The Importance of Structured Interviews: When Steve Met Shafali

Structured interviews are critically important to making sound decisions when it comes to hiring. Much of the research in organisational psychology demonstrates that structured interviews reduce bias and improve the predictive power of the interview. But what is a structured interview? A structured interview has a pre-defined structure, a consistent set of questions carefully designed to check job suitability, and well-defined assessment criteria. All candidates for a specific job role are assessed against the same criteria. Well-trained interviewers then assess candidates against these criteria using effective questioning to gather evidence for job suitability.

Unstructured interviews on the other hand lack structure and consistency, and often lead to poor hiring decisions. Hiring decisions based on unstructured interviews result in either false positives where the wrong candidate is hired, or false negatives where the right candidate is rejected. This clearly has an impact on hiring as companies that lack structure in the interview process either hire the wrong people, and so employ people who have limited impact on company results or reject the right people and in the worst case, they end up working at a competitor.

Research conducted by Edgar Kausel gives an interesting insight into this problem. Kausel found that when people were given results of a standardised personality test along with unstructured interview information, they were far less accurate in their prediction of future success than if they were given the personality test results in isolation. Reviewers were also more confident in their decision when presented with both test results and unstructured interview information. In other words, you may as well issue tests to all job applicants and then conduct a lottery for who to hire. This comes with other challenges and I strongly recommend that you don’t take this approach.

An even larger concern is that unstructured interviews inadvertently create bias in the process and people from different cultures or backgrounds may be put at a disadvantage. Let’s look at an example of how this can unfold.

Steve has had an open vacancy for a couple of months he has interviewed a large number of candidates but so far, no one has seemed quite right. Steve has been a manager for twenty years and knows what good looks like. This week he has two interviews and really needs to get the role filled.

It’s Monday morning and Steve meets Paul. Paul has worked in the same industry as Steve for fifteen years, they share a couple of common connections and so before the interview starts, Steve has a good feeling about this one. On the way to the interview room, they share the usual small talk. It turns out that Steve and Paul support the same football team. Fifteen minutes of the allotted sixty-minute interview time are spent talking about the game from the past weekend. Steve asks Paul to walk him through his CV and interrupts at various intervals to ask questions about specific projects and programmes. Steve likes to keep it free and easy and will ask whatever questions come to mind. There are fifteen minutes left and so Steve goes to his favourite interview questions, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” and “What would your current team say about you?”. Steve asks a couple of follow up questions and then hands over to Paul for him to ask questions.

Steve’s feedback on Paul would look something like this: “Great guy, lots of industry experience worked with Geoff at Acme Corp so he must be good. Also, would be a great guy to have a pint with. Think he would get on with the team… great culture fit.”

Now it’s Tuesday morning and Steve is meeting Shafali. Steve is thinking about the interview with Paul and he’s not sure there’s much point in moving forward with Shafali’s interview. He goes ahead anyway as cancelling at short notice may look bad. As they walk to the meeting room, Steve attempts to engage Shafali in conversation by asking about her weekend. She speaks about some of the fun things that she got up to at the weekend but Steve doesn’t share the same idea of fun as Shafali and so he can’t give much back. There are a few awkward minutes of silence and Steve’s not sure Shafali will be a good fit. Shafali walks Steve through her CV, she has worked at some great companies but doesn’t have any common connections with Steve and so there’s less common ground to talk about. There seems to be a lot of time left and so after asking his usual favourite questions he decides to ask a couple of additional questions. Because he is unsure of culture fit, he asks her questions such as “Tell me how you handle conflict within your team?” and “Tell me about a time you had to manage a difficult stakeholder?”.

Steve’s feedback on Shafali will look something like this: “Quite quiet, not sure she will fit in with the team. Seems to have worked at some good companies but not sure how involved with key projects she was. May come across as confrontational in some situations and not sure how she would handle some of our more challenging stakeholders. “

You can see clearly how the approach that Steve takes to interviewing can create bias. By the time he gets to interview Shafali, he lacks motivation for the interview, he judges her personality in reference to his and dismisses the value of her work because they don’t share common connections. He also collects additional data points on Shafali, he’s specifically asked her how she handles conflict. As he has examples of conflict for Shafali and none with Paul he jumps to the conclusion that Shafali won’t handle conflict well.

The above example is an oversimplification of interview practice in a typical work setting, however, probably not far from the truth. Workplaces are complex and many variables affect the decisions that you make on a daily basis. Factors such as tiredness, stress, unconscious bias, and conscious bias play a role in critical hiring decisions. By implementing structured interviews, you can reduce bias in hiring decisions and improve the predictability of future performance. So, why do so few companies implement a structured interview process? Mainly because it’s hard work. A lot of time and effort has to go into building the process, designing the questions, designing suitable assessment criteria, and training recruiters and hiring managers. And then you have to test that it works, regularly review to make sure you’re making the right hires, and adjust where necessary. There’s also the issue of overconfidence. As mentioned earlier, people are typically overconfident, and inaccurate in their assessments when using unstructured interview methods. Because of overconfidence, people are rigid and believe that their approach is the best approach.

In 2010 Julie McCarthy at the University of Toronto published research that shows how highly structured interviews can go some way to neutralise the effects of bias during the interview process. I see many companies investing significant capital in building balanced candidate pipelines, unconscious bias training, software to remove personal information from CVs, and so on. Yet many of them are missing a key foundational element to creating a fairer, more accurate hiring process. Maybe it’s time to ditch the tried and tested (yet inefficient) interview methods of old and apply more scientific rigour to the hiring process.

Talent Acquisition advisor, psychology nerd. Trying to make the hiring process better one post at a time.