“Don’t Be Sleazy”: The Right Way To Do Phone Interviews

Phone interviews are a great way to get to know more about a candidate before a decision is made to bring them in for a face-to-face interview. With a resume in front of them, a LinkedIn profile pulled up on the computer or mobile device and time spent in a phone discussion, recruiters, hiring managers and HR professionals are taking advantage of opportunities to hone in on candidates that stand out, while weeding out those that aren’t the right fit prior to a time-consuming face-to-face interview

While phone interviews don’t allow recruiters the opportunity to zoom in on body language and non-verbal communication (which is why video interviews are also increasing in popularity), they present the first opportunity to get to know the candidate beyond the resume or social media profile.

But to be effective, the recruiter must prepare as they would for a face-to-face interview. If not, the results can be less than optimal.

“I’ve had the opportunity to witness some of the most painful and engaging phone interviews by interviewers of various levels,” says Jena Brown (@talentjunkie_us), an independent Twin Cities-based recruiting operations and brand strategist. “The painful ones consist of awkward transitions, long periods of silence, and overly gregarious interviewers who seemingly prefer to hear their own voice over the candidates. The good ones maintain a balance of providing positive candidate experiences while pulling out what they need to know from the interviewee.”

Whether you’re a recruiter conducting an initial phone screen or the hiring manager making the final decision, if you’re on point to conduct a phone interview you’d better come prepared.

“It will be your responsibility to figure out how to engage with the candidate using only your words,” says Brown. “Remember, it’s your voice, your words, and your style that is laying the foundation for how the candidate will feel about your company and determine whether or not they want to be associated with it.”

To conduct a good phone interview it’s important to be self aware but not inwardly focused, engaging not obnoxious, probing not intrusive, informative not demanding, says Brown, who offers these additional tips:

Self Awareness is Key
It’s important to be “present” during the phone interview so check your head before picking up the phone. Are you prepared and familiar with the candidate’s background and role they’re being considered for? Or are you rushed from running across four lanes of traffic-lunch burrito in hand-on your way back from grabbing a quick bite? Step outside yourself and focus on the candidate.

“I think it’s fair to say a good portion of interviewers can be categorized in one of the following interviewer styles – sleazy, easy, savvy or dry,” says Brown.

Be sure to know which one you are and adjust accordingly:

The loud mouth with cheesy tag lines. This interviewer never seems to shut up and is so focused on “selling” the opportunity they end up setting false expectations and never really hear what the candidate is saying or whether they’re even a fit. He’s obnoxious and intrusive.

This guy gives and gets the minimum amount of information, he doesn’t really do any probing or follow up and probably offers the candidate answers instead of seeking to find out the extent of his/her experience. Example “you’ve led a team of 10 or more developers, right?” as opposed to “tell me about the complexity of the projects and teams you’ve led.” This interviewer likes short answers – like “yes” or “no”.  While he might offer a standard plug about the company (short of course) he’s probably not going to dig into what the candidate is looking for in a company and  discussing how his organization meets the candidates expectations.  Overall, it might provide be an “ok” interview and that’s exactly the impression they leave on the candidate about the company.

THIS is the interviewer you want to be. This interviewer has made themselves familiar with the candidate’s background, experience, and the role they’re being considered for. This interviewer picks up queues from the candidate and knows when to dig in and when to listen. She understands the concept between push and pull, give and get, live and let live – ok maybe not so much that last one but you get the point. She provides company information based on the candidate’s motivations, career objectives, desires and seeks to find out more about the candidate before spewing forth canned responses and information. She sets clear expectations along the way. This person leaves the candidate with a positive impression and overall experience, making it easy for the candidate to envision themselves as an employee there – even if the interviewer just told them they aren’t a fit for any openings at the moment. Yep, she’s that good. Engaging and transparent.

I probably don’t have to get into too much detail here. This guy is often monotone, offers little to no feedback on responses, probably has little to no idea how to make a smooth transition. This interviewer reads the interview questions word for word and answers candidate questions with things like “yes” “no” “a little bit” or “sometimes.”  He’s not as engaging or informative as the Easy interviewer and leaves candidates with a dull, uninterested feeling about the company.

“Telephone interviews are most often the very offline interaction a candidate has with a company, and just as we expect candidates to take them seriously, so should the interviewers,” says Brown. “Strive to be the Savvy interviewer.”

How else can one do this? Follow the same tips that are often given to the job seeker on the other end:

1. Preparation: Learn as much about each candidate before the interview. Have in front of you these items: Resume, LinkedIn profile and any other supplemental information that may have been provided, such as through an online application. Also, be sure to include the job description of the job you are hiring for in front of you to ask questions to get them to prove they have done what is said in all of their provided information.

2. Find someplace quiet: This seems like a simple step, any meeting should take place in a private, quiet spot with no distractions. But with mobile recruiting exploding, phone interviews are being conducted on the subway, bus ride, train, in rush hour, during the morning or afternoon commute and on bikes (okay maybe not on bikes). In some cases, conducting these interviews while doing this seems to be unavoidable, but be prepared for the unexpected beyond your control – a honking horn, background conversation or noise and more. Remember, the candidate is judging you too so try to be in a quiet location if possible.

3. No distractions: This isn’t the time to check email, text message your child or surf Facebook. It’s almost a guarantee there is a recruiter out there who has done this during a phone interview. Try to eliminate outside distractions while discussing options with the candidate.

4. Don’t talk too much. Some people are more comfortable talking on the phone and some in person. Keep the principles of the in-person interview in place – ask questions, but keep them short and listen at all times.

5. Expect the unexpected:  Job seekers can never know when that oddball or unique question may come into an interview. At the same time, a recruiter conducting a phone interview never knows when a job seeker may ask something out of the ordinary or say something shocking or surprising. By preparing in advance, you can be sure to provide the right answer to any unique situation that comes up.

6. Action steps: When closing a phone interview, be sure to relay action steps and let them know what the next steps in the process are. This can curb any unnecessary follow-up communication, such as phone calls and emails from interested candidates wondering when you will get back to them, or if you will get back to them. Close a phone interview thanking them for their time, and let them know where you are at in the process and how you will follow-up if interested. This helps close out the interview and helps the job seeker know where things stand while possibly eliminating unnecessary follow-up calls/emails.

The phone interview is a great way to get to know candidates and to learn more about them – if done correctly. Take it seriously, prepare and plan to get the best results.

Written by

Matt Krumrie is a career columnist and professional resume writer who has been providing helpful information and resources for job seekers and employers for 15+ years. Learn more about Krumrie via resumesbymatt.com, connect with him on LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/mattkrumrie/) and follow him on Twitter via @MattKrumrie.

More Articles by Matt Krumrie