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Telephone Interviews: Basics

Kent Burns

Many companies begin their hiring process with a telephone interview. When executed properly, it’s a great way to introduce a candidate to your company with maximum convenience and minimum expense. As a recruiter, I’ve been involved with literally thousands of telephone interviews, and sadly most companies I have worked with are horrible at it. Here, in the first of three parts, is some reality from the trenches.

Issue #1: To schedule or not to schedule

Believe it or not, some HR managers and hiring managers would rather not schedule this call. They say things like, “Tell the candidate that I’ll call him sometime tomorrow afternoon,” or “Tell her I’ll call on my way home from the office.” I once challenged an HR manager who persisted in contacting my candidates “on the fly” like this. I asked, “What do you say to this candidate, if he indeed answers the phone?” He said, “I tell them who I am and why I am calling, then ask if he or she is able to talk.” So I asked, “What happens if they say you’ve called at a bad time?” He responded, “I’ll then say, ok, when is a better time?” Well…

The truth is candidates are very reluctant to tell a prospective employer they aren’t in a position to speak. They’ll do crazy things like jump up and leave their cube with their cell phone, transfer the call to a nearby conference room or try to talk over the noise at a kid’s ball game. Why? Fear of loss – “If I don’t take this call, I may not get a second chance. The company might call the next candidate on the list and like them.”

Conversely, these same hiring managers and HR managers have instructed me to “Have the candidate call me on my cell phone sometime Saturday.” Guess what happens? Candidates stress about when they should call. “What if I call at a bad time? Will it affect my chances?”

So what transpires are awkward calls, with neither party feeling at their best. Bottom line - this approach makes a lousy first impression.

Best Practice: Avoid this ring-around-the-rosy. Regardless of how open your calendar is, schedule and confirm a time for the call. It’s respectful and professional. If the agreed upon time is impossible to meet at the last minute due to an unforeseen circumstance, reschedule it – and set a specific time to reconnect.

Obstacle #2: Where is everybody?

Busy hiring managers and even HR managers can be surprisingly unresponsive to interview requests. Voicemail and email messages left for them by the interview scheduling coordinator are ignored – sometimes for days. The interview coordinator becomes frustrated, and is powerless to make anything happen. Next, he or she becomes wary of pestering or pushing a superior too hard, and communication stops altogether. The company looks bad, the candidate is left hanging, and as the recruiter, I am left making excuses. Candidates frequently ask me, “What could be so hard about scheduling a 30 minute phone call?” Chances are you’re no busier than the candidate who must also find time to be available.

Best Practice: Interviewing managers must be fully committed to be available. Be responsive to interview requests from admin personnel - make their job easier, not harder. Consider blocking out time each day (or week) for telephone interviews. Let HR know when those blocks of time are in advance. Put a hold on your calendar so that others can’t usurp that time period. This sends a message to the organization that interviewing talent is a high priority. And, if no interviews are scheduled, there’s always something else to do with that free block of time…

Ideally, offer the prospective candidate two or three dates and times that the company representative is available for the call. Let the candidate choose the time that best fits their schedule.

Issue #3: Does anybody know what time it is?

Being on time sounds like a no-brainer, right? You’d be surprised how often I am called by a candidate 10-15 minutes past a scheduled interview start time. The concerned candidate asks me if they have the date or the time wrong (they never do), and what they should do now. I always make an excuse for my client and ask them to give the interviewer a few more minutes to call. Then I shift into detective mode and try to track down the wayward interviewer. At this point, the damage is done. (I must admit, however, that I am amazed at how forgiving candidates are. When the shoe is on the other foot, companies aren’t always so gracious.)

It may be that the company representative is simply running late, and it’s legitimate. All too often, however, it’s apathy. The call suddenly becomes an interruption to whatever else is happening at that moment . . . it gets “reprioritized”. About 10-15 percent of the time, the call doesn’t happen at all. It’s frustrating for a candidate to anticipate and prepare for a telephone interview, only to have it cancelled or rescheduled – sometimes at the last minute, and sometimes more than once. It sends the message that you don’t have your act together, or you just don’t care. Not to mention that we have to start the whole painful process over again.

Best Practice: Be on time. Don’t be afraid to make others aware that you have an interview commitment coming up, and will need to excuse yourself. Don’t change the call except under extreme circumstances. Even if you or a colleague must call only to propose an alternate time for the interview, do it – and do it on time.

What’s the deal?

This all seems pretty basic, so why do hiring managers and HR managers make it so difficult? I believe it’s because these problems are actually symptoms. These symptomatic behaviors are indicative of a cultural problem in companies with regard to hiring talent.

Clients spend a lot of time telling me that they are committed to hiring the best…A-Players…high performers. Frankly, their actions don’t support it. Talented candidates are in short supply. If you want to attract top performers, you must handle your hiring process like top performers yourselves. This phone call is a candidate’s first exposure to your company. Proper handling of their perception begins now. Raise your game.

