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HR Magazine, April 2005 - Dialing for Candidates

By Martha Frase-Blunt   4/1/2005
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HR Magazine, April 2005

Vol. 50, No. 4

Advance preparation and good phone skills can help you make the most effective use of phone screens for job applicants.

Like you, Bryan French, PHR, doesn’t want to waste his time. Every year the HR manager for the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center in Duluth, Minn., gets thousands of job applications for only about 200 openings. To weed through this sea of applicants as quickly and efficiently as possible, he tries to screen out unsuitable candidates by telephone. But he knows he could be more effective at this part of the job.

“I hardly have it down to a science,” he admits. “In fact, I think it’s probably my most important underdeveloped skill, in terms of staffing. I end up meeting with a lot of people I’d rather not have.”

The worst was the applicant who showed up unwashed, with what appeared to be dried vomit on his jacket.

Many of his applicants are teenagers, says French, who “come in dressed unprofessionally, even provocatively. Others seem basically clueless and just don’t care.” And those attributes hardly fit his organization’s needs: Many of French’s hires work in concessions and ushering positions, so they must be able to interact enthusiastically and professionally with the public.

The unpleasant surprises French has experienced at the face-to-face interview stage have left him wondering: How do you most effectively use phone screens to weed out the folks who just don’t fit?

This is a common lament of busy HR departments, says Marjan Bolmeijer, an executive coach who helps clients improve their leadership aptitude—including crucial telephone communications that make up a large chunk of their interactions. “The phone eliminates the visual information human beings need to assess a person more completely,” says Bolmeijer, founder of Change-Leaders Inc., a New York-based management consulting group. “There is so much more to a person than what meets the ear.”

But savvy practitioners can overcome this limitation—saving themselves precious time and effort and quickly gaining invaluable insights about applicants—by following the advice and recommendations of experts and experienced peers.

Before Dialing, Prepare

A first step in planning a phone interview is meeting with the hiring manager. This meeting aims to dig deeply into the requirements of the position so the HR manager can create a purposeful list of questions to ask each candidate. The outcome of the meeting should be a template that will be used in the same way for each candidate being screened.

It’s wise not to rush this part of the process because it can pay other dividends as well. “Spending a sufficient amount of time with the hiring manager will also show him or her that you are committed to the analysis,” which can prompt the manager to “be more motivated to work closely with you on the hire,” says Johanna Rothman, president of the Rothman Consulting Group in Arlington, Mass., and author of Hiring The Best Knowledge Workers, Techies & Nerds: The Secrets & Science Of Hiring Technical People (Dorset House, 2004).

When meeting with hiring managers, Rothman—who conducts about 50 phone interviews a week to find technical talent for her clients—recommends gathering the following information:

  • Will this person manage the work of others? If so, in what ways?
  • What deliverables do you expect of this person daily, weekly, monthly, yearly?
  • Tell me how you can see this person working on a daily basis.
  • Tell me about the interactions you expect to have with this person.
  • Tell me about the project you’re going to assign to this person initially. Describe what’s important for a candidate to know in order to succeed at that project.

When preparing for phone screens of technical candidates, Denyse Kovac—HR manager for BBi Enterprises Inc., an Ontario-based manufacturer of parts for the North American automotive industry—likes to select a few resumes to run by the hiring manager as a way to test her thinking. “I give them a few to chew on right away, then ask if there are any that don’t meet their needs.”

Kovac also adds a few more provocative questions of her own. “I ask hiring managers things like, ‘What were some of the problems with the last individual who held the post?’ and ‘Describe the ideal employee you would create from scratch.’ ”

“Before I begin the process, I need to be aware of whether I am in screening mode or sales mode,” says Cindy Kohlbry, managing partner of executive search firm Grant Cooper & Associates in St. Louis. “For example, do I need to narrow down a large field of candidates with the right general skills? Or am I dealing with a handful of resumes from star candidates, some of whom may just be idly fishing?”

