A structured interview is an employment assessment tool where every part of the process is kept consistent. All candidates are asked the same questions, and their responses are evaluated against the same role-related criteria using a predefined rating system. The intention is to be fair and objective while accurately assessing the candidates’ potential job performance.
Table of Contents
What are structured interviews?
Why is structured interviewing better for recruiting?
Structured vs. unstructured interviews
What is a structured interview?
The definition of a structured interview is having a systematic and consistent process for interviewing job candidates. Following a standardized interview template is not a new concept. This interview structure was practiced and called a “patterned interview” by Robert McMurray in 1947. Structured interviews have been around for a long time, and thanks to technological advances, the structured interview can now easily be combined with video interviewing in the form of live structured video interviews or pre-recorded (asynchronous) video interviews.
The U.S. Office of Personnel Management defines a structured interview as a “standardized assessment method designed to evaluate candidates’ job-related skills by systematically asking how they have responded in past experiences and how they would behave in hypothetical situations.”
Ideally, a good interview structure for employers would be based on a job analysis that details the abilities and qualities needed for the position, as per Cosmin Gabriel Sofron. Structured employment interviews use a standardized scoring method to reduce bias in the evaluation process, and hone in on professional knowledge, job skills, interpersonal skills, and, when appropriate, the mental skills related to performing the job responsibilities. All these elements come together to ensure candidates receive equal opportunities to provide information and undergo an identical assessment.
As the Society for Human Resource Management explains, in a structured interview, the interviewer typically asks all candidates the same questions for a specific role. Interviewer(s) ask the questions in a predetermined order in case changing the order impacts the candidate’s answers in any way.
Structured interviewing uses a standardized scoring method, which helps reduce the impact of bias in the evaluation process. Using this structured approach, it’s easier for the interviewer to evaluate candidates and compare their skills fairly, objectively, and, accurately.
Looking for the best way to conduct an interview?Learn how to conduct a structured interview
Why is structured interviewing better for recruiting?
There are several reasons why structured interviewing is the best way to hire.
Structured interviewing also creates a more efficient process for the talent acquisition or recruitment team. By enhancing objectivity and consistency and assessing only job-related information, the structure of an interview can mitigate bias and reduce discrimination in the hiring process. And because the questions are based on job analysis, it can improve the accuracy of your employment decisions.
Structured interviewing goes hand in hand with interview compliance. The highly documented and rigorous format provides evidence of fair and ethical hiring practices, enabling legal defensibility and corporate responsibility.
What is interview compliance?
Interview compliance is a framework that ensures all interviews adhere to proven methods and procedures, maximize effectiveness and fairness, and remain responsive to legal, ethical, and social values.
Candidate experience may improve when interviewees participate in a professional and competency-focused interview. Explaining the structured interview process helps applicants understand that it’s designed to give them an equal opportunity to succeed.
Structured interviews can also provide deeper insights into a candidate’s skills and experience, and you can use panels to mitigate the influence of bias on the recruitment process. Implementing a fully structured interview process makes recruitment more equitable, efficient, effective, and beneficial for everyone involved.
Structured vs. unstructured interviews
As much as unstructured and structured interviews seem binary, they actually exist on a spectrum with different characteristics depending on where your process lands.
Unstructured interview definition
An unstructured interview is a type of job interview without a set format. This means questions and ratings criteria are not determined in advance, and any aspect of the format may change from candidate to candidate.
When comparing structured and unstructured interviews, structured interviews are about two times better at predicting job performance (Journal of Applied Psychology) even for jobs that are unstructured. This is a big reason why structured interviewing is so effective for increasing the quality of your hires. The research agrees that the more controlled and consistent the interview process is, the more accurate it is as a hiring tool, which is why structured interviewing is recommended over unstructured interviewing.
There are several distinct differences between unstructured and structured interviews.
As you can see from the table above, a structured interview is specifically designed to be objective, valid, reliable, legally defensible, and job-focused.
There are organizations that might believe they are using a structured process, but their interview process is only semi-structured. On opposite sides of the spectrum, you’ve got structured and unstructured interviews. In the middle are semi-structured interviews.
What is semi-structured interviewing?
Semi-structured interviews for hiring are more casual and conversational. Some semi-structured interview questions are planned, and some are off the cuff, creating a loosely structured format. An example of a semi-structured interview would be preparing questions in advance but then changing the question order, interviewers, or interview methods (in-person, remote, hybrid) between candidates.
