How to select the best candidate

It is now widely accepted that competency-based interviewing is a valid and reliable candidate selection method, writes Elaine Fitzgerald McBarron.

Elaine Fitzgerald McBarron
Elaine Fitzgerald McBarron

Reliability refers to consistency and the level of random error in the measurement. Validity is the extent to which a tool measures what it is intended to measure. Compared to application forms, case studies, presentations and assessment centres, a well-structured and trained competency interview panel is significantly more likely to select the best candidate.

The fundamental principle of this model is that “the best predictor of future performance
is past performance in similar situations” (SHRC, Competency Based Interviewing Training, 2016). So instead of asking ‘what would you do?’, the candidate is asked ‘what did you do?’. This subtle change in language has powerful consequences. We move from a hypothetical answer to a behavioural answer. This contains all the evidence required to reliably score the candidate.

Another key difference of this model is the shift from skill to competency assessment. A competency is defined as the attributes, skills and knowledge associated with high performance in the job. Therefore the competency based interview is designed to reveal what the person actually thought, said and did in particular situations. Each question will evaluate one particular competency and the underlying attitudes, experience and knowledge which accompany it.

The ‘rules of engagement’ of competency based interviewing are different to the traditional, biographical, ‘tell me about yourself’ interview format. It is better for it. However, it can be challenging for both interviewee and interviewer. Candidates often “feel like I’m going into too much detail”; and interviewers struggle exploring and scoring the evidence given, seeking more information “on the criteria for a good/excellent answer”.

The most sensible response is to invest time and effort in interviewee and interviewer skills. Sensible from a cost, time, efficiency, reliability, credibility, staff engagement and legislative point of view.

Another suggestion is to utilise the four stages of competence, as outlined in the grid below ( This represents the process of moving from incompetence to competence in a specific skill. As the model shows, the person begins not knowing that they do not know how to do something. This can be applied in skill development of any kind. However, for the purposes of interviewing, by understanding the characteristics of each stage; individuals on both sides of the interview table will be able to identify, articulate and rate competency levels. The red-amber-green scheme signifies progression – the ultimate goal being unconscious competence.




“does not understand/know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit” “recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit”


“skill that has become “second nature” and can be performed easily” “demonstrating the skill/knowledge but requires concentration and heavy conscious involvement”

Some areas to note:

  1. Interviewers must engage in this model and recognise their own level of interviewing competence. With training they will be able to harness their own level of expertise without losing objectivity in selection.
  2. To move into the competence stage, mistakes are necessary and integral to learning. Any training should incorporate preparation and practice. The first time to use these skills should not be in the live finals!
  3. There will be candidates with the required competency level but who struggle to articulate this. A competent interview panel will be skilled at facilitating the interviewee to demonstrate their skills, knowledge and attributes through the STAR model.

The full disclosure nature of competency based interviewing ensures that there are no surprises. The candidate is informed of the required competencies. The interview panel understands the make-up of these competencies and seeks the evidence by asking probing questions. All parties at the interview should be prepared and ready to engage in a structured conversation.

Competency based recruitment is here to stay. Human resource professionals are in agreement that “competencies are a crucial part of an organization’s survival, productivity and ongoing improvement” (Bright et al., 2002).

Let us all involved in recruitment, selection and training, prepare and practise this tool which is proven to be: effective, consistent, justifiable, above board, accountable and fair (SHRC, Competency Based Interviewing Training, 2016).

Elaine Fitzgerald McBarron, MA, BAHRM, BA,
Associate Trainer with the HMI