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How to Win the Interviewing Game: Structured Interviews

If you are an employer reading this, chances are that at some point you have likely interviewed someone or will engage in the interview process in the future.

Think about how you have conducted interviews in the past: Have you had a casual conversation with a future employee so you could get to know their personality? Have you done a “working interview,” where you bring them in and have them watch you work – and maybe watch them work to a degree?

It turns out, out of the interview options available, these are probably the least likely to help you reliably find the employee that you desire. So why do we use them so much?

Based on my own experience in the veterinary field, I would venture a guess because it’s how we have all been interviewed ourselves, and we just carry it on to the next generation of interviewees.

What else is there then, if this is not the right way?

Before we get started let's talk about some categories and definitions. First, know that there are two main types of interviews: unstructured and structured. I would strongly suspect (perhaps I am wrong) that most of the veterinary field probably engages in the former – I know I have in the past, to varying levels of success.

Second, let’s have an aside about the reliability and validity of tests. Reliability is how much a test consistently produces the same result. A high-reliability test would have the same result no matter how many times you did it, while a low-reliability test would produce inconsistent results.

Validity is whether a test is actually testing what it says it is testing. If a test says it is testing for IQ, and it is actually testing for how well someone can count, it’s not a high validity test. When you are picking any test, you would prefer one that provides both high reliability and high validity – in doing so, you will obtain the best results in using it.

blood test
You wouldn't be purposely using medical tests that were invalid, unreliable, and could potentially get you in legal trouble. So now that you know that's what unstructured interviews are what steps will you take?

Getting back to interviews now: what is the difference between an unstructured interview and a structured interview? An unstructured interview proceeds like a normal conversation and varies between each candidate. On the other hand, a structured interview is a standardized set of questions posed to every candidate and is designed to have as little employer-driven variation as possible. According to the United States Office of Personnel Management, unstructured interviews have low levels of reliability and low to moderate validity as well as susceptibility to legal challenges. On the other hand, structured interviews have high degrees of reliability, validity, and legal defensibility.

The structured interview clearly sounds better, but it doesn’t end there: structured interviews are more likely to select a higher percentage of job-appropriate candidates, most likely leading to lower employee turnover. Furthermore, since more qualified employees are more likely to be selected for each position, the effectiveness of the whole practice would be improved as well. Since a managers’ main goal is to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of an organization, so this is a topic that should not be overlooked.

"According to the United States Office of Personnel Management, unstructured interviews have low levels of reliability and low to moderate validity as well as susceptibility to legal challenges. On the other hand, structured interviews have high degrees of reliability, validity, and legal defensibility."

How to Develop Structured Interviews:

Structured interviews are not beyond the capabilities of any clinic to develop, as long as they go about the process in a thoughtful, purposeful manner. The structured questions are developed in a step-by-step manner, and each step is important and dependent on the prior step (in other words – go in order, and don’t skip a step!).

Step #1: Job Analysis

A job analysis is a breakdown of a job into the tasks and the responsibilities performed, as well as the core competencies, which are the skills and qualities required for the position.

This is a vast, important topic that could be another article in and of itself. For a more thorough examination, click here.

Briefly, however, a few techniques to help you break the position down include:

  • Observing your current employee;

  • Asking them what tasks they do, and/or

  • Asking them to write them down.

Core competencies can often be determined as a team: what traits must a candidate have (or not have) to be successful in this position? For instance, do they work well with others? Do they have attention to detail? Do they have people skills on the phone? Note that this step is critical in developing structured questions – if it is skipped or if the job analysis itself is incorrect, then the questions that result will be ineffective.

Step #2: Pick which competencies you will assess

You might want your next employee to possess 20 different skills, but realistically, you need to narrow it down to 4-6 competencies for most positions.

Create two questions that will evaluate each competency. If possible, assemble a team that will look at each competency and create questions that are certain to evaluate each one. The “team approach” is not going to be possible in every practice – for instance, if you are a solo ambulatory practice – but the goal of all of this is to incrementally move towards more reliable methods of picking candidates.