Why are we doing this?

There is only one real purpose for this call: to determine if this candidate is worthy of bringing in for a site visit. No more, no less. You will necessarily gather additional basic information on the candidate so that a second, face-to-face meeting can be dedicated to more substantive evaluation, but your only goal is to determine whether or not this individual is suitable for an in-person interview.

Many companies are far too ambitious in their expectations. They ask behavioral questions, in-depth technical questions and all sorts of other esoteric things.

How long?

I’ve had candidates tell me stories of interviews that took 10 minutes and of interviews that took 90 to 120 minutes. One of my favorites was an HR Manager who insisted on doing a “phone screen” on every candidate I submitted for “quality control” and to “maximize the hiring manager’s time.” Her phone interview consisted of asking the candidate how much money they currently made, how much money they wanted and why they were looking to change jobs. That was it. By the way, I had already provided that information to her.

On the flip side, some hiring managers get on a roll and want to talk forever. This is a double-edged sword. These same hiring managers are often the most difficult to schedule for a call, because they are reluctant to commit 90 minutes of time . . . if they could do the job in 30 minutes, they’d be more willing to interview and get more interviews done.


Best Practice: Thirty minutes, give or take five minutes, is optimal. If you can’t envision 30 minutes of quality interaction based on the candidate’s credentials and your review of the resume, don’t interview them. It will be a waste of your time. If the call runs 45 minutes or more, you’re probably heading into territory that is more appropriate in a face-to-face setting.

Structure for the call

The toughest thing in this area is to stay on track. It’s easy to digress or to spend too much time on one or two questions. Candidates sometimes ramble - it’s necessary sometimes to move them along. Interviewers fall into the trap of talking instead of listening. All these things make it hard to keep the conversation under control.

In debriefing candidates after interviews, I am sometimes told things like, “I really didn’t get a chance to talk a whole lot . . . Jim really spent a lot of time talking about the company.” Or, “I really didn’t get a chance to ask any of my questions.” Or, “You know, we really didn’t talk too much about the job really. We talked mostly about Notre Dame football”.

Best Practice: Stay on task. Impress the candidate with a well planned, nicely balanced, professionally executed 30 minute business introduction. Because that’s what it should be.

Here’s an example of a well structured call:

Approximately five minutes of introductory pleasantries. Establish some degree of rapport and transition to the next step.
Fifteen minutes dedicated to an overview of the opportunity and specific questions from the interviewer based on a review of the candidate’s resume.
Ten minutes of questions from the candidate about the company and specific opportunity
Approximately five minutes to wrap up and describe next steps.

What do you wanna talk about?

This is the $64,000 question. Most of the time, interviewers “wing it”. They have a couple of favorite questions that they ask, but beyond that, it’s pretty free form. Not only does that make it difficult to objectively compare candidates to each other, it also makes it difficult to compare candidates against other objective criteria . . . like the job description.

Let’s recall that the overall objective for a telephone interview is to determine if a candidate is worthy of the time, effort and expense of a face to face interview. No more, no less. That should drive the content of the interview.

Best Practice: Focus on three main question areas.

The most critical area to address is basic compatibility with the critical elements of the job. If they don’t have the experience and/or skill set to do the position, then not much else matters. Have a two or three key questions prepared to assess a potential fit. Remember, you have a lot of ground to cover in thirty minutes, so the questions should be specific.
The second area of focus should be questions triggered by the resume review. Have there been several job changes? Perhaps there is an employment gap in the resume. Why did they choose the University of Toledo? Have the candidate explain their decision making and evaluate. Again, a couple of well planned, specific questions are all you need.
The last area is intangibles. How is the candidate’s energy level? Are they personable? Are they articulate? Do they ramble? Are their answers crisp and concise? It’s not necessary to conclude on absolutely all of these on this call. The goal should be to identify, within reason, any knock out factors related to these intangibles. Remember, people get hired for what they know – they get fired for who they are.

Candidate Questions

It’s very important to allow the candidate to ask a couple of questions. The content and caliber of a candidate’s questions, especially if they only get to ask a couple, will reveal much about them.

Don’t be mediocre

The vast majority of HR Managers and other hiring managers that I work with do not take a disciplined approach to a telephone interview. Never forget that when the call actually happens, candidates are interviewing you to see if they want to work for you. Candidates have choices, and poorly planned first contact through phone screens can eliminate you from the candidate’s pool of eligible employers. Companies get out of this process exactly what they put into it. Consider the phone screen an extension of your employment brand. Are you projecting to candidates what your company is really all about? Or are you showing them that this is simply a hoop through which you expect candidates to jump in order to gain audience with your company? In an increasingly competitive job market, the way you project your company to candidates will make all the difference in the world.


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