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7 Essential Questions To Ask When Phone Screening A Candidate

I’ve seen far too many people fall into this trap over the years and you may well have found yourself in a similar situation either as a hiring manager or as a recruiter. You have a key requisition to fill within your own business; or perhaps you have a client with an urgent brief breathing down your back. You’re inundated with applications. You skim through the plethora of cover letters or maybe have a quick glance at the front pages of the resumés starting to clog up your inbox.

A few key words, relevant job titles, or perhaps even a few ‘nice-to-have’ company names jump out at you and you immediately pick up the phone to book a candidate in for an interview while probably going in to ‘over sales drive’ without even realising it.

Gosh if you’re feeling too swamped, you may even ask someone else to call the candidate on your behalf to invite them in for an interview. No questions asked. Simply a call to book them in to see you.

So far so good? Ah … not quite! It’s crazy how often a recruiter or hiring manager will then walk into the interview only to quickly realise that the candidate in front of them is totally wrong for the role (or company) in question. They might not even be the actual candidate!

And yet had they spent even just 5 – 10 minutes phone screening the candidate, they certainly would not have invited them in for what turned out to be a complete waste of (everyone’s) time.

Phone screening is certainly one way to determine whether a candidate might be suitable for a role and therefore whether or not they should qualify for a face-to-face interview. But knowing what to keep an eye (or ear!) out for during a phone screening call could also prevent the odd catastrophe.

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1. Do they even remember applying for the role?

I have literally phone screened thousands of candidates over the last 20+ years! The first question I always ask during a phone screen (once I’ve introduced myself and let them know where I am calling from) is whether or not they can actually recall applying for my role. You can tell a lot from how they respond to this question. After all there’s a huge difference between a potential candidate being able to talk about your specific job ad or someone saying “gosh last week I applied for about 20 jobs and I guess yours was probably one of them!

2. What was it about the role (or ad) that attracted their attention?

I remember asking this question once to a candidate whose work history actually looked damn good on paper. She literally burst out laughing. “Are you serious? Do you really expect me to know why I specifically applied to yours? Probably because I desperately need to find a new job. Does that answer your question?” Let’s just say I didn’t even need to go on to Question 3!

3. Where are they up to in their job search?

It may feel strange to ask this one over the phone, but believe me it can reveal a lot. Are you the first person they are speaking to? Is yours the only position they have applied for recently? Or have they already been for five interviews this week? Perhaps they even have an offer pending? On the flip side, perhaps they haven’t really started their search yet and were referred to you. Nice.

The answer to this particular question could help you assess any possibility of you working with them exclusively if they’re an A-grade candidate (especially if you’re a recruiter) or reveal just how quickly you should get them in to meet with you.

4. What are they ideally looking for in their next position?

Ask them to create a wish list for their next role and get them to talk through it right there with you over the phone, including:

  • What type of manager they want to work for;
  • What hours they ideally want to work;
  • Whether they want any more flexible working arrangements (eg to work from home one day per week).

Assuming you then decide to bring them in, you will also be able to refer back to their wish list during the face-to-face interview.

5. What are their salary expectations?

It’s an unfortunate fact but the majority of applicants will typically ‘stretch’ the truth slightly in response to this particular question. It’s also important to ascertain what salary they are currently on.

So you might also want to ask, “If I were to ask to see a pay slip, what salary will it indicate you are on now?”. Whilst it might cause an awkward silence or a nervous cough, you are more likely to get a straight answer.

If you don’t ask this particular question (even if you clearly indicated a salary range in your job ad) you may end up bringing a candidate in to meet you whose salary expectations are drastically misaligned.

Waste. Of. Time.

6. What is their notice period?

If a candidate tells you they are immediately available (and not working), you need to quickly find out the backstory. Similarly if your need is urgent and when you ask your applicant for their notice period they say “six weeks”, well there’s no point in wasting anybody’s time on this occasion.

