Interviewing costs money, as well as skill and planning. Even those of us who are natural interviewers need to be prepared when meeting with an applicant. Whether the interview is on the phone or in person, it is crucial that the interview time is used appropriately. Knowing what type of interview to use and when to use it will help make the interview more successful, yielding the critical information needed to select the right applicant for the position. Read on to learn more about the unstructured interview process and how to conduct one.

Table of Contents

Watch the world’s largest HR encyclopedia be built in real-time

Subscribe to get a weekly roundup email of all our new entries

What Is an Unstructured Interview?

An unstructured interview is interviewing that encourages the applicant to speak freely. The HR representative’s role in an unstructured interview is to ask probing questions to collect data on a topic from the applicant. The unstructured interview allows for more of a dialogue with the applicant, encouraging a more causal environment which generates intriguing responses during the interaction.

Unstructured vs. Structured Interview

Structured interviews are the most organized type of interviews. In a structured interview, the HR representative uses a form with predetermined questions that must be asked in a specific order for the specific role the applicant has applied to. In this interview format, the HR representative solicits responses that are closed-ended leading to “yes” or “no” responses with minimal details. The HR representative then compares the responses from one applicant to the next applicant, allowing the HR representative to quantify the data of all applicants.

Unstructured interviews are more of a directed dialogue. In an unstructured interview, the HR representative does not use standard questions. Instead, the HR representative asks open-ended questions which allows for discovery of the topic. When performing an unstructured interview, the HR representative must remain organized, developing a system of tracking and recording the responses of the applicant. This will be needed to summarize the interview responses to share with the hiring team.

Are Unstructured Interviews Beneficial for Companies?

Unstructured interviews can produce different results than a structured interview. To decide if an unstructured interview is right for you, weigh the pros and cons of an unstructured interview prior to speaking with the applicant.

Pros of Unstructured Interviews

Unstructured interviews allow the HR representative to have a more in-depth discussion on a particular topic, strength, or trait of the applicant while adapting and changing questions quickly during the conversation.

  • Very flexible. An unstructured interview is free and flexible. It adapts and developes based on the information the applicant shares.
  • Applicants are more at ease. The unstructured interview setting is designed to put the applicant at ease as the HR representative is not cross-examining them from a set of predetermined questions. The unstructured interview provides the applicant with a relaxed setting that uncovers their true personality, work style and interest within the organization..
  • Reduced risk of bias. An unstructured interview allows the HR representative to learn how the applicant has successfully handled similar work and permits the applicant to provide examples of skills and experiences relevant to the job description. The HR representative assesses the applicant’s past performance of comparable work, not the applicant’s presentation skills when asking standardized questions.
  • More detailed information. An unstructured interview allows the HR representative to gather detailed responses from the applicant by asking open ended questions. They have spontaneous dialogue with the applicant, enabling the HR representative and applicant to have a conversation rather than a question and answer session.

Cons of Unstructured Interviews

The disadvantage of unstructured interviews is that they are time-consuming for an inexperienced HR representative. The unstructured interview produces a large amount of data that can make analyzing the information difficult when making recommendations to move forward.

  • Low generalizability. In an unstructured interview, the data collected from the applicant cannot be used to measure one applicant to the next, as the information and examples are specific to individual resumes. The HR representative will gather a large amount of data that does not fit into a standardized set of questions and answers.  
  • Not suitable for certain positions. Not every interview warrants the unstructured approach. As the HR representative, consider what level you are completing the interview for. An entry level position where the applicant has little to no work experience would not benefit from an unstructured interview. However, an applicant who has six plus years of experience in a specific leadership position would be a suitable candidate for an unstructured interview.
  • Very time-consuming. Conducting an unstructured interview can be very time consuming for the HR representative. As the unstructured interview develops through conversation, this process could lead to the applicant focusing on one topic and the HR representative struggling to redirect them. 
  • Difficult to train interviewers. There are no official guidelines for how to complete an unstructured interview. To become proficient in unstructured interviews takes practice. The HR representative should be familiar with the role they are interviewing for. Best practice is to meet with the hiring manager to discuss the position first. This will assist the HR representative in asking probing questions. Most importantly, the HR representative needs to be comfortable asking probing questions to gather more information.

