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Be Well-Prepared to Pre-Screen Applicants by Telephone

Winnow the applicant pool by pre-screening candidates by phone.

Phone Interviews April 2014 CoverBob Markey, director of talent acquisition at Day & Zimmermann, a construction and engineering company with 23,000 employees headquartered in Philadelphia, receives more than 50 resumes from candidates for mid- or senior-level positions.

"Obviously, we’re not going to bring them all in," Markey says. "By selecting the top five candidates and talking with them by phone to assess their interest and overall fit, the company can be more efficient with [its] time and money."

"Interviewing a candidate in person is a huge time commitment for our management team and the candidate," says Fran Peters, PHR, human resources manager at SWC Technology Partners Inc., a 150-employee IT consulting company in Oak Brook, Ill. Peters pre-screens top candidates by phone to winnow the field. "We disqualify approximately 75 percent of candidates based on that initial phone screen."

A good initial phone screen can reveal a wealth of important information, including a candidate’s skills, experience, motivation, professionalism and salary expectations. Phone screens can also give under-the-radar applicants—those who might be overlooked if HR were doing only in-person interviews—an opportunity to shine. "Oftentimes, a candidate you see on paper may not hit all of the bullets, but there is something intriguing," according to Molly Brennan, managing partner at Koya Leadership Partners in Newburyport, Mass., a national recruiter for nonprofit organizations. "You don’t want to miss a potentially good candidate, but you have to be sure the person is worth the investment of time to meet in person."

Pre-screenings can help HR professionals develop a rapport with the candidate before the in-person interview, adds Kelly Smith, a corporate recruiter consultant and author of Corporate Recruiter Reveals Who Gets Hired and Why (Excellent Enterprises LLC, 2013). Pre-screening also has the advantage of eliminating visual distractions. According to Rick Baron, SPHR, senior manager of HR operations for a global beverage company in Sarasota, Fla., "The power of the telephone interview, when done properly, is you can focus on what is being said."


Although phone screens are less time-consuming than in-person interviews (they generally last 15 to 30 minutes) experts stress that advance preparation is necessary. A few to-dos:

Understand the job competencies and formulate questions. "Developing the questions should be a collaborative effort between HR and the hiring manager," Smith says.

"Create a list of questions or write notes on topics you’d like to cover that may not be clear from the candidate’s resume," Markey advises. "Understand what skills are critical for success," and explore those throughout the conversation.

Do some research. "Review the candidates’ resumes and outline specific areas to focus on. Look at a candidate’s LinkedIn profile and any recommendations they have listed," Peters says.

Schedule a time and set expectations. "I schedule the call by e-mail and say it will be introductory, with some initial questions," Brennan says. "Don’t allow what is supposed to be a 15-minute call to turn into 30." If every pre-screen turns into a lengthy conversation, it isn’t time-effective.

"It is important to prepare," Baron summarizes. "I type out the questions to refer to quickly and have time allotted for each one. If you prepare, you appear more polished and organized. It builds confidence in the candidate’s mind that you know what you are looking for."


Experts have identified four elements of an effective telephone pre-screening:

The introduction. The interviewer introduces herself, the company and the position being filled. "Write a brief description, with selling points, about your company and the job," Smith advises.

The interviewer’s questions. Baron asks three to five direct questions, such as "Give me an example of when you did this." The questions can be related to current and previous experience, education, or competencies and behaviors. "Make sure the candidate does most of the talking," Baron recommends.

"I always have a pre-planned set of questions: the core competencies of the job and things about which I am curious. I spend 15 or 20 minutes and ask three to four questions," Brennan says. "I ask questions about whatever concerns me." For instance, if the applicant lacks a specific degree the client desires, Brennan will ask why the candidate is still a good fit.

"Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions over the phone," emphasizes Rocco Cironi, staffing specialist for the 105-employee corporate office of the moving franchiser Two Men and a Truck International Inc. in Lansing, Mich. "Get them out of the way early in the selection process. Sometimes it’s easier asking the tough questions when you aren’t speaking face to face."