In the latter case, she says, “I’m in sales mode, and I need to be very careful about demands I make on that person’s time; I want to be sure I won’t turn them off with relentless questioning. But a large pool of qualified candidates means I can pose tougher questions about qualifications and fit.”

Also, before calling an applicant, Kohlbry likes to “spend some time becoming familiar with the candidate’s current or most recent employer,” sometimes by visiting that company’s web site. Doing so helps her “connect better with the candidate,” she says.

Phoning It In

Although phone interviews typically last only about 10 to 20 minutes, much of that time can be wasted if interviewers don’t screen for make-or-break qualifications up front. As a result, the first question many recruiters ask is about salary requirements.

“I usually ask this question right off the mark,” says Deanna Weik, manager of recruitment and benefits for Buenaventura Medical Group Inc. in Ventura, Calif. “It usually surprises them, but I point out that I don’t want to waste either person’s time.”

Others, however, prefer to approach such issues more gradually. For example, Brea Douglas, manager of recruitment for Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, finds it “too impersonal to launch right into those ‘deal breaking’ questions.” She sees the telephone interview as a way to build a stronger picture of the individual, and to give candidates a good first impression of the organization.

Doing so is important, says Douglas, because “our philosophy is that if they are not suited for that position, there may be other jobs that would be a perfect fit.” She adds that truly unqualified applicants are typically screened out during resume reviews.

Another key, early step in the phone screen is checking for minimum technical skills and the candidate’s ability to perform the job, as discussed with the hiring manager. Other basic elimination questions might confirm willingness to relocate, consent to background checks or drug testing, and potential start dates.

If an applicant clearly doesn’t pass muster, you may want to politely and quickly end the interview. But how? Remember, you may want to come back to this candidate for another position, and you want them to welcome the opportunity to be considered again.

Kovac’s gracious solution “is to tell them I have one more question, ask it, then explain that we are doing initial interviews and we will call them back if we have more questions. I don’t like to tell them bluntly that they are not a fit; it’s highly likely they will start arguing with me and the relationship will be damaged. The individual may not be a good fit for this position; however, they may suit a future opening.”

Once past the elimination questions, you may want to ask more open-ended questions designed to determine how well candidates might fit within the position and the company as a whole.

Some recruiters, however, prefer to save “fit” questions for face-to-face meetings. Rothman, for one, cautions, “It’s almost impossible to really screen for cultural fit on the phone, but recruiters can get a good idea about the candidate and learn enough to highlight areas for further exploration in a face-to-face meeting.”

Conversational Clues

The lack of visual cues available in a phone screen can sometimes work to a recruiter’s advantage, says Rothman.

Candidates are often less guarded over the phone than in person, she says. “On the phone, unseen, people feel freer to say things than they would face to face, perhaps because they feel more anonymous and less reserved.”

She uses this to her advantage, allowing candidates to reveal themselves in ways they may not be aware of. “I make subtle use of long pauses in the conversation; candidates may assume I am taking notes, but often I am just waiting for them to say something revealing as they try to fill the silence. Sometimes they unintentionally say surprising things that would never come out in a personal interview.”

Kovac agrees that silence can be golden during a phone screen. “I try to spend the majority of my time listening to them talk,” she says. “It’s amazing how many red flags you can sometimes hear when you just stop talking!”

But while a typical telephone interview is conversational, it also must elicit the maximum amount of information in a short time. Follow the tempo of the conversation, but steer it toward obtaining answers to all of your questions. Avoid “yes-or-no” questions that can be answered with one word; instead, engage the candidate by listening carefully and asking thoughtful follow-up questions.

Sample questions can range from the ordinary …

  • Tell me a little about yourself and your work history.
  • What particularly interests you about this job?
  • What sort of work environment brings out your best performance?

… to the sublime:

  • If I ask your direct supervisor/peers/subordinates about your performance or attitude, what will they tell me?
  • What is the greatest misconception your boss has about you?