How to Conduct an Unstructured Interview

An unstructured interview does not have a preset list of questions to be asked of the applicant. This does not mean that the HR representative does not need to be prepared or have a list of topics identified in advance.

Step 1: Review the Job Description

Anytime the HR representative is completing an unstructured interview, ensure they know the job description and are familiar with any nuances with the position.

Step 2: Review the Applicant’s Resume

The HR representative should review the applicant’s resume prior to the start of the interview. As an unstructured interview is open dialogue between the applicant and HR representative, the HR representative needs to know the applicant’s job history to ask probing questions to gather as much detail as possible.

Step 3: Take Notes

Note-taking prior to and during an unstructured interview is crucial. The HR representative should note questions to ask after reviewing the resume. This will aid the HR representative in questioning the applicant to capture information that the applicant might not otherwise share or that the HR representative wants to understand.

During the unstructured interview, the HR representative needs to notate the conversation. This does not have to be word for word, but does need to involve enough data that they can summarize the conversation to the hiring manager. As the HR representative practices unstructured interviewing, it is acceptable to pause between questions before moving on in the dialogue to document a statement.

Step 4: Listen

During the unstructured interview, it is imperative the HR representative practices active listening skills. It is important to listen to what the applicant is sharing, the tone they are using, and how they communicate. As this is open dialogue and the HR representative wants to ensure the applicant is relaxed, the HR representative can observe if the applicant is communicating professionally or not. If the applicant is overly comfortable and relaxed, the conversation will sound similar to a conversation they would have with a friend.

Examples of Unstructured Interview Questions

Below are some typical unstructured interview questions that prompt engaging conversation from the applicant.

Example 1:Tell Me About Yourself

“Tell me about yourself” is a great opener to kick off the unstructured interview. It puts the conversation in the hands of the applicant. The applicant gets to talk about themselves which is a fantastic way for the applicant to relax and remove barriers.

Example 2: What Are Your Career Goals?

The question, “What are your career goals?” illustrates the applicant’s long-term goals and if the position they are interviewing for is the correct next move for both them and the company. This question also allows the HR representative to understand if the applicant is likely to stay with the organization or utse the position as a stepping stone to another job.

Example 3: What Would Your First 90 Days With Our Company Look Like?

Unstructured interviews with higher-level positions typically do not come with a training guide for the applicant. By asking, “What would your first 90 days look like with our company,” the HR representative can visualize the applicant’s learning style, their leadership approach, and how they would build relationships and respect within the organization. This question is great to ask last to wrap up the unstructured interview and give the HR representative a realistic idea if the applicant is the right fit for the organization.

Questions You’ve Asked Us About Unstructured Interviews

An unstructured interview will typically last an hour. Anything outside of an hour, the HR representative and applicant are at risk for covering information that is not specific to the applicant’s resume and role they have applied to. Depending on the level within the organization the applicant has applied to and the experience of the interviewer, half hour may be appropriate.
Yes, an unstructured interview is a terrific interview approach to receive the most honest and open feedback. In an unstructured interview, the conversation is constantly evolving and changing based on the applicant’s responses. The HR representative’s role during an unstructured interview is to actively listen to the responses and solicit more information by asking probing questions.

Nicole Little is a Senior HR Business Partner with over 7 years of experience in the Human Resource field. Nicole has worked for the largest e-commerce company and the leading LTL carrier. Nicole Little’s love for human resources comes through as she advocates and builds relationships within all levels of an organization. When Nicole is not working, she is enjoying the outdoors with her husband, two son’s and their dog.

Want to contribute to our HR Encyclopedia?

Posts You Might Like

Want to join our network of contributing HR professionals?

Scroll to Top

Submit a Question