Kim Freier | Jul 15, 2022

The tight labor market these days can make finding the right candidates for open positions particularly difficult. That’s why it’s even more important now to have well-thought-out plans for the interview process, said James Durago, director of people operations at database platform company Molecula. By planning, hiring managers can tailor interviews to the roles they are hiring for and find the best candidates for them.

“Don’t make it harder on yourself,” Durago said. “This is actually something that you can control.”

One aspect of the interview process companies can plan for is whether the interviews are structured or unstructured. Structured interviews are characterized by a predetermined list of questions that interviewers ask all candidates, while unstructured interviews are more like free-flowing conversations, taking different directions based on the candidate.

Both unstructured and structured interviews have their advantages and disadvantages. Read more to find which one is best suited for your hiring process.

Structured Interviews vs. Unstructured Interviews

  • Structured interviews: Structured interviews are characterized by a predetermined list of questions that interviewers ask all candidates. Giving an overarching structure to the interview process provides a consistent experience for all candidates. Structured interviews also help interviewers avoid asking redundant questions.
  • Unstructured interviews: Unstructured interviews are more like free-flowing conversations. Unstructured portions of interviews allow interviewers to understand candidates on a deeper level. Unstructured interviews are especially helpful for assessing behavioral portions of the interview process.


Structure Is Important for the Interview Process

Durago swears by the structured interview process. 

As a candidate, he’s been on the receiving side of poorly conducted unstructured interviews and seen firsthand how disorganized they can be. Job interviews are already stressful for candidates, and having completely unstructured interviews can make them more so. Even giving candidates an outline of what to expect, like who they will speak to and what skills they will be tested for, can take away much of the anxiety caused by uncertainty.

“For example, if I know this interview is going to be focusing on interpersonal skills or teamwork, then I can at least put myself in that frame of thought and put my best foot forward,” Durago said.

Structured interviews are also better for interviewers, Durago said. It’s common for companies to have several different internal employees involved in the hiring process, and not all of them will have the same level of interviewing experience and preparation. Setting a well-defined interview structure helps make the experience better for candidates and the hiring process — which can be expensive — worthwhile for the company.

“You don’t just want to just throw it into the wind and hope and pray that it sticks. That’s not a good use of your money or your time.”

“Maybe you go through 10 candidates — that’s 10 hours of just your own personal time, and then you’ve got to ask other people to interview that person,” Durago said. “You don’t just want to just throw it into the wind and hope and pray that it sticks. That’s not a good use of your money or your time.”

With a totally unstructured interview, there’s always the danger that an interviewer might try to fill up 60 minutes of time with random questions, or that different interviewers might ask the same candidate the same questions. Having a predetermined structure can help each interviewer understand their role and the purpose of each interview, which in turn can help them evaluate candidates better and piece together a clearer understanding of their strengths and weaknesses.

Interviewers often have job responsibilities outside of interviewing, which makes it difficult to quickly context switch. Having a structured process like a written checklist helps interviewers get their bearings at the start of each interview and make sure they don’t miss anything important.

A sloppy interview process is not only a waste of the candidate’s time, but can also be harmful for the company in the long run. Job candidates are also consumers and can share their bad interview experiences with other consumers, which can have a negative effect on a company’s reputation.

“Those candidates, whether we hire them or not, have a platform, and that platform is powerful,” Durago said. “If you don’t have an [established] brand that can carry weight, then you’re making your job of growing your business exponentially harder.”

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Unstructured Interviews Have Their Own Advantages

Including both structured and unstructured components in the interview process is best, according to Ani Khachatoorian, VP of people at e-commerce natural food company Thrive Market. Unstructured portions of interviews allow companies to get to know candidates on a deeper level, while a structured overall process prevents interviews from going off the rails.

“Having a framework ensures that you’re not attacking questions but attacking categories of areas that you want information on,” Khachatoorian said. “Within those categories is where the unstructured part can sit.”

Structuring interviews with a set list of technical questions typically works well when hiring for technical positions, like software developers or database administrators. But even those interviews shouldn’t stick to a strictly structured format. Interviews for senior technical positions, especially, move away from curated coding questions and focus more on conversations about process and software design, said Sonali Moholkar, engineering manager at blockchain analysis company Chainalysis.

“It’s not just the results — how you break down a complicated project is equally important ... Because we also want diversity of thought and diversity of experiences.”

“When you have system design and behavioral rounds, they naturally tend to be a little more semi-structured,” Moholkar said. “Because there is no one way to design a system. Depending on the [candidate’s] experience, the conversations can go in completely different directions.”

Unstructured interviews can help interviewers evaluate a candidate’s approach to problem-solving and understand how they make decisions. For Khachatoorian, that comes in handy when hiring for higher leadership positions. She’ll ask them standard questions about how many people they’ve managed and their department’s org chart, but also open-ended questions about their experiences and career journey.

“It’s not just the results — how you break down a complicated project is equally important,” she said. “Because we also want diversity of thought and diversity of experiences. And if we don’t ask for your experiences, and we just ask for that end result, we’re not going to have a team that could approach really big hard problems in a multifaceted way.”


Derive Interview Questions From Company Values

But even if having structured portions of the interview process with predetermined questions is important to companies, how should hiring managers decide on their interview structure and the questions they choose? 

It all should derive from the company’s hiring philosophy, Durago said. The hiring process should reflect whatever values are important to the company by compiling questions that map back to those values. Questions can then be tweaked for different positions in ways that still address those same values.

“If it’s a teamwork question, I can ask a software engineer, ‘Tell me about a time when you had a disagreement with one of your peers — how did you work it out?’” Durago said. “In sales, you can say something along the lines of, ‘Tell me about a time when you had a particularly challenging relationship with one of your existing clients — how were you able to salvage that relationship and turn it into a fruitful one?’”

Hiring managers should also think about what types of employees thrive at the company, he said. All companies are different, with different corporate environments, so hiring managers should tailor interview questions to the types of candidates that would do well in their particular environment. If employees are expected to work on tight-knit teams, for example, the interview should include questions about their teamwork experience and communication skills. If employees are expected to be self-directed, interviewers should ask about their time-management strategies and methods for prioritizing tasks.

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Preparation Goes a Long Way

Interviewers should be prepared, regardless of whether they are conducting structured or unstructured interviews. For structured interviews, Durago recommends writing down a list of interview questions and reviewing them with all interviewers before any candidates are involved. 

“It could be as simple as just starting a doc and then using that doc as a template for future roles,” he said.

Hiring managers can go through examples of what good answers and bad answers might look like, and also go over the timing of interviews, like how much time to spend on introductions, interviewer questions and interviewee questions.

Preparation is also important for unstructured interviews, Khachatoorian said. All interviewers should be trained on basic interviewing skills, such as understanding what’s appropriate and relevant to ask during the interview process. If the hiring process consists of several interviews with different people, make sure they are not interviewing the candidates for redundant skills.

“Pull in the entire interview team, ensure that everyone is aware of what lanes they’re focusing on,” she said. “If there are areas that are very structured, what are they?”

It may also be helpful to let candidates know the overall structure of the interview process ahead of time. Companies shouldn’t share exact questions, but telling candidates how many sets of interviews there are, who they will talk to and the general types of questions to expect can help candidates prepare.

“Just letting them know that, for example, we use graphs a lot via the company so just be aware of traversing a graph,” Moholkar said. “It’s a huge domain to be aware of, because you don’t necessarily write algorithms on a day-to-day basis at work. So having the interviewers prep the candidates a little bit just helps.”

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