Phone interviews matter: here’s how to do them well.

A phone interview is the first step of most hiring processes, yet for all the advice available for candidates who want to ace their phone interview, there is relatively little advice for recruiters and hiring managers who want to make the most of these brief-but-important conversations.

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Phone interviews are tough, because you have much less interaction to go on but you still have to determine whether this person is worth the time and money investment of an on-site interview.

So how do you ask the right combination of questions to know if this person is worth your time?

Well, first — you must realize that asking the perfect question isn’t the only way to determine whether or not a candidate will be a good fit for your open position. There are tons of extra clues that are possible to get over the phone, just the way you do in an in-person interview.

  • Is the candidate enthusiastic?
  • Did they call in on time?
  • Are they distracted, or calling from a busy location?
  • Do they have confidence in their responses?

You can also do a lot on your end to manage the call and make it as successful as possible. Just because it’s over the phone doesn’t mean it’s not serious; after all, you are investing time in calling this candidate, and you are looking to eliminate candidates at this point. So treat the phone interview as a serious bar each candidate must clear in order to get to the next step, and give it the time and attention it deserves.

Schedule and confirm

Scheduling your phone interview should be a quick, but decisive process. Send the candidate no more than 3 options for available times, each at least 24 hours away. Candidates cannot always be available at a moment’s notice, and it’s not reasonable to expect them to be. However, as soon as you get a response from them, confirm it and send them a calendar appointment request. A good first phone interview is usually about 30 minutes, but block of an hour just in case things run long.

(Calls usually run long with especially good candidates, so don’t risk having to cut off a great conversation with an awesome candidate because you didn’t block enough time. If you’re excited about them, you want them to be excited about you too — which means giving them plenty of your time.)

Confirm who is calling who (so you’re not both waiting for your phone to ring), and give them any conference line dial-in information they might need well in advance too. Make sure there is no way they can confuse the time, date, or procedure, and respond quickly to ensure they don’t lose interest (or assume you are unprofessional).

Do your homework

The first time you read a candidate’s resume should not be while you’re on the phone with them. You should have a basic outline of who you’re talking to before you call, even if it’s just knowing their recent work history. Your questions will be smarter if they come from an informed place, and the candidate will have better — more revelatory — answers to a question like, “What was the biggest challenge of working at a company as big as Microsoft?” as opposed to, “What was your biggest challenge at your last company?”.

Set up for your call

Lots of these tips are no-brainers, but they’re easy to forget on a busy day when you’re cramming a phone interview in between meetings. Breeze through this checklist before your next phone interview to make sure you’ve got these basic set up procedures done before you start dialing:

  • Go to a quiet place. If you work in an open-plan office, the odds that a candidate will hear other people talking or typing are good — and distracting for them. You’ll sound more professional and you’ll be able to focus better if you’re in a conference room or office with the door closed and no background noise.
  • Bring something quiet to take notes with. A pen and paper is best for taking notes on a call because, again, hearing you type can be distracting for the candidate. If you must take notes on a laptop, make sure to tell the candidate that’s what you’ll be doing and ask them to let you know if the typing is a problem or distraction. (But really, you don’t want to put them in that position.)
  • Have your must-ask questions written down. There is nothing that makes you look more unprofessional than forgetting to ask a question and having to call a candidate back. Make sure this doesn’t happen, and write down everything you *must* know — and cross these items off as you ask them.

During the call

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Before you dive into the questions, have a conversation. Ask the candidate if this is still a good time to talk. Ask them how their day is going. This is good not just to be polite, but because it puts a nervous candidate at ease. Be friendly and conversational, and encourage them through your own behavior to be easy-going and honest.

Then get into the questions. Start with culture-fit questions because these flow nicely from the opening conversation “warm-up”. Ask about preferred working styles, what they liked about previous jobs — easy stuff. Once you’ve built a bit of a rapport with a candidate, then move on to the more hardcore technical stuff.

If you’re feeling unsure

It can be hard to really get to know someone over the phone. But if you still don’t know whether or not you would want to hire this person by the end of 30-60 minutes of talking to them, you should either consider whether that ambivalence means they’re really a “no” — or you cannot end the call.

Keep a few tie-breaker questions in your pocket of things that are really important to you as the manager, or to the company. Ask them until you get a clear verdict.

After all, if you don’t use the phone interview to make a firm decision, then it’s not worth doing, since you’re passing people through to on-site interviews that you’re not sure about — which you could have done without spending time on the phone with them. Your goal is to eliminate bad fits, so don’t get off the phone until you’ve made a firm decision.

Handling candidate questions

Always leave 5-10 minutes at the end for candidate questions. Most candidates will ask pretty straightforward questions about when they can expect to hear back from you, what things they should do next, etc — so make sure you have at least general responses for “next steps” kinds of inquiries.

You may also get candidates asking you how they did. Answering this question the wrong way can get you into legal hot water, so it’s always best to deflect questions about performance. Saying something like, “Well I still have to review my notes and we have lots of other candidates to interview, but we will be getting in touch with you soon,” will usually do the trick.

If you get a question you don’t know how to answer, don’t get flustered. Just let them know you’re not sure and wouldn’t want to give them the wrong information; ask if it’s okay for you to email them the answer in a few minutes after your call.

And remember — you never want to reject someone over the phone.

If someone is pushing you to give a “yes” or “no” on whether or not they’ll be moving forward in the process, just remind them you still have to consider your notes and interview more candidates.

No one likes to be rejected, and doing so immediately after (or during) their interview will give them a negative experience of having interviewed with your company. Even if you are sure this candidate is a bad fit while talking to them, you don’t want to give them the shock of being kicked out of the interview process in a surprising way. It adds insult to injury.

Plus, you never know what little thing they said that you wrote down — even if it seemed inconsequential at the time — may turn out to be an important gold star that makes them someone you do want to move forward in the process. So don’t make any snap decisions while you’re on the phone. Always consider your notes, and always keep the phone interview experience positive.

And if you are getting back to candidates promptly with rejections, you don’t be wasting their time by not telling them over the phone.

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Feeling prepared for your next phone interview? What are your best remote interview tips? Share them in the comments if you’ve got them!

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