The New York Times recently published an opinion piece about the “utter uselessness” of unstructured job interviews1.This isn’t the first time unstructured job interviews have come under fire. For decades, researchers have pointed out that unstructured job interviews are biased, poor predictors of performance, and ineffective at differentiating between high-quality and low-quality candidates2,4,8.
“…the problem with interviews is worse than irrelevance: They can be harmful, undercutting the impact of other, more valuable information…” - Jason Dana
Our experience confirms that even when “given the facts” about the benefits of using structured interviews, interviewers resist. Some skip interview prep altogether. Others easily abandon the interview guide they’ve helped prepare. Still others tout their “sixth sense” for candidate evaluation.
Very few managers contemplate hiring a person without a conversation. And for that matter, few applicants would be happy to accept a job offer without ever speaking to someone in the organization. So job interviews are going to happen. What can leaders, managers, and HR professionals who are striving to build a highly capable organization with a great culture do to convert resistance to structured job interviews into enthusiastic support for using the best hiring practices?
Many interviewers resist structured interviews simply out of reluctance to give up autonomy3,6. Autonomy is one of the three basic psychological needs that drive human behavior and intrinsic motivation7. Interviewers want control over the questions they ask and over the interview process in general. Unstructured interviews carry this freedom, while structured interviews constrain interviewer choice.
Autonomy is valuable when harnessed to create a stellar structured job interview. Create a structured interview team and empower team members to collaboratively develop the best questions to predict fit with your organization and performance excellence. Test the interview questions with people already in the organization or in a specific job. Get feedback about ways to improve questions even more.
There are individual questions, and then there is the way they fit together to form an interview. Talk about how to sequence questions to create a natural flow to the interview as a conversation. Create a question bank so that individual interviewers can select the questions they want to ask for each interview round, so they can be consistent and cover important ground yet retain some freedom of choice.
Highlight to interviewers the ways they can demonstrate autonomy appropriately within the structured job interview process. Emphasize the benefits of accomplishing an apples-to-apples comparison of candidates. Remind interviewers that they are acting on behalf of the entire organization in the profoundly important process of choosing new team members. And point out the chance to contribute strong questions, to select from similar question options, and to make a point of learning about unique capabilities of each candidate.
Any interviewer who has accomplished at least one “successful hire” is easily prone to crediting personal expertise and intuition2,5. Especially when people are aiming to assess fit within the organization’s culture7, there is a common misconception that interviewers can “read between the lines” and learn more about a person’s character using unstructured questions. Interviewers with experience in the position they’re hiring may also believe they know how to interview for it, and don’t need a structured guide to do so.
Self-confidence is important for interviewers – we certainly don’t want interviewers who don’t believe they can possibly tell the difference between a highly-qualified candidate who would fit well with the team and a candidate who would likely fail and leave the organization. But when people believe that intuition and on-the-fly expertise is more effective than gathering comparable evidence, the best strategy is education.
Treat interviewing as a professional activity that, like many others, requires knowledge and preparation. Untangle as separate expertise the interviewer’s knowledge of the organization and the job vs. the interviewer’s knowledge and skill as an interviewer. Help interviewers learn about errors in rating candidates, as well as biases that occur during the interview process (e.g., discrimination against protected classes, halo effects).
Set the expectation that strong interviewers will be able to present to others a reasoned and evidence-based business case ranking candidates for qualifications and fit. Emphasize that any “gut feeling” needs to be backed by demonstration that one candidate’s responses to particular questions were clearly superior to other candidates’ responses.
Many people feel awkward using structured job interviews. Unprepared to deliver a structured sequence of questions in a way that feels natural, they are quick to go off-script. Interviewers often balk at structured job interviews because of a belief that preparation is intensive7 and that they need to develop additional skills2, in order to not appear foolish to candidates.
It’s helpful for interviewers to be concerned with putting candidates at ease. Many people find job interviews stressful, which gets in the way of putting their best foot forward so that the interviewer has a true sense of their qualifications and ability to contribute to the team and organization.
With practice, interviewers can become comfortable hosting structured job interviews. Interviewing to select people who will work hard to pursue your organization’s mission and uphold your core values is an important business activity. Help interviewers realize that the time commitment has significant and long-lasting implications, and is highly valued.
Scaffold interviewer preparation with resources and experiences that make it possible for interviewers to quickly improve their interviewing skills. Ask interviewers for their biggest concerns or struggles with structured job interviews and target those improvements. Streamline interviewer efforts by providing information on best practices for interview prep. Include opportunities to role-play and share feedback with other interviewers.
It can also be meaningful to gather candidate feedback about the interview experience. When candidates report a positive experience with structured job interviews, interviewer confidence and commitment to structured interviews grows. When several candidates point out a challenge or discomfort with the interview experience, work with interviewers to improve the interview structure or interviewing skills.
Interviews matter. The leap into structured job interviews can be challenging, but it’s worth it. Pull together a team to convert resistance to enthusiasm in your organization. Counteract bias, add valuable information to hiring decisions, and choose the best candidate. Your leaders, coworkers, customers, and job candidates will thank you.