Why are semi-structured interviews good? An advantage of semi-structured interviews is that they allow organizations to collect some data points by using a semi-structured interview guide while still providing the freedom to go “off-script.”
One of the benefits of using semi-structured interviews is that they offer more flexibility than structured interviews. However, the more rigidity you remove, the more you lose the benefits of structured interviewing. The interview guide exists for a reason — it sets out how things should be done to maintain consistency, prevent interviewers from asking problematic questions, reduce unintended rater bias, and keep the reliability of the candidate data intact to enable merit-based hiring.
Structured interview question examples
In structured interviews, most questions will be open-ended, and a few might be close-ended questions to collect information about the job seeker. Combine competency-based, behavioral, and situational questions to get a well-rounded overview of a candidate’s skills.
Competency-based interview questions evaluate candidates’ strengths and weaknesses and see how they pair up with the competencies required for the role. These questions shift the conversation away from a candidate’s qualifications and experiences and toward their performance in various situations. Answers are typically rated based on the thinking that led them to the behaviors they exhibited and the decisions they made. These questions require candidates to narrate past experiences relevant to the job.
Competency-based question examples
If you were looking for someone who demonstrates they can overcome obstacles, you could ask something like, “Describe a time where you were pushed to stretch your energy during a customer meeting,” or “Tell me about a time you failed at something in your work life.”
You use behavioral questions to gather information about the candidate’s past behavior. Behavioral questions probe past experiences, knowledge, and abilities, while competency-based interview questions assess specific traits and behaviors.
Behavioral question examples
For example, let’s say you’re writing a behavioral question for a customer service role. The question could be, “Can you describe a time when you went above and beyond to help a customer?” The candidate’s answer will give you insight into their customer service skills and will likely indicate how they’ll behave in the future.
While behavioral questions ask for examples of past experiences, situational questions explore how candidates will respond to situations they may face in the future. These questions give insight into the candidate’s intentions, which are closely tied to their future behavior.
Situational question example
For instance, if you’re interviewing a candidate for a managerial role, you could ask, “How would you handle a team member who constantly misses deadlines?” The candidate’s answer will show their problem-solving abilities and interpersonal skills.
By taking this approach to formulate questions, you can gain deep insights into the candidate’s competencies, experience, and anticipated behavior.
Interview questions to avoid
An important aspect of conducting structured interviews is being aware of statements and questions to avoid. For example, it’s advisable to avoid mentioning long-term employment to ensure nothing you say can be interpreted as a job offer or commitment.
Steer away from off-topic questions and questions that are not job-related. Moreover, beware of certain taboo topics, such as alcohol consumption, the candidate’s personal relationships, and their high school graduation date (SHRM).
To prevent unintentionally introducing employment discrimination, the EEOC recommends against asking questions pertaining to race, gender, color, religion, age, pregnancy, disability, or national origin. The exceptions are when such a question is directly related to job qualifications or required by law. Here are some of the top interview questions to avoid.
Advantages of structured interviews
Improves quality of hires
Structured interviews are reliable when it comes to making accurate hiring decisions. Research shows when used as a recruitment method, structured interviews can predict job performance with between .55 and .70 validity on a standalone basis (CQ Net). Structured interviews also produce fully-comparable responses, meaning it’s far easier to confidently move the right candidates forward.
Research shows 3 or 4 unstructured interviews can provide the same level of validity for predicting job performance as a structured interview administered by a single interviewer (Journal of Applied Psychology). This shows how taking time to create the process and being well-prepared ends up saving time and increasing your chances of finding the right candidate.
Once it’s all laid out, structured interviews follow an interview guide, so they become predictable. Removing variability and focusing on continual improvement (with help from interview intelligence if possible) also allows interviewers to achieve greater efficiency for the process itself.
Reduces the impact of bias
An advantage of a structured interview is that many measures are in place to help reduce unintended rater bias. While structured interviewing is rigorous, things like training interviewers on how to avoid common rating errors, and creating and using a standardized interview and scoring method, are what help to mitigate unconscious bias. As a result of using a highly structured interview process, you can be assured your organization is making merit-based hiring decisions.
Disadvantages of structured interviews
Requires an initial investment of time and resources
Developing and implementing structured interview processes requires time, energy, and resources upfront. It is an investment, but one that will pay off dividends in the long run.
Everyone needs to follow the process
Consistency is key with structured interviews. In order to get the full benefit, your entire hiring team needs to stick to the process.
Structured interview processes require oversight in order to protect your investment and continuously improve the outcomes.