Answers to these questions, says Kohlbry, “tell me how much they understand about themselves and how keen they are to do the new job. You can get a real sense of their ability to self-reflect.”

Even how the candidate receives the phone call may be enlightening, says Rothman. “If a position is a highly collaborative one, I might have my administrative assistant call the applicant to set up the phone interview initially. I check back with her to see how the candidate treated her—some people can be surprisingly rude to support staff, and this would be a major red flag.” Rothman calls this tactic the “dirtbag screen.”

She also recognizes that candidates with experience in areas like customer service or marketing can finesse their way through an interview purely on smooth talk, while revealing almost nothing. “With them, I’m more aggressive, firing off questions and giving them less time to construct the answer they think I’m looking for.”

Rothman also compels honesty. “Candidates in transition need to know that it’s fair game for me to call their former employers. I am going to check if they were really laid off or if they were fired for cause. I let them know politely that I am a detective and somehow I am going to get to the truth. They should be able to explain any employment gaps or compatibility issues because I want to get all the skeletons out of the way.”

Also, if the employer requires academic credentials, she tells applicants at this stage that these will be verified, too. “This is when some candidates end the interview quite abruptly!” she laughs.

Reporting Back, Following Up

For promising candidates, Douglas remembers her role as salesperson and tries to heighten the candidate’s interest in the organization. “I usually list the fact we were ranked No. 9 in Chicago magazine’s Top 25 Places to Work in Chicagoland.” She also talks up company benefits if she feels the candidate will be interested.

If you decide that you want to bring in a candidate for an in-person interview, let him know what to expect next. You may even want to schedule a face-to-face interview right then.

You’ll also need to share your findings with the hiring manager. Reporting back to the hiring manager can be done in a variety of ways, depending on your relationship. Some recruiters draft a detailed memo, while others report their findings with an informal call or e-mail. In any case, make sure to highlight any issues that should be probed during face-to-face interviews with the candidate.

Remember that your goal is to cut down on wasted time and effort in the recruiting process. Every bit helps—but no screening process is perfect. As long as you give applicants some benefit of the doubt, which usually is advisable, some misfits will slip through your net and into the formal interview stage. It comes with the recruiting territory and isn’t necessarily a failure of the phone screen process.

“There’s no magic involved,” says Weik, who herself has been disappointed by seemingly promising candidates who appear in her office wearing flip-flops. “It’s a numbers game—the more people you can screen on the phone, the better chance you have of finding the right person.” The occasional blooper is just the cost of doing business.

Martha Frase-Blunt is a freelance business writer based in Shepherdstown, W.Va.
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Refine Your Phone Finesse

Experienced recruiting professionals share the following strategies for phone screening:

  • Dont write off candidates too quickly. Make sure you dont unnecessarily reject candidates who dont speak English well or correctly, or who come across stiffly or oddly on the phone, unless the position requires the candidate to have excellent conversational skills.

Some people need to spend more time forming their thoughts into words, especially those in technical fields who may not be gifted communicators, says Johanna Rothman of the Rothman Consulting Group. Others naturally speak slowly. It doesnt necessarily mean they are not quick thinkers.

If you think you might be in danger of discriminating, give these candidates the benefit of the doubtand of a face-to-face interview.

  • Dont try to catch interviewees off guard with a surprise call. Going for a spontaneous interview wont enhance your screening at all, says Marjan Bolmeijer of Change-Leaders Inc. She recommends scheduling an appointment for an interview in advance.
  • Be aware of all vacancies for which your company is hiring. Often during a phone screen, it will become apparent that a promising candidate does not have the right skill set for the position youre discussing, but there could be another place in the company thats a better fit.
  • Test your phone biases. Are your unconscious vocal biases getting in the way of your screening? Try this, suggests Bolmeijer: The next time you have a meeting with someone you have known only via telephone or e-mail, such as a vendor or client, make a list in advance of how you think that person will look and act. Then see how close your assumptions were.  


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