Structured Interview What is a structured interview? I am asked this question frequently. Businesses are taking a page out of psychology’s playbook of qualitative research, which makes sense. According to the United States Office of Personnel Management (OPM), “…interviews used to make employment decisions are subject to the same legal and psychometric requirements as any written employment test or other assessment method.” An unstructured interview is what people normally think of when we talk about business interviews. A job candidate sits down with a few friendly employees who have some level of decision-making authority within the organization. Questions are asked in a conversational flow with the exception of maybe that one crazy question designed to test an applicant’s creativity, problem-solving ability, or grace under pressure. Making the candidate feel comfortable and welcome is high on the priority list because, after all, the panel also has the responsibility to sell the idea of working with such a great team to any candidates who seem desirable. At the end, what do the interviewers know about the candidate? Not much–an entertaining story or two, where the applicant grew up or went to school, how they endured that one tough boss, and what animal they would choose to be. But the candidate was friendly. She made them laugh. The interview went well. She felt like a good culture fit and her resume included some job history in the same arena as the position being filled, so…she’s hired. No wonder the predictive success rate of interviews is only at 20%–meaning 1 out of every 5 times you interview, you might be lucky enough to stumble upon the right person. So what can you do to improve your odds? If nothing else, replace the unstructured interviews with structured ones as soon as possible! There are as many uses and variations to the structured interview as there are businesses that use them, but, in general, the key characteristics are:
  • Each interviewee is asked the same set of questions, the same way, in the same order.
  • The questions are prepared ahead of time, and the wording or phrasing is kept consistent (without variation) from one interview to the next.
  • The interviewer(s) play a neutral role–friendly and professional, but not helping them give the answers you want to hear.
There is one other key characteristic I have not seen mentioned anywhere else. Interviewers must come to the interview with the mind of a researcher. Think about it. The business world is tapping into a research method used in psychology that has proven to be reliable and valid when learning about people. It makes sense then that interviewers need to think like researchers. Come to the table with a healthy dose of curiosity and skepticism, as well as a plan of what you’re looking for and how you’ll know when you’ve found it. True. An unstructured interview is often more attractive because it doesn’t require a lot of training or preparation. It has a conversational flow, flexible content, and a loose framework. However,  it also has the potential for an extremely high cost, including bad hiring decisions and legal challenges. With just 8 basic steps, you can significantly reduce those risks. Let’s see what it takes.

8 Simple Steps to Establish the Structured Interview


1. Figure out what you’re looking for.

This first, most crucial step is also the easiest one to miss. I get it. There is an unfilled position with responsibilities going undone or falling on others. The vacancy is not sustainable and you need to get someone in there as soon as possible. The longer this goes, the easier it is to begin thinking any warm body with a willingness to be trained could work. And in your haste to avoid getting to that point, you post job ads and start interviewing immediately. Do not succumb to this temptation. There is an old saying: Haste makes mistakes. Each time you are responsible for interviewing candidates for a new position, the first step is always to establish the list of competencies and outcomes for success. How will you know if you have found a good candidate to hire if you don’t first know what qualifies as a “good” candidate for the position? Put on your investigator hat and talk to the people who will be directly impacted by the person filling the role in question. Work with the manager or team leader to identify the markers of success. Ask, “When this employee participates in a job performance review, what will they be evaluated for?” You are looking for answers like, “Increasing revenue by 10%, decreasing costs by 3%, recruiting a team of salespeople who produce X dollars,” etc. Next, find out which are the top 5 nonnegotiables. I would word it this way, “If delegation were not an option, and only 5 items on this list were consistently delivered correctly and on time, which of these outcomes would warrant the salary we are offering for this position?”

2. Connect the outcomes to the competencies, and plan the interview.

Now that you are clear about the top 5 outcomes, you are ready to connect those outcomes to the necessary competencies that will make success possible. Perhaps this sounds more difficult than it really is. Essentially, you are trying to answer the question:  “What  knowledge, skills, abilities, or characteristics are needed in order to create the successful outcome measurements that have already been defined.” I recommend soliciting this feedback from at least 3 colleagues who will interface with the new hire. Look for the commonly mentioned traits to clearly identify the 5 key characteristics, or core competencies, for the position. Here is an example of how this works when we interview potential sales representatives:
  • Key Outcomes
    • Increase sales revenue by X%
    • Maintain a conversion rate of at least X%
    • Increase customer retention by X%
  • Key Competencies
    • Ability to learn and explain our product features and benefits
    • Ability to persuade others and build rapport
    • Ability to stay calm and confident under pressure
There may be some competencies that should be assessed prior to the interview. These might include the specific job-related skills, aptitudes, or abilities. On the other hand, you may find that you can work all of it into the interview time. If the structured interview is later in your hiring process, you may come across this scenario more often. Now you are ready to start planning the interview.

