An unstructured interview is a flexible method of interviewing that uses a conversational approach rather than pre-planned interview questions.
The conversation is led by the interviewer, but can change direction as the interview progresses – depending on where the conversation goes or how the interviewer decides to steer it.
Also referred to as an ‘informal interview ’ or a ‘discovery interview’, this method helps the interviewer to find out more about the candidate as a person. The interviewer’s role is to guide the candidate through the interview via a conversation, asking questions to extract the information needed to make a well informed assessment.
This technique was first used as a qualitative research method by sociologists looking for a deep understanding of their subjects or, sometimes, by psychologists assessing child patients.
Recognised as a way of exploring the subject’s personality and attitudes, job recruiters have since adopted the unstructured interview as a viable alternative to the restrictions of the traditional structured method of interviewing.
As this approach allows for a deeper understanding of the interviewee, it is particularly beneficial when competing candidates are equally qualified for a job role but their soft skills and personality also need to be considered.
What Is the Difference Between a Structured and an Unstructured Interview?
A formal structured interview is commonly used by employees during the application process for jobs. It has several distinct characteristics:
It is always planned in advance, with a standardised and rigid format so that each interviewee answers the same questions.
In some structured interviews, questions represent points. Every time a candidate answers with a required phrase or fulfils the answering criteria, they are awarded a set number of points. At the end of the interview, it is as simple as adding up the points of every candidate to see who has the most.
The interviewer will rarely deviate from the set questions, nor add or change any questions themselves. In theory, this can help reduce interviewer bias and keep candidates on an even footing. It also makes it easy to compare candidates after the interviews, which in turn helps to streamline the selection process.
In contrast, an unstructured interview is defined by the following key features:
Almost entirely composed of open-ended questions.
There is more interviewer autonomy in deciding how to lead the interview, to get the required information from their candidate.
An unstructured interview may follow a loose plan but will allow time and space for the process to develop naturally. Sometimes, a pre-planned schedule will not be used at all, although interviewers will have an idea of their desired outcome and will steer the discussion to extract the appropriate information from their candidate.
Unstructured interviews can often prove to be more time-consuming, due to their fluid nature, so they may be held over several hours. This allows the interviewer to get a true feel for how the candidate thinks and responds in various scenarios.
Unstructured Interview Pros and Cons
An unstructured interview can be an effective way to encourage job candidates to perform at their best, but there are pros and cons to consider before deciding if this is the right interview technique for you.
Personality Traits are Revealed. One of the most important factors in successful recruitment is appointing a candidate that will fit in with an existing team. A potential employee may tick all the boxes on paper and impress in a formal interview, but if they are difficult to work with, they may cause disruption. An unstructured interview allows the recruiter to get a feel for how the candidate may fit into their organisation.
Validity. Unstructured interviews are a truer representation of a candidate’s capabilities, as they have been given the time and opportunity to explain their thought processes and demonstrate their ability. The interviewer has also had the opportunity to go deeper with questioning to clarify points, if necessary. The limited data obtained from a structured interview, on the other hand, may answer specific questions but gives little insight into the understanding and reasoning used to get there.
Useful for Final Stages of the Selection Process. This type of qualitative data collection can be especially beneficial in the final stages of the recruitment process. By this point, the remaining candidates are often equally well qualified on paper; the unstructured interview allows for the opportunity to take personality and soft skills into consideration before making a final decision.
Time Constraints. As an unstructured interview does not follow a rigid plan, the course of the conversation is naturally more time-consuming than that of a structured interview. Extracting important information from the qualitative data produced from the interview can also be a slow and involved process that happens after the interview itself.
Interviewer Bias. Without standardised questions, an interviewer may unintentionally influence a candidate’s responses as a result of the phrasing of a question, or even the tone of voice used to ask it. This can jeopardise the validity of the interview and should be taken into account when training and selecting the interviewer. The act of analysing the interview afterwards, including selecting and highlighting key points, is also open to subjectivity.
Interviewer Skill Level. For an unstructured interview to be effective, the interviewer must possess the skills and experience to objectively guide the candidate through the process. The difficulty lies in purposefully using the lack of structure to ensure that the required information is taken from the exercise. This is very different from a structured interview that follows a rigid set of predetermined questions.
Difficulty Comparing Candidates. Without a standardised set of questions and corresponding answers to work with, it can be difficult to compare candidates. The qualitative data extracted from the interviews must be analysed to draw out key points before being evaluated.
Unstructured Interview Examples
There are various ways an unstructured interview can be undertaken, and these are often influenced by how far along the recruitment process they come. Each method has its pros and cons, and should be led by experienced and skilled interviewers.
Once applications have been received and a shortlist drawn, a telephone interview may be the next step. Recruiters often use this stage to determine which candidates are suitable to move on to a face-to-face interview.
A telephone interview tends to be conversational by nature. A candidate might be asked to “Tell me about yourself ” to open the conversation. The chat might then be steered to cover any important issues that will determine whether or not they will move forward in the process.
Panel interviews can follow the unstructured format, with a team of interviewers working together to question individual candidates. Often, one interviewer will ask an initial question, with another following up on the answer with further probing.
The interviewers may have agreed on a plan beforehand and will have the same outcome goals. They may even allocate certain roles to each other – for example, one to make introductions and put the candidate at ease, one to focus on a particular area of questioning, and so on.
Once all the interviews are complete, the interviewers will decide as a group which candidates they think should move forward in the selection process. This method of interviewing can help create an interesting dynamic and can reduce the risk of interviewer bias.
Another way of performing an unstructured interview can be in a group situation . This is where several hopeful candidates come together in an interview process led by the interviewer(s).
The group works together on various tasks, giving each member the chance to demonstrate their leadership qualities , confidence and ability to get on with others, in a more natural social environment.
A group interview may take place over several hours, or even days, to allow each candidate the opportunity to be heard and get involved.
A face-to-face interview will take place as you would expect: the interviewer and interviewee seated at a desk or table, or even in a less formal, low-key environment.
The tone will be conversational to follow the unstructured format and to allow the conversation to develop naturally, with some guidance from the interviewer.
Unlike traditional formal interview methods, the relaxed feel of this type of interview means that the candidate is more likely to be themselves and give an accurate impression of who they are.
An unstructured interview is an approach that allows recruiters to get to know their candidates better.
Without the restrictions of pre-planned questions, the interviewer can adapt and steer the interview to obtain specific information. This can be particularly useful in the final stages of recruitment if the remaining candidates have similar qualifications and experience.
An unstructured interview allows the interviewee to demonstrate their personality and soft skills, whilst allowing the interviewer to gain clarification and a deeper understanding of the candidate as a person.