Candidate Experience

How to use structured interview questions to hire the right candidate

March 8, 2019

How to use structured interview questions to hire the right candidate

12 min read

If you’re like most recruiters, you’re probably looking for ways to make your hiring process as streamlined and effective as possible. That means taking steps to ensure that every candidate you hire will perform well on the job. It sounds simple on the surface, but many recruiters fall into the same trap: choosing the candidate they like best in the interview, but someone who doesn’t necessarily fit the bill when it comes to actually doing the job. To bridge this gap, companies like Google have begun using structured interview processes to screen every candidate who comes through the door in the exact same way.

Now, a standardized approach to interviewing may sound like it goes against the “get to know the person” mantra common in recruiting today. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Structured interviews leave room for the candidate to showcase their personality, but it’s done in a way that is fair, consistent and focused on the task at hand.

In this article, we’re going to take a look at why companies are moving to a standardized interviewing process, what the benefits are and how you can get started. By the end, you should have a clearer understanding of why and how you should incorporate structured interview questions into your recruitment strategy.

Structured vs. unstructured interviews

A structured approach to interviewing is a standardized and repeatable technique for recruiters and hiring managers across your company to use when screening all candidates. Each applicant is asked the same list of questions, in the same order, and is then rated based on a ranking system predetermined by the recruiter.

Structured interview questions focus on screening candidates for the hard and soft skills needed to perform well on the job. They can also include questions that aim to determine if the candidate’s personality and values are in line with those of the company and current employees.

Unstructured interviews, on the other hand, are more casual and unrehearsed. There is more leeway in the direction of the conversation, meaning any number of topics can be discussed.

Unstructured screening can be a great way to get to the know the candidate personally but can lead the recruiter to judge a candidate based on information that is not related to on-the-job performance. Structured interviews avoid this problem altogether.

Why companies are adopting standardized interviews  

A structured interviewing strategy has proven benefits for both recruiters and candidates. Because the overall goal of recruiting is the find the right candidate for the job in a fair and ethical way, standardized interviewing is the perfect tool to ensure the right decision is made for both parties. Let’s take a look at some of the benefits.

Benefits of structured interviewing for employers

Humans are inherently biased. It’s something that’s innate to how we perceive and navigate the world. It makes sense, then, that bias plays a huge role in how recruiters screen and select candidates. The problem with this for companies, however, is threefold:

  • It can lead recruiters to choose the wrong person for the job.
  • It can lead to disgruntled applicants due to perceived unfairness.
  • It can even open up the company to legal exposure related to unfair hiring processes.

Google’s vice president of People Operations, Laszlo Bock, said it best when discussing the need for a more structured approach to interviewing and the issues associated with recruiters making hiring decisions based on confirmation bias.

“Typical, unstructured job interviews were pretty bad at predicting how someone would perform once hired,” said Bock. “They create a situation where an interview is spent trying to confirm what we think of someone, rather than truly assessing them.”  That’s a pretty clear message to recruiters from one of the world’s largest companies and leading employers.

The strength of structured interviews lies in their ability to take human bias out of the equation when screening candidates. All applicants, regardless of who they are, are screened in the exact same way. There are no fluctuations in how candidates are interviewed based on any number of subjective reasons, not the least of which includes a positive or negative first impression (which we all know can be hard to dispel).

Instead, employers are able to focus on the specific skills required for the position without any outside noise cluttering the decision. Structured interview questions provide a much more detailed picture of how the candidate will perform on the job, as proven by our friends at Google.

Standardized screening is also a repeatable process that can be used for all future positions, which boosts your chances of making the right choice each and every time. This, of course, will lead to more efficient and cost-effective recruitment overall.

Benefits of structured interviewing for candidates

A common fear that many people have when interviewing for a job is that they are not being judged fairly. If they don’t hit it off with the hiring manager, then they feel that their chances of landing the job are slim, even if their skills match what is needed to be effective. This can often lead to resentment and a feeling of favoritism because they perceive the interview as being unfair. This may not be too far from the reality of the situation, in some cases.

Standardized interviews help give all candidates the much-needed confidence that they are being treated fairly, and are being judged on their skills and likelihood to succeed, rather than on subjective factors.

If the company is transparent about their use of standardized interview questions, then it also reassures candidates that they are being given the same chances as everyone else to showcase their abilities.

Now that we’ve discussed the benefits of structured interviews, let’s take a look at how you can implement a standardized screening process at your company.

How to create a structured interviewing process

There are five general steps to consider when creating and executing your standardized interviewing program:

  1. Getting buy-in from your HR team and hiring managers.
  2. Writing the job description.
  3. Creating structured interview questions.
  4. Choosing a rating scale and implementing interview scorecards.
  5. Conducting the interview and analyzing the results.

Let’s take a look at each of these steps in more detail.

Step 1: Get buy-in from your team

A standardized interviewing program will not work if everyone on your team isn’t committed to the plan. If, for example, you have two recruiters conducting interviews for a specific job, and one uses a structured approach, while the other uses an unstructured one, your overall results will be tainted.

It’s important, therefore, to sit down with everyone on your team to clearly lay out why you want to introduce a structured interviewing policy. Explain the benefits, how it will work, and what they will be expected to do in order to create a successful program.

This includes engaging the hiring managers for each of your vacant positions, as they will need to interview candidates who make it past the preliminary screening phases. Consider creating a short training session for hiring managers on how to conduct structured interviews. They can complete this crash course before their round of interviews begins.

Staff recruitment is a team activity. Make sure everyone is onboard.

