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How To Prepare For A Competency Based Interview At The UN


Good afternoon everybody. My name is Michael Emery and I am the Director of Human Resources, at UNFPA and I’m here today to give you some insights into competency based interviewing.

Now, as you’re probably aware, most parts of the multi-lateral sector including the UN and UNFPA use competency interviewing to assess whether or not candidates are suitable for a certain position. And having sat through literally thousands of these interviews, I’m here to share with you some inside tips if you like on how to prepare properly for a competency interview.

Before we go into some of the tips, I want to talk a little bit about the basic premise of why we use competency interviewing. And the basic premise is that, if you can demonstrate that you can do the competency in the past, chances are that you’ll be able to do it in the future. So basically, if you’ve done it in the past, you’ll be able to do it in the future. And in terms of the research why this type of assessment is used, as a predictor of future performance, competency based interviewing or sometimes referred to as behavioral interviewing or situational interviewing is a .51 predictor of future performance, which is a very strong predictor, the only better predictor is a .54 predictor which is a trial period where you come in and you do an internship or a trial period as a trainee. So it’s a very strong predictor to see whether or not somebody will be able to perform in that role.

As a result, most of the questions that you get in a competency interview tend to be based on past experience. So it would be a question like, tell me about a time when you were part of a successful team, what made that team successful, what was your role in that team? How did you overcome problems in that team? And a good panel will be probing and delving and trying to get to the bottom of what your role was in that particular team.

Now in preparing for a competency interview therefore, the first point of reference is the vacancy announcement because in the vacancy announcements in UNFPA and most parts of the UN system, they will list the competencies that are most relevant for that position. So first tip, always print the vacancy notice when you apply for the job because invariably we interview you a month or two months later and the vacancy has gone off the net and you’re thinking, what were those competencies that were listed in the vacancy announcement? So please, that is the first tip, always print the vacancy notice, therefore you have a reference of how to prepare for a competency interview.

Now when you’re preparing for the interview, I like to encourage candidates to think of what I call the CAR principle, Context, Actions, Results. So when structuring your answers, you should be first of all giving a brief context, secondly, giving the actions that where attributable to you as the individual, not part of the team. And thirdly, and this is where a lot of candidates, they actually forget the third bit, is looking at the results or the impact of your actions. Sometimes they also throw in a fourth letter as well, which is L which stands for Learning. What learning did you draw from that experience?

And if you structure your answer in that way, then you’re giving the panel what they’re looking for. Subconsciously, the panel are looking for several things as well and the panel generally don’t even know this, they’re looking for people that are conscientious so you have to somehow rather project that conscientiousness in your interview. They’re looking for people that are emotionally stable, so you don’t want to come across as a nutter during the interview. They’re looking for people that are likable and agreeable and they’re looking for people that they feel will be a good fit for the position and a good fit for the organization.

So certainly in your preparation for an interview, you should be referencing the competencies, structuring your answers in the CARL context and be prepared to engage with the panel.

A couple of other tips, often in UNFPA and other organizations, we’re using telephone interviews. The tip I would have for you if you are given a telephone interview, is to stand up during the interview. You tend to project your voice a lot better when you’re standing up rather than sitting down.

Secondly, on a telephone interview, use pitch, tone, speed and silence to your advantage. You want to keep the panel that are on the other end of the phone awake and interested in your answers.

If you’re having a face to face interview, this is a completely different setup. It’s very important that you come in warmed up into an interview. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that a very natural inclination for panel members is to make up their mind about a candidate within forty seconds of an interview starting. So you really do need to come in warmed up and ready to go. Certainly at various parts of the interview, the panel, different panel members will be asking questions. What I like to advise people is to address the panel member that asked the questions with the context part of your response and then bringing in the other panel members with eye movements, hand context, etc. The panel want people that are enthusiastic and you need to bring in that enthusiasm into your responses.

Now generally speaking, the way that a competency interview is structured, they tend to have what’s called an icebreaker question. And this is designed just to get you talking. They might say, how was your plane trip here today, was it busy at JFK? That’s just a general question to get you relaxed and get you talking.

Often then they will ask what seems to be a very simple question which is designed to ascertain motivation for the position, and this can be a question such as, why were you interested in applying for this job?, what particular aspect of this job appealed to you when you applied?, something like that. And this is a very, very important question because as I said, that first forty seconds is pretty important. This is where you need to come across and not just repeat what on your CV because the panel has read your CV. What needs to come across here is the value proposition that you bring to the organization and to this role. So what is it, what’s the intrinsic value proposition that you have that makes you a strong candidate for this position and that you want the panel to hire you for.

Then they would tend to go into the standard body of the interview where they are asking competency based questions. And that can be anywhere from five to eight structured competency based questions. And then they will typically wrap up the interview and give you the opportunity to ask questions as well.

