A Guide to Telephone Interviewing Done Well


I recently wrote about a telephone interview that had gone about as badly as it’s possible to go, both for the interviewer and the interviewee.(When Telephone Interviews Go Wrong)

Telephone interviews are generally not the first option, but can be useful in a few circumstances, and even then only when Skype is not an option:

  1. If the appointment needs to move forward incredibly quickly
  2. If it’s really impossible to coordinate diaries and/or locations;
  3. If the candidate needs to find out more about the company before committing to a face to face discussion;
  4. If a great telephone manner is a prerequisite for the job
  5. If the company is growing so fast it’s impossible to find interview rooms for the first round where numbers might be quite high

It’s pretty hard to perform well in a telephone interview. Body language is a huge part of an interview, and with no visual cues from the other side of the table it’s hard to know what responses need to be clarified further. For those who aren’t confident verbal communicators (I’m looking at you, research scientists!) telephone interviews can be catastrophic.

So pick your instances carefully, and don’t set too much store in how a telephone interview goes. If you’re on the fence about someone, whether you’re the interviewer or the interviewee, give them a chance to impress you in person.

For the interviewer

It’s your job to take control of the interview and make sure it can go as well as possible. This is all about making the interviewee feel comfortable so that they open up, relax, and give you a good account of themselves and what they can do. Remember that you’re not there to give the candidate a grilling, but to recruit the best people. You’ll do this by understanding their strengths, selling your role and giving a good impression of you as an employer.

Interviewers often forget that they are talking to a real person, not a CV, and their confidence can be seriously knocked by an interview that goes badly. It is the interviewer’s responsibility to be conscious of their influence and impact. The interviewer will likely be far better accustomed to telephone interviewing than the interviewee, who will probably be nervous and unsure how to behave without visual cues. So be kind!

  1. Prepare. Read the candidate’s CV. If you’re interviewing for lots of jobs, be clear what you’re talking to the candidate about.
  2. Break the ice – what has the candidate just been doing? Talk about something in your life or in the papers (non-political!)
  3. Use humour – people perform better when they’re smiling
  4. Start off with some basics - location, salary, level of experience
  5. Sell the company and the role – make it quick and ask if the candidate has any questions
  6. Ask probing questions that demand a detailed response
  7. Clarify if you’re not sure about something – silence and a quizzical look won’t work
  8. Let the candidate talk. Don’t monopolise the conversation. Keep going back to humour
  9. Break up long sentences (yours and theirs) with qualifying questions
  10. Don’t type your notes in the background. It’s very rude.

For the interviewee

For you, this might be a really big deal. For the interviewer, you may be one of many they’ll talk to that day. Don’t take it personally if it feels like you’re in the middle of a production line (you might be) and do everything you can to stand out.

Preparation is really important. You need to know why you’re being interviewed and by whom. It’s no use talking deep technology to a junior HR administrator. Get have a detailed briefing pack or job spec and research their website.

  1. Who is interviewing you? What is their level of technical knowledge?
  2. What does the company’s culture feel like?
  3. Have they grown quickly or are they static state?
  4. Are their products and services well explained? Do you like them?
  5. Looking at company bios, do they sound like the sort of career path you’ve followed or would like to follow?
  6. How do you think your role will fit in to the company?

There’s a lot you can find out that will give you a feel for the sort of business you’re interviewing for, which should give you a steer as to what will be discussed during your telephone interview and what sort of language you should be using.

So… the phone rings, and you’re off! What should you expect? Well, a lot depends on the experience, style and goals of the interviewer. Not many are as bad as the one I’ve previously discussed. Most will make the effort to put you at ease, so take your cues from them, and make sure you have a discussion rather than a Q&A session.

  1. Listen carefully and ask clarifying questions
  2. Don’t use sarcasm or very dry humour – you can’t use body language to make it clear that you’re joking
  3. Don’t do something else in the background
  4. Make sure you’re in a quiet environment, not on the street or in a cafe, and that you’ve made time for the interview
  5. Be concise in your answers wherever possible. You won’t see their eyes glaze over if you start droning on for hours
  6. Don’t take offence if the interviewer has to bring the discussion to a prompt end. There’s probably another candidate waiting for a call.

When it’s all over, a good sign is that you’ve had a pleasant and relaxed discussion, and you put the phone down with a smile. Send a quick note to thank the interviewer for their time, and to the recruiter too if there is one, so they’ll know the conversation took place.

Good luck!


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