Benefits of using structured interviews
Structured interviewing is a valuable tool that benefits recruiters, employers, and candidates alike. Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of structured interviewing.
A more efficient, replicable process for the recruitment team
Structured interviewing helps you feel more prepared and confident during your conversation with candidates. With a standardized set of questions and rating system, it’s easier to evaluate the candidates’ responses more objectively and systematically.
Structured interviewing also allows you to do a better quality assessment — especially if you are using hiring software to collect more data points — in less time, making the recruitment process more efficient and streamlined.
Enhanced objectivity and consistency in interviewing
A structured interview lets you maximize objectivity and consistency in the recruitment process. Because you use a predefined, standardized set of questions and rating system, nothing is left to your subjective opinion. Instead, you objectively gather information that lets you make data-driven hiring decisions.
All your questions should zero in on the specific skills and competencies a candidate needs to succeed in the role. As a result, the interview is more targeted and effective, and the information you obtain is objective and job-related.
On top of that, because you use a rating system to evaluate the candidate’s responses in the moment, you have to pay close attention to be able to critically evaluate the skills your questions address.
It’s important to note that the standardized rating system can drive objectivity when comparing candidates. It makes it easier to compare their skills, experience, and qualifications. This can be especially helpful when you’re interviewing multiple candidates with similar backgrounds or qualifications, as it provides a clear framework for assessing each person’s strengths and weaknesses as they relate to the position.
The ability to use and apply interview intelligence
Structured interviews provide the consistency necessary for you to study, test and improve the hiring process itself. Interview intelligence uses artificial intelligence, machine learning, or powerful automation to streamline, assess and enhance hiring processes. Structured interviewing can be done with or without HR software involved in the process, but interview intelligence is really only possible if you’re using a hiring platform that enables it.
Here are some ways interview intelligence can help in the interview planning step.
Interview intelligence can help improve every step of the hiring process from planning to interviewer analysis and real-time coaching.
Even if you had hiring software, if you are following a semi-structured or unstructured interview process there would be no valid way to derive useful information about what’s working and what isn’t. The structured interview process provides the uniformity necessary to collect quality data and make meaningful improvements.
Reduced bias and discrimination in the hiring process
Structured interviews use standardization, which makes them an effective tool for reducing bias and discrimination in the hiring process (SHRM). Before the interview process starts, you develop a series of questions that are based on an analysis of the job requirements. You also create a rating system that clearly defines which responses are unacceptable, acceptable, and outstanding.
By using a consistent set of questions for each candidate, you can focus on those factors that relate directly to job performance—not on irrelevant or discriminatory criteria. By doing so, you ensure you evaluate each candidate based on the same set of objective criteria, which goes a long way to reducing bias and promoting fairness.
The use of a predetermined rating system requires you to evaluate the responses of each candidate objectively. Consequently, you can make informed hiring decisions based on the merits of their skills, qualities, and experience.
If you are hiring remotely or even just using video interviews as part of your structured interview process, offering video interviewing greatly enlarges and diversifies the talent pool. An employer that’s open to video interviews and remote work has access to more—and more diverse—talent.
Can interview questions be biased?
Yes. Using masculine language, including adjectives like “competitive” and “determined,” results in women “perceiving that they would not belong in the work environment.” On the other hand, words like “collaborative” and “cooperative,” tend to draw more women than men. When writing interview questions, it’s helpful to get feedback from a variety of perspectives to ensure the language doesn’t invite hiring bias.
Improved accuracy of hiring decisions
Structured interviews are proven to be highly effective when it comes to making accurate hiring decisions.
Structured interview questions are based on a detailed job analysis. As such, everything you ask in a structured interview is directly related to the specific requirements of the job. With carefully crafted questions, you can gain a clear understanding of how the candidate has performed in similar professional situations in the past. You can also gain insights into how they would respond in hypothetical professional situations in the future.
While you may ask interview questions about soft skills such as communication and critical thinking, make sure they relate to job-specific circumstances. By doing so, you can avoid evaluating the candidate based on your personal impressions or influenced by biases.
Because you rate each candidate’s responses according to a set system, you can accurately and reliably distinguish between regular employees and high performers. This makes the structured interview extremely attractive for employers.
Evidence of fair and ethical hiring practices
Structured interviews provide a powerful tool for organizations to demonstrate their commitment to fair and ethical hiring practices.
Because interview panels allow for a diverse group of interviewers, they’re an effective way to reduce the impact of biases in candidate assessments. At the same time, a diverse selection of interviewers communicates to the candidate that the organization values diversity and fair treatment.
