The United Nations Competency Based Interview

International organizations, including United Nations, often rely on the Competency-Based Interview to select suitable candidates for their positions.

In this article, we gathered information from official sources and recruitment specialists that may help you on your next interview.

When you are invited for an interview with an international organization:

1. Don’t ask the recruiter for the job description– remember to save it at the time of your application: Daily, a recruiter liaises with several applicants. Unfortunately one of the most common first questions received is whether a copy of the job description can be provided. For many recruiters this is a negative first question that impacts the first impression. To appear more structured as a candidate, we recommend that you save the job description at the time of your application, it gives a more serious, structured, motivated and professional first impression.

2. Ensure that you have a really valid reason if you suggest rescheduling your interview time-slot – suggesting another time does not look good: Many international organizations have strict rules on how an assessment must be conducted. Often the assessment is undertaken by an assessment panel that sits in different locations covering different time-zones. For some organizations (e.g. United Nations) the assessment panel must be convened following a strict set of rules, i.e. the panel must consist of a certain number of staff members, the panel-members must serve on a UN grade that either is higher or at the same level as for the position you are being inter viewed and the panel must be gender and nationality diverse. Hence, to convene a panel that meets all requirements may be a cumbersome exercise and therefore the unwritten rule is that an applicant is expected to take the time-slot s/he is provided.

3. If you are invited to an interview with an international organization at short notice may not necessarily be because of poor planning from the organization’s side: A short interview notice can also be a well thought through strategy from the hiring unit’s side with the purpose to assess the applicant’s ability to deliver under pressure and without time for preparation. For many jobs within international organizations applicants are expected to deliver high qualitative results under extreme pressure, without time to learn the job and in a context of crisis, humanitarian disaster, armed conflict, etc. If you in that context have problems to re-arrange your current home-agenda, to deliver without preparation, chances are that you are not capable to handle the job you are interviewing for.

General information about an interview assessment

Competency based interviewing (CBI): Many international organizations use Competency Based Interviewing (CBI) as their interview assessment method. In brief word the basic theory behind CBI is that an applicant’s past performance is the most reliable predictor on how s/he will perform in the future. One significant advantage with CBI is that it is a fairly cheap assessment method that meets a high standard of validity at a low cost. To ensure that the right candidate is identified and selected, in several recruitment processes to international organizations, the CBI interview is complemented with a written technical test. Please click here to see a short film about Competency Based Interviewing recorded by the Human Resources Director of UNFPA, Michael Emery.

4. You can expect a phone or skype interview: Although it is best practice to conduct in-person/face-to-face interviews, many organizations (due to cost, time and environmental reasons) start the interview process with a phone interview. An option that has become more common in recent years is Skype/video interviews which can adds the benefit of actually seeing the each other, albeit virtually. If you are being invited for a Skype interview, you can ask if video will be required. If so, make sure that you dress for the occasion just as if it was an in-person interview. You can also be fairly certain that If one interview is over phone – all interviews will be over phone. In many organizations there is a ‘fairness policy’ claiming that all candidates should be given the same opportunity when being interviewed for the same job, hence if one interview must be conducted via phone all shortlisted candidates for that job will be interviewed via phone.

5. If phone interview - stand up while speaking to make your voice sound clearer and full of energy: As mentioned, most interviews are held by phone, in a phone interview we recommended to stand up while responding to the questions. By standing up, you can avoid the ‘coma phase’ that sometimes happens when you are having a monolog on phone, a phase that makes your voice sound a bit sleepy. Standing up can make your voice sound clearer and it gives a more motivated and energetic impression.

What are some weaknesses with Competency Bases Interviewing that can be good to know when preparing your interview?

6. CBI is looking at your past experience – future potential and motivation for the job may be hard to assess in this interview format: One of the most significant criticisms against CBI is the fact that it is strictly looking at your past experience. This is a significant disadvantage to young, motivated and driven applicants that haven’t yet got any significant past experience to talk about. It is also a problem when recruiting managers, how to add new blood into the workforce if you strictly focus on achievements in the past and not the potential of the individuals? This is of course not completely black or white, but given the CBI format it is a risk that a hiring unit rehires a less motivated person to perform the exact same role again that s/he has done for ages just because s/he had strong answers to the CBI questions. In the preparation section that will come in part 2, we will write about the first question in the interview - the so called “Rapport building question”. In a CBI context this is more or less your chance to show the hiring unit your potential and motivation for the job.

7. Be aware of your potential cultural disadvantages: In some cultures individuals may be hesitant to speak about themselves and their own achievements. They might be more comfortable speaking about collective/corporate achievements and, when asked about their own achievements, they stand a risk to undervalue their own contribution. A good panel is aware of this weakness with CBI, but you as an applicant must do your part. When preparing yourself, avoid using WE when describing activities and results in your answer. Focus on your own actions, your own results, hence practice to replace WE with I.

8. Interviewing in a foreign language: Certain words/phrases can be received/understood differently in different languages and cultures. This is not a weakness related only to CBI, but to all kind of trans-cultural interviewing. One example is the word “conflict”. In some cultures the word conflict is too strong to be used to describe a disagreement and hence some candidate might have a problem providing a concrete example where s/he has faced a work related conflict. Another word that used to be mentioned in these discussions is the word “deadline”. In some cultures, a deadline is negotiable, so if you as an applicant feel that you have never missed a deadline, you are not getting to the heart of what you are being asked. In that case, talk about when and why you had to renegotiate a deadline.

What are the questions U.N. may ask you?

A good interviewer will ask you about your past experience, so he/she can try to connect it to the organization requirements. "Is that person suitable for this specific job position?" is the question that he/she is trying to answer to his supervisors. Remember that after assessing you, the recruiter should send your results to be checked by one of the Central Review Bodies.

Therefore, the interviewer will ask you a main question about one of the U.N. core competencies and, according to your answer, he may ask you some follow-up questions.

Pay attention in the examples below:

Competency-based interview questions

Teamwork: Describe to us a successful teamwork work experience

Follow-up questions:

  • What was the situation?
  • What was your role?
  • What made the team successful?
  • How did you handle any disagreements within the team?
  • What were the results?
  • What did you learn from the experience? If you had to do it again what would you do differently?

Planning and Organizing: Tell us about a time you had to organize or plan a major event

  • What was the nature of the event?
  • What was your role?
  • How did you plan and organize the different actions to carry out?
  • How did the event turn out?
  • Reflecting back, what did you learn from the experience? If you had to do it again what would you do differently?

Creativity: Describe to us a situation when you had to be creative

  • What was the nature of the situation?
  • What was your role?
  • What were the different actions you carried out?
  • What were the results?
  • What did you learn from the experience? If you had to do it again what would you do differently?

Integrity: Describe to us a situation where you felt pressured to act in a way that would compromise your values or those of the organization

  • What was the nature of the situation?
  • What were the implications of your actions?
  • How did you respond to the pressure?
  • What were the results?
  • What did you learn from the experience? If you had to do it again what would you do differently?

Adapted from: and YPP program.


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