Telephone Interviews: How to Identify Unsuitable Candidates Early On

Whenever you shortlist a qualified applicant, you should take action immediately to pre-screen them so that you win the Race for Talent. This article explains the value of short Telephone Interview and how to conduct them.

The main exception is if a candidate has been referred or headhunted, as you’ll probably move straight to a Structured Interview.

Telephone Interviews Are the Best Use of Your Time

Telephone Interviews have the following benefits:

  1. They allow you to move forward only with great candidates who you’re excited about and save you from worrying whether they match up to their application. This avoids wasting everyone’s time with unnecessary face-to-face interviews.
  2. They allow you to ascertain if candidates are genuinely interested in your role. Not everyone who applies is serious: they may be testing the market or angling for a pay rise with their current employer.
  3. They reduce the number of “ghosts” you’re chasing for an interview. Ghosting, where an applicant won’t reply to your communication, is becoming a real problem. Who knows what motivates it, but you shouldn’t need to beg applicants to reply!
  4. After screening applicants, you have a much better understanding of whether your Great Performance Profile is realistic.

Telephone Interviews Save You Money

Based on lots of experience, holding a face-to-face interview indirectly costs a minimum of £50. When you factor in the cost of someone’s time, the lost opportunity cost of them not being able to get on with their job, any office/hospitality costs - £50 is a very conservative amount. The more people you invite to interview and the costs can quickly escalate.

Whereas a Telephone Interview costs about £10. They take far less time to complete and the call charges are almost irrelevant.

So if you skip Telephone, invite someone for interview that doesn’t result in a hire, you’ve just cost the business at least £50.

But if you hold an effective Telephone Interview and realise they are irrelevant, you’ve only cost the business £10.

In summary, if you don’t take the time to use Telephone Interviews, it will cost you a lot of time and money later on.

Telephone Interviews Are Better than Video Screening

Over the last few years, I’ve seen many companies try video-screening software. The technology is meant to work as follows:

  1. The employer sets a series of open-ended questions, such as, “What’s most important to you in your next job?”
  2. Applicants receive an email inviting them to answer the questions.
  3. Applicants login to an online dashboard and grant security access to their video camera and microphone.
  4. Applicants answer the questions. They generally have time to prepare an answer, responses are normally 30 seconds to three minutes long and they can usually redo their answers up to three times.
  5. Employers view the responses at their convenience.

Having sat on the board of such a technology provider, I know first-hand that these solutions don’t work very well. This is largely because few applicants want to go through the hassle of engaging with an employer in this way. In particular:

  • Applicants are unfamiliar with this kind of technology, and despite the age of Snapchat and TikTok, tend to be camera-shy.
  • Applicants don’t want the bother of finding a quiet space with a good internet connection and an uncluttered background.
  • Applicants who make the effort of conducting video screening are sometimes treated poorly by employers who don’t extend them the courtesy of giving a decision. Next time they receive a request for video screening they might wonder what the benefit will be to them.

Often this technology is overhyped. I vividly remember an HR professional asking me in frustration: “Can’t you force them to answer the questions?” I asked them how they’d do this, and they quickly realised it was unachievable.

With few applicants completing video screening compared to Telephone Interviews, employers end up with less choice using this route.

There have also been concerns that the technology could lead to discrimination. I don’t accept this as these systems treat everyone the same. If there’s discrimination then it’s from the employer viewing the video clips, which could equally happen when reviewing CVs and interviewing.

Ultimately, I’m not sure there’s a problem here that needs a fancy technological solution – a telephone call works perfectly well.

<span class="grey-callout"><span class="text-color-purple">Tip:</span> If you’re seriously considering a video-screening supplier, I’d recommend you search for the provider’s name on Reddit (or similar sites). You’ll often see a lot of unfiltered feedback from candidates making disparaging comments about the software and warning other jobseekers not to make an application using it!</span>

Having observed applicants using this technology in research studies, I sympathise with some of their feedback, such as being told that the process will take 25 minutes but it actually taking longer than 90 minutes! A favourite of mine was a candidate who gamed the system by replaying an explanation video to give him nearly unlimited time to prepare his answers when he should have had only two minutes.

Telephone Interviews Are Better than Psychometric Tests

A common mistake made by inexperienced hiring managers is to conduct psychometric tests at the screening stage. I don’t recommend this because:

  • Getting candidates to take a psychometric test early on is difficult because it requires so much effort for so little perceived reward. Candidates may think that an employer is screening in or out solely on the basis of a simple test. Also, many employers have abused psychometric tests, sending them out then failing to follow up. While you might expect that motivated applicants would want to do the tests, it might be that those completing them are desperate and that the good applicants have gone elsewhere.
  • Some hiring managers use personality tests to abdicate responsibility for effective screening, which is never a good thing. They should not be used in isolation to screen applicants.