Step 2: Write the job description

Before you can write questions to screen candidates in a structured way, you’ll need to have a clear idea of what hard and soft skills they’ll need to be effective. Meet with the hiring manager to get a complete list of the most important requirements an effective employee will need to be successful. List the requirements and identify the must-have skills that you will be screening for.

This can include specific skills like software or language proficiencies, or more general skills like attention to detail and clear communication. Once you have these skills written down, incorporate them into your job descriptions and job description templates so that candidates will know what is expected of them.

Step 3: Create the structured interview questions

Now that you have your job description and list of skills you’re screening for, you can start writing the interview questions you’ll be asking every candidate. These will likely be a combination of role-specific interview questions and more general and generic ones. Your questions should aim to evaluate whether (and to what degree) your candidate has the hard and soft skills outlined in the job description, as well as whether they are a cultural fit with your organization.

Here are some guidelines for writing structured interview questions:

  • Ask open-ended questions that cannot be answered with “yes” or “no”.
  • Use real-life scenarios to gauge how the candidate would deal with actual situations.
  • Ask the candidate to explain previous situations that demonstrate specific skills.
  • Be clear and concise with the phrasing of your questions to avoid confusion.
  • Write 1-2 main questions per job requirement.
  • Write follow-up questions that can be used to get more information on specific topics.
  • Avoid excessive detail or leading questions that steer the candidate toward a specific answer.
  • Do not write questions that are not related to the job.

The goal with this step is to write questions that will provide clear and relevant insights about the candidate as it relates to your job posting. Let’s take a look at some sample questions that can be used to evaluate hard skill, soft skills, and cultural fit.  

Hard skill interview questions

In this scenario, the recruiter would like to assess the candidates’ proficiencies with the CRM platform Salesforce. The goal is to determine if they have used the platform before, how often, and what their level of expertise would be.

Structured interview questions for this hard skill might look something like this:

“How often did you use Salesforce in your previous position?”

“What tasks did you generally complete using Salesforce?”

“Tell me about a time that you used Salesforce to gain new insights into prospective customers.”

In combination, the answer to these questions will give the recruiter a good idea of how well each candidate will be able to use their company’s main CRM tool in their daily work.

Soft skill interview questions

In addition to hard skills, the recruiter would also like to evaluate the candidates’ ability to clearly and reliably communicate to team members and upper management. To do this, the recruiter can ask candidates a combination of questions that prompt real-life examples, or direct them to explain how they would deal with hypothetical situations.

Structured interview questions for this soft skill could look like this:

“Tell me about a time you had to explain a difficult concept to members of your team.”

“How would you handle a customer complaint that did not relate specifically to your job?”

“How would you present your quarterly advertising results to upper management to ensure the core takeaways are communicated clearly?”

Each of these questions will prompt the candidate to think on the fly and draw on past experiences to formulate their answers. An added benefit is that the questions will force the candidate to showcase their communication abilities to you in real time while explaining previous examples of that same soft skill.

Cultural fit interview questions

When interviewing candidates to determine cultural fit, it’s important to remember that this can be a very subjective endeavor. Make sure that you don’t fall into the trap of favoring candidates with similar lifestyles and personalities to you. You should also be aware that cultural fit is not determined by one person in the company. Culture is, inherently, a team attribute. So bring your team into the conversation when crafting your interview questions.

Structured interviewing is a great way to ensure that you stay as impartial as possible when measuring cultural fit, and focused on gathering information that is relevant to the task at hand. The candidate’s answers can be ranked alongside your hard and soft skills questions to provide a well-rounded view of your candidates and their likelihood to excel on the job.

Structured interview questions for cultural fit could look like this:

“What characteristics do you look for in a company when applying for a position?”

“What do you think is the most important value a company should hold in our industry.”

“Which company do you think is the gold standard in your field, and why?”

These questions will give you a good window into how the candidate views and values the role of the company, and the people within it. While it’s difficult to measure these answers objectively, you can note recurring themes and phrases that the candidate uses and compare them to your own culture statement. If they align, then you may have a nice cultural fit.

Step 4: Choose a rating system

Now that you have your list of structured interview questions, you should have some ideas of how you can measure and rate your candidates’ answers to them. Your rating system can be anything you like. It can be a 5-point scale that rates answers from “very good” to “very poor” (or “high proficiency” to “low proficiency”), or it can be a simple “yes” or “no” rating for each skill. Or, it can be any other system you can think of evaluate and track the interview answers.

More important than the specific rating method is that you use the exact same system to evaluate every question and every candidate. At the end of the interview process, you’ll have a large pool of objective data to sift through that will help guide your decision for the next steps.

One tried and test method for measuring how well candidates answer structured questions is to use interview scorecards at the core of your evaluation process. A scorecard should be created alongside your detailed job description before the vacancy is posted. This forms the basis for what will be evaluated, and how. You can then pass this scorecard around to your recruitment team to act as the rulebook for how every candidate should be interviewed.

Step 5: Conduct the interviews and analyze the results

Once you have your job description and standardize interview questions written and your rating system in place, the last step is to start talking to candidates. Interview your applicants in person, over the phone or through video chat, and ask every one of them the exact same questions. If you’d like to ask follow-ups, make sure you use the ones you wrote down at the start of the process. Asking off-the-cuff questions to some candidates and not others will allow bias and irrelevant information to creep into your decision making.

Once you’re finished, analyze the results and make an informed, impartial decision on who you’d like to talk to again. Or, better yet, who you’d like to hire.

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Brendan is an experienced writer and content marketing professional with experience working for various HR tech and SaaS companies in Canada. He has an extensive background in web content marketing and journalism.
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