What impression do your interview questions make on a job candidate?

  •  “Awesome, I’ve heard these before and have a great response!”
  • “I’ve got this… just follow the clues to say what they want to hear.”
  •  “I think they’re getting to know me as a person”

Before you post your next job, stop and consider your interview strategy.  If you’re not hiring the right people, the problem may lie in your interview questions—not in the candidates.

There are two main types of interviews used by employers: unstructured (the most common) and structured.



Random or loosely organized questions

Questions align with a standard of performance

Responses are open to interpretation

Responses compared with a listening guide

Based on user preference, open to bias

Research-based, reduced bias

Decisions guided by notes, impressions, experience, resume skills, etc.

Decisions guided by a scoring format to compare candidates


Alone, unstructured interviews can make it difficult to defend a hiring decision. But when combined with a structured interview, they can be very helpful as part of a thoughtful, robust hiring process.

Learn about each of the ten interview types to see how they work and fit into a hiring process. Hopefully you will find the perfect fit to add to your HR toolkit!

  • The Sniff Test – Before investing significant time in a candidate, an initial screening process can help you discover if the person is qualified to move forward. This stage can be unstructured or structured and may include online pre-employment assessments. It often involves a five to ten-minute phone interview with prepared questions.

The goal is to ensure a person who looks good on the application is actually a viable candidate.  Keep in mind if your screening process is too narrow in an area, you may lose a very talented candidate to the competition.

 Unstructured Interviews:

  • The Coffee Shop – This interview involves a free-flowing, informal conversation with minimal preparation. Interviewers let their instincts guide the conversation and put the candidate at ease, often encouraging them to reveal their unguarded side.

Interviewers get to know the individual and try to discover a few nuggets of anecdotal evidence that either confirms or denies their feelings about the person.  Keep in mind when this interview is over, interviewers rely on subjective impressions of each candidate that may include personal biases. 

  • The Yellow Note Pad – This interview uses questions often composed minutes before the candidate walks in the door. This approach may give the impression the interviewer has a plan and is taking notes to guide their decision.

As with the Coffee Shop, interviewers either confirm or deny their feelings about the person. Keep in mind that without carefully focused questions or a way to recognize quality, it will be difficult to filter bias when comparing candidates.  

  • The Search Engine – Alone or as a team, interviewers create a list of their favorite questions from a Search Engine or past experience. There may be a loose connection to research, but it is often minimal at best. Interviewers use the final list of questions with candidates in key positions.

An advanced version uses a rubric to help recognize the preferred response to each question. Keep in mind the quality of questions will vary greatly as will the consistency of interpreting responses between interviewers. Predicting top candidates with this method can be inconsistent.

  • The Library – In this interview type, a catalog of questions is provided by an online application or is recommended by an online screening assessment.

Some Library interview questions will include a response guide to suggest preferred responses, but they may not be researched-based. Keep in mind that questions chosen randomly run the risk of inconsistent results, especially with untrained teams.  Predicting top candidates can be hit and miss.

  • The Recording Studio – Busy employers may choose to replace human interaction with video software. Hiring managers pre-define a set of questions and invite selected applicants to video record their responses to each question from a personal computer or mobile device at their convenience.

Companies using this approach tend to focus on the efficiency of quickly reviewing a list of online interviews. An added bonus is the ability to speed up the videos not catching your attention after the first few questions. Keep in mind that efficiency can overshadow quality. The employer is still responsible for the quality of questions and effectively evaluating candidates with minimal bias.

Structured Interviews:

  • The Situation Room – This interview uses a consistent set of research-designed scenario questions with specific response criteria, allowing interviewers to more objectively compare candidates to an agreed-upon standard. By using scenarios, candidates can reveal how they act in a given situation, regardless of direct experience. Some employers may add a few scenario questions on their own, but most who commit to this approach seek a professional service.

A common approach is asking, “Here is a situation, what would you do?” This allows people to clearly describe their thinking and actions in everyday job situations.  Candidate responses can reveal who they are as professionals, beyond their job-specific knowledge. This ability to consistently compare candidate responses to objective standards increases the reliability of interviewer results.

A theme-based approach is one specific type of a situational interview. By researching the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of top performers, specific themes are defined as the standard. Questions with clear criteria are aligned with the definitions and then tested to confirm their effectiveness.   Interviewers using this approach can be easily trained to recognize and describe strong responses as a team, including critical soft skills.

Employers can uniformly compare candidates and better predict their effectiveness on the job. Keep in mind we tend to hire people for what they know and fire them for who they are. Although core talents and abilities are revealed in this type of interview, you still need to confirm specific technical skills.

  • The Formula – This interview follows the belief that past behavior in a job-related experience is the best predictor of future performance. Some employers try making their own version of this interview, and there are companies who provide their own proprietary questions with a research base.

Interviewers typically ask questions that begin with “tell me about a time when…” or a similar story-like format. Candidates are instructed to use a specific pattern to describe their experience and pre-defined competencies the organization believes leads to success on the job.

People often refer to this interview with the STAR acronym that serves as a checklist to listen for responses with a specific Situation, a Task to accomplish, the Action taken, and the Result of the action. Candidates can also describe what they might do if they don’t have a past experience that relates.

Employers typically compare candidates on how well they articulate desirable qualities that demonstrate leadership and areas of competence within a team. Keep in mind candidates with more experience may be favored over those with talent but have less experience in that role.

  • The Stage – Depending on the job role, some hiring managers will use some type of live demonstration toward the end of the process. This gives candidates a chance to show they know what they are talking about, can perform a key skill, or can respond to unexpected questions or uncomfortable situations.

Keep in mind the Stage only confirms specific skills and competencies related to the position. It will be important to evaluate a candidate’s overall talent and fit within the organization.

  • The Fitting Room – This is usually the last stage before making an offer. This may include a “tour” of the job and a panel-style interview. If done well, finding the right fit within the team and organization means more than maintaining the status quo.  Insightful hiring managers use this step to identify qualities in candidates that complement or even stretch a team’s perspective in their work.

The Final Fit interview seeks to verify the candidate has the required talents, skills, and knowledge, is coachable, will be a good fit for the chemistry of the team, and will contribute to the perceived climate/culture of the workplace. This is an opportunity to dig deeper on specific topics with the candidate.

If all lights are green at this point, employers will have confirming evidence to hire, while scoring points with the candidate on why they should accept and keep this job over competing offers.

Keep in mind this is not a good time to bring in a low performing or “courtesy” candidate for contrast with strong candidates.  A charming but less effective candidate may sway decision-makers, so only bring people you want to hire to this stage.

Hire hard, manage easy

HR leaders and hiring managers want to hire people who will do great work and inspire others to move the mission forward. However, avoiding the revolving door of turnover requires an honest look at how you interview employees and use that information to keep them. If you want to experience the joy of managing easy with a great team, you must invest in the work up front to make your interviews a challenging yet rewarding experience. This effort will pay dividends to every employee and customer each new team member touches.