What is Structured Interviewing?

Structured Interview

Imagine you’re interviewing a few candidates with similar experience and work history for the same job. Before the first in-person interview starts, you notice that this candidate volunteers for a nonprofit organization you strongly support. Not really thinking about it, you start off the interview asking questions about that experience, and you build a friendly rapport.

After that interview ends and the next one begins, you glance at this next candidate’s resume. While everything looks good, nothing in particular sticks out. So you start the interview with a question everyone just loves: “tell me a little bit about yourself.”

If you’re doing the hiring in this scenario, you may not think anything of it. But take a step back and imagine yourself as the first candidate, then the second. Do you think the first candidate probably had an unfair advantage, simply because they had something in common with the person doing the interview?

The problem with unstructured interviewing

What we asked you to imagine is an example of unstructured interviewing. Unstructured interviewing doesn’t necessarily mean a hiring manager or HR rep is unprepared for an interview. Nor does it mean they’re making up questions as they go along.

Unstructured interviews are flexible, allowing the interviewers to ask different questions to each candidate. They’re more casual. Sometimes a few questions are planned to be included, and the order in which those questions are asked can vary.

You might think an unstructured interview system may fit your organization’s casual, hip, or cool vibe, but think again. When you ask potential candidates interview questions on the fly, you risk analyzing traits that won’t have any impact on how they’ll do their job. Even worse, you risk asking illegal interview questions about their age, ethnicity, home life, or background.

Everyone is influenced by their beliefs and unconscious biases, without even realizing it most of the time. In an interview, you may form a snap judgment of a candidate, then search for evidence that confirms your initial thoughts. That’s confirmation bias, and that’s something that should be avoided.

So you get excited when you realize you’re interviewing someone who graduated from the same college as you. Is talking about student clubs or the best restaurant on campus really a good indicator of their potential job performance? Those casual questions will certainly give you a glimpse of a candidate’s personality, but they shouldn’t be your go-to in an interview.

The benefits of structured interviewing

A structured interviewing system, on the other hand, allows HR reps and hiring managers to fairly assess jobseekers applying and interviewing for the same position. Think of it as a standardized test for interviews. Every candidate gets the same questions in the same order.

This kind of interviewing system allows the interviewer to be more objective. With subjective factors out of the way, a candidate can be judged on their required knowledge for the job, as well as their communication and social skills. Those are a lot harder to judge fairly when you’re asking all your candidates different questions, and getting different answers.

When you have many employees interviewing just one candidate, it’s also easier to compare notes and evaluations when you use structured interviewing. Everyone follows the same template and scoring system. It’s then easier for everyone to debate and agree upon what they think of a candidate.

How to conduct structured interviews

Forming a structured interview system isn’t hard, but it takes a little bit of preparation in order to do it right. First, write out the job description for the position you’re hiring for. Accurately describe the responsibilities and duties this position entails.

Then, using that job description, choose questions that will reveal how and if a candidate can perform those responsibilities and duties. For example, if you’re hiring for a support role where your employee will need to help customers on the phone, put together some questions that ask about their comfort level and experience using that kind of support system. Ask how they’d talk someone through fixing something over the phone in a hypothetical situation. Have they ever provided phone support, or are they used to helping customers via email? Be sure to include a mix of general questions and role-specific questions.

After you’ve chosen a set of questions, figure out an order in which they should be asked. Does one question’s answers naturally lead into another question? Then, decide on a rating scale for answers. A common system is the 5-point scale, where the best rating of 5 points represents highly skilled and qualified. The lowest rating is 1 point, which represents unsatisfactory skills or lack of qualification.

Once your system is all set up, make sure that your hiring managers and HR reps are all trained! They should know which questions to ask, the order they should be asked, how the rating scale works, and how they’ll evaluate candidates afterward.

Types of questions to include in structured interviews

Of course, the questions you ask in your structured interviews depend on the industry and the  position you’re hiring for. But you’ll find many general, open-ended questions in structured interviews that can work for any kind of job. They don’t really examine how a person will do in that exact job, but how they typically handle common work situations.

And if you’ve worked for any company anywhere, we bet you’ve come across at least some of these questions in the past.

  • Tell me a little about yourself.
  • Why do you want to work for our company?
  • Tell me about a time you had a problem with a coworker. How was it resolved?
  • What are other companies in [your company’s industry] that you admire and why?
  • What do you think will be the biggest challenges with this position?
  • Why do you think you’re a good fit for this position?
  • Tell me about a time someone criticized your work. What was your response?
  • Tell me about a time you made a mistake or failed at a task. What did you learn?
  • Tell me about a time when you went the extra mile for your job.

If you ask questions that involve hypothetical dilemmas, be sure to use ones that will likely happen in their role. It’ll give you a better idea of how they’ll actually perform at the job.

You can always use a semi-structured interview system

Like the idea of structured interviews, but you still want to be able to build rapport and get to know your candidates in a less inflexible way? Try a semi-structured interview system.

It’s not quite the free-for-all that unstructured interviews are; it leaves the interviewer some wiggle room to ask natural follow-up questions, or to skip redundant questions that were already covered. It’s more conversational by nature, but still ensures fairness through the structured interview setup.