What is a Phone Screening Interview? A Guide to Efficient Candidate Assessment

The interview process can be long and tedious. It’s easy to spend hours, days, or even weeks screening candidates only to discover late in the process that they’re a poor fit. Investing that time on unqualified candidates is costly and exhausting for everyone involved.

If this is the kind of problem you’re struggling with consistently, you’re not the only one. That’s why phone screening interviews exist. These preliminary screenings allow you to ask key questions up front and sort out qualified candidates from the broader pool of applicants earlier on in the process. Rather than wasting time on candidates that are clearly unqualified, phone screenings allow you to clear them out before they waste too much of your time.

But simply adding a phone screening to your regular interview process isn’t enough. To achieve efficiency with this strategy, you need a well-defined, strategic approach to interviewing. Read on to learn how to conduct an effective phone screening interview that streamlines (and improves) your hiring process.

What Is a Phone Screening Interview?

Simply put, a phone screening interview is the interview before the interview. In this initial screening interview, a recruiter (or someone else related to the position that isn’t typically the direct manager of that role) will reach out to the candidate by phone or a similar voice-only channel to ask preliminary questions. It should not be conducted by the candidate’s potential manager, because the candidate may feel pressured to not be fully honest about their answers.

The goal for this interview is to conduct a proper, authentic assessment of the candidate without bias and to eliminate unqualified candidates (or those who would clearly be a poor fit). Likewise, the candidate can also get a basic first impression of the company.

The average phone screening interview lasts only thirty minutes or less, which makes it a very efficient option for HR departments to implement.

Why Are Phone Screening Interviews Necessary?

There are several distinct advantages to adding phone screening interviews to your hiring process:

  • Filtering Out Unqualified Candidates - Phone screening interviews allow managers to quickly identify candidates that may be unqualified before advancing them to the next stage in the hiring process. It’s also a valuable opportunity to clarify any ambiguous sections of the candidate’s resume, including gaps in employment or unclear qualifications. If it’s clear that the candidate has embellished aspects of their resume, the interviewer may be able to detect it in this first conversation.
  • Fewer Resources Involved - Screening interviews are typically conducted by one person, and can be done in quick succession, with each interview lasting 30 minutes or less. This can be incredibly helpful if you’re hiring for a position with a lot of applicants, and don’t want the hiring process to drag on.
  • More Time for the Best Candidates - With an efficient screening process in place, only the best applicants will advance to in-person interviews. This allows for more time to be spent at that stage (where more managers are involved) to get a deeper sense of each candidate’s strengths and weaknesses, and what unique value they could bring to the organization.
  • Assess Cultural Fit - If it’s clear that the candidate isn’t going to be a good fit for your company’s culture (e.g. if you have philosophical differences or entirely different expectations for the job), either party can speak up and cordially end the interview process before wasting any more time.
  • Gauge Interest Level - How well the candidate has prepared for the phone screening interview says a lot about their level of interest in the position. If someone is highly qualified on paper but is distracted, underprepared, or apathetic during the phone screening interview, that may indicate something about how they will approach the job. You can then eliminate the candidate before wasting time and effort on a more in-depth interview.

How to Conduct A Phone Screening Interview

A phone screening interview doesn’t require the same level of preparation as a formal interview. You should go in prepared for more of an informal discussion than a question/answer format. At the same time, these interviews still require some form of preparation to make them worthwhile. Here’s how you can set one up:

Step 1: Schedule A Time Slot

This may seem obvious, but it’s important to schedule a phone screening interview as if it were a standard interview. Calling unexpectedly and asking, “Is this a good time?” may pressure the candidate to say yes even if it’s not true. By scheduling your interview, you will give the candidate adequate time to prepare and be able to see how they act under those circumstances. You also want to be sure you’re not catching the candidate when they’re dealing with other obligations and may not be able to present themselves in the best possible light.

Step 2: Prepare Your Questions

As stated previously, the average phone screening interview lasts only thirty minutes. It’s wise to go into the call with a handful of planned questions, but be prepared to not get through all of them. If you use the same interview questions when talking to each candidate, you’ll be able to compare answers and see if there are any trends across applicants. Within these questions, it’s also important to not ask anything that could be considered discriminatory. Part of the point of a phone screening interview is to evaluate candidates without the potential for visual bias.

Step 3: Take Notes During The Interview

This can also take place on the part of the interviewee, but the interviewer should be taking notes on the candidate at all times throughout the interview. Answers should be noted, of course. But even seemingly insignificant details, such as giving a date that’s inconsistent with their resume or reluctance to speak about a certain topic, may become more important later on. You can use these details to inform what questions you ask in a later-stage interview.

Step 4: Communicate Next Steps

Because a phone screening interview is inherently more casual than a formal interview, it’s important to end on a note of certainty. If the candidate is proceeding to the next stage of interviews, take time at the end of the screening to schedule that in-person interview. If they’re not proceeding to the next stage or you need to consult with other members of the team before making a decision, let them know. Leaving the candidate with clear expectations will convey that you respect their time and communicate that even casual interviews are taken seriously at your organization.

Tips To Improve Your Phone Screening Interviews

Phone screening interviews are a great way to streamline your interview process. But if you don’t plan ahead in a few specific ways may prevent you from reaping the benefits of a good phone screening interview. Get the most out of your phone screening interviews with these specific preparation tips.

Tip #1: Confirm Essential Details

Make sure the candidate has the correct expectations regarding salary, remote work, desired start date, and any other potential deal breakers. The phone screening interview is the perfect opportunity to answer those questions (and separate out candidates who can’t comply with the way you do things).

Not doing this during the phone screening can waste a lot of time. Imagine conducting a late-stage interview with a candidate who seems like a great fit, only to discover that they can’t work in-person as the position demands. If this had happened earlier in the process, the candidate would have been eliminated early on.

