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1/17/16 - 5 Things to Understand About Phone Screen Interviews

Before you can interview with a hiring manger, here's how to succeed in a phone screen.

By Arnie Fertig

Often, after submitting an online job application, you may get a request from the company for an initial phone screen interview with someone in the human resources department. While you are happy to get a response, you might at the same time feel frustrated and think to yourself: “If only I could just talk to the hiring manager! Why do I need to speak with some junior HR person who doesn’t have a clue about all the technical aspects of the job and how well I can do?"

The reality is that except when you can access a hiring manager directly through networking, you’ll likely have to jump through the hurdle of a phone screen interview conducted by someone in the HR department.

When preparing for a phone interview, consider these points:

Phone interviews begin to separate the wheat from the chaff. Hiring managers rarely, if ever, have time to sort through all the resumes that are submitted. It makes sense for them to review the “must haves,” “would be good to haves” and disqualifying factors with an HR person who will begin the process.

It’s likely that the HR person will be well-trained in avoiding the pitfalls of discriminating against people in any protected class. And they can do an excellent job of separating those clearly not appropriate from the people who deserve more in-depth consideration.

Don’t expect to get into great detail about what you’ve done or the job at this time. Remember that there is a lot of ground to cover, but these interviews typically last only 20 to 30 minutes, so don’t spend too much time on any one question or answer.

Interviewers sell the company to the candidates. Companies are concerned about their own employer brand. There is always stiff competition to make it into one of those “Top X Places to Work” lists. And given the current dip in unemployment, employers are now in a position where they need to compete to get the top talent to join their workforce.

When you are given the opportunity to ask questions at the end of an interview, this is a great time to inquire about the corporate culture, why the interviewer enjoys working at the company and what kinds of personalities tend to be the most successful at the company. You can then respond by drawing parallels to your background and actions that show you are that kind of person.

Phone screeners need to figure out if you are on a fishing expedition. Employers don’t typically want to go through the hiring process with a candidate, and then find out that they need to compete with alternate offers, or even worse, have you pull the rug from under them by taking another offer when they have finally figured out that you are the perfect person for them.

Make sure you answer the question, “Why do you want to work here?” before it is even asked. It’s not advisable to answer the phone call inviting you to interview by asking, “What company are you from again? I’ve applied to so many, I can’t keep them all straight.”

Also be prepared to say something that explains your rationale for applying to any job that is particular to that company.

Phone screeners evaluate your communication skills. Even if you have a stellar resume, employers may wonder if you wrote it yourself and how well you can expand on any of its content. What is the quality of your English, your ability to think on your feet, listen to questions and respond appropriately? Can you make complex or technical aspects of your job understandable to someone who isn’t at your level?

Never refer an interviewer to your resume for the answer to a question. They’ve already read it and likely have it in front of them. If they ask you to explain something that is there, chances are they just want to see how well you speak about what you’ve written.

Talk clearly, don’t ramble and answer the question that is asked rather than pivoting to make some other point. Check in along the way to ask if this is the kind of information, with the right level of specificity, that the interviewer wants to hear about.

Compensation discussions begin at the beginning. As much as you might want to defer the salary question, it invariably comes up sooner rather than later. Don’t be taken aback. Of course it is an attempt to elicit a low number from you, given that you are at your most vulnerable at this early stage of discussion.

But it does more. It enables an employer to benefit from the knowledge of how your current or recent employer valued your contributions. It probably doesn’t mean much if you are a couple thousand dollars higher or lower. But it’s hard to convince a perspective employer that you deserve an executive compensation level when your current or recent salary is that of a mid-manager level.

Do your best to avoid naming a specific salary target. Instead, offer to share your current or recent salary, always with a caveat: “This is a different role in a different company. Of course I’d like more, but what is most important to me is that I’m a good fit for the position.”

Happy hunting!


Arnie Fertig, MPA, is the founder & CEO of Jobhuntercoach. He coaches clients nationwide on the nuts and bolts of job hunting. You can connect with him on LinkedIn, follow him on Twitter @jobhuntercoach, or circle him on Google+.