How To Ace A Phone Screening Interview

Face-to-face interviews can be tough, but trying to ace a phone screening interview can be even harder sometimes.

Not long ago, I was at Disneyland on vacation. While waiting to get into the Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor in the Magic Kingdom, I spotted a sign on a door that read: “Inhuman Resources.” Good humor, of course, is best based in reality, and the reality here is simple: most job hunters think of HR as inhuman. HR staffing specialists often get “no respect,” as the late great Rodney Dangerfield would say.

Take a minute, however, to look at the hiring process from the other side of the desk. A typical HR staffing person might be assigned to deal with 20 to 40 job requisitions at a time. Each one of them might attract 100 – 500 candidates in today’s job market. If you assume each applicant has a two-page resume, that amounts to 200 – 1,000 pages of repetitive, boring, and all too often, irrelevant resumes for EACH job requisition. Overburdened staffing specialists can’t possibly afford the spare seconds to ask: “The candidate said XXX. I wonder if that means he has done/can do YYY.”

The reality is that the HR person’s role is screen OUT more than screen IN: to look for any excuse to reject rather than accept a candidate. The human impulse to help people can be replaced by the “inhuman,” unforgiving response to any typographical error or small doubt about any given candidate. It isn’t about whether any given candidate might be able do the job if given a chance.  Rather, it’s about winnowing the field to find five or 10 exceptional candidates out of hundreds to pass on to the hiring manager.

I know this to be true because I used to be one of those people: sorting through the resumes, dealing with Applicant Tracking Systems, and conducting those initial phone interviews. The wise job hunter will look at the phone screening interview as a prized opportunity to gain an initial advocate. Here are tips how to do so:

1. Spoon Feed Information In A Way The Interviewer Wants It

The screening interview is about doing Due Diligence on the part of the company, dealing with “red” and “yellow” flags on resumes, discerning a candidate’s true interest level in the job, knowledge about the company, and general fit for the position. It’s ALL about the EMPLOYER’S NEEDS, and NOT the candidate’s. If you’re asked about a potential “red flag,” be grateful for the opportunity to deal with it and put it out of the way—and be prepared to do so. By the way you deal with these issues and others, you can build rapport and give the ammunition needed to help make your case, or you can shoot yourself in the foot.

2. Understand Each Question Has A Purpose That’s Not Always Obvious

Often screeners are given questions that every candidate must answer. Responding by saying, “If you read my resume, you would see what you’re talking about,” can be regarded as hostile. From your answers, your interviewer will derive insights about your intelligence, ability to communicate effectively, emotional disposition, eagerness to learn from failure or mistakes, and more.

3. Don’t Be Defensive Or Coy

For example, if you respond to the question, “What will be your salary requirement?” with an answer like, “I’m negotiable,” or “Make me an offer and I’ll consider it,” you’re more likely to generate antagonism than a next interview. It’s much more reasonable to say something like: “In my last/current position, I was/am earning XXX, but at this stage, I can’t know how that would equate in your company.”

4. Don’t Waste Time With Process Questions

Questions such as:

  • “When will I hear back from you?”
  • “Where are you in the hiring process?”
  • “How did I do?”
  • “When do you want the person you hire to start work?”

It’s obvious every job searcher wants the answers to these questions, but this isn’t the appropriate time.

Instead, when asked what questions you have, utilize the time to further demonstrate your understanding of the role, the company, your skills and your enthusiasm by the questions you ask and the way you ask them. Don’t forget to close by expressing your appreciation for being considered, and offer to provide any follow-up material that would be helpful.

The really good screeners know how to interpret tone of voice, attitude, levels of competence and self-confidence. Speak clearly, articulate your words, make sure you respond fully and forthrightly to the question that’s asked rather than spewing out some pre-determined message you want to get across.

It all comes down to this: Be the professional you’re so you may earn the respect you deserve, and the chance to proceed in the hiring process.

Happy hunting!

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