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Employee Experience

Thinning the Herd: Optimizing the Phone Screen

February 19, 2016
5 min read
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For many ClearCompany clients, the hiring process consistently unfolds on a predictable path: a recruiter selects resumes; screens applicants via phone; schedules interviews; and extends offers.  A cursory Google search yields a plethora of results discussing how to craft the perfect resume. Similarly, dozens of hiring and recruiting blogs and websites (including ours) have tips and strategies to help applicants during an in-person interview. It might seem easy to short-change by screening candidates on the phone, but optimizing this process can yield high dividends toward upgrading your hiring process!

During the screen, the recruiter is looking for basic competency - or red flags. Viewing the phone screen in this simplistic light misses a huge opportunity to dramatically streamline your recruiting system. Using the method outlined by industry thought leaders Geoff Smart and Randy Street in their groundbreaking book Who, we can boil down the phone screen to its essential elements and trim the fat from our interview process. The result is less time wasted, an increase in productivity, and, most crucially, better-qualified applicants.


CC-Click-ToTweetBird-01.png Try this interview tactic to reduce time wasted and find better-qualified applicants: 


The key to the an effective phone screen is brevity.  From an opaque, often variable process, we can crystallize it into just four essential questions. By using these questions, every time, we can quickly assemble a clear picture of applicants’ motivations, strengths, and weaknesses.

1. What are your career goals? 

This question kicks off the interview and lets applicants speak first, without the interviewer having influenced their answers. Talented people have goals and are ready to tell you about them. The best answers will demonstrate a high level of passion and a clear match with the position’s expectations.

2. What are you really good at professionally?

Here, you’re looking for a series of strengths, with examples. These should align to the role, its expectations, and its competencies.


CC-Click-ToTweetBird-01.png4 of the best questions to ask candidates during a phone interview:


3. What are you not good at or not interested in doing professionally?

If the previous question generates eager dialogue, this one can cause hesitation. If you do get a ready response, it’s often a pre-rehearsed strength masquerading as a weakness (e.g. “I work too hard”). Don’t be afraid to push back, asking for another weakness if the first one was too positive or too canned.

4. Who were your last few managers, and how will they each rate your performance on a 1-10 scale when we talk to them? 

The wording of this question is critical: Instead of using the conditional tense, the concreteness of simple future often compels honesty (or at least much less sugarcoating). This is also a great time to revisit question 3 if the responses you received were lacking.  “What will these bosses say was an area you were weak in?” The fear of a reference check helps encourage forthright answers - which help you decide if this person is a fit for your organization.  When the candidates rate their performances, you’re looking for 8s and above. You’ll want to treat 7s neutrally, and anything below should be considered a negative.

If at any time you want the candidate to elaborate, “Tell me more about that” or “How so?” are simple, succinct ways to lead the candidate onward and discover more about his qualifications. If you like what you’re hearing, don’t be afraid to take a bit more time to flesh out your candidate.


CC-Click-ToTweetBird-01.pngThe best ways to get a candidate to elaborate during interviews: 


The flip side of this advice, of course, is to not waste time on candidates who won’t be a good fit.  If a candidate’s qualifications or expectations are a clear mismatch with the job you’re looking to fill, don’t hesitate to pull the trigger and dramatically compress the interview.  While you’re going to want to be generous with the time you give to A Players, you can give subpar candidates the significantly abridged version. This approach ensures that you’re not losing your day to candidates who aren’t going to make it to the next round anyway.

The phone screen, while often overlooked, is an integral part of the interview process. As well as a way to learn more about applicants, it serves as a filter to the next round of interviews, ensuring that you’re only inviting in truly top talent.  Following the method outlined here will save your organization time and money - and markedly increase the quality of your hires.

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