The Telephone Screen: Filter Candidates Objectively

You decided you were ready to hire a new employee. So you created a job description and finally, your position was approved in the budget. You wrote a job posting, posted the position online, and received a lot more resumes than you’d bargained for! Then you tackled the enormous task of sorting through those resumes to eliminate the ones that clearly weren’t a good fit. Now, how do you go about screening the remaining candidates? Conducting that many in-person interviews is impossible, so telephone screens are your next best strategy. Although they cannot replace in-person interviews, they can help you significantly narrow down your pool of candidates.

The goal of your telephone screen is to learn how qualified the candidates are, whether they fit your company’s culture, and how well they fit the position. To accomplish this, you must develop a set of questions tailored to the specific needs of your current open position, and establish a system for consistently evaluating your results. You’ll want to ask all candidates the exact same list of questions so you can equally compare their responses. Creating a simple form with your questions, room for comments, and a column for scoring will be well worth your time. Using an equal comparison form benefits you in several ways:

  • It helps you maintain objectivity throughout the process.
  • It keeps you from going with your gut feeling.
  • It prevents you from hiring on impulse.
  • It prevents legal problems such as accusations of discrimination from disgruntled candidates.

The 4-Part Telephone Screen

Introduction. Keep in mind that the candidate has probably applied to several different companies. So when you call, you’ll first want to introduce yourself and identify the position title you’re calling about. Ask if the candidate is free to talk, then briefly describe the position, location, and hours to make sure the candidate is still interested and available.

Your Questions. Below are some general open-ended questions you can select to use. Depending upon the position, you’ll need to add your own customized questions for unique or technical aspects of the position. Keeping the questions open-ended helps ensure that candidates tell you who they really are. It also prevents you from cueing them in to the answers you want to hear. (Tip: The more you talk, the more you tell candidates what you want them to say. The more you listen, the more you learn what candidates are really thinking. As you listen, keep in mind that past performance is the best predictor of future behavior.)

  • Can you tell me about yourself and your current employment situation? How long have you been looking? Are there layoffs at your company? How come you’re leaving your current job? (Or, When did you leave your last position, and why?)
  • Describe for me what you did in your last job.
  • In your previous position, what would you say was your greatest achievement or contribution?
  • How many years of _______ experience do you have? Tell me about your experience with ______ (apply to your position’s needs specifically).
  • Could you describe your educational background for me?
  • What interests you about this position? What is it about our company that made you want to apply here? (Tip: Try to find out what’s motivating the move. Are they looking for a promotion, better salary, closer location, etc.? Understanding what motivates the candidate will help you decide if they’re a good fit for your company.)
  • Describe the kind of workplace environment you need to be engaged in your work.
  • What do you feel is your greatest expertise? What do you enjoy the most? What’s your strongest attribute in relation to this position?
  • Where do you see your career heading in the next 5 years?
  • If you’re interested in this job, we will need to check your W-2s. What has your compensation been in your last 2 positions? What are you currently making? Can you break that down for me, in salary, benefits, etc.? What’s the minimum salary you need in a new position? (Tip: Don’t reveal a specific compensation for the position at this point. Later, you will be negotiating this with your final candidate taking into account many factors, some monetary and some not.)
  • Tell me about the best manager you ever had.
  • It looks like you live in ____. What do you think the drive in traffic would be like from there? Have you had a commute like that before? (Or, I see that you’ll need to relocate from ____. What’s your current situation? How many people will you be moving? How soon would you be available?)
  • Are you interviewing anywhere else? Are you entertaining any other job offers?
  • Will you agree to be drug tested and let us run checks on criminal background, references, and educational background?

At any point in your telephone screens, you will likely receive responses that remove certain candidates from the running. When this occurs, let them know that you have other candidates who are more qualified, more experienced, or a better fit for the position, and thank them for their time. If it’s true, you can also say that you’ll keep them in mind for another position. Or, if your qualified candidate pool is skinny, you could ask them to refer a friend or colleague who might be a better fit.

Candidate Questions. After you’ve completed your questions, invite candidates to ask any questions they may have about the open position. Consider this an additional opportunity for you to learn what motivates or is important to them, and note whether this new information contributes to or detracts from their fit for the job. You may want to go into more detail about the duties and expectations of the position. It’s also wise to share, not just what makes your company great to work for, but any negative aspects of the job so the candidate has a fuller picture of what to anticipate.

Next Steps. If the telephone screen has gone well, you’ll want to ask, “How soon are you available for an in-person interview?” Verify their contact information, then let them know what your next steps will be in the interview process and when you’ll get back to them. Many candidates are disheartened to never hear back from potential employers, so be compassionate and let them know either way, even if it’s just through a graciously worded email.

To complete the call, thank candidates for giving you their time. Remember that every interaction you have with a candidate is a marketing event. If your courteous treatment leaves them with a great impression of your company, even those who end up not being selected will hopefully speak highly of your company, possibly fill a future position with your company, or later refer someone who is a better fit.

Once you’ve hired your new employee, you can give them a great start with these tips on creating a performance acceleration tool!

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