It’s important to verify and question any certifications the candidate lists as well. If you find out that a candidate listed a false certificate, that’s grounds to completely disqualify them. In the same vein, any inconsistencies between the resume and the candidate’s answers should be noted. They may genuinely not remember the details of a past job in the phone screening interview. But if they’re still evasive about the job in the main interview later on, the interviewer will have the context to know whether that person is lying about their experience.

Tip #2: Clarify Resume Details & Flag Inconsistencies

Though you should be familiar with a candidate’s resume before starting the call, have it out in front of you before making the call so you can ask questions with specificity. For instance, if you see a year gap between two jobs on a person’s resume, ask why that took place. You may find out the candidate had an illness that required extended leave. Otherwise, they may have suffered a personal loss.

Similarly, if you see that a candidate only stayed at a job for a short period of time, this is something you’ll want to draw out in the phone screening. Far from being a poor employee, they may have experienced a department-wide layoff or left to escape a harassment-prone manager. Knowing the truth of that short duration (often a red flag in hiring) can help with eliminating bias during the later stages of interviewing.

Not evaluating these details during the initial screening can lead to serious time-wasting during the interview process. Deceptive candidates may make it all the way to the end, only to be discovered after hours of interviews and background checks.

On the other hand, you may also eliminate good candidates if you don’t clarify classic red flags. Throwing out a candidate’s resume because of a two-year gap in employment is a logical choice — but what if they actually spent that time caring for their children after the death of their spouse? If they have great qualifications otherwise, you may be losing out on hiring someone your other employees would love to work beside.

Tip # 3: Be Well-Versed In Position Requirements

Before you even begin conducting phone screening interviews, familiarize yourself with the position description, responsibilities, and qualifications. In other words, you should have a good idea about what would make a candidate qualified and successful in the role. You can then check the candidate’s answers against those requirements with confidence.

Before you start, know what “red flags” could disqualify a candidate in terms of experience or job knowledge. For instance, you may find some applicants list a certification that no longer exists or one that is no longer considered relevant by others in the industry. While these may not always be intentional forms of deception, it may still indicate the candidate’s experience is irrelevant.

Not understanding the position qualifications beforehand can cause you to hire someone who is totally incompetent for the position. This can cost a lot of money in the form of labor hours. But even if you don’t hire a fraud, working with someone who can’t do their job can destroy productivity and employee happiness.

Tip #4: Ask Appropriate Questions

Jumping into a phone screening interview without a list of questions can lead to unproductive conversations and wasted time. Before conducting any phone screening interviews, it helps to have a standard list of approved questions to ask all candidates. This way your phone screening interviews are tailored to consistently weed out people who may be a poor fit.

This doesn’t mean that impromptu follow-up questions aren’t permitted — quite the opposite — but starting with a standard set of questions will allow you to compare answers between candidates both in the moment and after the fact.

Don’t ask complicated, job-specific questions, such as what the candidate would do if presented with a specific type of technical issue. The candidate may not be prepared to answer those questions at this stage of the interview process. However, they might struggle to come up with something on the spot which isn’t representative of their true knowledge. In turn, this may cause bias against an otherwise qualified candidate. Save those types of questions for the main interview.

Phone Screening Interview Sample Questions

We’ve prepared a list of sample questions that may be of help during your next phone screening interview. Some of these questions may not apply to your industry, but they may inspire you to develop your own standard set of questions.

  • “What first interested you in this position?” Ask this question at the beginning of the phone screening interview to gauge if the candidate is likely to come prepared to a formal interview.
  • “What do you like about our company?” This will say even more about the candidate’s level of research, and will help you weed out candidates that are solely interested in money.
  • “What quality makes you most qualified for this job?” This question will show how the candidate has reflected on their own qualifications in relation to the job they’re applying for (and whether they understand the job requirements at all).
  • “Describe how you obtained [name of credential].” If you suspect that a candidate may have embellished or lied about a certification on their resume, ask them for a more detailed story of how they earned it. Their answer will either reveal insincerity or highlight their attitudes on certification and education.
  • “What kind of management style do you prefer?” When you know exactly who will be managing this position, this question will help you gauge how well the candidate will assimilate with their team. If they strongly prefer a different management style than the one exhibited by that position’s manager, it may not work out in the long run.
  • “What is your desired salary range?” Candidates who don’t have aligned expectations regarding salary will immediately reveal themselves. This way, you can immediately eliminate them from the list without taking them through the next stage of the interview process.
  • “If you’re offered this position, when is your desired start date?” This is another common point of contention when hiring that may automatically eliminate certain candidates. Asking it during the phone screening interview will allow for early elimination of candidates that can’t take the job purely due to logistical reasons.

Final Thoughts

If you’re looking to streamline your interviewing process and find the candidates that are likely to stick around, try introducing phone screening interviews to your hiring process. Anyone who is obviously a poor fit will be removed from the candidate pool, allowing more time to find the best among those who are qualified.

Phone screenings can also reduce the impact of bias in the hiring process purely by eliminating the visual component. Much like blind auditions for orchestras, a phone screening interview allows you to judge a candidate’s suitability solely based on their answers and qualifications.

Criterion’s HR module allows you to develop a streamlined hiring process you can use for all candidates. You’ll be able to create standard question sets for each stage of the interviewing process, plus create custom workflows for moving them into the next stage. Set criteria so that everyone involved in hiring is on the same page and knows what to do next. You’ll be able to track progress on candidate selection, onboarding, and much more with Criterion — the HCM built for HR professionals.

Make all your interviews worthwhile. Book a demo to learn how Criterion can make hiring the best candidates easier than ever before.

Conor Quinn
HCM Software Specialist focused on client and partner success.
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