Interviewing is not as easy as it seems—first impressions and “gut feeling” is not enough to make an effective hiring decision. There is always a constant discussion on the merits of a structured interview over its counterpart.
Hiring the wrong person for a position is a very common mistake; nearly three in four employers (74%) reported a bad hire in a CareerBuilder survey. Plus, it costs an employer around US$ 15,000 for a single bad hire.
Typically, technical interviews begin with 1-2 phone interviews, followed by an onsite interview which may have 4-6 rounds. One of these will primarily assess behavioral skills, and the coding interview will be conducted using either a whiteboard or a laptop. The coding interview may also be conducted via an online coding platform like Talscale’s Code Sync.
Job interviews are the most difficult part of the recruitment process. Candidates are usually anxious and tend to get exhausted by long interviews and tests. Glassdoor found that
- conducting a phone interview added 6.8-8.2 days to the process
- a panel interview added 5.6-6.8 days to the process
- a face-to-face interview added 4.1-5.3 days to the process
A 2017 survey showed that most recruiters reported that it took 5-6 weeks to present a job offer.
Considering these timelines, it is necessary to streamline the interview process, schedule effectively, and avoid inefficiencies.
Types of Job Interviews
Fontana and Frey (1994) described a three-way classification of structured, semi-structured, and unstructured interviews, applicable to group and one-on-one interviewing.
The three general job interview formats are:
- Structured: A rigid interview style, wherein the interviewer only asks questions that are in the interview protocol. Each candidate is asked the same set of questions in the same order. Also known as a formal or standardized interview
- Semi-structured: Less rigid than a structured interview, wherein the interviewer has the flexibility to deviate from the interview protocol. All candidates are asked some predetermined questions, and the rest emerge in the course of a free-flowing conversation. Also known as hybrid or combined interview
- Unstructured: Questions are not prepared in advance; hence candidates are asked different questions as part of a free-flowing conversation. Also called an informal or casual interview
Structured Interviews – Way to Go
Employers prefer structured interviews because they are up to twice as effective at predicting a candidate’s job performance than unstructured interviews. They improve the reliability and validity of the hiring process and reduce hiring bias.
Interviewers tend to fall prey to “confirmation bias,” i.e. they form snap judgments about the candidate in the first few minutes, and spend the rest of the interview attempting to find information that confirms their impression.
Laszlo Bock, the VP of People Operations at Google once said, “Typical, unstructured job interviews were pretty bad at predicting how someone would perform once hired.” He mentioned that Google uses an internal tool called qDroid that arranges a list of interview questions based on the role to be filled. Bock feels that more companies do not use structured interviews because they take a lot of time to create and test for effectiveness, but he insists that they are worth the time.
In a structured interview format, all candidates get the same questions in the same order, and their responses are assessed using the same metrics. Here is a sample grading rubric for structured interviews used by Google.
Differences between Structured and Unstructured Interviews
A study, which analyzed 85 years of hiring data from U.S. employers, found that a work sample test is the best predictor of a candidate’s success, followed by a test of general cognitive ability and a structured interview.
Unstructured interviews were found to be notably insufficient predictors of job success.
Major differences between structured and unstructured interviews are:
- Structured interviews assess candidates based on a defined metric, whereas unstructured interviews depend on the interviewer’s hiring experience, “gut feeling,” and judgment
- They follow a predetermined set of questions, whereas unstructured interviews have spontaneous questions
- They are standardized and impersonal, whereas unstructured interviews can be customized to the candidate
How to Conduct Structured Interviews: A Step-by-Step Process
1. Frame a Job Description (JD) and Establish Key Competencies
The first step is to develop a clear understanding of the key skills and abilities you are looking for in a candidate. This will help you frame a specific job description (JD) with the list of important tasks and requirements. The tone of your job description should reflect your employer brand because it is often the first contact that an applicant will have with the company.
A common job description template will have the following headings: job title, reporting manager, job overview, responsibilities, and qualifications required.
The job description will help you arrive at a list of key competencies and qualities that you need in a candidate for a particular role. During the interview, employers should look for these attributes.
2. Formulate interview questions
A list of high-quality interview questions should be created, keeping in mind the key competencies that have been identified.
Structured interviews employ two types of open-ended questions: behavioral (dealing with past situations) and situational (dealing with hypothetical situations).
- Behavioral questions: Questions like “Give me an example of a time when…” or “Tell me about a situation when…,” wherein candidates are required to describe a situation or experience that has occurred in the past, and how they reacted to it. Past behavior is considered to be a good predictor of future job performance
- Situational questions: Questions like “Suppose, in an XYZ situation…” or “Imagine a situation where..,” wherein candidates are required to demonstrate their problem-solving skills via a hypothetical scenario
Ensure that you link the interview questions to the specific attributes that you have derived from your job analysis. If certain situations are expected to occur frequently as part of the role, you can include them in the questions.
Apart from leading questions, you can select probing questions to get more information about a candidate’s answers or to clarify certain points.
For example, this sample interview, from the U.S. Department of Personnel Management (OPM), uses the STAR method (Situation, Task, Action, and Result):
Competency: Interpersonal Skills—shows tact, empathy, courtesy, understanding, and politeness to others; develops and maintains effective relationships
Leading Question: An angry client tells you that she was told that an overdue check was sent to her office a few days ago, but she has not received it. She says she has many bills to pay, but nobody is helping her. How will you handle this situation?
- Why do you believe this situation happened? (Situation/Task)
- What factors would influence your course of action? (Action)
- How do you think your action will be received? (Result)
3. Set Evaluation Parameters
A grading scale needs to be formulated to ensure that responses are evaluated objectively. Usually, a scale of 5-7 points ranging from low to high is used. The scoring levels should be accurately defined in order to be effective.
