May 31, 2017 Michella Wempen

What Happens When You Do Unstructured Interviews?

Human decision-making processes are routinely flawed. For example, many are convinced that flying is significantly more dangerous than driving and believe they can win the lottery when the odds of getting struck by lightning are far greater. In an organizational context, hiring managers often neglect valid hiring tools and argue “I know good employees when I see ‘em.” Considering this mantra, we shouldn’t be surprised that information from unstructured interviews is perceived as more effective than standardized test scores (e.g., Terpstra, 1996; Lievens, Highhouse, & De Corte, 2005). Accordingly, we should be less surprised by the number of poor performers on most payrolls and the high employee churn rates in many industries. Overconfidence in “gut feel” leads hiring managers to rely on subjectively-assessed fit through the unstructured interview process.

While we have known for a long time that the predictive ability of unstructured interviews is low, recent research by Kausel, Culbertson, & Madrid (2016) indicates that the derived information can actually be harmful to hiring decisions. Even when standardized test scores (e.g., cognitive ability, personality) were presented, experienced managers placed exaggerated weight on unstructured interview ratings. The ratings increased the managers’ confidence but decreased their hiring accuracy. Unfortunately, most people do not weigh cues appropriately. Unstructured interviews add very little to prediction and their use dilutes the predictive power of valid selection procedures.

People are an organization’s greatest source of competitive advantage and generally the single largest investment for an organization. We know that one bad hire can cost an organization tens of thousands of dollars and good hires can significantly boost profits. Assessments can help avoid 60 to 70% of poor hiring decisions. If you aren’t using standardized tests, you might as well be throwing darts while blindfolded. Pre-employment tests generally correlate with job performance better than many medical interventions correlate with health improvement (seriously, look up the correlations between antibiotics and health improvement or taking an aspirin and heart health). Avoid making decisions based solely on “gut” by supplementing structured interviews with standardized testing.


Kausel, Culbertson, & Madrid (2016). Overconfidence in personnel selection: When and why unstructured interview information can hurt hiring decisions. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 137, 27-44.

Lievens, F., Highhouse, S., & De Corte, W. (2005). The importance of traits and abilities in supervisors’ hirability decisions as a function of method of assessment. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 78(3), 453–470.

Terpstra, D. E. (1996). The search for effective methods. HR Focus, 73(5), 16–17.

Author and WorkforceIC President & Chief Scientist