Friday face-off: structured vs. unstructured Interviews

Anna Roberts

Jun 2017 ⋅ 4 min read

Welcome to the inaugural Friday Face-Off! This is the first of a new series on the RotaCloud blog, where we look at contentious business issues and argue both sides.

Here are the sorts of small but important office debates we'll be tackling over the coming weeks...

  • Headphones or no headphones?
  • Phone or email support?
  • SaaS or licensed software?

But we're starting off with a recruitment topic that we suspect many hiring managers will have a strong opinion on: structured, or unstructured interviews?

What are structured job interviews?

Structured job interviews aim to compare candidates by using a standardised approach. The same questions are asked in the same order to every candidate for a given role.

Typically, interviewers come armed with print-outs of interview guides, including all the questions the candidate needs to be asked, plus space to rate responses to each question and any additional notes.

Structured interviews may be carried out by a single hiring manager, or a panel of interviewers.

Why use structured interviews?

Structured interviews have been shown to be far more effective than unstructured interviews at predicting a candidate’s job performance [PDF]. That means you’re more likely to find a candidate who’ll actually be competent.

That’s because a structured interview focuses on skills, ability and experience - not how well a the candidate can maintain a conversation!

They also tend to be effective because the structured nature of the interview eliminates many aspects of bias. If you can’t go off track, you’re less likely to subconsciously favour one candidate over another - for their likeability, their preferred football team, or simply if you could imagine going to the pub with them.

This impartiality also protects you from certain legal disputes associated with the interview process. It’s unlikely you’ll be found guilty of asking illegal questions about marital status or age if you can produce the structured interview script that you stuck to.

Structured interviews usually take less time than unstructured interviews, as there’s no chance of the interview going off piste! You can safely allocate a set amount of time for each interview and be certain that you’ll have time to gain the information you need for each candidate.

To summarise, structured interviews...

  • Are a better judge of candidate quality than other interview types
  • Reduce interviewer bias

What about unstructured interviews?

Unstructured interviews are almost entirely free-form. The interviewer may have a selection of topics they wish to cover over the course of the interview, and some of the questions they ask might be the same as in a structured interview, but there’s no set path between the questions.

Interviewers don’t necessarily ask each candidate the same questions.

Unstructured interviews may be carried out by one or more interviewers.

What are the benefits of unstructured interviews?

By allowing candidates’ responses to shape the direction of the interview, it’s likely you’ll learn more about a candidate, including any ‘hidden’ skills that might not have been revealed during a structured interview.

The relative informality of an unstructured approach also reveals more about a candidate’s personality, giving you a more rounded view of applicants as individuals. By understanding their motivations, values and preferences, you’ll know if they’ll be a good fit for the role in the long term, as well as the short term.

Unstructured interviews also give you more time for small talk - ideal if you’re interviewing for a sales or customer-focused role and need to know how candidates interact with complete strangers.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, unstructured interviews are less stressful for candidates. The interview becomes a conversation, helping candidates feel at ease. Not only does this help nervous candidates the best chance of performing well, it also means that candidates will be more honest with you, and offer fewer over-rehearsed answers.

Overall, unstructured interviews main strengths are:

  • Their relaxed nature - helping candidates show their true selves
  • Their flexibility - letting you adjust the course of the interview based on the candidate's answers

The Verdict

All the studies suggest that structured interviews are better for finding the right employee for any given role - but these results alone don’t mean that unstructured interviews are useless. If you’re aware of their drawbacks, you can work to counter them - perhaps by ensuring that at least two interviewers are present for each unstructured interview.

You could also find some middle ground - by starting off the interview with a series of structured questions, before moving onto a free-form section. Alternatively, you could carry out a series of unstructured interviews before inviting promising candidates back for a structured interview (or the other way around).

We recommend that you try different interview approaches for different roles, and find out what works best for your company - and individual roles within it.

Which side are you on?

We want to hear your arguments for either side. Are you a believer in the relaxed nature of unstructured interviews, or do you think interviews should be treated as a scientific data-gathering exercuise?

Let us know in the comments below, or give us a Tweet with your thoughts!

So you're ready to start interviewing — but what exactly are you going to ask your candidates? Don't miss 20 Winning Interview Questions to Ask Candidates!