Unstructured interviews reflect the unfairness in hiring

Posted by Huy Tran on

Unstructured interviews are the most ubiquitous selection method. In spite of the fact that many studies prove the incredibility of unstructured interviews, many HR professionals still jump on the bandwagon.

Why HR professionals love interviews

Cognitive biases can help explain why HR professionals still cling to unstructured interviews despite evidence of their limitations.

Choice-supportive bias

People tend to retroactively feel positive about their choices, even if they are flawed. Hiring managers would like to think they have hired the best candidates and, therefore, do not see the need to change.


Overconfidence is also a type of cognitive bias. Experienced hiring managers can get too confident in their ability to judge people and believe they are always right. Subsequently, they cling to their much-beloved evaluation method—traditional interviews—even if concrete evidence shows they are not nearly as effective as previously believed.

“For whatever reason, we have a deep-seated need to feel that we can judge character,” says Jason Dana, a visiting assistant professor in behavioural and decision research at the Yale School of Management.[1] “The assumption is, if I meet them, I’ll know. People are wildly overconfident in their ability to do this, from a short meeting.

'I like you because I’m like you’

It is no secret that we have a tendency to favour people who are similar to us. Consequently, interviewers may unconsciously choose the candidates that have the same characteristics, styles, interests or backgrounds.

There are, of course, more practical reasons why traditional interviews are extremely popular among HR professionals: They are more convenient for interviewers. There is no need to prepare, test and finalise a list of questions. Throughout the interviews, interviewers do not need to carefully record interviewees’ answers.

Unstructured interviews reflect the unfairness in hiring

What are the better alternatives?

Structured interviews enable hiring managers to make personal connections with candidates while minimising the impacts of bias. In the aforementioned Frank Schmidt and John Hunter analysis, structured interviews were tied with GMA (general mental abilities) tests as the second-best predictor of on-the-job performance. They account for 26% of hired employees’ subsequent performance, as opposed to the 14% of unstructured interviews.

In comparison to unstructured interviews, structured interviews are far more demanding and time-consuming in terms of preparation and implementation. Lists of job-related questions have to be written down, tested and validated. Weighting is assigned to each question according to its relative importance. The questions then have to be delivered to each candidate in a consistent manner, and the candidates’ responses have to be carefully scored during the interviews. But the efforts pay off in the end.

Structured interviews eliminate most biases and subjectivity via standardisation. All candidates are asked the same questions, which are job-related and carefully crafted to measure the candidates’ specific skills, competencies and experiences. Random, brainteaser questions should be avoided.

Each question is assigned a certain weight, for they are not equally important. The interviewers should also score each answer immediately rather than wait until the end of the session to avoid biases like recency and availability. 

Ideally, the list of questions will be reviewed and updated from time to time to ensure their relevance and effectiveness. It also helps prevent candidates from obtaining the questions from previous interviewees and practising their responses in advance.   

Download whitepaper "The interview addiction" here

The underpinning of structured interviews is rather simple—how candidates behaved in the past is the best predictor of their future performance. Typically, two kinds of questions appear in a structured interview—behavioural and situational.

Behavioural questions require candidates to describe what they actually achieved or experienced in their prior jobs. For instance, “Tell me about a project that you failed to complete” or “Tell me about a time when you had to work with people you dislike.”

Situational questions require candidates to explain how they would handle specific, job-related situations. For instance, “What would you do if your boss rejected most of your ideas?” or “What would you do if you were assigned a task you are not trained to do?”

According to Frank Schmidt and John Hunter’s analysis, other assessment methods are better or as good as structured interviews: work sample tests and GMA tests.

Work sample tests

Work sample tests require candidates to perform tasks or activities that mirror what they would do in the job. They are, understandably, more geared towards routine, technical or task-oriented positions, such as mechanics, graphic designers, clerical staff, and programmers.

GMA tests

General mental ability (GMA) tests are tied with structured interviews as the second-best predictors of actual employee performance. They assess cognitive abilities such as reasoning, reading comprehension, logic, mathematical ability and verbal ability. GMA tests can be administered via paper- or computer-based formats. Cognitive ability tests have been proven to be exceptionally good at predicting on-the-job performance.

Every single selection method has its own pros and cons, and none can be claimed to be all-powerful with regard to hiring the right people. Even the best method in the Frank Schmidt and John Hunter study, work sample tests, can explain only 29% of employee performance. Consequently, it is better to use a combination of assessment tools. That is, structured interviews should be accompanied by some kind of test to maximise the results.

This is not to say companies should abandon job interviews altogether. It is understandable that hiring managers want to know their candidates on a more personal level after CV screening. It is the way interviews are conducted that must be changed. While much less popular than traditional interviews, structured interviews and other tests are far more powerful, and their credibility is much higher in terms of predicting actual job performance.

[1] Source: https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2013/11/24/want-best-person-for-job-don-interview/3LB4rwjf6i88GfaDoRubLN/story.html 

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