Screening interviews get a bad rap as a box-ticking exercise when they're actually crucial timesavers that shorten the interview process and reserve the hiring team for when you need them most.

This interview round’s purpose is to identify red flags and decide who will advance to the next round of the hiring process. Instead of looking for the perfect candidate, you're confirming who is not a great interview candidate based on a carefully curated list of questions.

Questions that help jumpstart the process of elimination can include topics like salary expectations, start-date availability, and work history. If you need a candidate to start in July, but learn during the phone screen that the candidate can't commit until September, then you have a non-starter. By screening out this candidate upfront, you saved the rest of the hiring team hours of work downstream.

While you might begin the call with a common interview question like, "Tell me about yourself," the meaty portion of the phone screening will determine if they advance to the second interview. With these 12 phone screening interview tips, you'll be well on your way to finding your best hire.

1. Read and Reflect on Their Resume

Everyone can tell when a recruiter only dusted sandwich crumbs off their resume moments before calling. Hiring is a fast-paced business that involves a lot of multitasking, but first impressions count for a lot. 

As the face of the company, you want candidates to know that you've committed the minimum investment of reading their resume. This is also an excellent place to verify that they’re equally committed. 

Prelude remedies packed schedules by giving you the option of a minimum buffer period of 15 minutes between screenings. This ensures there’s enough time to digest information and prepare for the next candidate. 

2. Respond Thoughtfully

While it's wise to have a template of carefully considered questions that help to prioritize the information you need, you should be comfortable enough to make the conversation natural. You should avoid an awkward recitation of questions that don’t fit the conversation’s context.

Group any must-have questions around availability and salary expectations into one section at the top or bottom of your question template so you'll know with a glance that you have everything you need before hanging up. 

Create a section of interview questions that are a lesser priority. This helps give you the flexibility to react to the flow of conversation and ask questions naturally.

3. Stick to the Time

Phone screenings can lead to burnout after so many repetitive conversations. So naturally, when you get a great candidate, it can be tempting to let the conversation go longer than usual. 

While chemistry is a positive sign, it’s important to respect the candidate’s time and stick to your core questions. They’ll appreciate it and it will leave more in-depth discussion to later rounds during the hiring process.

You should be able to gather all that you need to know in less than 20 minutes.

4. Ask About Salary Expectations Early

While it may seem abrupt to ask this question first, this is a priority question that can save you a lot of time if asked towards the start of your conversation versus the end. 

If the bottom of their salary range is 20% more or above the top of your outlined budget, it's best to let them know and move on to the next interview.

5. Are They Ready to Leave Their Current Role (and Why)?

It might seem safe to assume that a person applying for a job is prepared to leave their current role. But as a hiring professional, you can never assume anything. Be direct in asking if they are ready to leave and why.

Acceptable answers:

  • “There isn't enough growth opportunity.”
  • “I am curious about this industry, and feel I could contribute a lot.”
  • “The company values no longer align with mine.”
  • “I'm sick of the long commute.”
  • “I'm looking for remote positions/flexible hours.”
  • “This was not a good work culture fit.”

Unacceptable answers:

  • “I'm not looking to leave, but I'm keeping my options open.”
  • Speaking inappropriately or negatively about the current employer or manager.
  • If they’re eager to leave without providing proper notice to their current employer.
  • If they show signs of indifference or if they haven’t given it any thought.
  • The candidate gives another answer that misaligns with your must-haves.

6. Take Note of Inconsistencies

It doesn't always have to be a big thing. Little inconsistencies like incorrect employment dates or major employment gaps can tell you something too. It's worth drawing the candidate's attention to them and requesting clarity. Sometimes it's a typo, but sometimes it's a no-go.

7. Use Humor in the Screening Interview

Diffuse any nerves with a few chuckles. Humor can make the job interview flow more smoothly. If candidates for a customer-facing position seem on edge or uncomfortable with conversational banter, it could be a red flag. If the position is a backend developer, or something more siloed, it may be less of an issue.

8. Score Your Calls

Hiring on a hunch is as dated as the days of publishing job descriptions in the newspaper. 

Create a phone-screen scorecard that is based on the priorities identified for the position. By ranking the data that you collect throughout the interview on a scorecard it helps you evaluate the interviews more objectively. It also makes it easier to compare notes later with other members of the hiring team once you’ve established a standardized scoring system.

Potential areas that affect a score during a phone screen:

  • Role-specific competencies: How well are they able to articulate technical experience, leadership experience, soft skills?
  • Overall strengths and concerns (which either add or deduct from score)
  • Presentation skills: Do they project confidence and awareness in their communication?

Save yourself some time down the line and work with a scorecard system. Here’s a template to get you started.

9. Check In With Your Bias

Did you go to the same university? Have the same glasses on as the candidate in your LinkedIn display pictures? Do you both share a love of raspberry gelato? These are lovely coincidences but they should not be considered qualifiers. On the other hand, is there anything about the candidate that you personally dislike but isn’t a red flag for the position?

Challenging your biases starts with understanding them. That way, you can identify when you’re making a decision based off of something that has nothing to do with whether the candidate is the best job applicant. 

Your human resources department can often help you delve deeper into the challenging but pivotal work of understanding and challenging biases.

10. Share Their Resume

If you are phone screening a candidate and they aren't a fit for your open role, they might still be a fit for another team — think about opening up that discussion. 

Why not turn lemons into lemonade and provide other teams with a great culture fit candidate?

11. Close With Next Steps 

Even if it's just 20 minutes, candidates are sharing their time and details about their livelihood with you. You may be two strangers remotely chatting, but you owe it to them to be frank if they’re not a fit for the role. 

Your constructive and honest feedback might be the very thing that helps them along in their job search.

If you feel the candidate shows promise, propose a few dates for the next interview round during the screening. To make things easier, get it on the calendar by sending a link via Prelude.

12. Automate Confirmations

When you're ready to move to the next interview stage, keep things streamlined with automated support to cut down on back-and-forth and missed connections. 

Use Prelude's "Booking" feature to book the phone screen, and it will track and centralize all of your interviews. This makes it easy for you and your candidates to sync up throughout the duration of the hiring process.

Bonus Tip: Gauge Engagement and Motivation

Much of what we discussed already will help you with your screening process but it may not provide insight if you aren’t in tune with the candidate’s motivators. 

A question that I include on every screening call is, “If you could wave a magic wand and land in the perfect next role for you, what do you think that would look like?”

This question provides insight into their interests and helps me to align what they want with what we have to offer. Consider including a question like this to dig a little deeper beneath the surface.

Screening Interviews Aren't Going Away

If you can retain even a handful of these tips for your next screening interview, you'll be ahead of the game. 

Even if it seems like we have technology for everything (including scheduling the screening interviews), phone interviews aren't going away. They're incredibly effective timesavers for both recruiters and hiring managers. 

If you're looking for new takes on your screening style, set up a virtual shadow session with a hiring team colleague you look up to. It may help inspire you with more common questions you can add to your recruiter toolbox.