Great news! All your job search activities have paid off and you’ve landed a telephone interview with a prospective employer. This is an opportunity, correct? Well, yes and no. You have made it all the way to “round one,” and that’s certainly something positive, something to celebrate. But wait! You still have to go into “round two,” either a subsequent phone interview, or it is hoped, the all-important “face-to-face” interview, which, of course, is the only goal you should have for the outcome of a phone interview.

You should be aware, however, that the telephone interview can sometimes be a “trap”!

As discussed in a previous blog (“How Do You Get Hired? First, Don’t Lose!”), it’s important to keep in mind that most interviewers, at virtually every single step along the way in the hiring process, are looking for every possible reason to eliminate you as quickly as possible. Just because something in your brand caught someone’s attention—your degree, the company you currently work for, the school you went to, your experience, your accomplishments and achievements, etc.—does NOT mean they are looking for reasons to hire you . . . at least not yet.

It is important to be aware that the larger the company, the more you should definitely be “on your toes” during the telephone interview, too. Many times these initial calls come from screeners who are specifically trained to sound upbeat, enthusiastic and friendly.  Their disarming nature can easily cause you to “let your guard down” and say things you shouldn’t say and come across as “unprepared.” The fact of the matter is, it is their job to exclude as many candidates as possible as quickly as possible!

Remember, a large company will oftentimes receive over 1,000 résumés for any posted position in today’s tight job market. Even if the screeners speak on the phone to just 10% of the applicants, they still will be speaking to about 100 people. (Also note: While you the job hunter will probably call it a phone interview, companies usually refer to it as a “phone screen,” and there is a good reason for that!)

Oftentimes the initial call from a screener is positioned as, “I simply want to have a brief preliminary conversation with you.” Thus, you go ahead and acquiesce because it seems rude not to speak. After all, it is just a “preliminary” phone call and you certainly want to have a shot at the opportunity. This is exactly what the phone screeners are hoping you will do! When caught unprepared, it is easy to slip up and say things you shouldn’t, be in an environment where you can’t focus and most likely not demonstrate sufficient knowledge of the company or the opportunity. In these five minutes, the first impression you make has a high degree of probability of not being the “winning” impression you critically need to make.  And, guess what? The phone screeners get to knock another candidate off their list and now they only have 99 more people they have to talk to!

This is why, in “Headhunter” Hiring Secrets, we coach you to take one of two approaches:

  • Let calls from unfamiliar numbers go into voice mail so you can appropriately listen, prepare and call them back, promptly of course, on your own terms; or,
  • If you do answer the call and it is someone who wants to have a “preliminary conversation,” state, “I would love to speak with you. However, I am not in a position to speak freely at the moment. When may we schedule a time to speak?”

Either way, you empower yourself not to be pushed into a conversation you are not yet prepared to have. And believe me, you can’t ever afford to “wing” a phone interview/phone screen. You must be prepared!

So now the phone screen is scheduled. And whether it is with a screener, or you are one of the fortunate ones to actually have the phone screen with a hiring manager, adequately armed with the information in this blog, you can take steps to avoid the trap because. . .

  • You will have avoided being pushed into a conversation you are not ready to have; and,
  • You will know that their primary goal is to eliminate you at this stage.

How to avoid being eliminated during the telephone interview

Eighty percent of human communication is body language—eye contact, facial expressions, the way you move your hands, your behaviors, the way you sit or stand, etc.—and all of this is missing during the phone conversation. Though these “body language” signals are missing, you still have these three powerful tools at your disposal: Vocality; Tonality; and Content.

Vocality: The quality and structure of your language. This includes such things as your choice of words and sentence structure and your ability to demonstrate a solid, consistent thought process.

Tonality:  Your enthusiasm, energy level and word enunciation. A technique often overlooked in both the telephone and the face-to-face interviews is mirroring. While you unequivocally must demonstrate enthusiasm and a high energy level, you also want to pattern the rhythm and tone of your communication to that of the interviewer. If the interviewer is slow and soft in his/her speech, you should mirror that. If he/she is fast and/or loud, pick up your pace and volume.

Content:  You only get one shot to avoid exclusion and the opportunity to move to round two, and that is why you don’t want to get forced into an interview you are not yet prepared to have. Here is how to adequately prepare for the telephone interview, as well as how to respond/react during the interview:

  • By scheduling the call, you now have time to research the company and the position. Learn the employer’s “hot buttons” and then sell them what you know they need, i.e., tell them how you can either make ‘em money, save ‘em money, or both.
  • Review news releases and other public information about the company, as well as quarterly and annual reports. Pay particular attention to such communications as the CEO letter to shareholders. Learn about any new product releases, any awards or special recognition received by the company, etc.
  • By scheduling the call, you know whom you will be speaking with and can check for that person’s LinkedIn profile and/or ZoomInfo profile. You can also ”Google” them to learn more information.
  • Do not bring up compensation, benefits or vacation! If you are asked your current salary or what salary you expect, state something along these lines: “Susan, the most important goal is the opportunity. If I am the right person for this job from your perspective, and indeed your company is the right company for me, then I know an offer will be more than fair.”
  • Have powerful questions written down that you can ask when provided the chance. (See “THE Question you MUST get Right in an Interview”)
  • Use strong, positive phrases, such as “I know,” and avoid weak phrases such as “I think.”
  • Never speak negatively of anyone or anything—a former boss, co-worker or company.
  • Always emphasize why you want to go to work for the company you are interviewing with and not why you want to leave your current employer.
  • Do not try to evade any question. If you don’t know the answer to any particular question, say so, and then say you’ll get the answer and call back.
  • If things sound good to you, say so! Don’t play “poker.” Remember, the interviewer can’t SEE you, so verbalize your reactions/feelings.
  • If something doesn’t sound good to you, take note of it. Do NOT confront the interviewer!
  • “Close” at the end of the interview. Here is how: “Jim, I really appreciate your time today, and I am genuinely excited about and interested in this opportunity. Based upon our conversation, is there anything that will keep us from moving to the next step?”
  • Avoid mention of anything personal, e.g., marital status, sexual orientation, state of your health (or even the state of health of any of your family members), etc.

As you can see, there is significantly more involved in the telephone interview than what the typical job hunter supposes or expects. If you will follow the advice in this blog, as well as do the necessary “homework” to adequately prepare for the telephone interview, you will brand yourself as being considerably more than “just another applicant.” You’ll certainly be perceived as more than just another person to be excluded as quickly as possible during this initial stage of the hiring process. Indeed, you will be just that much farther along toward turning your job search into a job FOUND!

Editor’s Note: This blog is an adaptation of the chapter entitled, “The Telephone Interview: Be on High Alert!,” in “Headhunter” Hiring Secrets: The Rules of the Hiring Game Have Changed . . .Forever!, the international best-selling job hunting book by professional “headhunter” Skip Freeman.


Skip Freeman is the author of “Headhunter” Hiring Secrets: The Rules of the Hiring Game Have Changed . . . Forever! and is the President and Chief Executive Officer of The HTW Group (Hire to Win), an Atlanta, GA, Metropolitan Area Executive Search Firm. Specializing in the placement of sales, engineering, manufacturing and R&D professionals, he has developed powerful techniques that help companies hire the best and help the best get hired.