How to Blow the Phone Interview (or Steve’s pet peeves when phone interviewing)

I speak to countless candidates every day and much of the time, I do this by phone, so it occurred to me that may be useful to review one of the unappreciated or under-appreciated skills of interviewing.  Namely properly executed phone screens and phone interviews.

Since this blog is intended to cater both to the job seeker, as well as the recruiter or hiring manager, let’s start with some insight on interviewing from the candidate’s perspective.

Preliminary Phone Screens vs/ Formal Phone Interviews

Here is how these two differ (at least from my point of view).  Preliminary phone screens are typically conducted by screeners (this could be a recruiting team member or the hiring manager or some other  member of the hiring team) with the intent to gather basic information on candidates, including: to verify genuine interest in  the role, rudimentary suitability with experience, education, skills, cultural fit, etc., availability for further interviews or to be able to accept an offer, and a potential start date with a hiring company.  Usually these calls are not lengthy, (maybe all of 15-20 min.) and help screeners to establish a basic rapport with the candidates pursuant to next steps.

Formal phone interviews, on the other hand, tend to be more competency-focused, wherein the candidate is being evaluated on how closely they match up to the required skills, experience and capabilities of the role being filled.  Much of the time, these are useful to weed out those that may seem to present well on their resume/online profile, yet do not seem to convey the needed expertise and core knowledge to meet the company’s needs for the role being hired for.  in other words, can they “walk the walk” and “talk the talk?”  A technical phone screen is usually conducted by the hiring manager or other designated member of the hiring team that is fully knowledgeable of the core competencies for the role being filled.  In other words, they are not just trying to vet for superficial fit, but are probing for those key skills, traits and qualities that make for an exceptional candidate, someone worth having go further through more in-depth interview rounds.

Why do either types of calls?

Prelim phone screens are valuable in the beginning of a recruiting process to allow hiring teams to outreach to candidates, establish rapport, yet not commit to in-depth vetting.  These calls can be done to establish initial interest both on the candidates and hiring companies part, and can be followed through by staff that do not require deep or intricate training to conduct the screen.  In other words, we won’t need an engineer to determine if another engineer wants the job.

Technical phone screens allow engineering teams to probe further and test for technical fit with the role.  Instead of wasting potentially 2-3 hours of time with a full team to determine if the prospective candidate meets all necessary criteria: technical competency, scope of experience, practical application of technical concepts, capability to work in teams, project management skills, etc., the focus is on whether they have the basic technical competencies to meet the minimum requirements for suitability, then deeper vetting happens in later rounds.

So as a candidate, why should I care?

The title of this post refers to “blowing” the phone interview or screen, and although I will also cover how recruiters and hiring managers fail to execute on these calls, the target audience here is mostly candidates.  When I mean blowing the phone interview, I don’t just mean failing to receive a call back for follow-up activity.  I’m also referring to those actions that negatively impact any other interview (or potential interview) activity going forward.  In other words, as a candidate, it’s not just enough not to do well when being assessed during the one call, but what’s worse is having an evaluator’s opinion influenced, which may affect how you, as the candidate, may be perceived for any other future interaction.

To clarify, let’s use this graphic example:

Candidate # 1:

This candidate was contacted by phone by a screener (in this case, let’s say it is recruiter) for a screening call.  The candidate decides to not take the call seriously.  He/she picks up the call late, is ill-prepared for the conversation by not doing too much in the way of any research into the position being considered for, the hiring company, or even their own personal background and pedigree.  During the call, the candidate seems distracted and unfocused, as they struggle to answer even the most basic of questions, such as “why does this role appeal to you?”  In the end, the screener decides this candidate is not genuinely interested in the position, nor would they make a reasonable candidate to move forward through the process.  Therefore, the screener informs the candidate that they are passing. (FAIL!)

Now What Could The Candidate Have Done Differently?

First off, and foremost, he/she should have treated this conversation as they would have treated any other interview:

1) Take time to study up on the role, the company, and especially your own profile.

2) Make sure to find a space and time where you can take the call with no distractions.

3) Not only respond with answers to questions, but also be prepared to ask questions as well (especially, thoughtful relevant questions regarding the role, the company, next steps, etc.).

4) Make sure to take copious notes that you can refer back to later.

5) Always verify what action items are next, and establish a set of specific steps, deadlines, and follow-up actions that you will track and complete (e.g.: Let’s agree to reconnect within the next week for a follow-up – then make sure to reach out if you do not hear back).


As the flip side, what do we as screeners do to blow the phone interview?

Now that you mention it, A LOT!

1) Screeners (recruiters and hiring managers/team members alike) are notorious for not asking relevant questions related to the role being considered.

2) We run the risk of not managing our time well enough to cover all needed questions during the call.  Not getting all your needed responses leads to further call(s) that will undoubtedly frustrate the candidates leading to them getting board and eventually tuning out as they focus on other suitors that seem to have their act together.

3) (My absolute # 1 pet peeve, by the way) We do not follow through on what we either say we are going to do, or we drag our feet on those next steps, which leads to candidates again getting frustrated and tuning out.

What does this mean to our hiring processes?

Well for starters, candidates that get frustrated from either being ignored, or perceiving that they are not being treated fairly, eventually stop returning calls.  this leads to an ever-shrinking pool of talent.  Furthermore, when hiring teams do things well, sometimes they get recognized.  When we don’t everyone in the world finds out.  In other words, when candidates are not treated right, they have no problem spreading the word around.  Soon, no candidate wants to engage based on reputation, and you then spend as much of your time and resources trying to counteract unpopular opinion about who you are.

Bottom line is: Treat the candidates right early, and you don’t have to waste time and resources putting out those fires after the fact.

Companies spend millions of $’s a year on reputation management and branding.  It goes into every bit of promotion and social media awareness, with the intent to control the narrative for how each company is perceived.  Strong brand awareness leads to the perception that the hiring company is an “employer of choice” which means they then become sought after and could then have their pick of the myriad numbers of candidates seeking them out.  When you are not perceived that way, you either have to settle for what ever you find, or you spend exorbitant fees to headhunters to lure the desired populations of highly desirable candidates away from other companies.

A solidly executed phone interview with the candidate (along with reasonable follow-up) can serve the purpose of strengthening your brand without having to substantially increase the marketing budget.  Good, solid messaging during the interview helps your company to put its best face forward, while firing up and exciting candidates to inspire them to want to join you.

Published by: stevenavarro

I am a career recruiting and HR professional based in the Silicon Valley of California (USA). I am a big fan and advocate for social networking and leveraging cutting edge connectivity tools to further one's connections and career.

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