How to conduct a phone screen interview to identify top talent

Last updated:
December 16, 2020
December 21, 2021
min read
Brendan McConnell
Table of contents

You’ve taken the steps needed to gather a talent pool full of great candidates for your open position. Your job ads are well-written and laser-focused on your target market, and you’re using the perfect recruitment sources for the position. As a result, you now have a giant list of highly qualified candidates to choose from. Now what? How do you start to sort through this embarrassment of riches? One great place to start is the good old phone screen interview.

Phone screen interviews are a tried and tested recruitment technique that is a great first step in parsing through your applicants to find the top candidates. But, like everything in recruitment, it needs to be done properly to get results.

In this article, we’ll walk you through how to conduct a screening interview over the phone that will set you up for success, explain what happens after the phone interview, and provide examples of questions you should be asking candidates. But first, let’s talk briefly about what a screening interview is, and what it is not.

What is a phone screen interview?

A phone screen interview is exactly what it sounds like: an interview used to screen candidates, conducted over the phone. Simple, right? Yes, and no.

When planning and executing your screening interviews, it’s important to remember that this stage is designed to provide a quick and general introduction to a candidate. It is not designed to be an in-depth, customized interview to probe the candidate’s deepest, darkest secrets.

The focus of your phone screen interview should be to determine if an applicant has the qualifications necessary to do the job. They probe surface-level questions about:

  • background,
  • qualifications,
  • education,
  • salary expectations,
  • reasons for applying and general knowledge of the company,
  • and judge communication skills and attitude.

A screening interview over the phone should not include in-depth job testing or culture testing. Too much, too soon can scare a candidate away. Instead, you should use these interviews to gain enough supplementary information about the candidate to help determine if you want them to come in for an in-person interview or job test.

When done properly, the benefits of a phone screen interview are plenty:

  • They let you screen large numbers of candidates quickly, but personally.
  • They greatly reduce the number of unqualified candidates you call in for a formal interview.
  • They allow you to parse your list quickly, letting you focus on only the best candidates.
  • They provide valuable information about a candidate that can be used to steer your in-person interviewing questions.
  • They let you test communication and interpersonal skills early in the process.
  • Bottom line, they save you time and effort.

If this sounds a bit daunting, don’t worry. We’ve put together a phone interview cheat sheet to help you get started.

Preparing your phone screenings

When getting ready to execute a series of telephone interviews, it’s a good rule of thumb to follow this process of events:

  1. Manually review your talent pool.
  2. Narrow your candidate pool to those you want to know more about.
  3. Create your list of questions.
  4. Conduct the interview.
  5. Evaluate the results.

Let’s expand on each of these steps.

Step #1 – Manually review your candidate pool.

This can be a bit tedious, but it’s important to review each and every candidate who applies to your position in your talent pool. You don’t want a great candidate falling through the cracks because of applicant overload.

To help alleviate some of the work, leverage the search and filter capabilities in your Applicant Tracking System (ATS). Filter out applicants who don’t fit the exact experience or education required. Use as many automatic processes as possible, and then manually review the remaining resumes.

Step #2 – Narrow your candidate pool

Once you’ve reviewed the resumes, create a preliminary shortlist of candidates that you’d like to call. This could be 10 people, or it could be 100 people. It depends on the number of applicants, and how many you can disqualify immediately.

Don’t be concerned if your “short list” isn’t short. That’s why you’re doing a phone screen interview in the first place. Good screening is a crucial step in shortlisting candidates.

Step #3 – Create your list of questions

The next step is to compile the questions you’ll be asking each candidate. The goal at this stage is to understand the job requirements, understand your candidate pool, take into account the company goals and strategy, and come up with questions that screen based on those variables.

Be sure to keep the length of your interviews in mind. Phone screens should be about 30 minutes from start to finish, so the number of questions your write should reflect that timeframe.

We’ll dig deeper into what types of questions you should ask shortly.

Step #4 – Conduct the interview

You’ll want to schedule an appointment for the interview with each candidate, both out of courtesy and to allow some time for preparation. You can either email each candidate directly or leverage tools like an ATS and booking platforms to send out automated requests to schedule interview times in your calendar. SMS also works nicely for this and is #millenialfriendly.

Call your candidate at the scheduled time, and run through the list of prepared questions. It’s important to treat this like a structured interview, whereby you ask each candidate the exact same questions in the same order.

Asking each candidate the same questions during a phone screen interview lets you objectively evaluate each one, which in turn helps determine who makes it to the next round.

Step #5 – Evaluate the results

When your screening interviews are finished, evaluate the results using your scoring rubric. You can then go through a second round of parsing down your candidates, focussing on the ones who you’d like to meet and screen in person.

Types of telephone interview questions to ask

Now that we’ve gone through the process to prepare for a phone screening, let’s look at some questions you can ask your candidates.

Generally speaking, your telephone interview questions should fall into one of the following categories:

  • Background information
  • About the candidate
  • Desire for the job and fit
  • Knowledge of the company
  • Salary expectations
  • Resumes points that need more information or clarification.

