United Nations competency based interview and STAR approach

Introduction: Competency-based interviews play a vital role in assessing candidates’ past performance and behavior to gauge their suitability for UN assignments. In this article, we delve into the significance of competency-based questions and provide valuable insights into optimizing the UN interview process. From panel composition to interview duration and effective interviewing techniques, we cover all the essential aspects to ensure a successful selection process.

  1. Importance of Competency-Based Interview Questions: Competency-based interview questions differ from traditional questions as they require candidates to provide concrete examples demonstrating their past performance and behavior. These questions provide crucial information to determine if candidates are a good match for the UN assignment. Unlike traditional questions, competency-based questions focus on tangible evidence, enhancing the effectiveness of the selection process.
  2. Panel Composition and Diversity: The interview panel for UN assignments ideally consists of at least three persons. If that’s not feasible, a minimum of two people should form the panel. It is recommended to include a member of the UN field unit or UN Focal Point, along with a representative from the host agency. Gender and diversity representation should be balanced, fostering an inclusive interview process.
  3. Technical Assessments for Specialized Fields: In highly specialized fields such as medicine, information technology, or international law, conducting a technical assessment becomes mandatory. A technical interviewer, preferably one of the panel members, should evaluate candidates’ knowledge and experience in the specific domain. This assessment ensures a comprehensive evaluation of candidates’ skills and expertise.
  4. Interview Planning and Duration: Before the interview, all panel members should be familiar with the candidate’s profile and the description of the assignment. The interview should last approximately 45 minutes, allowing sufficient time for a comprehensive assessment. Panel members should strategically decide on the number of questions to ask, focusing on critical competencies relevant to the specific UNV assignment.
  5. Creating a Comfortable Interview Environment: To facilitate a successful interview, it is essential to establish a comfortable and undisturbed setting. Whether conducted in person, via telephone, or videoconference, candidates should be informed in advance about the time, date, and interview format. Attention should be given to candidates’ privacy and uninterrupted participation.
  6. Interview Techniques and Etiquette: The interviewer plays a crucial role in establishing rapport with the candidates. A warm-up question of a general nature can help settle the candidate before delving into competency-based interview questions. Interviewers should actively listen, demonstrate sincere interest, and avoid personal bias or disagreement. The interview should conclude with an opportunity for candidates to address any additional points or ask final questions.
  7. Evaluating Candidates and Finalizing Selection: After the interview, panel members should take time to complete their notes and score the candidates’ answers individually. This ensures unbiased evaluations. Following individual scoring, panel members should engage in a comprehensive discussion to compare notes and adjust scores if necessary. The average score is typically considered the final score. Templates provided in Annexes I and II facilitate evaluation and comparison of candidates.
  8. Interview Report and Recruitment Process: Annex III provides the interview report template, which must be forwarded to the appropriate focal persons at UNV headquarters to proceed with the recruitment process. For international UN Volunteers, interview reports of non-selected candidates should also be submitted for future reference. If a candidate is not recommended for the specific post or concerns about suitability arise, these aspects should be clearly explained in the interview report.



Questions should be structured so they do not favor a candidate with internal knowledge or information. All candidates should be given the opportunity to answer the same questions. This will allow the panel to compare candidates. However, the panel may ask spontaneous follow-up questions to seek clarification and explore an area in more detail. The panel may interrupt if the response is too long or the candidate is not answering the question.

Answers to competency-based questions should:

  • Provide specific examples (past performance/behavior) that cover the situation.
  • Outline the candidate’s specific role.
  • Discuss what action he/she took.
  • Explore the results or consequences, for example, what he/she learned from the experience or what they would have done differently as a result.

Interviewers must encourage answers that exemplify the candidate’s individual experience. Keep a lookout for “I” answers, not “we”. (See STAR Model on the section 6). It is also important not to ask long questions with multiple parts. Instead, break the question up and have follow-up questions ready if the candidate does not answer in detail.


Examples of competency-based questions:

“Can you tell me about a time you had to adapt your plans due to unexpected changes at work?” “Can you describe a situation in which you were not able to complete a project or task on time?”

“Can you give me an example of when you had to deal with several urgent tasks at the same time and you needed to prioritize them?”

Conclusion: Mastering competency-based interviews is essential for conducting effective selection processes for UN assignments. By understanding the significance of these interviews, ensuring panel composition and diversity, and following best

“Can you give me an example of when you had to design a successful document management system?” “Can you describe a time when one of your strengths enabled you to succeed in a challenging task at work?”

Examples of other styles of questions used in traditional interviews:

Close-ended questions call on a straight “yes/no” or short answer, for example:

Open-ended questions are the opposite of “close-ended” questions. They typically begin with words like “why” and “how” and encourage a detailed answer, for example:

Situational questions (or scenario-based) are “hypothetical” questions. Candidates are asked how they would handle a situation, for example:

  • “How would you design and build a document management system?”
  • “How would you adapt successfully to work in a different cultural environment?”
  • “Where did you learn to use AutoCAD?”
  • “Can you tell me the difference between an indicator and a result in monitoring and evaluating projects?”

Factual questions probe a factual-based response as opposed to opinion, for example:

  • “Where did you learn to use AutoCAD?”
  • “Can you tell me the difference between an indicator and a result in monitoring and evaluating projects?”


In order to obtain a good response from candidates in competency-based interviews, they need to be specific. It is recommended that candidates be briefly guided at the beginning of the interview so that they provide concrete and specific examples using the STAR process as a tool. This will help the panel get the information they need to make a successful placement. It will also help candidates realize the need for detailed responses because they might be unfamiliar with the competency interview approach and/or have the habit of speaking in generalities.

After each competency based question candidates should start by describing the situation he/she was facing or what exactly he/she needed to accomplish. You may ask the candidate to specifically describe the situation.
Candidates should specify their specific task or role in the situation provided. As the interviewer, when you hear responses starting with “we”you need to clarify with a follow-up question such as, “What was your specific role in that situation?”
Candidates should describe the specific actions taken to accomplish the task. Some candidates tend to respond using the term “we”, for example, “we did…” “we plan” etc. rather than describing a situation where they were personally in control. It is the role of the interviewer to ascertain the candidate’s specific contributions. You may ask follow-up questions, for example:

  • “Who is ‘we’exactly”
  • “I am still unclear about your role. Can you explain it further?”
  • “Why did you do that?”
  • “Was it your idea?”
  • “What challenges did you face?”
Finally, candidates should indicate the outcome. You may ask questions like:

  • “What was the end result?”
  • “What did you learn from that experience?”
  • “What do you wish you did differently?”


  • The panel may interrupt if the response is too long or the candidate is not answering the question.
  • Do not ask follow-up questions if the answer is obvious.
  • Probing questions should not be threatening or judgmental. They should be used to get the information you need to assess the candidate’s level of competency.

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December 2023