Now this is often a bit of an awkward stage for candidates because they don’t know what type of questions they should be asking and I can guarantee you that I’ve been on a lot of panels where people have asked quite dumb questions, where they’ve blown a good interview and a dumb question.

Certainly in the multi-lateral context, you don’t need to be asking questions about benefits and entitlements, because you can look at that on the website. You should know that already.

I often counsel young candidates in particular that if I feel awkward about this part of the interview, one thing they can do is to say, look I don’t have any questions parse but I would like to provide some additional information, if that’s okay with the panel. And that’s where you have two or three minutes just to hit two or three really, really salient points about why you’re a good fit for this position and what’s your motivation for the position. Again you can reiterate that value proposition.

Invariably, in competency based interviews, you’re asked two types of questions. One is on how you work in teams and how you resolve conflict. So you need to really think about what it is, how you do work in teams and you need to have an example of when you’ve been able to resolve differences or conflict within a team when you’ve taken action about that.

Also, often, we ask questions on a value proposition. A typical question on a value proposition might be something like, what are the three values that are most important to you? And how do these values translate into your work. Now, that’s an interesting question because candidates at all ages tend to kind of be stuck on this question. It’s not because they don’t have a value system, it’s because often they haven’t really thought about what their value system is. Perhaps, that’s some thinking for you to look at after this video presentation. Think about what are the values that are important to me.

When the panel is assessing your answers in a competency interview, generally they’re looking for two specific things, one is the depth of the example and the complexity of the example and clearly the more complex the example that you’re giving, the higher the chances you have of scoring. It’s kind of like the diving in the Olympics, the more difficult the dive, the higher the possibility to get good marks.

Let me give you an example. I was interviewing for a position as a country director position and I asked the question, tell me about the time when you had to resolve a conflict between two colleagues or two sets of colleagues? And one of the respondents gave me in the example of having two interns in his office and they weren’t getting on and he had a chat with them, essentially he clunked their heads together and said you two better get on and he gave them a project to work on and they started working on it and now they’re really good friends. That’s a lovely example, nice result, nice impact but in terms of the complexity and the depth of that example, it’s not really at the level that we’re looking for for a country director.

Another candidate for the same position gave the example of an extremely volatile local staff issue in a country office where he’d worked where people were bringing AK-47s into the office. And he was able to setup a mediation and negotiation system in that office and worked through a very, very complex series of negotiations to try and resolve that issue. Clearly, that example had a lot more depth and complexity and he was able to score much higher on that example.

It’s also very important too that the examples that you give are actually attributable to you. I remember one particular interview when I asked the question, tell me about a time when you’ve led a communications campaign and what was the impact of that campaign? And I had a very eloquent candidate that said to me that she had led the campaign on the launch of some big report and that report had four million hits on the website and 16 op ed pieces on major newspapers etc. And I was looking at her CV as she was giving me this example and I realized that she was an intern in the office at that time, so I actually drilled down and I said, what was your specific role in this example and she says? Well mainly I was preparing the press releases and photo copying the press releases. So clearly she wasn’t leading the campaign, she was some back up support for that so she had misrepresented her level of contribution to that example. So you need to actually be quite honest in that because with reference checking etc. we can validate the extent to which your examples are actually true.

So to summarize, I would say you need to be ultra-prepared for an interview. You need to reference the competencies in the vacancy notice. You need to think about good examples and bad examples of the competencies that we’re looking at. Thinking about C A R and L, you need to be engaging with the panel whether that’s on a telephone interview or on a face to face interview. And you need to be thinking about the depth and the complexity of your examples. And you need to be thinking about the values or the motivation or the value proposition that you want to bring to the organization and to that role.

And if you’re prepared, the panel will appreciate it, you’ll feel much more confident and you have a much better chance of getting the job. Good luck with your next interview. Thank you.

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  • Hello,

    My name is Gomez Mabirou I am a congolese and I really appreciate all advice about job interview in your Organisations and I hope to win it without problem if I have a chance to be call for an interview one day,frankly,I wish to build my career in a big organisation like UN or any part of this organisation..


  • This is a good piece of advice. However, I as a candidate never found an opportunity to appear for an interview to present my credentials. The reason being UN system in Pakistan is no more an equal opportunity employer mainly because of lobbies functional inside the system. Me and many of my friends and colleagues are appalled to see most incompetent people making their way into UN jobs in Pakistan. I have over 25 years experience in development sector, worked for many international non governmental organizations funded of different donors including USAID. Unfortunately, I was not ever shortlisted even for a preliminary interview for any job with UN system. Those jobs were gifted to people who have contacts with lobbies active inside the UN system.

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