May 15, 2021

Mark Rader

Structured Interviews: A Guide to More Effective Hiring

Structured Interviews: A Guide to More Effective Hiring
Mark Rader

Standard (unstructured) interviews are flawed in important ways.  

When hiring teams ask different questions of different candidates, they’re creating a less level playing field, creating opportunities for some to shine (or sink) more than others. And when a consistent, job-specific interview guide for rating candidates isn’t used, it’s all too easy for personal biases to unfairly color the way candidates are judged.  

Structured interview questions, however, help increase equity across all categories of jobs, allowing every candidate an opportunity to present their skills and qualifications equally, and can help businesses avoid biased hiring decisions.   

What is a structured interview? 

A structured job interview is a standardized interview in which hiring teams ask every candidate the same predetermined set of questions and use consistent criteria for judging candidates’ performance.  

This type of interview can be used for any open position, from the most entry-level to the most senior. The structured interview questions are tied to the specific needs of the job and company, and fall into two main categories: behavioral and situational.

Behavioral structured interview questions ask candidates to outline prior achievements and experiences that may correlate with the open position (“Tell me about a time when…”). 

Situational structured interview questions present a hypothetical problem or situation related to the job (“What would you do if?”). Depending on the role you’re interviewing a candidate for, you may use one kind more than the other. 

Why use structured job interview questions?  

They’re more effective in uncovering candidates’ potential than unstructured interviews

In the late 90s, researchers Frank Schmidt and John Hunter published an analysis on how well assessments predict performance. Looking at 19 different assessment techniques, they found unstructured job interviews uncover only 14% of a potential employee’s performance. Structured interviews, in which candidates are asked a consistent set of questions and clear criteria has been established to assess the quality of responses, nearly doubled that outcome to 26% of an employee’s performance. 

Laszlo Bock, former Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google, told Wired, structured interviews result in significantly better hires. 

Increased fairness

When every candidate is asked the same questions in the same order, and graded with the same clear criteria, the chances of unconscious bias creeping in are significantly reduced. 

Case in point: if an interviewer who loves traveling to Rome mostly asks questions about the candidate’s year working in Italy, there’s a decent chance that interview would be affected by affinity bias—the tendency for people to value other people with whom they share background and interests.  

Similarly, if a hiring team focused only on one particular, impressive, aspect of a candidate’s experience in an interview, instead of checking all the boxes, they might be susceptible to “the halo effect,” the tendency to latch onto a single positive detail and dismiss everything else.  

And these are just two common possibilities of many. 

Better all-around experience 

Schmidt and Hunter also found structured interviews provide a better experience for the candidate and the recruiter, and they’re perceived to be the most fair interview approach by both.  

When a job seeker knows they’re being asked the same questions as every other candidate, they feel like they’re getting a fair shake and are put at ease. And for the interviewer, having a set of questions and a key to understanding what the correct response should be eliminates unnecessary guesswork and anxiety. With clear criteria and steps in place, making hiring decisions becomes much easier. 

How to create structured interview questions  

Prepping well is essential to the success of a structured interview. Creating a list of questions for each job or job category takes some time up front, but doing so can dramatically reduce the time it takes to decide on a candidate on the back end.  

Here are some tips: 

  • Determine the most important skills and competencies that should be evaluated. Resumes already outline qualifications (like degrees) required, so focus on job-centric data to help evaluate how well candidates will perform. The job description should provide most of what you need. 
  • Build questions around three to six main competencies needed for the current job (not the future) and ask one or two questions about each. You may mix behavioral and situational questions, even for each competency. (Behavioral example: Describe how you responded to a customer in the past when the company couldn’t meet their needs. Situational example: How would you resolve a customer’s needs if the company couldn’t provide what they were asking for?)  
  • Develop a rating scale for each response—say, from 1 to 3, or 1 to 5. Particularly if more than one person will be interviewing candidates, you’ll want a basic outline of examples of what rates the highest and lowest on the scale.  

The more complex the position, the wider range of ratings you may want to build into the process, and the more competencies you may need to include.  

An entry-level position, for example, may focus on customer service, following safety protocols and performance. A management position may involve a wider range of competencies, prompting more questions and a more expansive range of ratings.  

Here’s a page from a sample structured interview guide. Note how the question, the goal of asking the question, and criteria for gauging competence in this particular area (organization) are clearly defined.  

To make it easier to find the right person for every job, Wonderlic includes custom structured interview guides with our WonScore assessment tool. 

How to conduct a great structured interview

Give them a chance 

After asking a question, allow enough time for a thoughtful answer. The candidate should be doing most of the talking in the interview. Don’t try and direct their answers or ask them questions that will only require short answers. Some questions may get an immediate response; others, particularly situational questions, may require more time for the candidate to provide a response. Give them as much time as they need, within reason, to answer each question on your list.  

Stick to the script 

Resist the natural impulse to veer off and ask follow-up questions; doing so will compromise the integrity of the format. 

Rate as you go  

Take notes and rate answers in the moment so you don’t forget how you felt. You’ve established criteria for the best responses to questions in advance, so it will be easy to rate the response offered.  

Offer a chance to ask  

Your final question in every interview should be “Do you have any questions about the job or the company?” Take notes here, as well. Did they ask how quickly they can use PTO—or were their questions focused on how they might serve your company best? 

Be clear about next steps 

Tell the candidate when they can expect to hear back from you, and share any other requirements you may have of them, like reference information. Make sure to follow up as necessary.  

What to do after the interview

Once the interview is complete, score the candidate based on your notes. If multiple candidates were interviewed, make sure to score them individually and include detailed notes for future reference. 

If multiple interviewers are weighing in, make sure each scores the candidate separately, before the group comes together to discuss the candidate. Doing so will reduce the chances of some people simply defaulting to the opinion of the majority, otherwise known as succumbing to “conformity bias.”  

Though using a structured interview format requires a small time investment at the front end, the payoff is clear: a better experience for candidates and hiring teams, less bias, and better hires. If you have any questions about trying this approach, or seeing how it pairs with using hiring assessmentslet us know! 

The needs and wants of your job candidates and employees have changed dramatically in the past year — but has your recruiting strategy changed with them?

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The New Hiring Checklist for a Work-from-Anywhere World (2021 Edition) below.

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