interviewee who clearly emphasises the value in teamwork, but also displays a readiness to delegate, manage and plan a project.

Question 5: “Tell me about a time when you took a leadership role.”

Question 6: “Tell me about a project, where you had to delegate tasks effectively.”

Fairness, the ability to motivate others and confidence in their own decision-making are all great characteristics of a great leader.

(If you’re specifically interested in attracting leadership potential, this blog, can help you with that!)


Most jobs will have a certain degree of stress and pressure involved and it’s important to know that your employees can cope with that.

A great candidate will show evidence of their ability to motivate and inspire others and help them to get through the tough times.

Question 7: “What do you do to refresh yourself after a tough day at the office?”

Question 8: “Are there any negatives at your current workplace? How do you cope with them?”

It’s up to you to read body language signals, tone of voice and emotion as the candidate answers these tough questions and decide whether you think there’s more digging to do.

Are they overly emotional about the subject? Do they seem overworked? Are there signs of resent and anger?


Adaptability is a key characteristic of fantastic employees; this ability and determination to take on fresh new roles will increase productivity in your workplace.

Question 9: “Tell me about a time when you’ve gone above and beyond your job role.”

Question 10: “Describe a situation when you had to adjust to the way someone else worked.”

Look out for employees who clearly exhibit the ability to move within roles and are more than willing to take on extra responsibilities, (for example, helping other teams with their workload).

Enthusiasm and ambition to try new things could also be exhibited in their personal lives, so do try to find out what they do in their spare time!

(If you’d like some more examples of competencies you could be assessing for, click here!)

A Fair Scoring System.

There’s really no point coming up with a list of great competency questions but then not having a grading system to measure them on.

It defeats the object of trying to standardise the interview!

As such, it’s crucial to draw up a scoring system, based on the set of (essential) predetermined skills that you’re looking for.

Include no more than 7 assessable criteria (the interview will begin to lack focus with too many competencies to think about) and use the following scoring criteria:

1: Poor: Little evidence reported.

2: Below Average: Provided an example which has negative indicators.

3: Average: Provided an example which has both positive and negative indicators.

4: Good: Provided a good example with positive indicators.

5: Excellent: Provided a clear example which strongly displays positive indicators.

Then, at the end of the process, you can look back over the highest scoring interviewees and combine the results with your gut feeling and previous knowledge of the candidate.

This will lead you to a much fairer decision, than if you had just winged it.

(Skills-based questions won’t answer everything you need to know, for example, whether the candidate will be a good cultural fit, so you will have to use your initiative as well as your objective scoring system).


Competency questions are most effective during panel and one-to-one individual interviews, as this will give you a chance to read the candidate’s body language whilst they deliberate.

I’d personally recommend deciding on 5 or 6 competencies that are essential to the role and then asking one question in relation to each (you can use my examples to guide you).

And don’t forget to follow up with your “action and result” questions!

Recruiter Pro Tip.

It’s really important to remember that these questions are quite intense, forcing interviewees to think quickly on their feet.

Don’t use them too early on in the process (perhaps, second stage) and don’t use too many of them – you’ll put your candidate off!

At least break the ice first with some of these more simple questions; your candidates will perform better (and more naturally) when they are at ease!

If you’d like to receive more guidance and advice on standardising the way you interview your candidates, click here to subscribe to this blog!

Good luck!

- Charles Trivett
Charles - blog author

Charles Trivett

Charles heads up Coburg Banks’ IT Division, and has worked in recruitment for nearly 20 years.  His knowledge of how to optimise and get the most from a recruitment campaign is second to none, and he now works with a select handful of clients in maximising their recruitment ROI.

> More blog posts by Charles Trivett

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