Let’s take a look at some examples for each.

Background information

The first thing you should do when you start a telephone interview is ask the candidate to verify and confirm the information on their resume. This will help ensure that you’re working with the right information for your evaluation, and can also shine a light on anything that might need some further clarification.

Background queries can either be framed as a simple list of yes or no questions to confirm information, or they can prompt the candidate to explain anything they may or may not have included in their resume. The goal is to gather and confirm all information about the candidate’s experience, education and work history that relates to your position.

Telephone interview questions in this phase might look like:

  • Who was your last employer, and what was your role?
  • What were your primary responsibilities?
  • Why are you / why did you leave that position?
  • What experience do you have that relates to this application?

Keep this section short, and verify only the most important information.

About the candidate

Next, you can move into some general phone questions about the candidate. Be sure to keep these closely related to the position, and don’t pry too much at this stage of the process. The goal with these questions is to get an idea of the candidate’s personality, what they’re looking for, and whether or not they seem like a good fit.

Some phone questions to ask the candidate about themselves could be:

  • Tell me about yourself.
  • What are you looking for in your next job?
  • What is important to you in your career?
  • What motivates you?
  • What kind of work environment do you like?
  • What do you like to do in your free time?

These questions will help the candidate open up and show off their personality and communication skills. They will also give you insight into how the candidate’s values and goals align with your organization’s.

Desire for the job and fit

Questions about the candidate lead into perhaps the most important evaluation of the phone interview: why the candidate wants to join your company, and how well they’ll fit in. Getting a clear insight into a candidate’s motive for applying will give you valuable intel into how engaged they will be throughout the hiring process, and on the job, if they’re chosen.

The focus of these questions should be to get a handle on why they want this job, why they want to leave their old job (if applicable), and how they would interact and perform with your team.

Here are some questions to ask during a phone interview to determine those answers:

  • Why did you apply for this position?
  • Why do you want to leave your previous job?
  • What do you think this job will fulfill for you that your current job doesn’t?
  • What value do you think you could bring to the team?

While it’s natural to try and pry as much information about the candidate as possible for these questions, it’s important to remember that this is just an introductory interview. Don’t be too forceful or deep about your questions at this stage, or you may scare the candidate away.

Knowledge of the company

From there, you should test the preparedness of the candidate for the phone interview. A great way to do this is to ask questions that determine how well the candidate knows your company or knows the position they applied for.

Some telephone interview questions you can use here are:

  • What attracted you to our organization?
  • How would you describe what we do?
  • What are our core product and service offerings?
  • How do your skills and experience relate to the job description?

It’s good practice to ask open-ended questions that require a certain amount of knowledge about your company to answer. Questions that relate to your brand, messaging, products and services, or values are all great ways to determine how well the candidate prepared for the call (provided the information is publicly available).

Salary expectations

Salary expectations help you determine whether or not you’ll be able to meet the candidate’s requirements early in the process. If your figures are dramatically different, then it’s good to catch that early on so as not to waste anyone’s time.

However, this can be a sticking point for some candidates, and it’s up to you to determine whether or not you’d like to include it in your evaluation. If the candidate declines to answer, be prepared to bring it up later in the interview process when they’ve learned a bit more about the role.

Two simple questions to ask for this could be:

  • What is the salary in your current job?
  • How much would you like to earn?

Again, it’s important to not be too forceful at this stage of the screening process.

Questions asking for more information or clarification

The last group of telephone interview questions you should ask are specific to the individual candidate you’re talking to. If you noticed any red flags or question marks in the resume, such as long gaps in employment or lots of jumping between companies, then this is the time to ask the candidate about it. The goal is to get a full and clear picture of the candidate’s background that you can use to guide your evaluation.

Things to listen for during the phone screen interview

When conducting your phone screening, it’s important to pay attention to the following attributes for each candidate:

  • Critical thinking skills, or how well they can adapt and react to your questions on the fly.
  • Soft skills, such as communication, personality, and personability.
  • How each of the above jives with your company culture and values.

In the same vein, here are some red flags you should watch for:

  • Negative attitude
  • Low energy
  • Discrepancies between their application and answers
  • Lack of preparedness
  • Lack of enthusiasm about the company or position
  • Negative comments about former employers
  • A focus on money and benefits

These red flags may be indicators of the candidate being disinterested in the position, lacking professionalism, or being focussed on the wrong priorities. It’s up to you to identify and determine if these red flags are a deal breaker, or if there are enough positives to move forward with the candidate.

Some parting tips for how to conduct a phone screen interview

Like any time you interact with the public as a representative of your company, it’s important to present yourself with an air of professionalism during every screening interview.

To help with this, it’s important to practice proper phone interview etiquette. This means being polite and fair, respecting the candidate’s time, and staying focussed on the task at hand. Remember, the candidate is evaluating you just as much as you are them.

Treat each and every telephone interview like it’s the most important one you’re doing that day, and you’ll be successful in how you process and screen every candidate that clicks apply.

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