How to hold a phone interview

As with many of my posts, like How can you tell if someone’s arrogant?, this one is written from the perspective of an employer.  The thought being that job candidates can benefit from knowing how the interview process works from the other side.  I’m writing this as-if I have a new employee to train on the phone interview process.

The first, at-length conversation with a candidate, our phone interview is early in the process and has two simple goals: 1) Describe the position and the company, and 2) Qualify the candidate for background, interest, and general communication skills. We book 30 minutes, though often wrap-up within 20. Ten minutes about the position, ten minutes about the candidate, and open questions make up the balance.

Step 1: Making the Call


  • The recruiter* always calls the candidate.  Never the other way around.
  • Always call the candidate on-time. Not only is this considerate, but it’s important to know if the candidate is prepped and ready to interview at the appointed time. If they’re in their car, or need to get back to their desk or conference room, or are on the other line, they’re not prepared. That’s one strike.
  • The candidate should always answer the phone by giving their name. “Hello, this is Charlie” is fine. Even though you may be calling their personal phone, a business greeting is mandatory. Especially for junior candidates, it indicates a level of seriousness and preparation for professional life.
  • Identify yourself as <your name> from <your company>, and ask how it’s going. It’s important to start the conversation casually, because candidates who are at ease are more honest and likely to act as they would once employed. Sometimes I like to say “I’ve been looking forward to talking with you,” because happy candidates are better, too.

Step 2: Starting the Interview

  • Set the agenda. Tell the candidate what to expect, and let them know that there’s plenty of time at the end for questions. “I thought I’d take the first ten minutes to tell you about our company and the position, and then I’d like to get to know you and your career goals a little better. That should leave us about ten minutes at the end for all the questions I’m sure you’ll have. Is there anything in particular you’d like to add to our list?” I don’t always suggest that candidates will/should have questions, but they should. A thoughtful person who’s genuinely interested will always have a few questions–no matter how menial.

Step 3: Talking about the Company

  • Start with explaining how the company makes money. This is the easiest way to engage other people and get them to understand your business. Here in the Twin Cities, every recent grad wants to work for Target and Best Buy, not just because they’re great places to work, but because it’s easy to understand how they make money. Most business models are less obvious, but very few people accept a job if they don’t understand what the company does. Junior hires, with minimal exposure/experience, won’t already know what you do.
  • Next, explain how the company is broken up. Consumer vs. institutional, private vs. government, sales vs. fulfillment, front office vs. back office–every company is different. You don’t have to go into great detail, but enough to help the candidate understand where they fit in the bigger picture. Here again, assume they have to understand the company before they’d ever consider an offer.
  • Now explain the group that’s hiring for this new position. What is their responsibility to Corporate? What’s their purpose?
  • Explain the position specifically. If there are other people in the role, it may be easiest to simply describe what they do. If this is a new position, or a re-formulated role, explain the vision and how the company wants it to work.
  • Finally, explain the skills used in the position. Not the activities or responsibilities–the skills. So don’t talk about owning reports or keeping quality numbers high. Instead, talk about helping large groups reach consensus. Or acting as intermediary between Business and Technology, which means working hard to understand Tech lingo and relate it in Business terms. That sometimes the candidate will have to do hours of extra homework on particular new technologies so they can make sure the solution they’re working on is right for the users.
  • “We’ll have lots of time for questions later, but is there anything you’d like me to clarify before we move on to you?”

Step 4: Talking about the Candidate

  • I suggest leaving this part of the interview open-ended because what a candidate chooses to tell you is very revealing. Do they talk about their GPA or scholastic achievement? Do they focus on their internship, or their volleyball scholarship? “Why don’t you give me a 3 minute tour of the last 5 years of your life.”
  • We’re listening for two things right now: 1) Consistency between story and resume, and 2) Communication style. That’s it. You can’t assess everything at once, so don’t worry about the specifics of an internship or class project.
  • Now start asking a bunch of How and Why questions. Why did you take that internship? How do you think your education prepares you for a position like this? Why is this career interesting to you? Still listening for communication skills, but you’re also looking for indicators of work traits, like dedication, creativity, leadership, problem solving, and the like. We work more on those in later rounds, but they pop up in the phone interview, too.
  • After a response to one of the How or Why questions, dig two levels deeper into the response, for a total of 3 questions on the same topic. Going deeper opens up the candidate because they can’t rely on canned answers any more. For example, here are two three-question sets:
    • 1) Why did you take that internship?
    • 2) And which of those skills do you want your next position to highlight?
    • 3) In retrospect, do you think that internship was the right choice for you?
    • 1) That internship is quite different from what we do. Are you concerned with leaving that industry behind to pursue something different?
    • 2) But there has to be some similarity, right? Do you see any overlap between what you did there and what we’ve talked about here?
    • 3) Do you think you’d bring a different, unique approach to our position because of that past experience? How so?
  • At this point, you’re nearing the end of the interview. Hopefully you and the candidate have gone through two Deep Question Chains (invented), the goal still being an assessment of communication skills, background, and interest in the position.

Step 5: Question Time

  • This is unstructured time for both you and the candidate to clear up or expand on anything. I usually don’t have many questions other than logistical questions if I need to know their region preference, when they can start, etc.
  • If the candidate doesn’t have any questions, it’s good to plant a few. “Do you have any questions about how the team is structured?”  “Does our business model make sense to you?” This is also a good way to make sure they were paying attention.

Step 6: Wrap-up

  • Go over the next steps, even if you don’t think they’ll get a call back.  Tell them what to expect and offer to answer any future questions should they arise.
  • Thank them for their time, and be direct when ending the conversation. Candidates are often unsure how to sign off a phone interview. Sort of like “You hang up.”  “No–you hang up.” As the recruiter, you need to own the disconnect. “Thanks for your time, Jessica. Have a nice evening–good-bye.”
  • Lastly, take all your notes and save them. You’ll never remember tomorrow. Always do it during or immediately after the interview. More on scoring interviews later.

That’s it. There are many ways to hold phone interviews, but this is how I do it, and it’s worked pretty well.

    * As always, I use the word Recruiter in place of Interviewer because the interviewer/interviewee description is clunky. A Recruiter can be an HR recruiter, a direct manager, a 3rd party, or anyone conducting the interview.


    5 responses to “How to hold a phone interview

    1. Michelle Rohrer

      That was fantastic 😉

    2. Very good advice!

    3. Pingback: Preparing for an Interview: | taylorcurley

    4. Pingback: Be Prepared For The Call | Job Searching Blog

    5. Pingback: 6 Tips for Successful Hiring — Ian's Messy Desk

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