Featured Article – 2013 April

Structured Interviewing

Tip Sheet

  • Establish key job competencies.
  • Design interview questions that focus on these competencies.
  • Have multiple interviewers asking the same questions and applying the same standards in their evaluations.
  • Drill down for more detailed responses.
  • Take good notes and write up a summary of each interview as soon as it is completed.
  • Assemble the entire interview team to discuss the candidates and make a final evaluation.

Structured interviewing: key to good hiring

By Millard Brown

It doesn’t take long for managers with hiring responsibilities to categorize the candidates they have interviewed. Some are natural salesmen, relying heavily on personal charm to build a rapport as they try to land their dream job. Some are storytellers, filled with engaging anecdotes about past accomplishments. Others are all business, rattling off credentials like reading bullet points from a memo. Some managers may prefer one personality type over another, leading them to choose candidates based on comfort level rather than on who would make the best fit in the position.

There is a way to avoid falling into this trap.

The technique we recommend is called the structured interview, which means, in essence, asking each candidate the same core questions so that you can objectively compare and contrast responses in order to determine the most qualified applicant for the position. In today’s litigious employment environment, structured interviews have the benefit of being more defensible if a hiring decision is challenged.

The process starts well before the interview, by going back to the summary of job requirements developed at the start of the search process. From that summary identify three to six core competencies that you want to assess, and prepare one to three questions about each competency. Questions should be open-ended and provide you with the opportunity to follow up to get more detailed responses. You want to be able to use the responses to assess social and interpersonal skills, the ability to think critically and make effective decisions, and organizational fit.

You may find it worthwhile to develop a rating scale, perhaps a 1 to 5 ranking, with 1 being poor, 3 average and 5 outstanding. If you do, set specific benchmarks for each possible ranking so your scoring will be both comprehensive and objective .

As hiring manager, you may create the questions yourself, or you may seek input from other members of the interviewing team. Yes, you should take a team approach to the interview process. Figure on at least three interviews – one with you, one with another manager, and one with your supervisor or with someone who would be one of the candidate’s peers if he or she is hired. The higher the position in your company’s hierarchy, the more interviews you schedule.

Each interviewer should be asking essentially the same questions, but there may be some variations based on the interviewer’s anticipated relationship with the prospective employee. Because job competencies have been established and the questioning will follow parallel tracks, all of the interviewers will be on the same page, thus ensuring consistency in your evaluation.

(When interviews are unstructured, candidates are asked different questions, answers are not recorded in a formal way and responses aren’t scored by the same standards. In this situation, interviewers are less likely to gather essential information from candidates and they find it difficult to objectively compare and contrast the applicants. Also, unstructured interviews are more difficult to document and are less legally defensible.)

When conducting the interview, try to follow these eight steps:

  • Make the candidate comfortable.
  • Describe the process you will follow.
  • Give a full description of the position.
  • Take notes.
  • Seek to fully understand the responses.
  • Avoid discriminatory questions.
  • Allow time for candidate questions.
  • Score immediately after the interview.

The first three steps are fairly obvious, while the fourth can pose a challenge to even the most skilled interviewer. Most of us just can’t write down notes as quickly as our subject speaks. Some might be inclined to record the interviews, but that runs counter to the first step, as recording might make the subject feel uncomfortable. It’s better to jot down key phrases, capturing the highlights of each response than to take notes word for word. If candidates say something you definitely want to remember, slow the conversation by mentioning that they have made an important point, and take a little extra time to write it all down.

By listening carefully, you will be able to focus on fully understanding each response and assessing how closely it corresponds to the competencies you’re seeking. When questioning, drill down. Start by asking broadly, and follow up with something more specific. If a candidate is listing accomplishments and mentions having cut departmental expenses by 10 percent, for example, then ask for an explanation of how the cuts were achieved.

Nothing can foul an interview process more than asking questions that are discriminatory in nature. We can’t cover all those items in this article, but your company’s HR office can give you advice. Numerous articles available online, including this one, offer helpful advice about what you can and cannot ask.

After completing each interview, set aside a half hour to an hour to review your notes and write a brief summary, highlighting the candidate’s responses to your key questions. Don’t worry about making any comparisons until all the interviews are completed.

Then, take all your notes, review the responses, and determine which candidate comes closest to meeting the qualifications you have set. The other interviewers should be following a similar procedure.

Finally, bring all the interviewers together to discuss all the candidates. Compare the rankings, narrow the field and then discuss the qualities of the top contenders in detail.

Using a structured interview process may require more preparation than you’re used to, but the structure will help you interview with more confidence, and it will greatly improve the odds of making the right selection.