Asking this question can also suddenly make the whole job hunting process become very real for any job seeker. If they say “Gosh I’m only just starting to put the feelers out” (or words to this extent), well then they certainly shouldn’t necessarily go straight to the top of your interview shortlist.

7. What is their availability like for an interview in the next few days?

You might get a similar reaction here to the question about their notice period. But if an applicant says they’re just really busy and wouldn’t be able to meet you until next week at the earliest, then again you need to question how serious they are about their whole job searching process.

If they say they can meet with you before or after work tomorrow or that they’ll “do anything to make it happen” because the position looks perfect, then you might just be on to something.

The way an applicant responds to each of the above questions can tell you a lot about them and about just how serious they are about finding a new job. So listen very carefully to what they have to say.

Remember you have two ears and one mouth for a reason. It’s only a 10 – 15 minute telephone call. So make sure you’re listening twice as much as you’re speaking!

Of course if you still feel you might not have time to telephone screen your applicants, then asking them to record a video interview responding to some or all of the questions above is certainly another option.

Paul Slezak

Cofounder and CEO at RecruitLoop. I've been a hands on recruiter, manager, trainer, coach, mentor, and regular speaker for the recruitment industry for nearly 25 years. Follow me @paul_slezak.

  • D’Art W

    Why do you recommend asking about their current salary? Wouldn’t it be better to ask what rate of pay the applicant is seeking and then determine if that falls within the range you need? I don’t believe it’s any of my business what the applicant is making at this time, what matters to me is if the applicant is willing to accept the range that I am offering.

    • You know, I understand that position, but people can be so ambiguous when it comes to money. Getting the truth from them in terms of a “range” can be tough and it introduces a new variable into the closing process. Obtaining current salary/income facts (with the whiff of a “gotta W2 on you?”) helps establish a baseline based on current reality.

      Sure, the candidate wants a raise. Everyone wants more money, and more money pays us more money, too. So, let’s dig into the bone marrow of this candidate and see if we can present a true super-star to our client, and to several other companies that might be interested.

      The objective, in my opinion, is to find rare talent and market that talent. The money will take care of itself. Marketing the truly exceptional is where the fun is.

      • Tamara J. Fox

        There are significant issues with asking for current salary. Some states are making it illegal. Others are considering similar legislation. This is partly to close gender gaps in compensation. I agree with True Blood. This is really about what is appropriate for the position and the person’s experience and expertise. What salary range are you looking for is a better way to approach it.

  • Pcukfreak

    I have yet to have a position to recruit for that wasn’t “urgent”. So when you discuss the candidate’s notice period you should be prepared for a range and assess whether or not you are already deep into the process with several other highly viable prospects or you have barely anyone in the pipeline. In the case of not having viable candidates already, that 6 week waiting period will look real good in 6 weeks when you are still processing candidates, especially if the one who you had to wait for was that good. I know I would wait 6 weeks if I was designing a video game and Shigeru Miyamoto told me he would take that long. I also could care less what they earn now. The question is better suited to be along the lines of: ” This position has a salary range of $x. Does that fit within your expectations?” I say this because the company should be using equitable practices for salaries and pay by the position roles and not on what someone is making today. Companies need to get over that hump. If I have 2 engineers designing a product and they are both expected to perform A,B,C then their pay should be aligned to the role. I don’t care if one has 5 years experience and one has 7. They are performing the same responsibilities. As they develop and obtain more responsibilities they will receive the pay for those. Just a discussion on Comp that will get lots of comments I am sure.

  • Zubair Naseer

    First four points are excellent. However on 5, 6 and 7, i believe can lead the recruiter to underestimate the quality of the candidate and hence overlook a good prospect.

    • Noteworthy Business Solutions
    • Стойкий мужик

      Recruiters in HR are lousy at estimating talent over the phone. Though it may be cost-prohibitive, face-to-face, like it or not is the best, single way to determine a candidate’s suitability. It may be “old school” or “old fashioned” but not everything in today’s fast-paced, high-tech jumble of BS techniques, tricks and styles of HR management are worth listening to, let alone following.

