Structured vs Unstructured Interviews: Why Structured Reigns Supreme

By Emily Loberto

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In the world of talent acquisition and recruitment, there’s a longstanding debate regarding which interview practices are most effective at selecting high-quality employees. An interview is often your team’s first and only point of face-to-face contact with a candidate, and getting it wrong can lead to a detrimental hiring decision that creates enduring challenges for your organization.

So, it’s no wonder that companies are motivated to select the method that gives them the greatest insight into their candidates in the shortest time. However, despite mounting evidence that structured interviews are best practice, many HR professionals still opt for an unstructured approach. 

Unstructured Interviews: The Traditional Approach 

Unstructured interviews are similar to a conversation. The interviewer may have a general list of questions and a direction they want to head toward, but this can easily be sidetracked depending on the interviewee’s answers.   

Many recruiters prefer this approach due to its flexibility and informal feel. Interviews can be stressful for both sides, and leaving them unstructured can help create a more relaxed environment. There is also a sense that a more personal connection is made, as the interview turns into a two-way conversation rather than an interrogation-like monologue with one party asking questions and the other answering them.   

However, the more relaxed nature of this type of interview comes with significant costs attached. When the candidate, rather than the interviewer, leads the discussion, inconsistencies appear regarding the content covered in each interview. It can be challenging to compare candidates after the fact, as they may have all been asked different questions or covered different topics. This approach opens the doors for bias to creep in. When you don’t have a clear-cut scale to compare candidates on, many recruiters start going with their gut instinct, which can lead to poor hiring decisions and even legal consequences if it is deemed that discrimination was involved in the selection process.  

Structured Interviews: The Evidence-Based Approach

Structured interviews are a much more systematic and evidence-based approach. Before conducting interviews, recruiters analyze the role's needs, develop a set of questions, and then a rating scale to match them. Candidates are then asked the same set of questions in the same order. Follow-up questions should be asked to gain greater insight into the candidate's answers, but only those developed and decided upon before the interview.  

As you're developing your interview process, it is best to focus on behavioral questions, which allow the candidate to talk about how they responded to a situation in the past. For example, you could ask them about a challenging work project they overcame or their process for dealing with a difficult teammate. If your candidates have little work experience, ask situational questions, such as what they would do if they were struggling with a task, as they may not have a depth of examples to draw on. Again, all your candidates must be asked the same questions and measured against the same rating scale.   

This approach may seem rigid, but it is the best way to ensure your hiring process is fair and bias-free. Structured interviews are more predictive of job performance, as they focus on specific competencies and skills that are relevant to the role. By following a pre-set list of questions, each candidate is given an equal chance to demonstrate their skills and share their experience.   

Through this process, objective data can be used to screen people IN rather than out. Instead of looking for reasons to reject a candidate, structured interviews, when paired with the right data, can highlight a candidate's strengths and potential contributions. This positive approach is not only more inclusive but also ensures that companies don't miss out on great talent that may have otherwise been overlooked.  

Choosing the Interview Style that Works for You 

At the end of the day, the point of an interview isn't to make new friends. It's to objectively compare candidates based on their qualifications to perform the job. Of course, you want to pick a candidate who will be an excellent cultural fit for the team and company, but this must be assessed in a way that is fair and free of bias. Making decisions based on unstructured interviews presents too great a risk that a recruiter will unconsciously pick the candidate they like best rather than the one that would be the best fit for the role.  

As the job market evolves and the emphasis shifts to skills and potential, HR professionals must implement evaluation methods that offer the best outcomes for both the organization and the candidates. Structured interviews have proven time and time again that they work, and recruiters can't afford to ignore them any longer. 

Become a Skills-Based Organization with Plum  

The most difficult part of implementing structured interviews into your recruiting process is determining and measuring the most important skills for each role. Plum unlocks this data, giving your company the first data set it needs to harness the power of structured interviews and transform it into a skills-based organization.   

In less than 10 minutes, your team can use Plum’s Match Criteria Survey to get an accurate and in-depth analysis of the skills needed for a candidate to succeed in a role. Then, your applicants will take Plum’s Discovery Survey, which provides the same level of predictive ability as a structured interview, right at the top of your hiring funnel. The results from this process will help you to determine which candidates to move forward in the process, and Plum’s structured interview guide will provide you with the questions and rating scales you need to understand each candidate’s skill set further.   

Plum provides an efficient, fair, and scientifically valid way of assessing candidates. Our software significantly increases quality of hire and ensures that each employee has the skills they need to flourish in their role. Book a time with one of our experts today to elevate your hiring process and start on the path to becoming a skills-based organization.