With the challenges around recruitment mounting, getting the interview process correct is integral to finding the right candidates. We’ve spoken before about the types of interview questions to ask to establish cultural fit, and even debated whether video or face-to-face interviews are better.

But let’s take a step back for a minute and ask a different question that effects the way in which all interviews are carried out: is it better to do structured interviews or unstructured interviews?

Almost all interviews will follow a structured or unstructured format to help hiring managers and recruiters evaluate a candidate’s skills, qualifications, and fit for a given role. But what are the differences between the two? When should one method be employed over the other? And which interview format is going to have the biggest impact on hiring decisions?

Let’s analyse both and see if we can understand the advantages and disadvantages of the interview types and try to answer those questions.

First, let’s define both structured and unstructured interviews.

What is a Structured Interview?

Also known as a formal or standardised interview, a structured interview is a method of interviewing that uses a series of pre-determined questions to evaluate different candidates. The format is fixed, and the questions are prepared in advance.

This means that each candidate is asked the same questions in the same order. Responses from each candidate are then gauged using a standard rating scale. Conducting an interview in this way allows interviewers to easily compare the answers from different candidates in a uniform way.

Using this approach, recruiters are also able to conduct data-driven interviews; instead of relying on instincts or feelings or falling prey to unconscious bias, the interviewer is instead able to collect quantitative data from the responses given to what are typically close-ended questions.

The questions asked in a structured interview typically relate to skills, experience, and how candidates would handle certain situations. They usually are not questions that can help determine intangible assets such as cultural fit.

Some examples of structured interview questions:

  • How would you handle a [common challenge]?
  • What other companies in [your industry] do you admire?
  • What do you think will be the biggest challenge in [the role you are applying for]?
  • What is an example of a time you have demonstrated [skill important to role]?

The Advantages of Structured Interviews

Structured interviews help to create an objective hiring process, because each interviewee gets the same set of questions to answer. This can be helpful in mitigating or removing bias from the interview process, each candidate, regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity gets asked the exact same questions.

This can also make the process more efficient. Because the interviewers feel more prepared, with guides and rubrics to use as the basis for their assessment, they need to spend less time preparing for each interview.

The interviews themselves are also shorter – taking less time on average than their unstructured counterparts.

Analysis conducted by Google also found that candidates were generally more satisfied with the structured interview format – even when they were rejected for the role they were interviewing for. This is likely because the process felt fairer to them, with questions based less on personality and more on competency. This suggests structured interviews generally provide a higher level of candidate experience.

The Disadvantages of Structured Interviews

While a structured interview process might make it easier for interviewers to prepare for each candidate they have to interview, it is still very time consuming to prepare the structure, questions, and rubrics for these types of interviews.

Interviewers must create, test, and review the set of questions they are looking to ask, and they will be different for every single position. This means that if you have just completed a hiring process using structured interviews for one position, you cannot then re-use those same questions and metrics for the next position you are hiring for.

Because the interview process can only be as good as the questions that are asked, if the wrong questions are included in the process or if the questions fail to gather enough necessary data to make an informed hiring decision, these structured processes can become a complete failure.

And although structured interviews can be said to create a better experience for individual candidates, for the interviewer, they can create a generalised experience that can make it difficult to understand how each person might fit within a team, culture, and organisation.

What is an Unstructured Interview?

A structured interview – also known as a casual or informal interview is a method of interviewing candidates in which the interviewer asks unplanned questions, unique to the specific interviewee.

These types of interviews are usually qualitative in nature and typically more candidate-led because the interviewer will listen to the responses given by the interviewee and then typically ask additional questions based directly on those responses.

These interview types usually have no scoring system – instead, the interviewer will move candidates forward based on their experience interviewing the candidate and how well they feel the person answered the questions posed to them.

An unstructured interview is generally a good way to assess a person’s soft skills such as communication, problem-solving, and critical thinking.

In an unstructured interview process, it is more common to ask open-ended rather than close-ended questions.

Some examples of unstructured interview questions:

  • Tell me about yourself?
  • Describe your ideal job?
  • What are your goals for the future?
  • How would you collaborate with colleagues who have different working styles to you?

The Advantages of Unstructured Interviews

Unstructured interviews provide more flexibility. Because they are free-form, they can feel a lot more like everyday conversations. This can make candidates feel more comfortable and at ease, making them more willing to share information or even anecdotes about their professional experience.

This also gives them much more flexibility than their structured counterparts, which allows for more detail and more room for nuance. Because interviewers can ask as many follow-up questions as they want, they are able to explore certain ideas and responses more fully. And this also means that there is space and scope for ideas that the interviewer had not considered to be discussed.

Because of the more open-ended nature of the questions, you can also glean more information about a candidate’s fit within the culture – and even gain an understanding of what they can add to the culture. It gives interviewers more ability to assess the personality and soft skills of the interviewee and gain a sense of how they solve problems and how quick they are to think on their feet.

The Disadvantages of Unstructured Interviews

This kind of approach to interviews can make it challenging to compare different candidates because there is no standardised model for grading and assessing their answers.

You may be left with one candidate who you feel would bring a lot to the culture of the organisation and would fit in well with the team, and another who seems to have more experience, and it can be difficult to distinguish between the two.

The biggest problem however, is that because in unstructured interviews, different questions are asked each time, it is likely that bias will creep into the interviewing process.

Research shows that men and women are asked very different questions during interviews, and that these differences can usually be linked to gender stereotypes. With a lack of consistency around what types of questions to ask, it is then at the discretion of the interviewer to determine what to ask to whom. And this can be a problem, because again, it can make it difficult to differentiate between candidates, or worse – can lead to a lack of diversity in the hiring process.

In Conclusion

To sum up, both structured and unstructured interviews have their advantages and disadvantages. It would be wrong to say that one approach is definitively better than the other.

Depending on the role you are looking to hire for and the volume of positions you are looking to fill, both have their place, and it may even be beneficial when conducting multiple stages of interviews with the same candidates to utilise different approaches as candidates advance between stages in the process.

Consistent, fair and empathetic interview processes will likely require a blend of both approaches.

Structured interviews can help you evaluate multiple different candidates on their skills and experience but will make it more difficult to establish if a person is the right fit for the organisation.

Unstructured interviews can make for easier, more flexible conversations where you feel you can get to know a candidate as a person, but they can also allow bias to creep in.

Hiring managers must understand the benefits and constraints of both approaches and consider on a case-by-case basis which approach would fit best for the role they are looking to fill.

If you’re struggling with interviews and recruitment, book a demo today and discover how an ATS could improve every element of your hiring process.

About the author

Tristan Potter

Tristan has a decade's worth of experience writing content and copy for organisations across Bristol and the Southwest of England. He has written on a diverse range of topics, including technology, philosophy, politics, and recruitment. His writing has appeared in The Drum, HR Grapevine, and The Guardian, among other publications. He joined Hireserve in March 2022.