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How to Create the Perfect Semi-Structured Interview

A structured interview is, technically, one in which you’d ask the same set of questions, in the same order, and in the same interview process, for every candidate. This creates an even-playing field for all of your candidates, so you can fairly evaluate each of them on the same criteria. The problem with this approach is that each candidate is unique, and giving them all the same exact interview experience has the potential to hurt more than it helps. A real structured interview can feel robotic and cold—which probably isn’t the candidate experience you’re going for. Instead, aim for a more semi-structured interview.

What’s a semi-structured interview?

In a semi-structured interview, you begin with a set of base questions for every candidate. These are usually behavioral interview questions designed to suss out skill- and culture-fit. As the candidate responds, ask follow up questions while following the natural flow of conversation. Many interviewers begin by asking the candidate to walk through their job history. As the candidate goes through each role, the interviewer may ask about their accomplishments and mistakes, what they liked most and least, and why they left.

If the candidate mentions something slightly off-topic, but interesting, dive in a little deeper. Let’s say you’ve put a lot of thought and effort into building an inclusive culture, and a candidate mentions their involvement in a professional group for minorities. You should definitely ask them to tell you more about that! Will it disrupt your even-playing field? Probably. But maybe that’s ok if it means you uncover a strong culture fit candidate and engage a top-choice candidate.

When should you deviate from a structured interview?

While you’ll still want to stick to the same basic structure for each candidate’s interview process, there are some cases where it makes sense to deviate a little more.

  1. You’re courting a very passive candidate. Some candidates are very passive and won’t be ready to enter into your recruitment process right away. In this case, you may need to add an extra introductory phone call or coffee meeting (or several of each) to warm the candidate up to the idea of making a move.
  2. You’re about to lose a top-choice candidate. Opposite of the passive candidate is the candidate who is in very high-demand and is bordering on accepting an offer elsewhere. There will be times when you’ll need to speed up your recruitment process to make quick decisions for top-choice candidates, before they’re no longer available.
  3. Informal gatherings are part of your process. When an informal gathering is part of your interview process, it does not (and should not) need to be structured. This is an opportunity for your employees and candidates to get to know one another in a more relaxed environment. Let conversation happen organically, much like it would over a normal team lunch or outing.
  4. Your questions are published. When some candidates can prepare their responses and others can’t, they are no longer on a level playing field. Review Glassdoor regularly to see if your behavioral interview questions and work sample tests have been published. If they have, consider whether you should change them for the remainder of your candidates.

Conclusion

While a true structured interview would allow you evaluate candidates much more fairly, a more semi-structured interview will usually offer a better candidate experience. A great interview process will have as much structure as possible, but deviate as appropriate. The best interviewers will not only understand how to keep a good conversation going; they will also know how to reconcile their candidate feedback from interviews that differ here and there. Rather than going with their gut because they like someone, or connected with them over a mutual interest, they need to reduce their own unconscious biases and take an objective look at each candidate they meet. With the right interview structure and interviewer training, you can significantly improve the results of your hiring program.

Learn more interview best practices in our eBook:Top Interview Tips: The Employer’s Essential Handbook.