3. Craft open-ended, non-assumptive interview questions.

There are two common types of structured interviews–the behavioral and the situational interview. Based on the premise that past behavior predicts future behavior, the behavioral interview is designed to gain information about how job candidates have navigated past experiences that connect to particular job competencies required for success. Coming at it from the opposite angle, a situational interview is based on the future-oriented concept that people’s intentions are closely aligned with their actions. Therefore, the situational interview incorporates questions built around job-related scenarios and dilemmas. We encourage a combination of the two. For the most objective information, every question should be the same and in the same order for each candidate being interviewed for the role. Additionally the questions should be worded to draw out the competencies or outcomes you have decided to measure through the interview process. This can take some work, but fortunately there are good, free, online sources that offer pragmatic help on this task. (Start with the OPM.) Perhaps the most important goal in writing your interview questions is that you do not inadvertently guide the candidate to the right response with the way you word the question. For example, ask:
Tell me about a time you made a mistake. What happened next? Tell me more. Then what did you do? If you could do that again, what would you have done differently?
Instead of…
Tell me about a time you made a mistake and what you did to correct it.
Do you see the difference? The first question has the ability to draw out a lot of detailed information (and you would be amazed at the things interviewees will tell you if you just give them time and opportunity to do so). The second hints at the information your interview panel is looking for to give a “passing score.” Giving every candidate the opportunity to tell you the bad news is a very important part of the interview process. Character flaws that lead to failure have the opportunity to be revealed if you don’t lead the candidate to give the right answer. The answers you want to hear are the ones that most closely resemble the actual workplace performance you will experience if you hire this person.  For example,  if this person tells you that when they made a mistake at work they responded by blaming someone else or covering it up, that is helpful information to be heard during the interview. Drawing them out into the open as soon as possible allows you to be clearer on the actual strengths and weaknesses for this particular candidate.

4. Define a clear, simple rating scale.

Conducting a structured, rather than unstructured, interview provides objective data that you can use to compare one candidate to another. To take this ability to the next level, a rating or score scale will quantify the data and recording those scores will make it possible to come back and re-evaluate. This one simple move provides so much power for improving your hiring decisions. Without scores, your interview panel will be left to make their decision based primarily off feeling-based impressions. Anytime this is the case, the candidate who is best at interviews rather than the one who is the best fit for the job is likely to be chosen. Scores make it possible to interview several candidates over a spread of time and still be able to come back and accurately compare them side-by-side. Building this interview habitually into your hiring routine allows you to come back much later for additional insights. Has one of the hires become a top performer in your organization? Would you like to be able to identify more of them in the future? Reviewing how they scored can help you gauge the potential for new candidates. Even hiring disasters have the possibility of redemption through lessons learned by reviewing the questions and scores to see what, if anything, was overlooked. It’s difficult to debrief and course correct if you have no way to rewind and investigate.

5. Compose follow-up questions for additional clarifications as needed.

Because the “structured” nature means not straying off the set path, it is a good idea to make a list of acceptable follow-up questions when additional information needs to be clarified. This should be a very standard list that could be used as a follow-up to any question without hinting at the answers the panel is listening for.
  • What do you mean?
  • How so?
  • What is an example of that?
  • How did you deal with that?
  • What happened?
  • What happened next?
  • Tell me more.
  • What did you do?
  • If you could do that again, would you do anything differently?

6. Establish the organizational standard with your top and low performers.

Now that you have your interview questions, try them out on current employees in that position. This offers multiple benefits. First, your interview panel gets to practice before interviewing real candidates. Second, you have the opportunity of seeing how top performers answer your questions. Since these people are most informed about the job and the organization, as well as comfortable with the interviewers, you can assume that their performance represents the highest ratings (ceiling) you could expect. And finally, the low performers help you set the floor. Since the goal is to improve productivity with every hire, it’s safe to say that you don’t want to hire anyone who scores lower on question responses. You might even get lucky and identify some keys to what might be holding those low performers back!

7. Create an interviewer’s packet.

Once you know what questions work, what follow-up questions are helpful, and some examples of high and low scoring answers based off real people doing the job in your company, capture it all in one spot. This is your new interviewer’s packet–the most efficient way to train and collaborate with your panel. In fact, we’ve already started the packet for you. Feel free to combine this post with our earlier: 10 Simple Steps to Strengthen Your Hiring Process.

8. Document your process of developing the organization’s structured interviews.

Benjamin Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Don’t abandon this process until you have completed this final step. Right now, while you can remember all the steps you took for each position’s interview plan, document it and keep it with the interviewer’s packet. Include the reasons you had for choosing each of the questions and ranking of answers. Other items you should consider documenting are:
  • Information on everyone who participated in the development of the interview, including those who helped write the questions and those who participated in the test run (ex: name, job title, race, national origin, gender, and level of expertise)
  • Documentation of all resources used to develop the interview (ex: manuals, reference materials, etc.)
  • A basic narrative describing the development of the interview process from beginning to end
Having this information readily accessible will make it much easier to answer questions or concerns about why you do what you do.  In the worse-case scenario, you will be well on your way to having the necessary documentation should a claim ever be filed against your organization for unfair hiring processes. The more you can connect the interview to the real job within your company, the more justified your process is.   This doesn’t have to be an overwhelming process. While some organizations choose to hire experts to handle all of this for them, it is not required. You can still improve your hiring process without that large HR budget. As long as you are focused on doing right by everyone in the situation, it is possible to create structured interviews that are productive and meet the EEOC guidelines. Do your research. Connect questions to the job. Document everything. You will be well on your way to designing interviews that are objective, improving hiring decision accuracy, and avoiding legal risk. What tips or ideas do you have for creating structured interviews? Tell us in the comments.