Unstructured Interviews: A Complete Guide

Unstructured Interviews

For many job seekers, interviews are a daunting prospect. For employers, they’re an expensive and time-consuming process where essential staff are pulled away from more important matters. While it’s tempting to stick to a script when faced with a mountain of interview candidates, an overly rigid approach can increase the odds of making a bad hiring decision. Run-of-the-mill interview questions are only going to land you rehearsed answers. If you want to get to the root of what makes a candidate tick, you need to go off-piste with your approach. This is where unstructured interviews come in.

What are unstructured interviews?

An unstructured interview is exactly what it sounds like. Rather than stick to a ready-made list of rudimentary questions, interviewers are allowed to stray off-script and follow new lines of inquiry as and when they arise. The strength of unstructured interviews lies in their flexibility, with their free-flowing nature far more likely to yield valuable insights into a candidate.

Unstructured interviews are a valuable qualitative data collection method. What’s more, the spontaneity of unstructured interviews tends to deliver more truthful answers. For employers, it’s just as important to find a good fit with company culture as it is to find someone with the right level of expertise for a role. With unstructured interviews, you stand a much better chance of finding these made-to-measure matches.

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Differences between structured and unstructured interviews

Most of us have probably experienced a structured interview at some stage. They’re the most common and regimented type of interview, with interviewers running through a set of rehearsed questions in a particular order. Some of these questions will require simple yes or no answers, while others allow for more open-ended debate. Generally speaking, however, there’s very little room for qualitative insights.

While structured interviews are pretty inflexible, they do make the evaluation process easier. By comparing data sets, employers can theoretically single out the best candidate for a role.

With an unstructured interview, things are far more open-ended. While a broad list of topics can be followed, new subjects can be introduced into the conversation. This can lead to the discovery of essential insights that wouldn’t have been found out otherwise. However, interviewers need to be methodical when it comes to recording answers so that candidate feedback can be delivered to other hiring team members.

Unstructured interviews advantages

Struggling to find suitable candidates via traditional interviews? There are many reasons to adopt an unstructured approach when interviewing potential employees.

A flexible approach to interviewing

As they’re less formal than traditional interviews, unstructured interviews are far more flexible. They can be adapted over the course of a meeting with a candidate, with an interviewer changing direction based on the information a job seeker provides.

More casual and conversational

One of the more practical advantages of unstructured interviews is that they’re more casual in nature. By allowing the conversation to flow naturally, a candidate is instantly put at ease. When an employee is faced with a seemingly endless list of rigid questions, it’s easy to feel daunted and panic. An unstructured interview process avoids this, with a relaxed atmosphere making it easier to get to the bottom of what makes someone tick.

Open-ended questions are more useful

Another one of the benefits of unstructured interviews is that you get to uncover far more details about a potential employee. Unstructured interview questions free you from the shackles of traditional lines of enquiry.

When an interviewer feels more like an everyday conversation, candidates are more likely to open up about personal experiences and how they’d manage in a particular scenario. For an experienced recruiter, this qualitative data is invaluable, allowing them to find the best fit for an open position.

Less chance of bias

Ever feel like you’re being given textbook answers? Job seekers hear the same interview questions all the time, and there’s an urge to offer the most socially desirable answer every time. When you use unstructured interview questions, you’re removing the opportunity for candidates to lean on these rehearsed answers, forcing them to think on their feet.

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Unstructured interviews disadvantages

Despite the benefits they can bring to the hiring process, there are some drawbacks to consider. Below are some noteworthy disadvantages of unstructured interviews.

They don’t work with interview panels

When looking to fill senior roles requiring a lot of experience, a hiring panel is usually called for. However, the conversational nature of unstructured interviews doesn’t easily allow for this. You’ll get the most value from an unstructured interview when it’s just a single interviewer talking to a candidate.

If you need to involve hiring managers or additional employers, think about assigning them to note-taking duty. Just bear in mind that their presence is going to be a distraction, potentially cancelling out the benefits of an unstructured approach.

Ensuring consistency can be a problem

No two unstructured interviews are ever the same. While they’re a handy qualitative research tool, they’re not particularly useful when it comes to comparing potential candidates. If you go off in wildly different directions with each candidate, making the final call may prove almost impossible. You can potentially overcome this by adopting a semi-structured interview approach.

