Your guide to interviews: competency based HR interview questions

Written by
Changeboard Team

21 Jul 2016

21 Jul 2016 • by Changeboard Team

Core elements of HR competency questions

Competency based interviews are considered a standard interview technique in today’s selection processes since their introduction in the late 1980s. At their heart is the premise that past behaviour is the best predictor of future behaviour and interviewers specifically measure responses against a role’s competency framework to ascertain a candidate’s suitability.

In HR the extensive experience you gain on the interviewer’s side of the table ensures you become highly skilled in posing those probing questions to establish a candidate’s capabilities and suitability for a particular role, but sitting in the spotlight yourself can be another matter. You are under its glare with your experience and skills being taken out and scrutinised in the light for a role that you really want; it’s a daunting prospect regardless of your level of seniority.

Competencies range widely dependent on company identity. The current school of thought as promulgated by leading HR thinker Professor Dave Ulrich of the University of Michigan details a competency model with six core elements relevant specifically to the HR function:

6 types of HR competency behaviours

Strategic Positioner

Successful HR professionals have extensive knowledge of their external marketplace along with external and internal business trends. They are able to contextualise these and transform them into strategic responses that provide a framework in which the business can make tactical decisions. (Think along the lines of Alan Jones from Dragons Den).

Credible Activist

To be an effective HR professional you must be a “credible activist” in building relationships and generating trust through commercial acumen. “HR professionals who are credible but not activists are admired, but do not have much impact. Those who are activists but not credible may have good ideas, but not much attention will be given to them.”1 (Margaret Thatcher was perhaps the ultimate Credible Activist.)

Capability Builder

A capability is often described as a business identity, culture or process. An HR professional should aid in establishing and defining their business capabilities, ultimately reflecting the entrenched values of the whole. (Anita Roddick for example embodied the true values of the Body Shop brand.)

Change Champion

One of the most widely advocated competencies, an HR professional’s capacity to initiate and integrate sustainable, valuable change is highly valued. “HR professionals help change happen at institutional (changing patterns), initiative (making things happen) and individual (enabling personal change) levels.”2 (Most definitely has to be Richard Branson.)

HR Innovator and Integrator

A broad knowledge of established HR practices and employment law ensures an effective HR professional can innovate and integrate practices into cohesive solutions that resolve future business challenges. (Steve Jobs was the fore runner of innovation in recent times.)

Technology Proponent

Technology has insinuated its way into all aspects of our lives and “in recent years, technology has changed the ways in which HR people think.”3 Not just in relation to the manner in which administrative work is carried out, but also strategic planning and relationship building need to be considered in a technological light. (In a business environment, no one has done more in integrate up to date technology than Bill Gates.)

Practical preparation - tips

The most practical piece of preparation that you can do is to establish exactly what competencies your interviewer will assess you against. These may be related directly to the job, in which case your first port of call should be to revisit the job description for the role. If however, you will be assessed against the company’s established competency framework your consultant may have a copy or be able to discuss them with you, alternatively you will be able to glean a lot of insight from the company research you have carried out previously.

When you have a good grasp of the competencies involved, consider your own experience and where you can use examples to highlight your expertise in these areas. This will aid you greatly in clearly communicating them under pressure.

When discussing competencies during interviews, one of the most common pieces of negative feedback that we receive about a candidate is the tendency to talk around the question asked, and not actually provide the interviewer with an answer. It is understandable that this does happen, it is a pressurised environment and you are trying to demonstrate the breadth and depth of your experience and knowledge.

Communicating your competencies: SOAR technique

There are lots of different models that are recommended by various sources that can aid you in providing a highly relevant answer that is succinct and to the point. They all follow a similar method, but we recommend the SOAR technique as it has the additional focus on ownership that the others don’t. When you are describing the scenario, action and result, it’s essential that you become au fait with the use of “I” rather than “we”. The focus on ownership within the SOAR technique helps to remind you that the interviewer is interested in your actions and results, not that of your team.

  • ‘S’ - Scenario: Choose a scenario that most appropriately fits the question. It could be an enquiry about your experience in a specific remit, or when you have implemented new ideas or processes, keep it relevant.
  • ‘O’ – Ownership: Ensure that it is clear who took ownership of the scenario (hint: this should be you).
  • ‘A’ – Action: What action did you take to resolve the situation and bring about a satisfactory conclusion?
  • ‘R’ – Result: How did the outcome have an effect on the company or department?

This technique will help you to formulate an answer that is succinct, lasting about two minutes, contextualised and most importantly, actually answers the question.

Example compentency-based interview questions & scenarios

It's useful to practice using the technique in advance, but try not to fall into the trap of preparing answers to specific questions in advance as there is a high chance that this would not fully answer the question actually posed in the interview. We’ve included some practice questions that you might find useful:

  • Tell me about a time you had difficulties with your subordinates accepting a new idea or departmental objective. How did you overcome this?
  • Can you tell me about a particularly difficult ER issue that you have dealt with recently – what was the outcome? How did you influence this?
  • Can you give me an example of how your department implemented a strategic objective? What was the outcome?
  • Tell me about a time when you have been involved in a TUPE / redundancy process. What difficulties did you experience? How did you overcome these? 
  • Can you give an example of when a project or your team failed to meet its deadlines? What did you do?

See more on competency-based interviews