Seven Steps to Better Phone Screening of Job Candidates

hdr1By Nicole C. Moss & Debra Woog

More than eight million positions are advertised on the job boards right now, and an estimated three to four million active job seekers are using these resources. The rate of hires has barely changed during the recent economic shift, yet the new talent in the applicant pool has increased significantly.

A surfeit of candidates for open positions can pose some interesting questions and problems for small business owners. It’s easy to end up spending far too much time wading through resumes, e-mails, and voicemails to determine which candidates merit interviews. A thoughtful, thorough telephone screening process can dramatically reduce the valuable time spent selecting top candidates prior to conducting in-person interviews. Here are seven steps that can help you develop a telephone screening process that will save you time, and quickly get you to face-to-face interviews with the best applicants.

1. Define Your Goal
Preparation is the most important key to screening candidates properly. Begin by creating a detailed position specification that includes a description of responsibilities, and your expectations of the ideal candidate. After identifying critical elements – such as type and years of experience – identify and prioritize three “hot points,” or key criteria, that every candidate must meet. Many interview processes flounder because a hiring team lacked agreement on qualifications from the beginning. Meet only with those candidates whose backgrounds include all three of your agreed-upon qualifications.

2. Define Your Culture
In addition to qualifications based on experience, it is important to screen for cultural factors. Determine the most significant characteristics of your work culture. Is the atmosphere formal and structured? Casual and flexible? Do most employees leave at 5 – or stay until late in the evening? Is someone from a corporate environment going to fit in as well as someone from a more shoot-from-the-hip, startup background? Like it or not, a candidate who is qualified yet mismatched to your company culture will probably struggle. By understanding your company’s culture, you will be better prepared to assess a candidate’s potential fit.

3. Know Your Price
Evaluate the context of your available position within your company and the general market. Think about the likely availability of your ideal candidate, your company’s compensation structure, and your timeframe, and then determine the salary range you are prepared to pay. Make sure you cover this territory in the phone screening so that mismatched expectations don’t create surprises later on. If you know that your range falls below the market price for the position, then make sure you identify compelling reasons for the shortcoming. If you cannot identify truly compelling reasons for a below-market salary, then you may need to adjust your company’s compensation expectations to attract the qualified candidates who can help take your company to the next level.

4. Know Your Deadline
As the resumes start flowing in, begin your phone screenings as quickly as possible. Because you have prepared well by following steps one through three, you know exactly what you’re looking for. As you sift through the pool, set aside the candidates who meet all of your criteria. Plan a cut-off date for resume reviewing. Once you are satisfied with your shortlist, you are ready to proceed to the telephone screening to further narrow your list of face-to-face interviewees.

5. Create Your Question List
Telephone screens are useful because they allow an interviewer to quickly assess the relative merits of multiple candidates. Create a list of questions to ask each candidate. These questions should elicit information about their qualifications, cultural fit, and salary expectations. Make sure you ask every candidate the same questions so that you can compare them all from a similar base of information.

6. Conduct the Phone Interviews
Schedule and conduct telephone screens with each candidate. Each call should involve about 25 questions, and last 20 to 30 minutes. A typical telephone interview must also elicit a large amount of information in a short amount of time. Follow the tempo of the conversation, but steer the content towards obtaining answers to all of your questions. Engage the candidate and engender trust in the company and the recruiting process by listening carefully and asking thoughtful follow-up questions.

If you decide that the candidate is one that you may want to bring in for an in-person interview, let them know what to expect next. At the end of the phone screen, explain that you are creating a shortlist for in-person interviews, and set expectations for your decision date. If you are certain by the end of the conversation that a candidate is not right for the position, then be up front about it. Politely disengage the conversation, explaining why their qualifications do not meet your criteria. Don’t underestimate people – candidates almost always understand these reasons, and will still find the interview to have been a positive experience if they believe they have been fairly assessed and fairly treated. Remember, you may come back to this candidate for another position, and you want them to welcome the opportunity to be considered again.

7. Follow Up
Always follow up with candidates, regardless of your decision. Every contact a candidate has with your company will probably be remembered. Positive impressions, even for a candidate who does not receive an offer, can lead to referrals of additional applicants and/or clients. Similarly, negative impressions may also be communicated. Stand out by demonstrating to your candidates that you respect their interest and their time. Send a letter or e-mail to each and every candidate who has expressed interest to your company. It’s not just the polite thing to do – it’s good business.

Nicole Moss provides emerging companies with recruiting consulting services through her company Blueprint. She welcomes your comments at

Debra Woog, principal of connect2, provides customized, cost-effective human resource management on an interim basis. She welcomes your comments at