Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Telephone Interviews

When I started doing recruiting, I had a lot to learn, as I didn’t come from the HR sector at all.

One such discovery was the significance and absolute danger for the job seeker related to the initial telephone call from the employer, especially when it falls on an unsuspecting/unprepared person.

At first, when one of my employer clients decided that they wanted to begin a recruitment conversation with one of my job candidates, I understood this to mean that the company would be inviting the person to their offices for a face-to-face interview. Now I understand from hard life experience that this is in fact the best case scenario, and certainly not a foregone conclusion.

My history with the recruitment process until this point was my own personal experience with job search for myself. Maybe I have a faulty memory, but what I remember was that when I submitted my CV and a company was interested in me, they would call and invite me to their offices for an interview. I don’t recall the telephone discussion being anything more than a short conversation to make the logistical arrangements.

What I started to realize very quickly was that many of the job seekers that had telephone conversations with the employer were never actually invited to a personal interview – the process completely ground to a halt for them with this one and only phone interaction.

It was clear that I was missing something - what was actually going on?

Each employer operates differently, but somewhere in their thought process, consciously or not, is the question: How much resources do I want to invest in this candidate? Reviewing a CV is the least “expensive” for an employer, followed by a telephone call, and then finally an in-person interview.

Maybe you have heard that a CV/resume is reviewed on average 20-30 seconds. Of course, this is the first stage of filtering, and most candidates are removed from contention at this point. Anyone who has sifted through large numbers of CVs knows that the majority of people that submit their candidacy don’t even meet the qualifications listed in the job posting. If the CV is especially interesting, I will invest more than the usual amount of time in reading it before ultimately deciding whether the candidate is suitable to be submitted to the company for further consideration.

So, what happened next was shocking to me at first. Not so much that people that I thought were appropriate were not all generating strong interest from the employer – that was to be expected, as I generally was not the only resource they had presenting candidates. However, a much-higher-than-expected percentage of people that the companies decided to speak with based upon the CV that I submitted had the recruitment process stop after one telephone conversation.

I became very curious – what is the employer looking for in this phone conversation, and what are they asking to allow them to arrive at the go/no go decision of whether to invest even more resources by inviting the job seeker to an interview at the office?

When the employer gets the CV, either pre-screened by a recruiter or directly from a job candidate, they do their own evaluation. Certainly the processing is different depending on whether the candidate was pre-screened by a trusted agency or is not filtered at all.

At the end, though, from the oftentimes large quantity of initial CVs, the company whittles the number of candidates down to a more manageable size – those that may meet their candidate profile. What comes next is the process that the company has created to go from “may meet the candidate profile” based upon the contents of a one-dimensional CV to a more confident understanding that this person has the skills and motivation to do the job and fit the company.

Of course, each employer has their own philosophy for the entire recruitment process, and the initial phone conversation is only one aspect of this. Still, it might help the job seeker conceptually to place an employer in one of three categories regarding how they view the call:
  1. Scheduling - This initial telephone call is designed to set a time for the job seeker to come to the employer’s offices for an interview. I mistakenly thought at first that this was the only way that companies viewed this conversation, but I now realize that the majority of employers use this first encounter as something much more than simply scheduling.
  2. Mini-Interview - The hiring manager/HR person knows that it is impossible to get a clear picture of the candidate from the CV, nor for the candidate to have a full comprehension of the company/position from the job listing, so the call is used to narrow the gaps. Details on the CV are discussed/elaborated upon, and additional relevant information not contained in the CV may be requested. Also, it can be used for the employer to provide additional details about the job in order to allow the candidate to understand better the specifics and respond with their level of interest. Can be 5-15 minutes in length.
  3. Full-Interview - The call is the equivalent of an in-person interview, simply conducted by telephone. Oftentimes 30 minutes or more.
I have come to the conclusion that from the perspective of the job seeker, unless you know otherwise, you should be planning that the initial telephone conversation will be a short or long variation of a traditional interview, and prepare yourself accordingly.