Structured interviews should be meticulously documented, preferably using video recordings, as well as notes you take yourself. This documentation can provide valuable proof in favor of the employer in the event a candidate files an employment discrimination complaint. By documenting the interview process, you can show you’ve adhered to all applicable state and federal employment laws.
A study in the International Journal of Selection and Assessment shows that unstructured interviews were more frequently challenged in court than any other type of candidate selection device. On top of that, almost 60% of discrimination lawsuits based on unstructured interviews were determined to be discriminatory, while 100% of discrimination lawsuits based on structured interviews were found to be not discriminatory.
A better candidate experience
Generally, structured interviewing is very organized and orderly, so candidates should know what’s coming next and what’s expected.
Taking the time to explain the process and why you are using it, then asking questions that are within the framework, instills confidence in the applicant that they are being treated fairly and professionally, which can also lead to a better experience.
A good chronological and in-depth structured interview process has communication built in, allowing employers to provide a high-touch candidate experience where interviewees don’t feel like they are being left in the dark.
Eight out of 10 unhappy candidates will tell at least one person about a bad recruitment experience (Deloitte). This is why taking the extra care to open, conduct, and close interviews properly matters.
Deeper insights into candidates
To hire the best candidate for the job, you need sufficient insight into their qualifications. A structured interview lets you evaluate qualities that are challenging to measure using other methods.
For instance, it’s common practice to use psychometric tests to evaluate cognitive ability, strategic thinking, and other skills. However, they provide little to no insight into competencies such as interpersonal skills, leadership potential, and communication skills.
In the structured interview, you ask candidates about past job-related experiences and how they would respond in a hypothetical professional situation. This allows you to make a more in-depth, comprehensive evaluation of their abilities and preparedness for the job.
Mitigated influence of bias on the hiring process through the use of panels
Our brains can process 11 million bits of information a second, but our conscious minds can only handle 40 to 50 bits a second (National Public Radio). This is why our brains occasionally take cognitive shortcuts that can lead to unconscious or implicit bias.
In the context of job interviews, bias refers to a preference or tendency that impacts objectivity and impartiality in decision-making. It can stem from organizational culture or individual beliefs and values.
Bias in the interview process can negatively impact the evaluation of candidates. One effective strategy to minimize bias in the interview process is to establish a diverse panel of interviewers who understand equity and diversity and bring a range of perspectives and experiences to the table. Incorporating a panel interview step in the structured interview process can help mitigate individual biases interviewers may have, resulting in a more comprehensive evaluation of candidates.
When selecting panelists, consider age, gender, race, ethnicity, cognitive diversity, seniority or tenure with the organization, education, training, and more.
Frequently asked questions
What are the three types of interview structures?
The three interview types are structured, semi-structured, and unstructured interviews. While they seem like they might be pretty clearly differentiated and defined — it’s more like they’re on a spectrum together, with structured and unstructured interviews on opposite sides and semi-structured interviewing somewhere in the middle.
What kind of questions are asked in a structured interview?
They can be job-specific or general. The questions will depend on the role, the organization the candidate is applying at, and what competencies and skills the organization is looking for. Interviewers could ask different types of questions (competency-based, behavioral, or situational). Still, they shouldn’t ask about your race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, marital status, or anything unrelated to the job.
With structured interviews, candidates can always be sure that the questions will be the same for everyone.
When should you use a structured interview?
It depends on the situation, but generally, it works best to use structured interviewing early on in the interview process to help fairly narrow down the applicants. This may mean doing a structured pre-recorded interview or phone screening, then a live structured interview (in-person, remote, or hybrid) for a subsequent interview.
Are structured interviews formal or informal?
A structured job interview requires the interviewer to plan, prepare, and follow their interview guide. As a result, it would be fair to say structured interviews are more formal than unstructured job interviews. This is why structured interviews are often also referred to as planned interviews or standardized interviews.
What is better: structured or unstructured interviews
In terms of mitigating the potential for unintended rater bias, increasing predictive validity, and finding the candidate most likely to succeed in a specific role, structured interviews are the better choice.
If you are not concerned about legal or organizational consequences, don’t have the resources to control any element of the interview process, and prefer unplanned, conversational interviews, unstructured interviewing makes sense. If you are trying to improve your reputation with stakeholders, conducting structured interviews means the organization cares about its social, legal, and ethical responsibilities.
Removing consistency increases the organizational risk of non-compliance and opportunities for unconscious bias.
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