Should You Use a Structured or Unstructured Interview?

Hiring decisions are never sure things.

Nobody has cracked a code, developed a process, designed a technology, applied a psychological interpretation or even made up a catchy anagram that takes away the guesswork. There still may be good and bad approaches, but we in the hiring business often don’t even agree on which is which.

Recently I read two articles back to back that gave the opposite advice about interviewing and assessing candidates. The first argued for removing your gut and using a systematic and quantitative approach. The second argued that only your instinct sees the hidden truth.

I could point to the specific articles, but in reality I had tapped into an older and much larger debate that exists in hiring just as it does in many other facets of life: Going with your head vs. going with your gut.

My take on this debate has evolved over the years.

Going with Your Gut is Not Unstructured Interviewing

I regularly see hiring managers with little interview experience focus too much on their gut and their first impressions. They look for someone they feel comfortable with, or someone who has similar professional backgrounds. When they do feel comfortable with someone, they don’t ask tougher questions, and that results in mistakes. Earlier in my career I had the same problem.  However, I learned over time not to going with my gut unless it was an especially clear signal. I realized that I needed to become more objective, and that meant using a more systematic approach.

However, as the years have gone by, I have started to move away from structure and  become more conversational and intuitive. I use an unstructured interview approach. Interviewing thousands of people has drilled some base hiring knowledge into my instincts. I am more comfortable letting the conversation take its own natural shape (unstructured) and focus on what I am learning. I have discovered that there are times when my instincts can see truths my structured thinking cannot uncover.

Can Only Objective Hiring Achieved Through the Structured Interview?

As a result, I always recommend when you have less hiring experience, and you are less accustomed to thinking from a hiring perspective, you should use a structured interview process and questions to remain focused on evaluating everyone objectively. This may lead to weighted scoring systems, using pre-written questions, etc. Over time, as your instincts refine, your gut can be the best predictor of all, and you may benefit from gradually moving away from rigid structures. This allows you to be more conversational and learn more about the person you are speaking with.

Of course these are just rough guidelines. There is no perfect equation for balancing your “brain” and your “gut”.  There will always be times when you can’t put your finger on what your gut is trying to tell you, and other times your mind plays tricks on you. Even for lifelong professionals there is no simple way to prioritize between completely different complex human beings.

As a fellow human, I am okay with that.

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Mark Nelson

Mark has spent his career in executive search and human resources as a recruiter, a salesperson, an HR leader and a business owner. He also writes and manages the career advice site Career Digressions. Connect with Mark.


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