      The HR practice has already eliminated thousands of viable candidates based on “surly tone”, “negative statements”, and even “bad political alignment”. Actually..and especially, the latter because major corporations are paranoid about “diversity” and the mere appearance of having too many white people in their employ. It’s a sick way to do business. It’s also foolish as it will do more harm than good to the company’s bottom line. It’s affirmative action given false horsepower due to the personal desires of the HR person doing the phoning, specifically that one HR rep who’s best at getting candidates to “disarm themselves” and talk about their personal employment experience.

      People are people and you have to interview them face-to-face, not over the phone. Screening is going to get gamed, just like any other thing that humans do and those who phone-screen candidates are wise to it now and will game it anyway…thus costing the company more time and money than just having people come in for a sit-down face-to-face interview.

      You probably don’t believe me because you think I’m somehow being “disrespectful” to the HR “cause” but that’s fine, too. You’ll find out.

  • Rebecca Mazin

    Love the question about where a candidate is in their job search. It’s one that I will add to my screening which includes most of the content you include. I also confirm whether the individual is still employed by the employer listed at the top of their resume, the response leads into many of the other questions you include. Recently if I know I will likely want to contact the candidate again I ask for the best way to do this; phone, text, email, LinkedIn. This step has saved time and has the candidate checking the communications channel.

  • Sarah

    To be perfectly honest whenI have gone for interviews I feel as though the person interiewing me might think that I am lying when I say my salary or that I am trying to obtain a higher salary purely because what I am on in my current position is actually higher than the industry standard. I’ve had one particular interview who was very accommodating to me – was able to do it at 7:30am in the morning however when I went for the actual interview it was clear they had lied on the ad about what the position was – Out of wack hours, a salary that was over $20,000 under what I was on at the time (advertised in a higher bracket), a position that was only a temp 9 month contract (clearly said permanent full time in the ad description) and other things that I can’t recall. It is also up to the person advertising the position to be truthful and honest otherwise you will get people applying for a position that is clearly incorrectly advertised.

  • Andrew

    I find the “current salary” question insulting and have begun refusing to answer. Note that this will actually become illegal to ask in Massachusetts next year, with more States to follow.

  • Mfgcasa

    Number 6 IMO is so subjective its not even worth considering. For
    example i’m a Uni student having just finished my course. The only
    reason why I couldn’t do the interview in 10 minutes from being asked is
    becuase of transportation. Equally so someone working in a field may
    have some work they need finished for next week and so they are pulling
    in extra hours and are litterally working 12-13 hours every day for the
    next week(perhaps thats one reason they are looking for a new job). In
    no way am I more committed to your job then the other person, but if we
    follow your logic then clearly i’m more comitted simply because I have
    more free time and that is what your question is really asking.

    The arguement “They will make time” just doesn’t work. Yes for sure if you find out they are going to Disnyland tomorrow with their kids and they cancel the trip that shows committment to the job. But it also shows a guy who will do anything to get away from his family and break his committments.

    • Kristen Pederson

      As an employer I like this question simply for the fact that if they are top on my list I can determine whether waiting will be a problem or not. Having to extend out the interview process gives me the opportunity to make sure I am potentially hiring the right person for the job. As a seasoned manager and HR professional I have heard enough excuses and stories to feel confident in making an educated decision based on their availability. Phone interviews with the right questions can weed out the majority of your candidates, especially if their job entails using the phone. You can gauge a lot on a person in the job market by way they answer the phone, their voicemail message, and how they promptly and professionally they respond to your message.

  • Kali Brown

    This was great. Thanks so much. Trying to find the right candidate for a role and HR is required elsewhere.

  • Susan Gillingham

    Super-helpful, and a few ideas I hadn’t considered. Thank you!

  • True_Blood

    Pay people what the position is worth. Not based on “their expectations” or their “current salary. That is a bunch of b.s. Don’t want to waste time you say? How about putting the salary range on the job ad. That way, people who apply are comfortable with that range and you can save everyone some time and not have to bother with asking.

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