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Improve Job Interviews: Add Some Structure

To follow up a previous blog on the most effective selection methods, we are also going to look at more common and universally ineffective approaches to hiring.  Traditional, unstructured interviews are the hallmark of employee selection, and as it turns out, not a bad tool for assessing job applicants.  Based on organizational research findings, this article is meant to help you make informed decisions about your own selection process, or even to just start the conversation.

Unstructured Interviews

Defined: Unstructured Interviews are interviews where the questions asked may change based on participant responses.  There may be a list of questions identified beforehand, but the interviewer does not have to follow any guideline.  The interview itself is more conversational in nature and can cover a variety of topics.  One of the most popular opening questions is: “So tell me about yourself?”  One of the most defining aspects of this type of interview is that similar generic questions are often used across different industries and job types.

If every method used to evaluate job applicants was listed from most valid to least valid, unstructured interviews would sit right in the middle.  They’re not necessarily bad… but they’re also not particularly good either.  They are widely used, trusted, comfortable, and easy.  In form, they usually involve one manager asking a few open-ended questions to an applicant.  The applicant is usually given a “pass/fail” based on the general impressions of the interviewing manager(s), who may or may not take notes.  They are informal and conversational, and they will likely remain the most common selection method for some time.  Why?  Because we think we are excellent judges of character, even when we’re not! 

The Problem of Bias

When interviews lack structure and rating guidelines, interviewer decisions will often be partly based on bias.  Bias occurs when interviewer perceptions of the job applicant (and therefore subsequent endorsements) become influenced by subconscious factors  such as applicant attractiveness, perceived similarities, perceived differences, halo effects, and first impression biases, and more.  It is partly due to the effects of bias that structured interviews are superior to unstructured ones by over 33%. 

Pros and Cons of Unstructured Interviews



  • Although unstructured interviews are less valid than the tools described above, they are still moderately effective at predicting future performance (better than most personality inventories, but worse than structured interviews or mental ability tests)
  • Almost every manager knows how to conduct an interview (or can easily learn through observation, reflection, and role-playing)
  • Very cost effective
  • Decisions made using unstructured interviews are often biased (e.g., based on attractiveness, similarities, differences, etc.)
  • Interview methods/questions/ratings can vary widely from manager to manager, reducing the accuracy
  • It may be difficult to determine the effectiveness of a selection system that uses unstructured interviews (because of the common lack of numerical applicant interview ratings)


Improving the Interview Process by Adding Structure

If your organization is using unstructured interviews in its selection process, the good news is this – structure and predictive validity can be added to the interview process through the actions identified below:

  • Train managers on: identifying their own biases, asking job-relevant questions, listening, probing, scoring/rating, and other interview skills.  Likewise, they can be given a ½ day training workshop on structured or behaviorally-based interviews.
  • Identify the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to perform the target job well.  These competencies will form the base for structured interview questions.
  • Provide interviewers with a scoring guide made up of job-relevant criteria.  For example: For a salesperson job, use a 1-5 scale for items such as: first impression, eye contact, quick thinking, interpersonal communication, etc.  Scales should include detailed descriptions of what low and high scores look like to make scoring easy and consistent.
  • Use multiple interviewers.  This can be done by using a panel of interviewers or through separate interviews.  If separate interviews are used, each interviewer should ask the same questions and then compare their impressions or ratings.
  • Basically, make the process more similar to structured or behavior-based interviews by adding structure, consistency, and rigor
Additional Resources: 


While unstructured interviews are not as valid as general mental ability tests, structured interviews, or situational judgment tests (click here for more info on those selection methods), they still have their benefits.  Interviews are easy, affordable, have high face validity, and have been shown to predict future performance moderately well.  An organization’s interview process can be improved fairly easily by training managers and adding structure.


Reference:  Gatewood, R. D., Feild, H. S., & Barrick, M. (2011).  Human Resource Selection (7th ed.), South-Western Publishing.

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