Generally, I don’t recommend the use of psychometrics tests for SMEs and non-executive roles.

Arrange Telephone Interviews Intelligently

It can be unusually difficult to contact applicants. For some reason they make the effort to express an interest in a job, then despite all the voicemail messages you leave and emails you send, they don’t reply! Called ‘ghosting’ it is bizarre and frustrating – surely they want a job!?

Thankfully I’ve tried lots of different techniques and learnt how to reduce ‘ghosting’. I’ve found that email exchanges have a low response rate and can be too slow. Sending a calendar scheduling link rarely works and can give an impression that they have to fit around you. Finally making multiple calls doesn’t seem to increase conversations.

When you find a qualified applicant, the best approach I’ve found is to take these steps:

  1. Send a text message. This warms up the applicant: they recognise your company, why you’re calling and understand that you’re not a recruitment agency. When you do call, it also reduces the chance of applicants saying “I’ve made a few applications recently – tell me who you are and what you do?”
  2. Call the candidate. Ask them if it’s convenient to speak, as they may be at work. If they can’t speak or you have to leave a voicemail, send another text message and an email.
  3. Follow up a few days later. Contact them again, but don’t start chasing ghosts.

The most important thing is that you’ve taken the first step to show an applicant you’re interested.

Don’t be too judgemental if they don’t respond quickly – it’s easy to forget when busy. Equally please accept that it’s inevitable some applicants won’t reply. Their circumstances may have changed, they may have got a job, and ignoring you is easier. So don’t chase ‘ghosts’.

How to Conduct a Telephone Interview

The Telephone Interview is normally conducted by one member of the Recruitment Team who has time to manage calls and follow ups. Ideally, this person will also be involved in Structured Interviews because they’re more likely to spot irregularities in answers between the Telephone Interview and Structured Interview.

I recommend asking a consistent set of questions to each applicant so that you can easily compare them against the Great Performance Profile. This also frees you up to listen to answers rather than worrying about what you’re going to ask next. In some ways, the procedure is similar to the Structured Interviews that I’ll discuss later.

Try to keep Telephone Interviews to between five and 15 minutes.

Organise a quiet location for the call to take place. Make sure you have the candidate’s CV or application form in front of you, plus the questions you’ve prepared (we’ll get to these shortly).

Promise of a Reference Call (PORC)

Before reviewing the Telephone Interview script, I’d like to cover a very important component that is used throughout Telephone Interviews and Structured Interviews: Promise of a Reference Call (PORC), sometimes known as candidate-arranged Reference Calls. This is a powerful technique I learnt in New York from Dr Brad Smart.

Throughout the recruitment process, keep reiterating that the candidate will be arranging Reference Calls. Sometimes this is done by explicitly telling the candidate in advance, sometimes more subtly by saying, “When I speak with your boss …” or clarifying the spelling of a former boss’s name to signal that you’re going to call them.

A candidate’s response is almost always to give more honest answers. I’ve been in interviews where candidates have said, “I can’t believe I’m saying this …” or, “I’m probably talking myself out of the job but …” Additionally, it often scares off liars and Poor Performers because they know their CV is full of hype and that former bosses might dispute their claimed accomplishments. It acts like a truth serum, helping you make better decisions and wasting less time with inappropriate candidates.

A minority of applicants may be concerned that you:

  • Want to speak with their current boss.
  • Will trouble their former bosses unnecessarily.
  • Want a call, when it’s convention to obtain a written reference.

If necessary, immediately allay their fears: Reference Calls are only taken near the end of the recruitment process; you’ll only ask to speak to their current boss once a job offer has been accepted; arranging Reference Calls is really easy. But also recognise that this could be a candidate concerned that they can’t be evasive and give the same old interview answers!

I explain more about when and how to make Reference Calls.

(If you haven’t already guessed it, the PORC tool is a play on words, as “porky pies” is Cockney rhyming slang for “lies”!)

1. Opening remarks

To start the Telephone Interview, welcome the candidate and set the scene, not forgetting to introduce the PORC to ensure more honest answers:

<div class="is-speech"><p>“Hi Fiona, my name is Geoff from ACME Industries and I wanted to thank you for applying to our driving role. Do you have 10 to 15 minutes to discuss your application please?</p><p>Thanks. Today I’d like to find out if we’re going to be a good fit, and if the conversation goes well, we may invite you for an interview. Initially, I’d like to find out more about you, and after that I’m happy to answer any questions you might have about the company and the role. </p><p>If successful for the job, all that we’d ask is that you set up Reference Calls so we can get someone else’s opinion on whether you’ll be a good fit. Does that sound ok?”</p></div>

2. Disqualification questions

These are designed to highlight any knockout issues and see if your role and organisation are aligned with the candidate’s requirements. Don’t tell them too much about the role or company at the outset in case this colours their answers.

