Employer perspective on competency interviews

Posted by S Donaldson on 10 November 2015

Image from studio tdes

I recently chaired an event at UCL on competency interviews. Competency interviews aim to assess a candidate’s key skills, usually by asking for examples of where skills have been previously displayed. If you’ve used a competency well in the past you can do it again for your employer in the future.

Two representatives from the consumer goods company Unilever and one from the law firm RPC gave their perspectives on what is currently the most common form of interview. The take home messages were:

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Topics: employability skills, law, Interviews

5 books to further your career

Posted by S Donaldson on 1 July 2015
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Topics: networking, job hunting, employability skills, Interviews

80,000 people did this last year - now it's your chance and it's free!

Posted by Sue Moseley on 27 May 2015

Want to learn how to make effective career decisions?

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Topics: networking, job hunting, employability skills, CVs and applications, career choice, International Students, Interviews

(Not so) Tricky Interview Questions

Posted by Laura Mackenzie on 26 May 2015

One of the most popular services we offer is interview coaching. Most people we work with have one or two ‘killer questions’ that they are dreading the most. So here, based on a random straw poll of careers consultants from across London, are the top 3 interview questions that students and graduates fear the most. And how to prepare yourself to approach them more calmly when you’re next in an interview situation. You’re welcome.

The opening gambit – ‘so tell us about yourself’

This seems like an innocuous question to open with, but it ranks high on the ‘least liked’ list. Why? Because it is so open ended, and there is a sense that the interviewer is looking for something specific but as the interviewee you are not always sure what that is. Rather than risk a long answer that might not give the panel what they want, consider the following preparation tips:

  1. Write down the key skills, experience and motivation you think the interviewer is looking for in their ideal candidate
  2. Next write down 4-5 things you could say about yourself in a short answer to cover the following – e.g.
    • What you are currently doing (e.g. ‘studying’, ‘working as X’, ‘just back from travelling’ etc)
    • Brief history of relevant experience (e.g. ‘whilst studying I did 3 internships related to X’)
    • Summary of your anticipated next step (e.g. ‘having had these experiences I am now looking for a permanent role in X where I can use my X,Y,Z skills)
    • 1-2 points about your wider interests (e.g. ‘Outside work I am a keen cyclist and like to spend weekends out with my local cycling club’)
  3. Check your list – have you talked about things that might give the interviewer some of the evidence they might be looking for in terms of the skills, experience or motivation of their ‘ideal candidate’?

The one about your weaknesses

Next stop –the one about your weaknesses. Immediate stress trigger for many interview candidates. Why? Because we are primed to think of an interview as a ‘sales pitch’ – our opportunity to convince the interviewers that we have what they are looking for. Top tips to prepare for this question:

  1. Identify 2-3 genuine weaknesses that you have in relation to work
  2. Think through whether any of these are going to be a ‘show stopper’ for the employer (e.g. being anxious about networking for a PR role) and then identify the one that is least risky
  3. Be prepared to be honest about that weakness, but also to be very clear about what you have done, and continue to do, to mitigate that weakness. It’s not about pretending everything is fine now, but about convincing the interviewers that you are self-aware enough to have strategies for ensuring that your weaknesses do not become a problem in the workplace.

The left-field ‘brain-teaser’

How many toasters were sold in the UK last year? How many hairs are there on a dog? How many strange and seemingly irrelevant interview questions have been used to torment interview candidates in the last year?

These types of questions are usually used for two reasons: a) to test your ability to handle the pressure of an unexpected question which appears to have no obvious answer; or b) to evaluate your ability to think your way logically through to a plausible answer from an uncertain starting point (and under time pressure). Essentially no one knows the actual answer to these questions, but there is usually some way to make an informed, reasonable guess. The key skills being tested here are logical reasoning and common sense in combination. Question: “How many toasters were sold in the UK last year?”

And the key to answering these questions? Pick a reasonable starting point that you have some data on, from which to make some logical inferences. Let’s do a worked example …

Question: How many toasters were sold in the UK last year?

  • Step 1. Don’t panic: the interviewers are not expecting the ‘right’ answer; they are more interested in your approach than the answer you end up with.
  • Step 2. State your starting assumptions: start off by identifying some possible starting points. This is a logical thinking puzzle with very little hard data, so tell the interviewers what assumptions you intend to start with. In this case it makes sense to think about the population of the UK in relation to number of households and toasters per household.
  • Example: “So to try to answer this question I’m going to start with the population of the UK at c.60 Million. I’m also going to assume for the sake of argument that an average household in the UK has 4 inhabitants. Therefore we are talking about 15 million households who might need a toaster, and that typically a household will have one toaster each.
  • Step 3: be clear about your logic: be clear about the logical conclusions from your assumptions – the ‘if this, then that’ arguments:
  • Example:If a toaster lasts on average for three years before being replaced then households will be replacing their toaster annually. Therefore I would say that a comfortable estimate would be that c.5 Million toasters are sold in the UK annually.

Not many of us look forward to a job interview, but with a little bit of preparation and a lot of focus on what the interviewer is really looking for, you can turn the tricky questions into opportunities to show what you have to offer.



