One key step in the hiring process is the phone screen, a short preliminary interview conducted on job candidates. Hiring managers, recruiters and human resources professionals use these phone conversations to identify the candidates who will move on to the next stage of the hiring process, such as a formal in-person interview.
When conducted properly, phone screens can simplify your recruiting process. As enticing as it might be to rush through the screening process and move on to the formal job interview, a phone screening can play a critical role in helping you identify and hire the right candidate for an open position. Additionally, this interaction is often a candidate's first experience with your organization and can leave a lasting impression.
How to conduct a phone screen interview
Phone screens are more effective when you have a specific interviewing process in place. Although it can get monotonous if you are conducting multiple screenings back-to-back, you should make the interviews as consistent as possible. Giving all candidates the same level of attention and asking them a uniform set of questions will help you get an apples-to-apples comparison for determining who should advance to the next round of interviews.
Here are five steps to follow when conducting phone screen interviews:
1. Prepare for the interview.
Preparation is one of the keys to conducting a successful phone screening. For example, there are several details about the job opening you should determine beforehand.
Alain Dalencourt, senior engineering recruiter at Justworks, said both the hiring manager and the recruiter handling the interview should "understand the technical need for the position, how the business will be impacted if they hire or don't hire for the position, how soon the position needs to be filled and which skills are essential versus nice to have."
You should also research the candidate you are interviewing. You can read their résumé, scan their LinkedIn profile and check for common contacts to get a feel for their experience and network. However, be careful when looking at a candidate's social media presence, as what you see may lead to unintentional bias.
2. Schedule the interview.
When you schedule the phone screening, be mindful of the applicant's time. Although the interview will be brief, the candidate may have prior obligations (e.g., work, childcare, etc.) that limit when they can conduct the interview. This may even mean conducting the screening after standard work hours. Give the candidate the same courtesies you would expect them to give you. Respond to them in a timely manner, and answer any preliminary questions they may have.
3. Introduce yourself.
When you first connect with a job applicant, formally introduce yourself and explain how the screening will be conducted.
4. Ask the phone screening questions.
During the phone screening, you will get acquainted with the candidate and then jump into the question portion of the interview. Focus on asking a standard set of questions to every candidate, to avoid bias or unfair evaluations. Conduct the interview in a quiet, professional setting, and give the candidate your full attention. With each question, be sure to listen carefully to the responses and note any red flags.
Avoid asking illegal interview questions regarding topics such as race, color, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, age, pregnancy or marital status.
5. Ask if they have questions for you.
A job candidate is interviewing you just as much as you are interviewing them, so you should not be the only one asking questions. A well-prepared candidate will have at least one question for you. The questions they ask can give you more insight into who the candidate is and how interested they are in the company.
"You should allow time for the candidate to ask a question or two," Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half, told business.com. "That shows how prepared they are, how curious they are and if they are a good cultural fit."
6. Explain the next steps.
At the end of the phone screening, let the candidate know what to expect. For example, tell them when they might hear from you and whom to contact for any follow-ups. If the interview didn't go well, help the candidate by pointing out areas where they can improve in their answers – for example, in how they answer a question, how they frame an interview answer or how they think about questions, Dalencourt recommended.
"I want to make sure that the candidate is always getting something back for their time spent with me, whether it's an opportunity to speak with the hiring manager or some areas of improvement for their next call with our team or other job opportunities," Dalencourt said.
Best phone interview questions
If you ask the right interview questions, the answers will give you a good idea of whether the candidate should move on to the next round of interviews. To get the most out of the process, ask open-ended questions, Dalencourt recommended.
"Open-ended questions offer the candidate the opportunity to break down their step-by-step process on how they would solve challenges," she said.
You can touch on the employee's technical skills and experience, but you should really be looking at the candidate's soft skills in this stage of the interview process. McDonald listed five topics to cover in a phone screening: foundational questions, position interest, company interest, skills and experience, and salary expectations.
Foundational "get to know you" questions
Start by asking the candidate basic "get to know you" questions. This helps to break the ice and gives insight into who the candidate is. Here are some examples of questions you can ask:
- Can you tell me about yourself?
- Why are you leaving your current position?
- What are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?
- What type of work environment do you prefer?
- What does DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) mean to you?
Next, move on to questions regarding the candidate's interest in the position. Here are some questions to ask:
- What attracted you to this position?
- How did you hear about this position?
- Why did you pick the career you're in?
- How quickly are you looking to move into this position?
Next, ask questions that test the candidate's knowledge of the company and their interest in it. A well-prepared candidate will have researched your organization. Here are some sample questions to ask:
- What attracted you to this company?
- How many other interview processes are you involved with?
Skills and experience
Ask questions that allow the candidate to go into detail about their skills and experience. You can touch on some technical skills, but these questions should be geared mostly toward identifying the candidate's soft skills.
"What you're looking for here, as an employer, is if the candidate can articulate the projects that are relevant … always showing the benefit (or return on investment) to the company or organization they are/were a part of," McDonald said. Here are some examples of questions to ask:
- Can you tell me about a time you demonstrated leadership?
- Can you tell me about a challenge you faced and how you overcame it (step by step)?
- Can you tell me about a time you made a mistake?
- Why do you think you are a good match for this position?
Salary expectations (if permitted)
This is a topic you should address tactfully, but if your state laws and regulations permit you to, you can ask about the candidate's compensation expectations. Avoid asking a candidate about their salary history, as this is increasingly considered a poor policy and is even illegal in some states. However, if the state allows, you can ask a simple question to gauge compensation alliance, such as "What is your target compensation?"
What to look for during a phone screen interview
During the phone screen interview, you are gauging a candidate's soft skills and how they conduct themselves. You obviously want to identify if their skills and expertise will potentially match up with the role, but that will be addressed more heavily in the formal job interview. The screening interview is a chance to determine how good their soft skills are and if they would be a good cultural fit for the organization and team.
"Listen for how they're conducting themselves," McDonald said. "Are they organized? Are they comfortable on the phone? Are they listening to the question? Are they answering the question? Can they give you examples?"
Also, pay attention to any warning signs. McDonald said three of the biggest red flags are a lack of preparedness, a lack of curiosity and negativity about former employers.
By following these steps for a successful phone screen and asking the right questions, you'll be on your way to narrowing down your list of applicants to the best potential candidates for the role and your organization.