<span class="is-speech">“What’s most important for you about your next job?”</span>
Ideally a candidate’s career goals will be aligned with your organisation and the role.

<span class="is-speech">“What are you really good at professionally?”</span>
People love listing their strengths. But often they can seem a bit pretentious, like on the X-Factor auditions where competitors tell the judges what they want to hear. One classic is: “I’m really good in a team as well as working by myself.” When they give a strength, ask them to give an example so you can understand the context.

<span class="is-speech">“What would you not like to do again?”</span>
Because people don’t like talking about their weaknesses directly, this question is much better at eliciting a response.

<span class="is-speech">“During the last stage of this process, and before any job offer, you will need to arrange Reference Calls with your previous bosses. Is that ok?”</span>
This reiterates the PORC and encourages the candidate to be honest because what they say will be verified.

If at any point you don’t like what you’re hearing, simply accelerate or skip some questions.

3. Employment overview

If the conversation is going well, begin identifying patterns in the candidate’s most recent relevant experience:

<span class="is-speech">“What were/are your main responsibilities?”</span>
This provides context and may help you find out something not mentioned on their CV.

<span class="is-speech">“What were/are your successes and accomplishments?”</span>
Great Performers are successful and are recognised for their accomplishments so these should come easily. No matter how small, they should be able to mention an accomplishment.

<span class="is-speech">“When we speak with your boss, how will they rate your performance on a scale of 1 to 10?”; “What makes you think they will give you an 8?”</span>
Recognise there’s a natural bias: consider 7s neutral and 6 or less bad. You’re looking for 8, 9 or 10.

<span class="is-speech">“What would you say about your areas for improvement?”</span>
The candidate is essentially telling you their weaknesses.

<span class="is-speech">“What were/are your reasons for leaving?”; “What else?”</span>
Often, the first answer is a superficial one. Keep probing to get the real reason.

If they say they saw a new job, then why did they start looking for a new one?

If they were made redundant, how many others were made redundant at the same time?

If the company moved, where did it move to and were they offered relocation?

If they had a horrible boss, ask them in what way? Who else left for the same reason?

4. Do they want this job?

You need to understand if the candidate wants this job, or just any job. Don’t be surprised if they don’t know anything about the job vacancy or your organisation. This is normal as jobseekers will apply to lots of jobs. But if they have done some homework it can be a sign that you have a serious candidate.

Also, ask the applicant if they have any questions. Recruitment, including to some extent Telephone Interviews, is a two-way process: you need to sell the opportunity as much as the applicant needs to sell themselves. Asking candidates if they have questions only at the end of the call might not seem in the spirit of this sort of dialogue. However, the main point of Telephone Interviews is to shortlist quickly, and I don’t find it appropriate to sell to candidates that I know won’t proceed any further.

<span class="is-speech">“What do you know about our organisation?”</span>
If an applicant makes a mistake, clarify in more detail as this may assist them in making a decision.

<span class="is-speech">“What questions do you have about the job?”</span>
With the exception of sales people, I’d be concerned if the candidate seems more interested in salary and benefits than the job itself.

<span class="navy-callout">A template of the Telephone Interview script is available at</span>

Make a Decision

After a few Telephone Interviews, you’ll have enough Applicant Flow to know if your Great Performance Profile is realistic and be able to answer the following questions:

  • Are the candidate’s strengths right for the job?
  • Are the candidate’s weaknesses manageable?
  • Am I excited about taking them forward for a face-to-face interview – could they be the one?

Above all, don’t take falsifications or exaggerations lightly. Outright deceit or a tendency to be evasive is often a worse shortcoming than what the candidate is trying to cover up.

Unsuitable applicants

The most important thing is that you don’t waste time with unsuitable applicants – it isn’t fair on them or you. But you don’t know whether you might encounter that person again in the future, so you don’t want them thinking your managers are abrupt and rude.

If possible, tell the applicant immediately if they’ve been unsuccessful. This saves you a lot of time following up later. All you need to say is, <span class="is-speech">“Thanks once again for your time. In this instance I don’t think you’ll be happy long term in our role, so I think it’s best for everyone if you continue looking for other opportunities.”</span>

Some interviewers are anxious about being asked to provide a further explanation and I’ve found that simply repeating, <span class="is-speech">“We’ve got other applicants with more relevant experience”</span> deflects the issue.

