Tell me if this sounds familiar: you’re looking to hire a new employee and so you throw up an ad on,, or (if you’re really on a tight budget), Craigslist. You then sift through the hundreds of applications / resumes now clogging your inbox, you call a bunch of the applicants, have a handful of them come in, and then you conduct an interview.

You probably start the interview with: “So, tell me a little about yourself,” or “Why are you looking to work here,” or some other type of wide-open question, and where it goes from there, is anybody’s guess.

An Unstructured Interview is an assessment tool commonly used by small businesses in the hiring process. It is typically an interview without a plan; a ‘get-to-know-you session;’ an off-the-cuff conversation. It’s also complete crap!

BUT…BUT…BUT, “I’ve been using unstructured interviews for years!” “But, I’m a great judge of character!” “But, I can tell who is going to work out at my office within the first two minutes of getting to know someone!”

I often hear these explanations while speaking with a business owner who is currently struggling with high turnover rates and / or underperforming employees. The evidence is clear that something is not working, and yet they will strongly defend their selection method.

Many of these business owners ARE great judges of character. Many of these managers CAN read someone within two minutes of speaking with them. BUT, that does little to increase the effectiveness of an unstructured interview.

In an unstructured interview, the best conversationalist will likely get the job over the technically strongest candidate. In an unstructured interview, the candidate who has more hobbies in common with the interviewer will likely get the job over the candidate with diverse interests and experiences. This can blow back on the business in numerous ways.

First, hiring people because you connected better with them in an unstructured interview can lead to Disparate Impact, a form of unintentional (but quite illegal) discrimination. As a white Jewish man in my late thirties, I love kosher delis, I grew up listening to a ton of folk and easy-listening music when my Dad was driving carpool and a ton of Green Day, REM, and maybe even some Nickelback (too soon to admit that?) once I was able to drive myself. I can also still quote Seinfeld episodes to this day.

While certainly people from all ethnicities and genders can appreciate Green Day and a show about nothing, if you’re white, Jewish, and in your late thirties, you’re probably more likely to understand the “show about nothing” reference, than if you’re black, Methodist, and in your sixties. Therefore, if my interview has no structure and no focus, I am more likely to gravitate toward people that I have more personally in common with, until one day, I take a look around my office and find that everyone looks like, and thinks like me. (*A lack of diversity can have many negative effects on a business way beyond the legal threat alone… more about this in a future post).

Perhaps even more alarming than the diversity challenge is the fact that unstructured interviews just don’t work; they don’t reliably find you the best people! In a comparison of fourteen unique job assessment methods, unstructured interviews proved to be one of the least valid testing methods, second only to graphology (yup, the only method to be found less effective at finding the best candidate was… handwriting analysis!) Yet, while most employers would never even dream of using a parlor trick like graphology as part of their selection procedure (I hope), many of these same business owners and managers are relying on unstructured interviews with an average validity of, as low as .20 (that’s scientific speak for… this stuff isn’t effective!).

However, the same comparison study found that a structured interview was THE MOST effective selection method of the 14 tested! In a structured interview the business owner or hiring manager sits down with a candidate and asks a series of predetermined questions that were developed specifically to parse out mastery over the knowledge, skills and abilities required of the specific job. A structured interview does not need to be / should not be overly stiff and robotic – in fact, follow up questions are a necessary component of an effective structured interview. Rather the structured process allows for thoughtful and valid questions along with the ability to compare apples-to-apples interview performance across all candidates.

Structured Job Interviews require more time and resources to develop, but can quickly save a business tens of thousands of dollars as they begin filling their seats with more effective employees with less turnover. The evidence is clear, if you are looking for top quality employees, stop using unstructured interviews.