The Structured Selection Interview

A Sound Method of Assessment

This guide is intended to provide practical information on selection interviewing. It deals with the development of structured interview questions, effective interviewing techniques, and the evaluation of candidate responses.

One of the reasons why the interview is such a popular method of assessment is its versatility. Different approaches can be taken in the interview, depending upon the type of information required. Some interviews are like job previews in that the candidates are placed in a simulated scenario and asked to respond as they would on the job. Other interviews are like knowledge tests, with the questions and answers given orally. Still other interviews are like reference checks, where candidates provide information about their past experiences, strengths and weaknesses.

Each of the above approaches can be incorporated in the structured selection interview.

The key to designing effective interviews: structure

Although many different approaches can be incorporated into the interview, effective interviews have three characteristics. When these characteristics are present, the interview can be referred to as a "structured" interview.

"A structured interview may be defined as a series of job-related questions with predetermined answers that are consistently applied across all interviews for a particular job." Pursell, Campion, & Gaylord, Personnel Journal, 1980.

A structured selection interview involves more than just asking the same questions of all candidates. In order to be called "structured", an interview must have three characteristics:

  1. Questions are rooted in the duties and responsibilities of the position.
  2. Questions are developed systematically to tap specific qualifications.
  3. Answers are evaluated against established criteria.

Interviews developed to include the above characteristics are more effective in identifying competent candidates.

Designing a structured interview

Some interviewers ask questions that are designed to get the candidates to "reveal themselves". These questions are usually formulated without any particular qualification in mind. Candidates' answers to such questions are difficult to interpret, and the information elicited is rarely relevant to the qualifications being assessed.

Avoid fishing expeditions

For example, unless related to the qualifications being assessed, the following questions would not be appropriate:

  1. "What kind of people annoy you the most?"
  2. "Describe the best person who ever worked for or with you."
  3. "What did you like best about your last position?"

A better alternative is to develop questions that will provide information relevant to the qualification(s) being assessed. The three steps described below outline how you can develop these questions.

Step #1

Consider the kind of actions, responses and behaviours that are relevant to the qualification(s) being assessed.

Step #2

Develop questions that will elicit relevant information.

Step #3

Evaluate candidates' answers.

These three steps apply to the development of interview questions for the assessment of various qualifications.

Step #1:

Consider the kind of actions, responses, and behaviours that are relevant to the qualification(s) being assessed.

Some groundwork needs to be done before the interview questions can be written. The information elicited at this step will be used to develop the questions and the rating schemes for the candidates' answers.

Ask yourself the following questions about the qualification(s) being assessed:

  1. In what way is the possession of the qualification demonstrated? What is it that employees who are strong on the qualification do that employees who are weak on that qualification don't or can't do?
  2. In what situations is the qualification demonstrated? What aspects of these situations are relevant to the qualification?
  3. What is the impact of different courses of action? What makes a particular action or response effective? What makes it ineffective?

An example

Let's consider the "ability to plan". What does it mean to plan in the context of the position being staffed? You would want to know what, specifically, good planners would do and what bad planners would do. Then, you would want to know about the kinds of activities which are planned. You would want to know about their complexity, their time constraints and other obstacles and challenges that are usually encountered in planning. Finally, you want to know about the impact of different planning actions, or behaviours. Are different approaches to planning equally effective?

Step #2:

Develop questions that will elicit relevant information

Develop questions specifically for each qualification being assessed. In this way, you'll ensure that relevant information is elicited for all qualifications to be assessed. It's true that some questions may provide information about more than one qualification. Nonetheless, it's a good idea to develop questions with a particular qualification in mind.

Three kinds of interview questions have evolved:

  1. the job knowledge question,
  2. the situational question and
  3. the behavioural question.

Let's look at each in turn.

A. The job knowledge question

These questions most often deal with technical or basic knowledge required to perform the duties and responsibilities of the position; they can also tap more complex aspects of knowledge. This kind of question could just as well be presented in written form, say, on a paper-and-pencil instrument. The interview context, however, provides the advantage of being able to ask follow-up questions and probe more deeply on the basis of the answers given.

Here are some examples of knowledge questions:

  1. "What are the steps involved in the investigation of this kind of complaint?"
  2. " What can cause this kind of malfunction in this machine? "

In developing job knowledge questions, consider the following:

  1. To determine the content to be covered, break down the knowledge area into sub-areas. Identify the content areas, or the specific facts, concepts, techniques, or regulations that are crucial. Take into account the relative importance of each of these knowledge areas in deciding how many questions you will require.
  2. Consider the desired level of competence in deciding how difficult to make the questions. Questions that are too difficult or too easy are not really informative.
  3. Make sure that your questions are clear and unambiguous. In fact, it's a good idea to have a colleague or incumbent review the questions.
  4. Avoid "double barreled" questions. Don't ask for more than one kind of information in the same question as this will only confuse candidates.
  5. Ask follow-up questions, but only to clarify ambiguous answers, not to help the candidate figure out the answer.

B. The situational question

These questions describe a hypothetical job-related situation that focusses on a relevant qualification. These questions require the candidates to reply with what they would do in a given situation.

The situations described in these questions are often quite similar to the scenarios used in work samples and simulations. The difference is mainly that, in the interview, the candidates will be asked to describe what they would do; whereas, in the work sample or simulation, candidates would be asked to actually perform the task. The situational question is based on the notion that what people say they would do is related to what, in fact, they actually will do in the situation.