Experienced interviewers only

While candidates might be more comfortable with unstructured interviews, they do require a high level of skill on the part of the interviewer. Even the most experienced HR manager can struggle to hold an unstructured interview effectively. Directing an unstructured interview requires excellent communication skills, while interviewers need to be keen observers.

How to conduct an unstructured interview

To ensure the best results, you’ll need to know how to conduct unstructured interviews effectively.

1. Establish key information you need from each candidate

Unstructured interviews are unscripted by nature, but this doesn’t mean an interviewer should arrive unprepared. Rather than draw up a list of set questions, make a note of all the key information you’re looking to capture from an interview. Ensure they’re specific enough to yield the answers you’re looking for, but broad enough that it’s not going to feel as though you’re running through a checklist.

2. Give interviews the resources they need

If you’re experimenting with unstructured interviews for the first time, you’ll need to develop new procedures and policies. Whether it’s a hiring manager or someone from your HR team handling the interview, they’ll need access to guidelines about how best to handle the process. If you plan on unstructured interviews becoming the norm throughout your organisation, make sure things are standardised, with clear direction on how to evaluate candidates.

Unstructured Interviews advantages and disadvantages

3. Practice makes perfect

Handling an unstructured interview is something of an artf orm. While you’ll undoubtedly become better at them over time, you’ll need to put in some practice to get the ball rolling. Practice sessions give HR teams and hiring managers the confidence they need to engage candidates more casually. What’s more, you can use these sessions to identify any shortcomings with your approach.

4. Think about recording interviews for later reference

We’ve already touched upon the fact that unstructured interviews aren’t really a good fit for hiring panels. If you do need the insights of other stakeholders to make a hiring decision, think about recording interviews for other people’s reference. As well as allowing other people to make their own decisions, you can use these recordings to confirm your own impression. Just remember to get consent from interviewees prior to recording them.

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Unstructured interview example questions

Understanding the Candidate’s Personality and Work Style

While you don’t need to stick to a predetermined script when hosting an unstructured interview, it can prove useful to ask a few common questions to every candidate. Keep things broad by asking candidates to talk about themselves, or think about probing their career goals. If you want to get a real feel of how someone might click with your organisation, ask them to visualise their first month in the role.

Delving Into Past Experiences and Achievements

Alternatively, ask them to talk about a particular challenge they faced in a previous posting and how they resolved it. This not only gives insight into their problem-solving skills but also highlights their adaptability and resilience. Consider inquiring about their work style and how they adapt to new environments, which reveals their personal work ethic and potential team integration.

Exploring Problem-Solving and Creativity

Don’t shy away from open-ended questions that encourage candidates to share their experiences and perspectives. For instance, you might ask, ‘Can you describe a project that you are particularly proud of, and what your role was in its success?‘ This question not only allows them to showcase their achievements but also gives you a glimpse into what they value professionally.

Assessing Career Goals and Long-Term Vision

To get a sense of their commitment and long-term vision, you might want to ask, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?‘ or ‘How does this role align with your career aspirations?‘ These questions help in understanding their career trajectory and whether it aligns with what your organization offers.

Creating a Two-Way Dialogue

Remember, the aim of unstructured interviews is not just to evaluate the candidates but also to let them assess if the role and organization are a good fit for them. Asking open-ended, conversational questions makes the interview more of a dialogue than an interrogation, likely eliciting more genuine responses and providing a clearer picture of the candidate’s potential fit within your organization.

Tap into the potential of unstructured interviews

Bad hiring decisions can usually be traced back to the interview stage. Traditional interviews can be useful in getting a handle on a candidate’s work history and experience, but they rarely give you a clear picture of the person you’re dealing with. When you embrace unstructured interviews, you’ll be able to unlock far more valuable insights that will increase your odds of landing someone who naturally fits with your organisation.

Planning an overhaul of your recruitment process and interview techniques? Make sure you have the right tools on hand. With Teamdash, you’ll get all the benefits of a first-rate applicant tracking system, not to mention a host of innovative features to enrich the interview process. Use automation to streamline communications or make quick work of job postings with integrations.

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Triin Elias

Triin Elias

Customer Success Team Lead

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