First things first... Since this call is generally not scheduled in advance, you can’t know when it’s coming and fully prepare in the same way you would for a more traditional planned interview. So, when the company calls, make sure that you are in a situation where you can concentrate and make a good impression. If you are driving, stop the car! If there is a lot of noise or bad reception, try to find a more suitable near-by location to talk. If you are taking care of an unhappy child, or are in the middle of something that you simply can’t interrupt, politely ask if you can reschedule the conversation. There is a risk in asking to reschedule, as the company doesn’t always call back (quickly) and you may lose your chance to be one of the initial candidates, but generally they will get in touch in a timely fashion.  Having the conversation when you are not at your best is a recipe for disaster. And if you are not available to take a call while you are in the job search process, make sure you have voice mail associated with your telephone, and don’t forget to listen to your messages regularly.

As the conversation begins, keep these points in mind:
  • When the company asks for clarification, you should be happy that you have the opportunity to provide additional information, rather than have the company make assumptions that don’t serve your purposes. It doesn’t matter if the answer to the question is already contained your CV – responding intelligently and articulately makes a positive impression.
  • Don’t be evasive/defensive. When a company asks why you left your previous job, why you have a hole in your work history, or what your salary expectations are, answer the question clearly. Of course you should be prepared in advance for such questions, in the same way you would be for an in-person interview, and provide pre-planned responses that serve your interests. For more details of interview questions, see this article.
Getting a telephone call from a perspective employer is an excellent sign. You have passed the initial CV review stage, generally something that very few achieve. Preparing yourself for the telephone conversation in the same way you would for a face-to-face interview will give you the best chance to move forward in the recruitment process.


  1. Phone interviews are a lot easier due to a lesser tension from the one who is calling. However, abrupt calls or on-the-spot telephone calls is not an easy feat. You have to be at the right place at the right time in order to make the company's call a right and a timely one.

    Also, when handling these kinds of calls, the receiver or the interviewee must still maintain composure and always be yourself when answering such calls.

    1. Also you can check this out for more on telephone interviews from Career Confidential: http://bit.ly/JGryEp

  2. Thank you Ron, Your thoughts are valuable. The assumption is that there are more suitable candidates than positions. This is not always the case, even in a market with relatively high unemployment. You have made it very clear that economics of interviewer's time is a big factor in audio interviews. An interviewer has to have remarkable talents and experience to pick up audio cues which would normally be used in face to face interviews; cues which, from the first screening onward, become increasingly important. In all likelihood the ancient traditions for interviewees at traditional meetings were meant to weed out extraneous influences to ease Thank you Ron, your thoughts are very valuable. The assumption is that there are more suitable candidates than positions. This is not always the case, even in a market with relatively high unemployment. You have made it very clear that economics of interviewer's time is a big factor in audio interviews. An interviewer has to have remarkable talents and experience to pick up audio cues which would normally be used in face to face interviews; cues which, from the first screening onward, become increasingly important. Note that the basic, objective correlations between position and candidate are behind us at this stage… suitability is the main objective of the interview. In all likelihood the ancient fashions for interviewees at traditional meetings were meant to weed out extraneous influences to ease the transfer of information, including personality, between the parties. Audio cues are easily influenced by what you mentioned; in addition, technical factors, such as cell-phone's network stability where and when the interview happened to take place, the voice levels and tones of the parties, passing illness and so on, are strong influencing factors. If costs demand that type of interview, the flip side may well be less than optimum choice of the final candidate ,,, that candidate could easily have been weeded out too early in the process. It may be an acceptable idea to use SKYPE-type interviews, noting the limitations of that medium, wherever possible. If I were still in the profession, either as a screener for the final employer or an out-sourcer, I'd emphasis the importance of nuance to the final decision maker ,,, the costs of high employee turn-over are probably greater than more intensive attention to company mores, personality traits in the immediate environment of the candidate and of the candidate's self. Thanks again, Ron.

  3. Funny you bring this up. In the last 2 days I had some conversations with people because they called me unplanned. Luckily I was free to talk but it's an interview method which I personally do not agree with but understand. In this age of pivot points and reorgs the ability to think on your feet and not be flustered by a out of the blue discussion is the 1st line of defense it seems for hiring companies.
    Keep your wits about you and ask for clarity for anything that is truly from left field. Asking probing questions is the key to sales and also helps the hiring manager understand some of your thought process. It is not a right or wrong point but a methodology.

  4. Thank you for your sharing. I always feel nervous when i got a telephone interviewing. Your tips are helpful to me. Besides,i think i should ask some questions about employee rights in State compliance posters.