6 Phone Interview Tips to Qualify the Best Talent

Barry Lenson

With so much of the focus in recruiting being on time-to-hire, the phone interview can be a powerful screening tool to help identify top candidates that you’d like to move along in the interview process quickly, as well as easily screen out candidates who wouldn’t be a good fit and therefore save your time and theirs by not bringing them in for an in-person interview. Phone screens can help you scale your recruiting efforts and are an easy way to collect

Whether you’re conducting true audio-only phone interviews or video interviews, these “pre-screening” sessions can give you a lot of insight into a candidate’s abilities, interest, and even culture fit. Below we’ve listed six tips to help you streamline your phone interview process to qualify the best talent.

1. Implement structured interviews.

Many hiring managers, particularly those used to working without a net (or HR department), may prefer unstructured interviews. There is a case to be made for these types of interviews, but the cons tend to outweigh the pros. In a structured interview, questions are determined in advance and consistent. In unstructured interviews, the questions are not set in advance or may come from a loose set of notes from a hiring manager. Structured interviews also give you a data set and method of scoring candidates that is consistent and fair.

RelatedThe Hiring Manager’s Guide to Structured Interviews.

2. Make scheduling a priority.

It goes without saying that, when scheduling a phone interview, common courtesy is to call the candidate on time. Most recruiters and hiring managers are busy, and we do have meetings that tend to run over. However, from the candidate’s perspective, calling even 10 minutes late for a phone interview may indicate that the interview isn’t as important to you as whatever else you might be doing. Make an effort to schedule prep time on your calendar before a phone interview, use it to not only review the candidate’s resume, but also to ensure that you’re able to make the call at the scheduled time.

3. Ask open-ended questions.

Depending on the role, it will be important for candidates to be able to communicate properly and possess a good phone manner, so asking questions that give the candidate the opportunity to talk at length about themselves and offer examples of their work experience and skills will be beneficial to both of you. Questions like “What projects have you worked on that you feel have developed skills you can bring to this role?” or “Give an example of a time when you’ve worked in a similar role.” are good starters.

When it comes to specialty areas like technology, you’ll want to develop strategic questions that help you uncover information in unique ways. Max Brown, former recruiter for Tesla Motors, said that he interviewed over a thousand candidates in his five years with Tesla, many for competitive technical roles, and there was one question that helped him uncover the best information about a candidate: “Tell me about your most significant technical accomplishment, the project that you’re most proud of.” Brown said that “every recruiter and hiring manager needs to know that candidates can explain core concepts effectively, which is hugely important if you’re applying for jobs on collaborative teams, especially technical ones like those in engineering. If they can’t, there might be reason to doubt how well a candidate can pull their own weight.”

4. Ask questions to determine culture fit.

It’s very difficult to screen for areas like culture fit during a phone interview. However, with the right questions, you can make an initial assessment about work ethic, enthusiasm, resilience, and teamwork — each of which can help you determine how the candidate might fit into your company’s culture.

Ranan Lachman, CEO of Pley.com, says that he always asks “What can your hobbies tell me that your resume can’t?” He explains: “As a LEGO rental business, we are always looking for creative people. If I interview an engineer whose only interest is coding, we might get an exceptional coder, but one that can’t really help the team overcome the many challenges we face on a daily basis. We are looking for people with broad interests, and free-time activities can show us that.” See 13 Questions to Screen Potential Hires for Culture Fit at Inc.com.

Consider adding questions to your phone interview that relate to adaptability (ask about soft skills that indicate a candidate responds well to change), how well they handle conflict (another “tell me about a time when you…” question), and leadership (ask about qualities they think a good leader has, relate it to specific instances where the candidate had to demonstrate leadership skills). It’s also a good idea to include questions about what type of environment in which they thrive (or do not thrive), what type of management style they best respond to, and so on. While it is easier to assess a candidate’s potential culture fit in a face-to-face interview, these questions can help you screen for it on a phone interview.

RelatedHow An SLA Can Transform Your Recruiting and Hiring.

5. Allow time for candidate questions.

Sometimes it’s the questions that a candidate asks you that can give you the best insight into whether or not they should move to the next stage in the interview process. Rather than springing “what questions do you have for me” on them at the end of the phone interview, let them know ahead of time what the format of the interview will be and that you’ll give them time at the end to ask questions. You’re looking for questions that show the candidate has done his or her research, as well as questions that might raise a red flag (for example, they’re more focused on perks and time off than the specific job).

A candidate can demonstrate that they’ve researched your company easily (anyone can Google basic information), but look for questions that are more specific in nature, like “what does a typical day in this job/position look like?” or “what’s the average staff turnover in your department,” as well as “is this role new or replacing someone who left the company?” These types of questions go beyond basic and show that a candidate is actively interested in the role, including how they picture themselves in the role. A good candidate will interview you as much as you’re interviewing them. If you allow time for questions, it’s a great tool for assessment of a candidate’s interest beyond simply wanting any job; you can assess whether or not they want to work for you.

6. Record post-interview feedback quickly

DJ Chung, Product Manager at Dropbox, says that immediately following a phone interview, he writes up interview feedback in an applicant tracking software tool. “I try to submit my feedback as soon as possible, sometimes immediately after the interview ends and at least by the end of the day,” said Chung. Doing this quickly while the interview is fresh in your mind will help you have a way to track your response, especially when you’re interviewing multiple candidates a week over the phone. Chung says that, during the height of university recruiting season, he conducts 2–3 phone interview per week so capturing the initial impressions while top-of-mind is key.

The interview is the single most important candidate selection tool after the application and/or resume. Ideally, the phone interview should serve to help you save time in your hiring process, screen out candidates that you wouldn’t want to bring in for an in-person interview, narrow down your top candidate list, and reduce your time-to-hire.