If you’re unsure

You should only interview candidates you’re excited about. If you don’t feel you have any qualified candidates for interview, continue sourcing applicants or adapt your Great Performance Profile. Alternatively, could an existing employee be trained up for the role more quickly than running a new advertising campaign?

Another option might be to re-screen with more probing questions or to ask someone else in your Recruitment Team for their opinion. Act quickly because the longer your vacancy remains unfilled, the higher the cost.

Suitable candidates – arranging an interview

If you have a great applicant who you know you want to interview, tell them straight away and remind them of the PORC:

<span class="is-speech">“The next stage of our recruitment process is a face-to-face interview where we’ll discuss your entire career history. Finalists are then asked to arrange personal Reference Calls so we can verify all the information with their bosses. This is a thorough process to ensure that if you’re offered a job, it’s because you’ll be a good fit. Does that sound ok?<span>

<span class="is-speech">It would be a pleasure to meet you. I’d like to invite you to visit us on Wednesday 21st June at 11 am. Can you make this time? Great, the best place to park is X. When you arrive, please ask for me, Gary Barlow or Robbie Williams, who will be sitting in with us. Do you have any questions?”</span>

<span class="grey-callout"><span class="text-color-purple">Tip:</span> To win the Race for Talent you must book interviews as soon as possible. You need to see them before someone else does. If that means meeting them before or after work, so be it.</span>

The one thing you want to prevent is the Interview Team turning up but the candidate not coming. I’m flabbergasted at how many applicants don’t turn up to interviews. More often than not it’s the fault of the employer. Here are some tips for a smooth interview process:

  • Always arrange an interview over the telephone. With a verbal agreement, candidates are much more likely to turn up – and they’ll also be more engaged and excited about your opportunity. Confirm everything in detail, from who will be interviewed them to what they need to bring. Simple things like where to park can be very helpful. I never tell them how they should dress because letting them decide can give valuable insights into how they conduct themselves in business settings.
  • Explain how long the interview will last. It really helps to manage expectations and ensure there are no diary clashes.
  • Ask if you need to make any provisions for any visible or non-visible disabilities.
  • Avoid arranging interviews during lunch hours. A typical interview lasts longer than 45 minutes, depending on how much detail you go into. If you try to squeeze this into a lunch hour, candidates may get distracted by time constraints and lose focus.
  • Confirm everything by email. To show you’re serious, also remind them about the Reference Calls. An email makes it easy for an applicant to hit reply and let you know they aren’t coming, rather than not turning up at all. And if they reply in an unprofessional manner, you’ve just learnt about their preferred communication style.
  • Send a calendar invitation by email. Most diary software allows you to invite others to an event. In testing, we found that applicants who accepted the invite were significantly more likely to attend. If they don’t reply it’s always worth following up the next day, and if you get no response they rarely attend.
  • Finally, always follow up the day before. Send a text message saying, “We’re looking forward to seeing you.” You may get a lame excuse or “you know what, I’ve received another job offer”. If the latter, you can decide whether you want to counteroffer (“if you were to come, we may be a better fit”), or just move on.

<span class="grey-callout"><span class="text-color-purple">Tip:</span> Some candidates don’t turn up for interview. Can you imagine what a waste of time and money that can be? Often candidates don’t attend interview because you’ve tried taking shortcuts and haven’t followed every point listed above. Take the time now, or waste time later.</span>

<div class="grey-callout"><h2>Key Takeaways</h2><p>Telephone Interviews mean you spend less time with unqualified applicants:</p><p><ul><li>Use telephone Telephone Interviews. They’re better for everyone compared to video screening and psychometrics.</li><li>Warm up applicants with a text message before your call. This will increase your chances of getting hold of them.</li><li>Use the PORC to encourage applicants to give more honest answers.</li><li>Wrap up a call quickly when you know the applicant is unqualified.</li><li>Arrange interviews immediately with qualified applicants. Remember to confirm everything in an email and send a calendar invitation.</li></ul></p></div>

Advertise a Job

Text to go here

We literally wrote the book on...

The secrets of great recruitment

The Secrets of Great Recruitment is a top-seller. It is easy to read and wastes no time in giving powerful actionable strategies you can use straight away.

Book cover for The Secrets of Great Recruitment
Try our Job Audit

Text to go here

Geoff Newman has dedicated his entire career to recruitment. He has consulted for many well-known international brands, and worked with over 20,000 growing businesses. He has helped fill over 100,000 jobs.

Related Articles

No items found.
FREE access to our Great Recruitment Newsletter. New strategies every week.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
We literally wrote the book on...

The secrets of great recruitment

The Secrets of Great Recruitment is a top-seller. It is easy to read and wastes no time in giving powerful actionable strategies you can use straight away.

Book cover for The Secrets of Great Recruitment