7 Essential Questions To Ask When Phone Screening A Candidate

By Paul Slezak - Nov. 17, 2022
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Editor’s Note: This post is by Paul Slezak, Cofounder and CEO of RecruitLoop – the World’s largest marketplace of expert Recruiters and Sourcers available on-demand.

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.

Key Takeaways:

  • Find out what drew the applicant to the role and what they are looking for in their job search.

  • Ask clear and specific questions to get the most honest answers.

  • Inquire about their notice period and availability for follow-up interviews – how they answer can be informative.

  • Keep an eye out for red flags such as a lack of enthusiasm and unpreparedness.

questions to ask when phone screening

7 Questions To Ask During A Phone Interview

  1. Do you 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 that attracted your interest?

    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. What stage of the job search are you in?

    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 you looking for in your 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 is your salary expectation?

    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.

  6. What is your notice period for your current position?

    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 your interview availability 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!

  8. Additional Questions To Ask During A Phone Interview

    Along with the questions above, consider the following questions to help you make the most out of your phone screen:

    • Tell me about yourself.

    • What is your work style?

    • What values and goals do you wish to achieve at work?

    • What is your communication style?

    • How do you handle stress?

    • Do you prefer to work in a team or by yourself?

    • How do you like to be managed?

    Phone Interview Red Flags

    In a phone interview you want gather enough information to determine whether or not you want to precede with the candidate. This information not only comes from what the candidate says in their answers, but in how they answer the questions.

    You want to pay attention to the candidate’s answers and look for things that may tell you whether they are the right fit or not. This includes red flags that imply a poor candidate. Red flags to watch out for during a phone interview include:

    • Lack of enthusiasm. If you think the candidate sounds low energy, distracted, bored, or just plain overall disengaged, you may not want to hire them. Their level of enthusiasm, while it doesn’t have to be extreme, should reflect the energy they are willing to invest in the position.

    • Unprepared. Unless you are purposely trying to catch the candidate off guard, they should be ready to answer your questions. Long pauses or rambling answers that don’t get to the point may imply a level of unpreparedness that should be a minor cause for concern. After all, if they can’t be prepare for a simple phone screen, how would they handle the actual position?

    • Negative tone. Sometimes candidates will be negative about their previous employer or their current job situation. While their feelings may be valid, they should know that it is unprofessional to take such a tone during a phone interview. A lack of this understanding may reveal a greater issue with their sense of professionalism.

    • Doesn’t ask questions. A great candidate will be invested in the position. This means they will be curious and want to learn more. A candidate that doesn’t ask questions may not be really invested.

    • Contradicts self. Keep an ear out for candidate’s who give answers that don’t match their resume. These contradictions can be a big red flag that could reveal a dishonest personality.

    It is important to remember that red flags do not necessarily mean the candidate is a bad choice. It is possible that a candidate may have some red flags for reasons other than poor professional behavior. You will have to decide how much weight you want to give the red flags. However, in any case, you want to be mindful of them when you make an informed decision.

    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.


    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.

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Find Your Next Hire Out Of Over 5 Million Candidates

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