How to Conduct a Killer Phone Screen Interview

5 min read
Mar 22, 2017


When done correctly, phone screen interviews provide organizations with a number of benefits.

For starters, phone screens save companies a lot of time. Interviewers are usually able to determine very quickly whether they’re interested in an applicant’s candidacy or if they would never think of calling the individual in for a sit-down interview. Because they are conducted over the phone at a specific time, interviewers don’t have to wait for candidates who show up late and they don’t have to reserve a conference room, thereby depriving their colleagues of that particular resource.

Phone screens also provide a glimpse into how candidates think on their feet, which could indicate whether they have the necessary skills to succeed in the role in question. What’s more, since interviewers don’t see the person in the flesh, they also form their opinions of applicants from a more objective perspective. Whether we want to agree with it or not, psychology tells us that we judge people based on their looks. In this light, phone screens also prevent interviewers from letting their visual biases prohibit their companies from hiring the best candidates — at least to a certain extent.

While phone screens should make it easy to determine whether someone deserves an in-person interview, hiring managers need to take the right approach to get the most out of them. Since you’re going to spend time talking to candidates on the phone anyway, you might as well perfect your phone screen interview process so that you get the most value from it. Here’s how you can do that:


01. Figure out what your ideal candidate looks like

When you clearly define what your ideal candidate looks like, it becomes much easier to figure out whether a specific candidate has the requisite skills and experience to succeed in a role. Ask yourself what background and skill set the best candidate would have. Create a checklist that outlines the ideal candidate profile so you have a consistent benchmark to measure against.


02. Review each candidate’s resume to weed out the least qualified applicants

Once you’ve created the profile of the ideal candidate, compare each candidate’s resume against it. If you’re hiring a senior-level graphic designer for a marketing agency, you can likely throw away a number of resumes from entry-level candidates with no experience or candidates who are looking to switch careers and don’t have relevant experience. Keep in mind that, in certain instances, candidates who appear unqualified may actually be rock stars. Do your due diligence to at least glance at candidates’ portfolios to see whether they catch your eye. A candidate who appears unqualified on paper but has demonstrated great talent probably deserves a phone screen.


03. Make sure you’re in a quiet place with good service

The whole point of your phone screen is to assess whether you think a candidate has what it takes to make it to the next round. If you’re at a train station with spotty service, you’ll probably spend more time saying “hello” and “can you hear me?” than having a meaningful conversation. Even if your service doesn’t cut out, when you’re in a noisy environment the applicant may misunderstand what you’re saying. To give job seekers a fair chance and put your company in the position to benefit the most from a phone screen, make sure you call the applicant from a quiet space where you have great reception.



04. Start with questions that can help weed out unqualified applicants

Your time is valuable. Once you’ve figured out which candidates merit a phone call, it’s time to determine the starter questions you can ask that should give you an idea as to whether the candidate would be a good fit. For example, if you’re hiring an engineer to write code in Ruby on Rails, begin your phone screen by asking whether they are familiar with coding in that framework. You probably don’t want to waste your time on a candidate who’s great at writing Python code but has no Ruby on Rails experience.


05. Get into the more detailed questions when they pass the first test

After you’ve figured out the candidate has the basic skills you’d expect someone to have to thrive in the role, it’s time to get into the weeds and ask more detailed questions. If you’re hiring a marketing manager and you’ve determined that the candidate has the right experience, move on to more specific questions about their management philosophies. Ask them what they’re most proud of accomplishing in their careers.


06. Keep them talking and get specific

Once the conversation gets going, ask follow-up questions to keep the candidates talking and find out how they think on their feet. Great candidates will have prepared answers to questions that they expect to hear (e.g., “why do you want to work for this company?). The deeper you dig, the less likely a candidate will be to have a canned response. What they say should help you gain insight into how they respond to a challenging situation.


07. Take good notes that you can reference later

Get into the habit of taking notes on each phone screen interview you conduct so that you can reference them later. Even if your phone call only lasts a few minutes, jot down why you chose to skip the rest of the interview. Youre likely to talk to a number of candidates  the more thorough your notes are, the better informed you’ll be when you need to make a decision.



08. Ask candidates whether they have any questions

The best workers are often curious. As your phone screen winds down, give each applicant the opportunity to ask questions. Candidates will usually have at least one or two questions. But this is not to say that someone who doesn’t have any questions won’t make a great employee. At the very least, letting candidates ask questions will simply provide you with more information that can help you make a decision.


09. Let them know what the next steps are

After you’ve made it to the end of the conversation, applicants will want to know what the next steps are. Don’t leave them guessing. Let them know when you will be in touch and how they can contact you if they have any additional questions. Give them a rough timetable indicating how quickly they can expect the rest of the interview process to move forward. It’s common courtesy and the professional way to do things.

While many hiring managers might dismiss the phone screen as an unimportant formality, you can use them to accelerate the interview process and increase the chances you hire the best candidates every time. How’s that for upside?



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