Situational questions are developed from the kind of incidents that were identified in step #1. Consider incidents in which there have been, or would be, clear differences between the actions of good and bad performers. Then, turn these incidents into questions by creating descriptions of situations which require some immediate action. Add realistic detail to the situations. Create as many questions as will be needed to provide sufficient information to assess the qualification.

Here is an example (Latham, Saari, Pursell and Campion, Journal of Applied Psychology, 1980) of a situational question which was developed to elicit information about "judgement": "You have received a call from an angry client. He has been trying to reach your supervisor to obtain a report recently prepared by your division, however, his calls have not been returned. He asks you to send him a copy of the report. What would you do?"

The answers to situational questions are evaluated against established criteria. The development of these criteria will be discussed at step #3.

In developing situational questions, consider the following points:

  1. Your questions should not be too obvious or transparent. To have a valuable tool, candidates should not be able to "see through the questions".
  2. Try out situational questions on colleagues, or job incumbents, to see if they are clearly understandable and whether they elicit the types of answers expected.
  3. During the interview, read the questions to each candidate so that no details are forgotten. Stick to the questions as written.

C. The behavioural question

The behavioural question is based on the observation that the best predictor of future performance is past performance. For example, a competent technician in the past will probably continue to be a competent technician in the future.

Behavioural questions are aimed at obtaining information from a candidate's past that's relevant to a given qualification or qualifications. In many ways, the objective of behavioural questions is similar to that of the reference check. The difference is that it's the candidates themselves who are the source of information.

Behavioural questions are designed to gather information relevant to the qualification(s) being assessed by having candidates identify what they actually did in similar situations, tasks, or contexts in the past. When you ask behavioural questions, you want to get at:

  1. the particulars of the situation, task, problems, or context;
  2. the actions that the candidate took, or failed to take, in response to the above; and
  3. the impact of the actions taken, or not taken.

Behavioural questions consist of a question that describes a scenario and follow-up questions. The first question asks the candidate to describe a particular situation that's relevant to the qualification being assessed.

For example, if you need to obtain information about stress tolerance, you could ask:

  1. "Can you tell me about some recent situations where you have had to deal with more than the usual amount of stress?"

On the basis of the information you receive, follow-up questions are then asked to flesh out the particular situation, clarify the candidate's actions and determine the impact.

As follow-up questions, you could ask:

  1. "How did you cope with this situation?"
  2. "And how did your reaction affect others?"

In developing behavioural interview questions, the following pointers are useful:

  1. Balance the interview towards the positive. Give candidates the opportunity to talk about successes; they may then be more forthcoming about their failures.
  2. To get at behavioural incidents where a candidate may not have done so well, begin with a rationale for the question. For example, using stress tolerance again, you could ask: "we've all had situations where stress has gotten to us; can you describe one such incident that happened to you?"
  3. Make sure that you get the candidates to identify actions rather than feelings or opinions.
  4. Collect at least a few incidents for each qualification assessed. Continue collecting information until you've exhausted the topic or until you're satisfied that you have enough information to evaluate the candidate on the relevant qualification.

Combine the different types of interview questions

Although each of the above types of interview questions can be effective in gathering relevant information, it's sometimes even more effective to combine these different types in the assessment of a given qualification. For instance, both situational and behavioural questions can be used to elicit information relevant to the same qualification.

During the interview

While conducting the interview, consider the following:

  1. Begin by establishing rapport. Just because an interview is structured and the questions have been developed beforehand does not mean that the interview cannot be conducted in a natural manner.
  2. Follow your plan. Whatever approach you use, write out your questions and use this plan to keep on track.
  3. Explain the format of the interview to candidates. Tell them about the kind of questions that will be asked.
  4. Use warm-up questions. As appropriate give the candidates one or two examples of the kind of questions that will be asked.

Step #3:

Evaluating the candidates' answers.

Answers must to be evaluated against established criteria. Rating scales are useful in this respect. Rating scales provide more reliable information when the points on the scale are defined clearly. One useful method is to list behaviours that would be expected to earn a given score. These behavioural descriptions are called "benchmarks".

Benchmarks should be determined in advance based on what good and poor performers would do in the situation. For instance, for the situational question that was given previously, the following benchmarks were developed for a 5-point rating scale: (score = 1) "I'd tell the caller I'd be sure to inform my supervisor of the client's request as soon as possible"; (score = 3) "I'd tell the client that my supervisor has been very busy and that I didn't know whether he could have the report"; and (score = 5) "I'd apologize for my supervisor and send a copy of the report right away".

Evaluate now or later?

Job knowledge questions and situational questions are the same for all candidates, and the rating schemes for such questions are developed beforehand. The answers could be rated by each assessor after each question. After the entire interview, board members can compare ratings and discuss differences. At that point a new rating could be made reflecting these discussions. This would continue until consensus is reached.

For behavioural questions, there is more variability in the information elicited. It can be difficult sometimes to evaluate the information on the spot. During the interview itself, you will be busy enough listening to the candidates' answers and thinking of the follow-up questions that you will ask to evaluate the answers at that time. In such circumstances, it's useful to take good notes and to evaluate the answers after the interview. The board can then review these notes and form their judgements at that time.

Combining information from different methods

Other methods can also be used to assess the same qualifications that are being assessed using the interview. Indeed, because of its versatility, the interview can provide information about a variety of qualifications. If several methods are used for each qualification, it is best to collect the relevant information from all methods of assessment and to then make one overall rating.

For example, all the information gathered in an interview with respect to a given qualification would be combined with relevant information elicited from a simulation and reference checks. This information would then be integrated into a single overall evaluation of that qualification.

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