The candidate’s questions. Give the applicant an opportunity to ask questions. "If a candidate doesn’t ask any questions, it shows a lack of interest," Cironi says.

The closing. Baron advises closing with information about the next step, such as "I’d like to follow up with an answer to you within three weeks." A lot of recruiters don’t do a good job following up with a candidate, Baron says, even though that is the most important part of the process because it leaves the individual with a lasting impression of the organization.

Markey reminds HR professionals of another important final step: "If you have a candidate on the phone and they are ticking all the boxes relative to the search, start ‘selling’ the company. This transition can be tricky because you want to create interest without being overzealous."


In the age of cellphones and Bluetooth, it can be tempting to multi-task when conducting pre-screenings, but this is a mistake.

"Conduct interviews in a private setting," Baron cautions. "We live in a world where we’re on the computer and texting while on the phone. This person really wants the position. It’s important to them. They took time out of their schedule; you owe it to them to be present."

By being present, HR professionals can sense subtleties in the conversation that may otherwise be lost. When people are interviewing on the phone in the comfort of their home, they will be more forthcoming with their answers, Baron says. "We want the truth about a candidate, and it is amazing where people will go on their own if they are comfortable," he notes. "They will tell me what happened at their last job or bad-mouth their last boss." Baron recalls, "I’ve interviewed a mom who was home with the little ones and put her hands over the receiver and screamed at her kids."

Remember, Brennan says, you as the interviewer control the conversation and the pace. "You have to be comfortable cutting in or cutting them off when they go on too long and you aren’t getting to the questions," she says. "Practice the art of redirecting people."


Twenty years ago, a phone call was an audio-only experience. Now, interviewers can use videoconferencing technology to see candidates as well as hear them. "Skype and other video-interviewing tools are becoming mainstream," says Gregory Karanastasis, PHR, senior director of global talent acquisition and internal mobility for McGraw Hill Financial, in New York City.

"Consider using Skype or some other videoconferencing tool to personalize the experience for both you and the candidate," Markey suggests. "We are using this more often. With Skype providing opportunity for face-to-face discussion, both the candidate and the interviewer can have a better overall experience in communicating, picking up on visual cues and body language."

Brennan says, "I’m interested in what clothes they decide to put on for a video interview. It’s amazing how many people are not wearing suitable clothes for my client to see."

Cironi at Two Men and a Truck uses Spark Hire, an online video-interviewing provider, to conduct "one-way interviews": Cironi records questions, and the candidates answer them at their convenience. Interviewees can record themselves as many times as they like before submitting the video. "The videos are all saved on my account, and I can reference them at any time."

Markey recommends that HR professionals who decide to use videconferencing practice ahead of time. "Being on video can be a new experience for many people," he explains. "Provide candidates with detailed instructions to ensure that the experience is straightforward."

Of course, videoconferencing has its disadvantages. "When technology doesn’t work, it is frustrating for everyone," Brennan says. Karanastasis adds, "The candidate’s experience is an important part of ‘selling’ the company. It could set the tone for the candidate."

For that reason, Baron favors the phone for pre-screening interviews.


Note-taking is an important piece of the pre-screening process, Karanastasis says.

Rate people on education, relevant experience, communication skills, attitude and company fit. "Candidates should be rated objectively against the specific requirements of the role, not each other," Markey says. "Only after they’ve been rated against the role should you rank them against each other based on their interview."

Baron cautions HR professionals against typing candidates’ answers verbatim: "It’s distracting to hear typing in the background." Instead, he recommends paraphrasing comments with quotation marks around pertinent verbatim information.

Lastly, record "the most important parts of the phone interview in the company’s applicant tracking system," Smith says.


"With practice, control and preparation, you can get a lot out of a short time on the phone," Brennan says. "People dismiss it as a poor way to dive deep, but once you become skilled at it, you can get a lot out of" candidates.

Peters suggests developing a template for each frequently open position. "It will take a little time initially to set this up, but it will be well worth it in the long run. You will also force yourself to ask each candidate similar questions so you are consistent," she says.

"A telephone interview isn’t necessarily a shortcut," Baron says. "It is an effective tool in itself."

Kathryn Tyler is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

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