Candidate Phone Screening Tips

D61594C9-56A8-4362-92FC-1A6737F64130 That little girl you see, preparing to dig into her sushi, is my granddaughter, Maria. She LOVES sushi and whenever she comes to visit sharing some quality time at the sushi bar is tops on our list of things to do.

In preparation for Maria’s visit next month, I went to our local haunt to check out some new maki specials. I didn’t have as good a time as I expected, though, because a fellow diner, seated next to me, was having a full-blown business conversation on his mobile phone and I got to hear every word. I hate when that happens.

No matter what you think of your phone (or the way some rude people use them in restaurants), it’s an invaluable tool as a first step in assessing a candidate. A good phone screen can weed out candidates who would not be a fit for your job. It can also get you excited to meet the candidates who did well. But, you have to do it right. This is the tricky part.


The phone screen is tricky because phone etiquette has changed dramatically over the past few years. I talk to candidates all of the time who are driving their cars or sipping at a Starbucks. These “on the fly” conversations do not lend themselves very well to their full attention. That’s what’s needed when you are phone screening-your full attention, as well as the candidate’s.


Many hiring managers pick up the phone without the slightest idea of the questions they want to ask or the result they want to get. They’re comfortable not having a plan in this situation because they simply want to “get a sense” of who the candidate is. But not having a plan for this important call can leave you with murky results, at best. You’ll get a better sense of your potential employee in a carefully constructed phone conversation.

Here’s how you do it:

      • SET A TIME AND A PLACE – It seems simple but, like an in-person interview, a phone conversation should be held at a definite time. Set a mutually agreeable time to speak and then find a place where you will not be distracted by other calls, emails or someone wanting your attention. Give your full attention to your candidate – don’t multitask! I tell candidates to do the same thing. Don’t have a phone screen in the car, but rather someplace where you can listen carefully and take notes. You can’t take notes at 65 mph.
      • HAVE QUESTIONS READY – I make an Excel spreadsheet of the qualifications I need to see in a candidate. I put each qualification on a line so I can make a check or an “X” as I speak to the candidate, along with my anecdotal notes. Examples of some line entries might be like this: 5-7 years of experience selling enterprise software, software product marketing experience, highest annual quota, experience in the healthcare vertical, largest marketing budget managed, largest number direct reports, etc. You get the picture. I actually tell the candidate that I have a “check-sheet” and need to pre-qualify him in the interest of not wasting anyone’s time. Candidates do understand. This important check-sheet can save you lots of time by ensuring you don’t start “going down the road” with a candidate who is not qualified for your spot. After your check-sheet is completed, you can ask any behavioral questions you may have to further determine a fit.
      • DECIDE THEN AND THERE – “GO” OR “NO-GO” – After the check-sheet qualification and asking additional questions about their skills, you should have enough information to make a “go/no-go” decision on whether you want to bring them in for an in-person interview. If you are still unsure, ask more questions.If you have done a good phone screen, you will know whether you want to proceed. Make the decision before you hang up to bring them in or not. If you do not want to proceed, simply say, “I’m afraid that based on the qualifications we need for this position, we don’t have a match.” If you do want to proceed, get out your calendar and schedule a time to meet – and the sooner the better in this candidate-constrained market. (Massachusetts unemployment rate is 4.2%!)

So, be as “carefully constructed” in your approach to the phone as a sushi chef is to constructing their offerings. And, if you see me at the sushi bar, do me a favor and turn off your phone.

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