Step #3: Past behaviors or future behaviors?

Decide if you wish to evaluate past behaviors (called a Behavioral Description Interview), anticipated behavior (called a Situational Interview), or both.

Behavioral interviews assume that past behaviors are the best predictors of future behaviors, while Situational Interviews assume a person’s intentions will closely resemble their future behaviors. For instance, a Behavioral Interview question might be: “Describe an example of a difficult client interaction and how you handled it,” while a Situational Interview question will describe a hypothetical difficult client interaction and ask the candidate how they would handle it.

Step #4: Create your rating scale

Creating a rating scale might seem nitpicky, but we’re scientists, right? The point of structured interviews is to be objective when ranking your candidates so that your emotions do not cloud your judgment. Pre-determining your rating scale significantly helps that process.

At this point, you’ve already written all of your questions – now you add a rating scale with a minimum of three categories, but ideally 5-7. Label them “unsatisfactory, satisfactory, and superior.” If possible, develop representative responses that will help guide your interviewers to what each rating should mean.

Step #5: Create question probes

Probes are additional questions asked beyond the main question that help to clarify an answer or gain enough information. It should be pre-determined on each question whether there should be no probes, limited probes, or unlimited probes; and any probes should be pre-determined and the same for all candidates.

Step #6: Test-run the interview

Check it for any issues with the questions. The “test-run” should mirror an actual interview.

Step #7: Create an interview guide

Create a guide for your interviewers with instructions, information to help prevent biases, definitions of your competencies, the interview questions, the rating scales, and the probes.

Step #8: Document the development process

Just like medical records, just in case of legal action, document, document, document! Record who was involved in developing the questions and any sources of information that might be helpful. The legal question revolved around “fairness” in hiring practices, so the more easily you can prove you acted “fairly,” the higher legal ground you have to stand on.


Some brief notes about the interview itself:

  • The interviewer(s) should be trained, which is shown to increase accuracy.

  • They should take notes, and all ratings should be backed up by notes.

  • The interview setting should be unbiased as well: attention should be taken to keep the location, time, and duration of interviews as standardized for each candidate as possible. (This is why “working interviews” are problematic – they are not standardized.)

Sterile, terrifying, and free from legal reprise. Just like an interview should be. (Please don't quote me on that.)
  • Each candidate should be informed of the process of the interview, that notes will be taken, and asked if they have any questions.

  • Ratings should be completed immediately when the interview is over.

  • Documentation of the date, time, place, and duration of the interview should be made, as well as the name, job title, and demographics of the interviewer. All notes and interview material should be documented as well.

  • The more documentation you do of this process, the more legal protection you will have should there be any questions about fairness in hiring practices.

All in all, it is clear that there is room for improvement in the hiring practices in our field, but this task is not insurmountable. Taking a look at each position and developing questions to address the needs of that position would certainly provide more qualified employees to our teams who would have a higher chance of being successful.


  • Need help on the structured interview questions themselves? has tons of examples!

  • For more in-depth information on structured interviews, visit the US Office of Personnel Management (who also has other great resources for employee management).

Did you find this helpful? Have you had any success or failures with this technique? Let me know on Instagram or Facebook!


Hi, I'm Karen Bolten! I'm a former large animal veterinarian and practice owner. I'm a current #dogmom, horse brusher, and fish tank cleaner. I have a Bachelor's in Business Administration (Operations and Supply Chain Management), and I'm now an MBA candidate.

My goal is to help other veterinary business owners to better understand their businesses, whether you are just starting out or you've been at it for a few years! While it may seem insurmountable, I truly believe it can be done, and you deserve to understand what may be holding you back.

Please, if you have any questions about anything I wrote in this article, and how you can make this work for you, please reach out below in the comments, or your can contact me via:

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