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Topics: employability skills, law, Interviews

Commercial awareness: an eastward march

Posted by Kate Murray on 25 May 2015

HSBC to Hong Kong - the right place at the right time?

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Topics: Business and Finance, International Students, Interviews

Assessment Centres: Civil Service Fast Steam

Posted by S Donaldson on 5 March 2015


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Topics: Peace, Politics and Policy, assessment centres, Interviews

Strengths Based Interviewing- a Conversation with Shearman and Sterling

Posted by Phil Howe on 27 February 2015

In recent years strengths based interviewing and assessment has gathered pace rapidly in graduate recruitment. Pioneered by the likes of EY and Nestle, the approach is now used to some extent by many large organisations who recruit graduates, including Aviva, BAE Systems, Barclays and Unilever. Although still far less common than competency based interviews, being assessed on the basis of their strengths is increasingly something candidates should expect when applying for graduate roles.

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Topics: law, Interviews

How to prepare for assessment centres

Posted by Kate Murray on 25 February 2015

Assessment centres are a very widely used selection method, principally because they provide a robust and all-round view of the candidate. The employers see the candidate in realistic work situations and examine what the candidate can do, rather than what they say they can do. There’s no room for bluff.

This strong ‘predictive validity’ (i.e. the clear link between performance in the assessment and performance in role) is precisely what makes them a bit scary. You can feel a lot of pressure when it comes to having to make a presentation, or participate in a group exercise, knowing you are being judged against everyone else who is taking part.

What are competencies?

Assessment centres typically include a number of exercises designed to assess specific competencies. It is worth spending time familiarising yourself with both the common types of exercises and the key competencies they test.

Competencies are the skills, behaviours or knowledge identified as necessary for success in role; things like team working or communication skills. To really shine at an assessment centre, you need to be achieving the highest-order elements of each competency. That means demonstrating a flexibility in their approach, to think strategically and critically, and apply the competence in a sophisticated manner.

Key areas to prepare to improve performance

Strong preparation is key for success at assessment centres. Let’s take a look at some useful preparation activities:

Make sure you know the priorities and strategic direction of the company you are applying to work for. If you know that they are in a growth position, then you can talk about expansion opportunities. On the other hand, if they are in a period of downsizing, think carefully about the cost implications of any ideas you may have. This can be particularly useful if you need to prioritise anything during a task, such as in an intray exercise.

Understand the organisation’s core business. If you are applying to work for a marketing agency, for example, you need to understand what the business does, even if the role is in finance or IT. If you want to work in telecoms, ensure you have at least a basic understanding of the sector and how they make their money. It may be hard for you to participate fully in tasks if you don’t know this.

Follow this up with an understanding of what is going on in that market. What are the pressures and trends? Who are the key players? If you can weave this information into any of the exercises – for example, by critically evaluating the fictional data using real-life examples – this can really set you apart from other candidates.

Think about current trends in the economy (e.g. globalisation, social networks, ageing demographics in Europe) and their implications for the sector. If you can incorporate these elements into your arguments, it shows breadth of thinking and strategic perspective. You may find it useful to use models like SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) and PESTLE (Political, Economic, Socio-demographic, Technological, Legal and Environmental) to organise your thinking.

Practise structuring information. You want to make it as easy as possible for the assessor to give you top marks; one way of doing this is to present your findings clearly and concisely – much as you would in a business context. Use headings, bullet points and numbered lists to display information, and remember to include an introduction and conclusion. Practise this and get some critical feedback.

Give some thought to the personal impact you would like to have at the assessment centre: what would you like the assessors (and the other candidates) to say about you at the end of the day? What can you do to create this impact? Assessors are often trained to observe and record non-verbal cues (body language) and everything, from the way you walk into the room, to the way you speak to other candidates, helps create the image that the assessors will form of you.

Don’t forget to brush up on your influencing skills. These are useful in group/report exercises and presentations. Some techniques to consider include using logic or reason to make a case, negotiation, building relationships or appealing to values. Avoid negative approaches like manipulation or intimidation.

Finally, practise managing your time and working under pressure. Assessment centre exercises are designed to be demanding – to perform at your best, you need to be able to focus and deliver, and practice can help with this. Don’t forget to take a watch and broadly plan out how you’re going to approach a task, as this can help you stay on track.

Current students will find that their university careers services will have lots of material that can help them to prepare for assessment centres, including links to online practice sites or even mock assessment centres with employers.

Today’s guest post, on how best to prepare for assessment centres, is brought to you by the graduate jobs board and forum WikiJob.

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Topics: employability skills, assessment centres, Business and Finance, Interviews

How to prepare for a Skype interview

Posted by careers consultant on 25 September 2014

The introduction of integrated webcams into desktop, tablet and smartphone devices together with improvement in broadband speed has meant that a new form of job interview is becoming mainstream. Video chat job interviews, which are commonly conducted using the free cross-platform software Skype, are becoming widely accepted as an alternative to phone interviews. In this article we look closer at several best practices to improve your chances of success.

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Topics: Interviews

Preparing for an interview.

Posted by MalaMohindru on 29 August 2014

Preparing for an interview: The Basics.

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Topics: employability skills, career choice, International Students, Interviews

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