6 Risks using Competency Based Interviewing in a multicultural setting

Tips when using Competency Based Interviews in a multilingual and multicultural context.

Competency-Based Interviewing (CBI) is by far the most common assessment method at International Organizations. It has become popular as it has proven to have quite high validity at a low cost.

In this article, I have gathered six risks and weaknesses associated with using CBI in a multicultural context that every HR professional and Interview Panelist should be aware of.

Used correctly the CBI assessment method has great potential to help your international organization to effectively bring on the best candidates possible. In this article, we list six areas that are important when using CBI in a multicultural context.

1) CBI focuses on past performances, a candidate's future potential is poorly assessed by using CBI

  • The whole idea of the CBI method is to use past experience and achievements as a yardstick believed to predict future performance. But as a recruiter/panelist, it is important to remember that focusing too heavily on past performance can also risk eliminating the candidates you really want; the ones with strong potential. For example, the candidates have a high level of motivation and potential but lack past experience in the exact same format as defined in the job description. An experienced recruiter mitigates this risk by asking a rapport-building question that also covers the candidate's potential.

  • Using CBI as a recruiter, while pressured to recruit innovative people, may also be a challenge. With the high pace of technology development in the private sector and the strive for innovation in non-profits, the CBI theory may be a contradiction to larger organizational goals - there is a risk for suboptimization. For example, in the assessment phase, the hiring managers tend to go with the safe bet. It is always easier and more tempting to select a candidate that has done a similar job in the past (the preserver) than bringing someone in that could rethink how the work could be done in the future (the innovator).


    Be braver!

2) Remember that CBI is a technique developed for North Americans. Don't overlook/disregard the cultural disadvantages of not having a tradition of talking about your own achievements and your own performances.

  • Many candidates from non-North American cultures are hesitant to speak about themselves and their own achievements in [I] form. They are more comfortable speaking about collective/corporate achievements and, when they are asked about their own achievements, they tend to be too humble and understate their own contribution.

  • If the interview is conducted and evaluated without keeping cultural barriers and differences in mind, this might be a severe disadvantage for more humble candidates.

  • An experienced recruiter uses reference-taking to mitigate for this risk, we always recommend Competency Based References. Competency-Based References are based on the idea of taking references using the same type of questions as used for the Competency Based Interview. By asking the references the same type of questions, using the same technique, you as a recruiter will gain a better understanding of the role of the candidate in the situations used by the candidate as examples, and whether he/she over or underestimates their own achievements.

3) CBI is favorable to candidates that overstate their own strengths and contributions - if CBI is not used well, high self-confidence may score higher than high performance

  • The sole basis for selecting candidates for an interview or for a functional test is the candidate’s application. The validity of the information presented in the application must be tested during the interview and at the stage of reference taking.

  • Some candidates might overstate their own contributions. If this risk is not taken into consideration when conducting the interview, the evaluation might be favorable for those candidates that have overstated their performance. This risk could also be mitigated by using Competency Based References as described above.

  • An experienced recruiter in International Organizations tends to use the recruitment strategy to indicate the value of reference checking. In too many organizations reference taking is just a check box in the administrative workflow before sending the job offer. And too often, the organization is just sending out a reference form without even talking to anyone about the candidate.  

4) Language disadvantages - Most candidates are interviewed in a foreign language

  • Most of the candidates interviewed for a job in an International Organization are interviewed in a foreign language. It is therefore critical to use language that is as free as possible from slang and local expressions.

  • Also avoid using specific abbreviations in the interview setting. If a candidate does not understand the meaning of a certain word, rephrase or clarify your question in order to get the best out of the candidate.

5) The meaning of different words in different cultures

  • As a recruiter/panelist, it is important to be aware that the meaning of 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 kinds of trans-cultural interviewing.

  • An example is the word “problem”; which is understood as a strong expression in one culture, but softer in another.

  • Another example is the word “conflict”. In some cultures, the word is so strong that the candidate might have difficulties providing a concrete example of where he/she has faced such a situation at work. In the event, you find that the candidate has a problem coming up with an example, help the candidate by clarifying what you mean by a “work-related conflict”.

  • Another word that can cause misunderstanding is the word “deadline”. In some cultures, the deadline is negotiable; if the staff member finds that he/she will be unable to meet the set deadline, he/she can negotiate a new timeframe with the supervisor and that is not seen as a missed deadline. If a candidate indicates that he/she never missed a deadline, assist the candidate by defining what you mean by the deadline.

6) It’s easy to come up with an example, but harder to come up with a good one

  • In an interview setting it is not unusual that the candidate feels nervous. The CBI method evaluates the contents of the candidate’s example, while in a time-pressured setting can be hard to find a quick and good example. In this context, it is important to give the candidates time and to assist them to get back on track if they lose focus.

If you are interested in reading more about recruitment in International Organizations we recommend you download our free Recruitment Handbook. Click below to learn more.