Getting the Hiring Right: Why Structured Interviews Work

7 min read
pixelfit/Getty Images

Source: pixelfit/Getty Images

For many new or even seasoned managers, an infrequent yet crucial task is hiring new employees. At work, many of us focus our attention on the core job tasks that need to be performed—whether it be selling a product, devising a marketing strategy, or developing code for a computer program. When the time comes for a manager to fill a position, the task can seem daunting and leave managers feeling poorly equipped. They might resort to mimicking practices they’ve observed from others or portrayed in media, and it is no guarantee that they have received sound guidance on the do’s and don’ts of hiring.

Take this scenario as an example: There’s a manager who finds himself with a vacancy on his team. He posts the job opening and eventually sifts through a pile of resumes. There are some that stick out. Based on tenure and reputable backgrounds, he shortlists a few candidates for interviews. Among them, one candidate piques his interest due to their shared alma mater.

Despite a passing suggestion from the human resources (HR) department to prepare interview questions in advance, the manager approaches the process more informally. During the first interview, he navigates through customary questions about strengths, weaknesses, and a vague “Where do you see yourself in five years?” However, the conversation hits a snag when the applicant provides short answers, and, although she clearly understands the general work and has industry experience, the applicant is not familiar with the company’s new product line.

The next interview is with the applicant who attended the same university as the interviewer. The interview kicks off on a lively note, discussing their shared school experience, and evolves into a casual conversation about how the applicant relocated after college and the upcoming football game against the university’s rival. By the end of the interview, the manager pivots back to work-related matters and asks why the candidate wants the job, resulting in an enthusiastic answer about aligning with the company’s vision. The manager feels great about the candidate, and shortly thereafter, offers the person the job.

How did this hiring process go? Based on the limited information presented, there’s little to inform about the end result of the hiring decision—not who was hired, but rather whether the new hire was actually a good employee. We know there are obvious similarities between the manager and the second applicant, and we know the interviewer felt good about the second applicant after interviewing him. However, we know nothing about the applicant’s actual qualifications and whether the person possesses the skills, knowledge, and traits necessary to perform the work. And that’s the point. After sitting down and interviewing this person, we cannot reasonably say whether the newly hired employee has a good chance of being successful on the job.

Structured vs. Unstructured Interviews

This narrative encapsulates a common and yet substandard practice—that is, using unstructured interviews (Huffcutt & Arthur, 1994). One of the most robustly supported HR research findings is that using structured interviews produces more accurate hiring decisions than when interviewers use unstructured interviews. When I say structure, I’m broadly referring to introducing consistency in which questions are used and in how candidates are scored (Huffcutt & Arthur, 1994). So, this means asking each applicant the exact same set of questions, and in advance developing a protocol for how you will evaluate each question. This prevents applying different standards to applicants and asking job-irrelevant questions and forces interviewers to be systematic in their evaluations. As a result of this standardization, the validity (i.e., how related interview judgments are to later job performance) of structured interviews is more than double that of unstructured interviews (Sackett et al., 2022).

Sounds great, right? By adopting a little structure, we can more than double the usefulness of our interviews. But if it’s so great, why wouldn’t everyone use structured interviews? After all, this fact has been known for decades.

For one, most managers do not read academic research and may not have been exposed to HR best practices in school. They also may not have an HR department that promotes good interview practices. In short, they simply may not know that they should be using structured interviews. Additionally, though, managers may also simply not like structured interviews (Speer et al., 2022). Meticulously following an interview script without casual back-and-forth banter can be robotic, and who wants to be robotic? Rather than a warm interpersonal exchange, structured interviews can instead feel like an interrogation, with the examiner coldly peppering questions and then recording notes as the applicant talks. That’s awkward. Additionally, managers might rightfully understand that the interview serves not only to assess an applicant but also to sell that applicant on the job and company. Interviews also serve as a recruitment exchange where the applicant learns whether the job and company would be a good fit. In competitive labor markets, managers might be particularly sensitive to this dynamic. Finally, most managers are confident in their abilities to conduct interviews and would rather “follow their gut” than relinquish control to a structured decision tool.

Making Structured Interviews Less Stuffy

Thus, we know that structured interviews are more accurate, but we also know that they can come across as stuffy and face resistance. Given this, what’s a manager to do? My advice is to do the following:

  1. Develop a set of job-related interview questions. These should target job-relevant knowledge, skills, abilities, and other traits identified as being relevant. Ideally, this is based on a formalized job analysis.
  2. Develop a protocol for evaluating applicant responses to each question. This can be as simple as using a 1-to-5 rating score with behavioral anchors indicating what a bad response sounds like (rating of 1) and what a good response sounds like (rating of 5).
  3. Begin the interview with brief introductions and then explain the interview process (steps 4 and 5 below), including that you will be taking notes during the interview. Rather than worry about the stifled procedure, be upfront with the applicant that you may appear a bit robotic in asking the questions, but this is to ensure that everyone is evaluated consistently and fairly.
  4. Ask each job applicant the exact same set of questions. After each question, record a rating and any relevant notes. Once all questions are asked for each applicant, sum the ratings into an overall interview score.
  5. OK, time to be less robotic: After completing this structured portion of the interview, close your notes. Then, open the conversation to any questions the applicant may have. Because you’ve already made your evaluations and the interview score has been recorded (important: do not change this!), this portion can be more conversational. Information sharing is another major purpose of the interview, and the informal tone of this portion can offset some of the rigidity that comes with the structured interview.
  6. Once all applicants have completed the interview and you have overall interview scores for each applicant, choose the applicant with the highest overall score.

The process above may sound simple, and it is, making it an attractive intervention. For this reason, and because the gains in hiring accuracy are large, implementing the above process is one of the easiest ways to improve your hiring methods. Adopting an interview structure helps you make choices based on merit, not chance. Choose wisely.

You May Also Like

More From Author

+ There are no comments

Add yours