In the case of the question from OPM mentioned previously, the grading scale may be:
- Level I: Low
It deals with interpersonal situations involving little or no tension or discomfort and needs close guidance
- Level III: Average
Interpersonal situations involving a reasonable degree of tension or discomfort and needs occasional guidance
- Level V: Outstanding
This deals with interpersonal situations involving a high degree of tension or discomfort and advises others
It may also help to develop examples of behaviors for each grading level for each position to help distinguish between them clearly.
It is advisable to test the reliability and validity of the grading scale and interview questions with help from subject matter experts.
4. Conduct the Interview
It isn’t easy to conduct a structured interview—a certain amount of training may be required to familiarize interviewers with the format. It is good to have a guide that managers can use as a reference to adhere to the process.
Interviewers should be friendly, respectful, and welcoming toward candidates.
Tips for conducting a good structured interview:
- Begin with an overview of the interview process. Introduce yourself, your company, and the role being interviewed for.
- Adhere to the list of predetermined questions. Ask each candidate the same questions in the same order. Allow them the same amount of time to formulate their responses.
- Take detailed notes during the interview to remember the responses. Write the main points of the response and not YOUR assessment of the response.
- At the end of the interview, let candidates know the next steps and the expected timeframe of your company’s hiring process. Ask if they have any questions for you. Thank them for coming.
Particularly, interviewers must resist the temptation to assess attributes of the candidates that are not related to the role or not included in the interview plan.
5. Evaluate and Shortlist Candidates
If the previously mentioned steps have been properly followed, then evaluating the responses of the candidates and shortlisting the suitable ones becomes simple.
Using your notes, rate each response according to the rating scale.
Once all the responses have been rated, you will find a list of the best ranking candidates. This is a transparent and objective way to choose the best candidate
Pros and Cons of Structured Interviews
Structured interviews have several advantages:
- More objective: Since all the candidates are asked the same questions, it is easier to compare and assess their responses in an objective and fair manner using the same metric.
- Better predictive of job performance: Talent-based structured interviews are especially effective at assessing a candidate’s key skills and abilities (KSA) to perform in a particular role.
- Legally defensible: Employers can be sued for hiring based on confirmation bias. Structured interviews can be more successfully defended than unstructured interviews because courts look at factors like job-relatedness of the questions, objectiveness of the interview, and consistency of the interview across candidates.
- Reduces bias: Interviewers tend to hire candidates who have more in common with them, leading to hiring bias. Often, this bias is not intentional; it is simply human nature. Structured interviews prevent this bias from creeping in by keeping the assessment criteria the same and fair for everyone.
- Requires less time: Structured interviews, by dint of being standardized, help interview more candidates in less time. Interviewers adhere to the set interview protocol and do not waste time in free-flowing conversation. According to Google’s internal research, interviewers save an average of 40 minutes per interview by using high-quality, preset questions.
- Improves candidate experience: Since structured interviews are based on objective criteria, candidates feel satisfied that they have been evaluated fairly. Google found that rejected applicants who had structured interviews were 35% happier than those who had unstructured interviews.
A few disadvantages of Structured Interviews:
- Time-consuming process: Creating questions for structured interviews is a time-intensive, difficult, and complicated task. Questions must also be tested for effectiveness before administering them to candidates.
- Chances of question leak: Candidates may compare notes after interviews, thus questions for structured interviews need to be constantly refreshed to prevent them from leaking to future applicants. However, with Talscale you leakage of questions is a thing of past. Because you can create question pools and divide them into buckets based on varying difficulty levels so that no two candidates are sure of receiving a similar set of questions.
- Less communication with candidates: Structured interviews have a “one-size-fits-all” approach, hence interviewers are unable to tease out unique aspects of candidates based on their interaction with them. Strict adherence to the preset questions is necessary, thus any communication outside of those questions does not occur.
- Inability to alter questions during a free-flowing conversation: The format of structured interviews prevents any spontaneous questions from being asked of candidates, or even altering existing questions to better suit a particular candidate. This makes the conversation awkward and impersonal.
Companies that Use Structured Interviews
- Once known for throwing brain teasers at applicants, Google now, notably, uses structured interview processes to screen potential candidates. The company uses tests and open-ended questions, and this model is being followed by other tech companies as well. Such challenges place candidates in situations where hard metrics can be tracked, such as accuracy of response, length of time needed to answer, and a number of creative solutions.
They also evaluate key cognitive abilities which are a good predictor of job performance. Team members use an internal system to rank candidates on a four-point scale.
- At Amazon, behavioral interview questions are a big part of the job interview process, wherein questions about past challenges or situations are asked. The company’s website has a few examples of the type of questions they ask:
– Describe a time you took the lead on a project.
– When did you take a risk, make a mistake, or fail? How did you respond, and how did you grow from that experience?
They want candidates to provide a well-structured answer along with data or metrics, wherever applicable. They suggest that the STAR method be used to formulate responses.
- Facebook’s hiring process is designed to efficiently select the best candidate among the considered applicants. Engineers and developers are required to take a whiteboard or take-home coding test. Questions are simple and should not take more than 30 minutes to solve. Interviewers evaluate the approach that candidates take to solve the problem, as well as the responses they give.
The hiring team uses an internal system to give feedback to candidates. Interviewers rate responses on a four-point scale. The final hiring decision is taken by a committee of the hiring manager and directors who consider the reviews of the interviewers and other factors like desired compensation.
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Code Sync is an online live coding interview platform used to conduct tech interviews. Coding expertise and problem-solving skills of multiple candidates can be evaluated simultaneously in real-time using this interface. Interviewers may access Talscale’s extensive question library or create their own questions. Candidates can be given real-time hints or feedback, and a chat option is also available for candidates and interviewers to communicate during the interview.
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