Top phone interview questions to screen candidates

Last updated:
March 26, 2021
December 18, 2021
min read
Tania Miranda
Table of contents

If you’ve amassed a vast list of possible candidates, there’s a lot to be gained from carrying out screening interviews over the phone.

You’ve had all of their resumes, so you know which applicants you can dismiss straight away, which ones you’ve hung a question mark over, and which are your dead certs (for now, at least).

You can leave the deep-dive questions about skillsets and the job itself for the face-to-face interview. A phone interview should be just long enough to allow you an opportunity to investigate a candidate’s soft skills, approachability, confidence, and whether or not they appear to be a good fit for your team.

What are good questions to ask in a phone interview?

The best questions are the ones that provide you with essential information.

If there’s a sudden gap in your team, availability could be the predominant requirement. If you can afford the time to find the best possible candidate, you may want to pursue how they handle projects, their passion for the work, and their successes to date.

Try not to pre-empt or pre-judge your candidates

Enter the process with an open mind. It’s not an exercise in finding faults and discrediting applicants, but filling in the gaps and understanding what they mean.

For example, if you see a gap in an applicant's work history, it’s our nature to assume the worst. However, they may have had to manage a family illness, a layoff from their previous company, or a lack of suitable positions after a relocation.

How to prepare for your phone screen interview

Enter every interview with a fresh and open mind, with no distractions, and after doing your research.

Be the person you want for the role

You should be polite and professional, showing your interviewees the same consideration you would expect from them.

If you become disengaged and sound uninterested, you could just as easily be putting off your ideal candidate by giving the impression that you’re ‘unengaged and disinterested’ with your own position in the company. You should carry out your research just as you’d expect your candidates to.

Before every interview, refresh yourself of who they are. Where have they worked? What’s on their resume? What are their strengths and weaknesses for the role on offer? They’ll appreciate the respect and your knowledge of them, in the same way you should when they prove that they’ve carried out the appropriate research into your job and company culture.

Remember, you are an ambassador for your brand at all times—especially during the interview process.

Measuring and collecting data

You might want to research how to differentiate between candidates. Can you utilize a points system? Recruiting metrics? Or scorecards?

If you’ve got so many interviews to carry out, it’s possible to forget who said what or made the best impressions. Having a system to help with that could make all the difference.

Decide in advance what you need to know about your candidates

You want the best person for the job, but what makes them the best?

Are you looking for someone who can hit the ground running? Someone you can train and mold into the ideal worker? Someone cost-effective? Or someone with a status that will add prestige to your business?

Don’t focus on details that distract you from what you want and need from your applicant.

A standard screening phone interview template

Who are they?

  • What’s your working background?
  • Why are you currently looking for a new job?
  • How far into your job search are you, and have you seen any positions that have piqued your interest?
  • What’s your availability? Will you have to work a specific notice period?

What do they want?

  • What would be your ideal salary if we wanted you for the position?
  • Have you specific company benefits in mind?
  • What if we couldn’t offer you your ideal salary? Would you be open to negotiation? Would any other benefits make up for lack of remuneration?

How badly do they want it?

  • What made you decide to look for another job?
  • What has this position got that your current role doesn’t provide?
  • Can you tell us about your responsibilities in your current role?
  • Where does your motivation come from?

Have they done their research?

  • Why would you like to work for us?
  • How much do you know about what we do?
  • Have you come across our company in your day-to-day life?

Filling in gaps in their resume

  • Why do you think you’re a great match for this role?
  • Have you recently acquired new skills or experience that will make you more appropriate for this job?
  • Can you explain (gap in work history/education/lack of work references)?

How intuitive are they?

  • Ask them what they would like to know about the job, the business, or company culture.

Interview alarm bells to watch out for

  • Low levels or a complete lack of enthusiasm
  • Showing minimal interest
  • Not asking questions
  • Being solely interested in salary
  • Having a negative attitude about previous employers or their work colleagues.
  • Bad language

Any interview, whether held face-to-face, via video, or on the phone, will create some level of anticipation, and possible misrepresentation due to nerves and performance anxiety.

That said, an experienced interviewer would recognize these for what they are, and be able to detect the differences between nerves and apathy.

You’ll be looking for enthusiasm, interest, and energy. If these are lacking during an interview, there’s a fair chance they won’t materialize. You should also expect good manners and the correct tone for the conversation. Any use of bad language shows a lack of respect, which could just as easily manifest when dealing with your clients.

Money focused applicants don’t appear to show dedication or interest in the job. They’re often the type of worker who becomes bored in their role, perpetually searching for their highest-paying position.

Summing up

The hard work has only just started. Once you’ve screened all of your hopeful applicants, you then have to narrow down who you’d like to meet at the next stage.

How you do that will be based on the answers you gathered during your phone interview. It could also drive the conversation into what you’d like to dig further into during the formal interview, as well as your predetermined topics.

Collecting information, considering feedback from the rest of your hiring team, and making a considered judgement into who hit the targets during the screening stage should provide you with a head start into narrowing down your search and filling your job.

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