The debate between structured and ‘conversational’ interviews

Some level of structure is probably a good thing

The debate between structured and ‘conversational’ interviews
Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

I have noticed a growing movement away from highly structured interviews towards more “conversational” interviews with candidates. The idea is the typical job interview format is impersonal, artificial and one-sided in favour of the employer, and therefore interviews should be more of a “getting to know one another” type exercise rather than a rigid question-and-answer format with the employer asking most of the questions.

Some career counselors and even a few HR practitioners argue most of the standard questions asked in job interviews are clichéd, off-putting and of little relevance. They also believe the standard interview format assumes the employer holds all the cards and candidates must therefore bow and scrape before recruiters and hiring managers.

I’m starting to see a lot of criticism of standard interview questions such as “Tell me about yourself.”  “What is your biggest weakness?” “Where do you see yourself in five years?” and “Why should we hire you?” A few are even questioning standard behavioural interview type questions such as “Tell me about a time when you went above and beyond the call of duty to satisfy a customer?”

No doubt some of these questions have become rather hackneyed and some are generally not used by trained recruiters or HR practitioners (such as the fabled “If you were an animal, what animal would you choose to be and why?”). While some advocates of conversational interviews understand the purpose of some of these questions and believe they have at least some legitimacy in terms of the information being sought, they argue there are better ways to frame the questions by making them less cheesy, intrusive and oppressive, and more conversational in nature.

Making interviews fairer and less one-sided

In that respect, I’m completely onboard with making interview questions fairer and less one-sided and avoiding clichés. For example, I prefer to ask people to walk me through their education and experience, as opposed to the dreaded “Tell me about yourself.”

The only problem with that approach is people sometimes balk at that and say, “It’s all right there in my resumé.” They sometimes see it as repetitive and a sign the interviewer hasn’t read their resumé, when in fact it is merely a way to get a conversation started and have the candidate tell a story about her career history and education beyond what’s captured in the resumé.

Advocates of conversational interviews make a valid point when they say candidates are interviewing the company as much as they themselves are being interviewed. Candidates need to be given an opportunity to ask meaningful questions of the interviewer as well, and the recruiter or hiring manager should be prepared to supply information about the job, the organization and the selection process moving forward.

Candidate experience and employer branding are extremely important, and we should be moving away from stressful and intimidating interviews that reflect outdated and hegemonic practices that treat candidates like employers hold all the cards and job applicants should be grateful the company has even agreed to interview them. We should also be avoiding intrusive and insulting questions about things like salary history or anything that amounts to armchair psychology or pseudoscience.

Problems with unstructured interviews

Recruiters and hiring managers can improve candidate experience and enhance the flow of communications by making interviews more conversational and establishing two-way conversations with candidates. However, there are a couple of problems associated with completely unstructured interviews.

From a human rights perspective, not treating candidates in a broadly similar manner can invite allegations of discrimination or favouritism. While there is certainly scope for asking non-discriminatory probing questions specific to each candidate or asking them about things that jump out at you from their resumés (again in a non-discriminatory manner), structured interview questions make it easier to treat everyone fairly and consistently.

Structured interviews also make it easier to compare apples with apples. If everyone is asked the same broadly similar questions, it becomes easier to compare their answers and possibly even score and rank those answers, for example, using behavioural interviewing techniques.

While interviewing should be a two-way process to assess fit, HR practitioners, recruiters and hiring managers should be mindful that the job interview is a selection tool first and foremost. Making interviews more conversational in nature is a good thing, but an interview shouldn’t just be social chit-chat to make candidates feel more comfortable.

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