Structured interview vs Unstructured interview: Explained Simply
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Structured Interview vs. Unstructured Interview: Differences Explained Simply

Juste Semetaite Juste Semetaite Last Updated:

Settling the debate of structured interview vs. unstructured interview is pretty easy: it depends. πŸ˜‰

More seriously, though, every hiring manager understands that the interview process is difficult.

Do you ask interviewees a bunch of open-ended questions and hope they have the right answers or focus on a set structure that might be too sterile for the potential candidate?

In this article, we will take a look at:

  • the differences between structured and unstructured job interviews
  • the advantages and disadvantages of both interviewing methods
  • and how skills assessments fit into a traditional recruitment process

Let’s go!

What are the key differences between structured and unstructured interviews?

There are several large differences between a structured interview and an unstructured interview that interviewers need to be aware of.

After all, the hiring pipeline is as much about the interviewer as the job seeker.

What makes a structured interview?

Structured interviews consist of a pre-defined set of questions that are prepared in advance and asked of every candidate.

The hiring manager or HR department can use the answers and qualitative data to score the candidates and assess whether they will be a good fit for the role and if they should move up in the interview process.

In a structured interview, well-trained interviewers ask a set of planned, rigorous, and relevant interview questions and use a scoring guide to make sure their interview ratings are accurate. Structured interviews are one of the best tools we have to identify the strongest job candidates (i.e., predictive validity). Not only that, they avoid the pitfalls of some of the other common methods.”

Dr. Melissa Harrell, a hiring effectiveness expert on the Google People Analytics team

The structured interview system is commonplace in corporate environments as a part of introduction calls from job recruiters and at the beginning of the hiring pipeline.

By implementing structured interviews, it’s easier to turn the interviewee’s answers into a binary assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.

What makes an unstructured interview?

An unstructured interview is usually conducted in a casual setting.

Unlike a structured interview, the unstructured interview doesn’t necessarily have a pre-defined list of questions. The interviewer has an idea of the type of candidate they need for the role and asks free-flowing questions.

This makes data collection significantly more difficult. And it’s much harder to compare candidates.

The types of questions in an unstructured interview can vary greatly, from asking candidates about their past employment to how they tackle complex situations.

Humans are biased

However, the open nature of an unstructured interview means that the hiring manager might immediately make the wrong decisions.

After all, we make snap decisions and have an unconscious bias when meeting a new person.

This can greatly weigh against finding the perfect future employee and cost the company a fantastic new hire. Humans, after all, aren’t objective.

What are the common use cases of a structured interview?

As mentioned earlier, the structured interview is more commonly adopted by growing organizations and established corporate entities.

For example, Google has an entire guide on how it uses structured interviews during its hiring process. It’s a great starting point when researching structured interview questions.

Google's example of a candidate scorecard (or what they call a grading rubric) for a 'basket weaver' role.
Google’s example of a candidate scorecard (or what they call a grading rubric) for a ‘basket weaver’ role.

Source

This type of interview is perfect when filling a role that has exact specifications. Think of it as finding the exact piece of machinery to fit a highly-sophisticated assembly line.

Emotional intelligence tests are often conducted as structured interviews.

In short, you’d be better off opting for structured interviews when:

  • You have a well-defined job description and know exactly what skills and competencies are needed on the job
  • You need to fill the role promptly and want a fast, efficient hiring process
  • You want to eliminate any type of bias from the hiring process
  • More people are involved in the hiring process, and you know you’ll be comparing notes on candidates to make the final hiring decision

When should you use an unstructured interview?

The smaller your organization, the easier it is to utilize the unstructured interview format.

For example, startups consisting of five or so people will waste time trying to put together a rigid interview process for a new hire.

By using an unstructured interview, it’s easier to fill jack-of-all-trades roles or add additional skills and knowledge to your growing business.

And every person in the organization can ask their own interview questions without everyone being on the same page. It’s more time-consuming than structured interviews, but it’s also far less set in stone.

Top tips to enlarge those brains Top tip:

But… relying on unstructured interviews alone might lead to a bad hire. Remember, interviews are not great job performance predictors. We highly recommend combining them with structured skills assessments.

Unstructured questions in the late-stage interview

Unfortunately, the unstructured interview is not a good representation of a candidate’s future job performance.

The unstructured interview method is also best left for the later stages of the hiring process. Once you’ve gathered enough data on the candidate, you can ask the interviewee a list of questions to better showcase their personality.

Interviewers will also have an easier time understanding the difference between various candidates after the initial round of structured questions.

Interviewing candidates through a conversation is an excellent way to explore their particular personal skills. Stakeholders and hiring managers generally handle this approach to confirm cultural alignment.

Interviewer bias is a real problem with unstructured interviews.
Interviewer bias is a real problem with unstructured interviews.

However, it isn’t easy to compare candidates when they answer unstructured questions. Candidate A might use examples of their previous work as an answer, while candidate B answers with anecdotal or hypothetical responses.

And, we circle back to the bias.

A hiring manager may already have a favorable opinion of the candidate and ignore how they answer the questions asked of them.

In short, you’d be better off opting for unstructured interviews when:

  • The position you are hiring for is not clearly defined and can be shaped by the successful candidate
  • You have a top-class HR leadership on board who knows how to control and minimize biases
  • You’re using skills assessments to predict job performance and unstructured interviews to assess interpersonal skills
  • You’re ‘following up’ on a structured interview to collect more qualitative insights

The benefits and pitfalls of structured and unstructured interviews

Each of these interview types has its own pros and cons. It’s important to understand the best situations for implementing a structured and unstructured interview.

