The phone screen interview: What questions should I ask?

If you’ve got a good job posting out there, and know clearly what you need to pay, you should have a solid batch of resumes to sift through. Pick out the best, and let’s set up some phone screen interviews.

But wait. Do I know what questions to ask? What do I need to know at the phone screen stage? On second thought, why am I even doing a phone screen interview?

Phone screen interviews give you a chance to talk with a number of candidates and shrink your pool of candidates before you commit to meeting someone face-to-face. It’s a quick check, and it works. Even just getting a little more information about their background and experience will help you eliminate some candidates. It’s no substitute for a face-to-face interview; that extra data you get on the phone will only help you identify candidates you want to speak to FURTHER. It will not necessarily identify the best fit.

phone interview question

I shoot for 30 – 45 minutes per phone screen, so you have to be focused.

Start with the basics

My first order of business is to ask the candidate to walk me through their resume from bottom (oldest job) to top. I want them to tell me a bit about each role, how they got the job, and what there responsibilities and accountabilities. I try to focus on what they did (as opposed to the team they were on, what did they do themselves, what was their role). Then I also find out why they left each job; I want to learn about the circumstances between jobs that aren’t on the resume.

If there’s not a clear career path, if the jobs don’t really lead from one to another, I want to hear about that too. Why the shifts? What are they looking for now?

Are they right for this role?

Ideally, you have already asked them, in the job posting, to give you a run down of why they are right for this job in their cover letter. And ideally again, the most promising candidates actually told you about some of their skills and experiences that made them think they are a fit. Let’s dig into those. I usually ask to hear about their experience with some of the key success factors for this job. For example, if I’m looking for a project manager I might ask about what systems or software they’ve used. I would ask them to tell me about a project that got off track, how it got off track, and what did they do to bring it back on schedule. I want them to give me examples that show me that they have already done the things that I need them to be good at to succeed in this job.

Are they in the price range?

phone interview questions on price ranges

I don’t want to spend time phone interviewing candidates who are out of the price range. So I ask every candidate what their salary expectations are. Now candidates are coached not to answer that question — they don’t want to start too high and eliminate themselves, or shoot too low and undercut their value. I get that, but we need to know that there’s a negotiable range here. If you know what your price range for the job is you might say, “We are able to offer a salary within the range of $X – $Y (using real numbers of course).” That’s what the job is worth to you. That’s where you see the market value; so we should be able to attract candidates in that range.

Some candidates will say that they are in the range just to get to the face-to-face interview. So I will go a little further, especially if my sense is that they want more than I’m offering. I’ll be clear that the range is firm: “If we continue in this process are you willing to accept an offer in that range? Where did your last salary fall? At the high end of the range, over that range?” I really want to pin this down because there’s nothing worse than investing hours in an interview, only to find out you can’t afford the candidate.

Now sell it a little bit

If I feel like I want to invite them for a face-to-face interview I’ll spend a few minutes reviewing the job posting and job description with the candidate. I want to get them excited about the role, so I’m emphasizing the challenges and opportunities available to the right candidate. I want to hear their excitement too, so I’ll ask how that sounds to them. Do they have any questions? You aren’t trying to convince them to come work for you, you’re just making sure they see the opportunity and are excited by it. The right skills and experience, in combination with real enthusiasm and curiosity about the role or the company, make them a more desirable candidate for an interview.

Like I said before, if I’ve got a really great job posting (and I’ve put it in the right places; where my ideal candidate will be looking for it) I’ll usually have 50 – 70 applicants. Of those, I might expect to phone screen 10 – 15, and then meet 4 – 6 face-to-face. I want to make sure I talk to enough candidates to generate a rich pool of candidates to interview. Don’t be shy eliminating people right at the phone screen stage; you’re doing everyone a favor. If there are some candidates you aren’t sure about, it’s OK to have a “maybe” pile; but focus your energies on those top candidates that are a great fit. Come back to the maybes once you’ve met the best fit candidates.

Red flags

There are other red flags you can pay attention to, and be grateful for, in the phone screen process. They are not always deal breakers, but it is important to pay attention to the scheduling process, and to how the candidate handles themselve in the interview. First off, if you can’t schedule a candidate, there is a good chance that they are not the right candidate. In rare instances there are extenuating circumstances, and candidates can’t be responsive because of personal or professional emergencies–but these are rare.

phone screen interview red flagsIf they can’t respond to your phone calls or emails, it is more likely that they are either not very interested in, or not very focused on, this opportunity. Move on. When it comes to questions, if they avoid them, don’t understand them, or just can’t seem to give you an intelligent response, this is also a red flag. Pay attention to how chatty or quiet the candidate is. Are you exhausted after 15 minutes on the phone with them? Is it like pulling teeth to get answers from them? These behaviors are not always the final nail in the coffin, but they are indicators that need to be weighed in balance, both with their experience and skills, and the requirements of the role you want to fill.

There are other red flags, certainly, and you will know them when you see them. Pay attention to that instinct! You will learn to listen for bitterness, arrogance, insecurity, or false confidence. While none of these traits necessarily will put them out of the running, you want to make sure that what you’re hearing won’t interfere with functioning with a team. With your team. The phone screen is not a perfect qualifier for this, but if you have reservations and decide to move someone forward to a face to face interview, you should be thoughtful about addressing those reservations in the interview.

To recap: you NEED an excellent job posting. When you pull your best resumes from a healthy applicant pool, call them up. You want find out their actual skills and experience; you want to identify their true compensation range (as much as possible); and you want to see if, after hearing about challenges and opportunities, they are excited and curious. If you stay focused, and listen to what the candidate is saying (and how they are saying it) about what they’ve actually done, you should be able to sort through the pile pretty quickly, and get to the best candidates to interview for your job.

What questions work for you? What do you look for in a phone screen?

Employee Interview Guide

Photo credit: starmanseriesthink cink401(K) 2013

Devan Perine

Devan Perine works with small business owners on their marketing and multimedia efforts. She's passionate about helping businesses build their presence online, and giving Gen Y a voice in the workplace. When she's not working, she loves to make a mess in the kitchen, and play with her band around Chicago. She loves to chat! Give her a shout on Google+, Twitter or LinkedIn.

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