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Phone Screen Best Practices

Narrowing down your field of candidates from dozens to the perfect hire can be a winding road. Delivering a more effective preliminary interview is one way to find a good fit faster. A preliminary interview is just the first step — but it’s an important one. Here are some tips for improving your interview process for candidates. 

What is a Preliminary Interview?

First things first: Preliminary interviews (or pre-screens) are the first interviews offered to potential hires. Companies often cast a fairly wide net at this stage. A preliminary conversation covers basic ground like career history, career goals, and preferred working environment. You may send out a questionnaire or have a quick phone interview. 

A preliminary interview is a chance for you and candidates to have a conversation about their experience, the specifics of the role, and the candidate’s fit with the company culture. Some candidates may skip this stage if you deem their resume impressive enough. In many cases, however, you want to make sure your candidate is able to pass some cursory hurdles before you invest in an in-person or scheduled video interview. 

Best preliminary interview questions

Most screening interviews are no longer than 30 minutes, so you want to get straight to the good stuff. As you prepare your preliminary conversation questions, you should first identify:

  • Areas where your company/department has a skill gap
  • What has impeded the success of previous employees
  • Which qualities are must-haves and which are ideal but trainable
  • Whether or not the job is deadline focused
  • Candidates’ salary expectations

With a solid understanding of what you’re looking for — and what might be a red flag — you’re ready to craft some questions. While each role will require a personalized set of queries for potential candidates, here are some ideas to get you started. 

  • What is your ideal work environment?
  • What does your ideal work day look like?
  • How do you prefer to be managed?
  • What are your goals for professional development?
  • Do you prefer to work by yourself or with a team?
  • Do you have experience working with simultaneous deadlines?
  • What about this role made you want to apply?
  • What did you find most frustrating in your last role?
  • How have you made a frustrating part of your job better in the past?
  • Which [software, design tools, word processor, etc.] do you work best with? 

How to improve your preliminary interviews

There is always room for improvement when you’re building your preliminary interview strategy. It’s easy to get caught in the weeds talking about what the company can offer the candidate, which is important, but may not allow the candidate enough room to talk about what they bring to the table. You also want to limit small talk and try not to get ahead of yourself by negotiating salary or benefits, although it can be a good idea to make sure the candidate’s compensation needs match the range for the role.

If you often find that preliminary job interviews don’t yield the fruitful details you need, consider prioritizing these strategies. You’ll get to the heart of the matter — is this person potentially a good fit? — faster. If they are, you can advance them to the next stage in your hiring process.  

Focus on determining if a candidate is a fit for the role

You want to get an idea of the candidate’s personality. It can help determine whether they will get along with their team. But a candidate’s personality will naturally shine through as they’re talking. You don’t need to spend a lot of time on small talk. 

Get to the good stuff — your candidate’s skill set, what they consider to be a good working environment, what their deal breakers are, and which of their talents they think would make them a good fit for the role. Ask probing questions as necessary about how specifically they have deployed specific software programs or systems with success. 

Use structured interviews to evaluate all candidates on the same scale

By using a template for all candidates applying for a single role, you can keep the playing field more even. If you were to rate each question, from 1-10, what does a perfect 10 answer look like? Identify these parameters before you take preliminary interviews so you can evaluate candidates with more consistency. It’s also useful to have a discussion with hiring managers to see which questions are most important to a given role, and what they are looking for in a perfect candidate.

For instance, when hiring a copywriter, you may ask “Do you work better in teams or by yourself?” You may rate answers by how closely they hit an ideal (perfect 10) answer of “I work best independently when I’m crafting content, but I appreciate the feedback of an editor and team once I have a draft. They can catch my blindspots and improve my writing.”

Integrate pre-employment testing to measure candidate job fit, intelligence and personality traits

You may want to integrate a short test following your preliminary interview as another part of your pre-screening process. If a candidate fits the role, you can give candidates a real-world problem they are likely to encounter on the job and see how they react to it. Not only can a test reveal how well the candidate would potentially succeed if hired, but it may show you what their communication style looks like when they have questions. 

Did a candidate get frustrated and give up on a portion of the test? Did they fail to ask for clarity when they were unsure about something? Were they able to figure out complex instructions? Tests can reveal a lot about people’s ability to perform the duties of a given role. 

Be up-front and transparent about interview process and job details

Candidates are more likely to drop out of interview processes when they are confused or when the company is inconsistent. Send each candidate a detailed and transparent schedule for what to expect. If they pass the preliminary interview, what comes next? How can they prepare? What is a realistic hiring timeline?

If you are losing candidates during your hiring pipeline, you may need to improve your pre-screen interviews for all parties involved. This part of the process is also an opportunity for you to sell a candidate on your company and why they should be excited about your role. Be prepared to talk about your company’s vision, major projects, growth trajectory, and other exciting news.

Candidates are likely to drop out if the process is confusing, takes too long, or when they experience bad communication. If you can’t juggle it all as a hiring manager, consider enlisting the help of a recruiter who can do some of the pre-screening for you. You can step in once the list has been narrowed down to top talent. 

Take time for Q&A at the End of Your Preliminary Interview

At the end of your first discussion with a candidate, it’s important to give them a chance to ask any remaining questions that they may have about the role or the company. This can clear up any confusion that the candidate may have, and can help to keep them interested in the role.