The benefits of structured vs unstructured interviews

The structured interview method holds several advantages when it comes to assessing candidates, namely:

Characteristics of a Structured InterviewCharacteristics of an Unstructured Interview
Fixed set of questionsFree-flowing questions
Set amount of time given to every candidateLong-winded answers
Fixed order of questionsAsking questions as you think of them
Fixed number of questionsFilling up the interview time
Improved interview experience for the interviewer and intervieweeTrying to ask and answer questions neither are prepared for
Close-endedOpen-ended questions
Accurate and relevant responsesConversation
Structured interviews vs unstructured interviews: the key differences summarized

The limitations of structured vs unstructured interviews

However, structured interviews aren’t without their limitations.

Structured InterviewsUnstructured Interviews
Cannot delve deeper into a candidate’s answersAsking immediate follow-up questions
The structured nature can seem cold and unwelcomingThe casual nature of unstructured interviews
Interviewers can’t ask open-ended questions in structured interviews (unless they’re pre-planned follow-ups)Interviewers can ask any types of questions they want
Interviewers get a limited glimpse into the candidate’s personalityIt is easier to understand how candidates conduct themselves in an unstructured interview
Interviewers may not receive enough depth from an interviewee’s responsesInterviewers are free to deep-dive into a topic of interest
The limitations of structured interviews vs unstructured interviews.

Creating a structured, data-driven hiring process with Toggl Hire

When it comes to hiring, using data is the best way to find the perfect candidate for the job.

And that’s where we can help you: by creating a completely structured recruitment funnel to make the process as easy as possible for your company.

The recruitment funnel

Did you know there are 7 steps in the recruitment funnel?

While every organization is slightly different, these are the most common stages:

  1. Awareness – create awareness around your employer brand through social media channels, email marketing, SEO, etc.
  2. Attraction – why should candidates apply for the role and want to work at your company?
  3. Interest – this is where candidates start to gain interest in the position and your company.
  4. Application – potential candidates fill out a job application for the position.
  5. Evaluation – sorting through all of the applications.
  6. Selection – picking the right candidate for the position.
  7. Hiring – offering the job to the potential new candidate.
A step-by-step diagram of a recruiting funnel.
A step-by-step diagram of a recruiting funnel.

The first 3 steps are easy enough to handle on your own – be sure to create an amazing job posting and state the benefits.

But it’s steps 4 through 7 where we help you shine.

Our entire platform is built around making the hiring process as easy and data-driven for you as possible. You can pick structured assessment tests for any skill or role from our Test Library, or create bespoke ones yourself.

Step #1 – Lay out the interview process

Be open with the candidates and lay out the entire interview process to them.

It allows candidates to prepare for every stage of the interview process and know what to expect.

You don’t need to struggle with this, either. We already have role-specific hiring flows that you can access.

Say you’re hiring a JavaScript developer. When you create a Job for a JavaScript developer, we will automatically generate a pipeline stage for a video test, homework assignment, and interview. You can then adjust those stages by attaching relevant tests or simply tracking the progress of your pipeline.

hiring pipeline with multi-level skills assessments
Pre-built assessment templates can help you create a standardized hiring flow for any role – from start to finish.

It’s just another way you can be prepared as an interviewer.

Step #2 – Avoid brainteasers: use qualitative questions in the interview

Asking the interviewee brainteaser questions might make you, the hiring manager, feel smarter and self-satisfied during the interview, but it’s bad practice.

Google makes a U-turn on brainteaser questions, proclaiming that "they have little if any ability to predict how candidates will perform in a job".
Google makes a U-turn on brainteaser questions, proclaiming that “they have little if any ability to predict how candidates will perform in a job”.

After all, there is no correlation between general cognitive ability and insight problems like brainteasers.

Instead, we use data, research, and expert insights to create questions that assess the technical skills required on the job. These standardized questions greatly increase the results – whether it be positive or negative – of a structured hiring process. Helping you find the most qualified candidate, not the best interviewer.

Step #3 – Conduct multiple structured interviews at once

Setting up and conducting an intro interview is a time-consuming process. But with asynchronous Video Intros, you can conduct multiple structured interviews with candidates simultaneously.

The nature of a structured pre-recorded interview allows for all candidates to receive the same questions. And the best part is that we have a pool of 500+ skill-relevant interview questions at the ready!

Pre-recorded video interviews are a form of structured interviews in a remote hiring process
Pre-recorded video messages are a form of structured interviews that lend themselves beautifully to remote hiring practices.

Unlike unstructured interviews, asynchronous video interviews will follow a set formula and don’t require face-to-face conversations in real time that consume the interviewer or interviewee’s time.

Once an interviewee has finished answering their questions, you can review pre-recorded video answers, add notes and share them with the rest of the hiring team. This way, it’s easy to go back and compare shortlisted candidates later in the process or have less biased internal discussions.

The verdict on structured interview vs. unstructured interview

Now that you know the difference between structured and unstructured interviews, the conclusion is obvious – they both have a place in the recruitment process when combined with skills assessments.

  1. Interviews can’t predict future job performance. Combining practical skills tests with structured interviewing techniques yields the best results in shortlisting the right candidates.
  2. The advantages of structured interviews include: more predictive validity, interviewers are happier and saving time, and candidates report having a better overall experience.
  3. The pitfalls of unstructured interviews: more informal by nature and, therefore, more prone to bias. Often tend to be less effective in comparably assessing candidates’ capabilities. Work well as a form of qualitative data collection after a structured interview has taken place.

Don’t leave your hiring success to chance.

Get started with a standardized recruitment flow by leveraging pre-built skills assessments.

Juste Semetaite

Juste loves investigating through writing. A copywriter by trade, she spent the last ten years in startups, telling stories and building marketing teams. She works at Toggl Hire and writes about how businesses can recruit really great people.

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