We focus a lot on interview questions and how they play a role in identifying the best candidate for a given job, but the interview format you choose can also influence your hiring success. From the level of preparation to the candidate experience, the type of interview you use can impact the efficiency and effectiveness of your hiring. We’ll explain the difference between structured vs. unstructured interviews and share some things to consider when choosing the best interview style for you.
What is a Structured Interview?
In a structured interview, an interviewer asks a series of predetermined questions that have been selected to assess specific traits and skills. Interviewers ask every candidate the same questions in the same order and use a structured rating system to score participants.
In a structured interview, you’ll hear questions like:
- What skills make you a strong fit for this job?
- What is your preferred communication style?
- How do you manage your time?
What is an Unstructured Interview?
In an unstructured interview, an interviewer goes into it with a loose plan but lets the conversation happen naturally. They review the available information about a candidate and ask questions on topics they’re interested in learning more about or that organically come up. Each candidate may be asked different questions in a different order.
An unstructured interview may include questions like:
- Tell me a little about yourself.
- I see that you worked as a [previous role]. What was that like?
- What are your goals?
Key Differences Between Structured and Unstructured Interviews
Where a structured interview is very well defined, an unstructured interview is more fluid. A structured interview “feels” like an interview, with the interviewer spending most of the time asking the questions and the candidate answering them. An unstructured interview flows more like an everyday conversation, with both parties speaking or listening according to how the conversation unfolds.
Structured interviews are conducted within a fixed window, with the same amount of time allocated to each candidate. Unstructured interviews often go ‘as long as it takes,’ with some candidate conversations lasting longer than others.
The rigid design of a structured interview can make it feel more formal than an unstructured interview, which can feel more casual.
Structured interviews require interviewers to adhere to a fixed list of questions, with no flexibility to deviate from the script. Unstructured interviews offer much more wiggle room, allowing interviewers to meander from one topic to the next.
Benefits of Structured Interviews
Provides a level playing field
Because all candidates are being asked the same set of questions, it’s more likely that they’ll be evaluated on the same criteria. No single candidate receives an advantage because of an arbitrary detail like where they grew up or what hobbies they enjoy.
Facilitates time management
Structured interviews occur within a set time frame, like 9 to 9:30 a.m. This makes it an ideal format when you have many candidates to speak to and must manage your time effectively.
Simplifies candidate comparison
When all candidates speak on the same prompts, it’s easier to identify when one of them outperforms the rest. Structured interviews lend themselves to objective scoring, which is helpful if you use an assessment system like interview score sheets.
Protects against discrimination complaints
Structured interviews force interviewers to stay within carefully constructed bounds. This format makes it much more unlikely the conversation will veer into dangerous territory that could give a candidate grounds for a discrimination complaint.
Aids less experienced interviewers
It’s hard for a newbie to screw up an unstructured interview; they must read what’s on the paper. This is helpful for novice recruiting teams that are still honing their interview skills.
Downsides of Structured Interviews
Requires lots of advance planning
Though structured interviews are easier to conduct now, they require more planning upfront. Teams must carefully identify the most important characteristics for success in the role, then strategize interview questions that will help them discern the candidate’s aptitude in those areas.
Doesn’t allow For deep dives
The “stick to the script” nature of structured interviews means there’s no room to deviate from the plan, even if a topic of particular interest warrants further discussion. This can cause frustration for both interviewers and interviewees.
Can feel overly formal
It’s tricky for a candidate to understand a company’s culture when they’re facing one question after another. This inflexibility can make it hard to build rapport.
Benefits of Unstructured Interviews
Offers greater flexibility
Unstructured interviews allow interviewers to explore topics that pique their interest and seem most engaging to the candidate. This can be useful in drawing out a candidate’s unique personality and allowing them to express their enthusiasm.
Can help convey your culture
The interview is one of the only chances a candidate has to get a face-to-face impression of your company. If your workplace is more casual, unstructured interviews may feel more closely aligned with your culture, giving the candidate a more accurate representation.
Some candidates will thrive
Some types of candidates excel within the conversational style of an unstructured interview. It can be a good format if you’re looking for an extroverted candidate or who thrives in uncertain situations.
Downsides of Unstructured Interviews
Important topics can go undiscussed
Unstructured interviews are more susceptible to people going off on tangents. This means you might not get to cover everything you wanted, including important topics to make an accurate judgment.
Makes side-by-side comparisons difficult
Think about any hometown bake-off. The contest requires ambitious chefs to enter their best apple pie or bowl of chili because it’s easy to taste one after the other and decide which you like best. It wouldn’t be so easy to name the “best” if you were tasting an apple pie, a pumpkin pie, and a blueberry pie. They’re different, so it’s tougher to compare them.
Unstructured interviews mean you’re having a completely different conversation with each candidate, so it’s more challenging to weigh them equally against one another and declare a winner.
Greater risk of mistakes
When interview questions aren’t tied to specific skills, interviewers must rely on subjective judgment to identify the top candidate. However, having a great conversation with someone doesn’t qualify them to perform specific job duties. This can result in hiring under-qualified or misaligned candidates.
The subjectivity involved in unstructured interviews can introduce unwanted bias, which reduces hiring accuracy and poses a compliance threat. For example, if you discover through the course of a conversation that a candidate attends the same church as you and they’re ultimately hired, you could find yourself in the tough spot of being forced to prove religion didn’t factor into your hiring decision.
Tough to do well
It requires a very specific type of interviewer to conduct unstructured interviews successfully. It can take years to perfect the skill, which isn’t ideal when replicating the process across teams and experience levels.
Should I Use Structured or Unstructured Interviews?
Most companies find that an interview process combining a blend of structured and unstructured styles works well.
For example, suppose you have a multi-round interview process. In that case, you might use a structured format for the first conversation and an unstructured format in the later hiring stages when you’ve narrowed the pool down to only one or two candidates.
The best type of interview for your organization will depend on your goals–how fast you need to hire, how many candidates you’re considering, the level of technical experience you need, and so on. Carefully weighing these goals against the pros and cons of each style will help you choose an interview format that not only leads you to the best candidate but also provides an experience that accurately represents your culture.
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