7 Essential Telephone Screening Questions

I’ve seen far too many people fall into this trap over the years and you may well have found yourself in a similar situation either as a hiring manager or as a recruiter.

You’re inundated with applications. You skim through the plethora of cover letters or maybe have a quick glance at the front pages of the resumés starting to clog up your inbox.

A few key words, relevant job titles, or ‘nice-to-have’ company names jump out at you and you immediately pick up the phone to book a candidate in for an interview.

If you’re feeling too swamped, you may even ask someone else to call the candidate on your behalf to invite them in.

No questions asked. It’s just a call to book them in to see you.

So far so good?

Ah … not quite!

It’s crazy how often a recruiter or hiring manager will then walk into the interview only to quickly realise that the candidate in front of them is totally wrong for the role (or company) in question.

And yet had they spent even just 5 – 10 minutes on the phone assessing the candidate, they certainly would not have invited them in for what turned out to be a complete waste of (everyone’s) time.

Phone screening is certainly one way to determine whether a candidate might be suitable for a role and therefore whether or not they should qualify for a face-to-face interview.

But knowing what to keep an eye (or ear!) out for during a phone screening call could also prevent the odd catastrophe.

1. Do they even remember applying for the role?

The first question I always ask during a phone screen (after I introduce myself and let them know where I am calling from) is whether they can actually recall applying for my role. You can tell a lot from how they respond to this question.

2. What was it about the role (or ad) that attracted their attention?

I remember asking this question once to a candidate whose work history actually looked damn good on paper.

She literally burst out laughing. “Are you serious? I’ve probably applied for about 50 roles in the last 2 weeks. Do you really expect me to know why I specifically applied to yours? Probably because I desperately need to find a job. Does that answer your question?

Let’s just say I didn’t even need to go on to Question 3!

3. Where are they up to in their job search?

Are you the first person they are speaking to? Is yours the only position they have applied for recently? Or have they already been for five interviews this week?

The answer to this particular question could help you assess any possibility of you working with them exclusively if they’re an A-grade candidate (especially if you’re a recruiter) or reveal just how quickly you should get them in to meet with you.

4. What are they ideally looking for in their next position?

Ask them to create a wish list for their next role and get them to talk through it right there with you over the phone, including:

  • What type of manager they want to work for;
  • What hours they ideally want to work;
  • Whether they want any more flexible working arrangements (eg to work from home one day per week).

Assuming you then decide to bring them in, you will also be able to refer back to their wish list during the face-to-face interview.

5. What are their salary expectations?

It’s an unfortunate fact but the majority of applicants will typically ‘stretch’ the truth slightly in response to this particular question. It’s also important to ascertain what salary they are currentlyon.

So you might also want to ask, “If I were to ask to see a pay slip, what salary will it indicate you are on now?”. Whilst it might cause an awkward silence or a nervous cough, you are more likely to get a straight answer.

6. What is their notice period?

If someone is immediately available (and not working), you need to find out the backstory. Similarly if your need is urgent and when you ask your applicant for their notice period they say “six weeks”, well there’s no point in wasting anybody’s time on this occasion.

Asking this question can also suddenly make the whole job hunting process become very real for any job seeker. If they say “Gosh I’m only just starting to put the feelers out” (or words to this extent), well then they certainly shouldn’t go straight to the top of your interview shortlist.

7. What is their availability like for an interview in the next few days?

You might get a similar reaction here to the question about their notice period. But if an applicant says they’re just really busy and wouldn’t be able to meet you until next week at the earliest, then again you need to question how serious they are about the whole process. If they say they can meet with you before or after work or that they’ll “do anything to make it happen” because the position looks perfect, then you might just be on to something.

The way an applicant responds to each of the above questions can tell you a lot about them and about just how serious they are about finding a new job. So listen very carefully to what they have to say.

Remember you have two ears and one mouth for a reason. It’s only a 10 – 15 minute telephone call. So make sure you’re listening twice as much as you’re speaking!

Of course if you still feel you might not have time to telephone screen your applicants, then asking them to record a video interview is certainly another option.

Please note this post originally appeared on the RecruitLoop Blog

Views: 1406

Comment by Tim Spagnola on January 29, 2014 at 8:46am

@Paul - nice post and thanks for sharing. The one thing I would beg to differ with is that this is a 10/15 min exercise. I suppose what type of position you're recruiting for could have impact on time limit, but overall agree w/. 7 basic questions you outlined. They are certainly part of my overall phone screen. However if #1 is a poor response it could turn into a 2 minute call. Thanks again for sharing w/. the RBC. I would be curious to see what other questions are standard for recruiters. Cheers.

Comment by Keith D. Halperin on January 29, 2014 at 12:26pm

Thanks, Paul. These are good questions Here are the ones I email, instead of phone (I use a call to establish communication skills.)


1) Are you able to work fulltime in the United States without sponsorship?

2) What is your availability for (what days/times can you have a):
Phone interview:
Face-to-face interview :
Start Date:

3) Where are you in your career search (starting, interviews, offers)?
If you have an offer(s), how soon do you need to notify the offering company(es) of your decision?
What are the terms of your offer(s)?

4) Why are you looking for new career opportunities?

5) What kind of compensation do you have? What kind of compensation do you want?
Salary: $
Bonus: $
Stock Options

6) How far (miles/minutes) are you willing to commute to work?
What percentage of time are you able to travel outside the area?


Comment by Kelly Blokdijk on January 29, 2014 at 6:15pm

Paul - I completely agree that phone screens are absolutely necessary! To me it is a huge red flag if an employer doesn't include that in their process. However, as I'm reading these questions they strike me as very one-sided and not setting the tone for a positive candidate experience. 

If you are calling an applicant out of the blue (unexpectedly and unscheduled) then judging them on whether they remember applying (or why exactly they decided to apply to your ad) doesn't seem reasonable. I don't really see what you gain from that unless the intent is to put them on the spot. Most likely if someone is applying for your job, they are also applying for others. Depending on how long ago they applied, unless there was something incredibly remarkable about that posting, expecting them to distinctly remember it without the benefit of reviewing the info in advance of your call seems a bit unfair. I actually think the response to your second question is probably all most applicants care about. Though I agree best not to express it quite like that.

#3 & #4 make sense to ask, but again not sure too much should be read into the status of their job search activity level or what they rattle off from the top of their head as a wish list in the midst of trying to recall anything about the position you are discussing during an unplanned conversation.

The word "expectation" (or the also commonly used "requirement") in the context of #5 implies that you might be more concerned about price tag than value. How or why is it essential to your ability to evaluate their suitability for the role by knowing what dollar amount is listed on their current paycheck? While it is appropriate to establish whether a person's target compensation range for their next opportunity falls within the hiring company's budget, current competitive market conditions along with the scope of the role should take precedence over how their current or prior employer pays them for what ever job they do/did there. 

I always find it amusing to be asked about "when can you start" during the application or initial screening phase. If the hiring company has an urgent need to fill the position, that should be stated on the posting and reiterated during any preliminary interactions. Unless someone has extenuating circumstances (relo or bonus payout at specific time frame, etc), they most likely would be planning to be available upon standard 2-weeks notice of offer acceptance. Since most hiring processes are not particularly speedy, what difference does it make if they are immediately available at that moment when there is a high probability that the final selection won't be made for several weeks or even months? 

As much as it would be nice for applicants to drop everything and hustle right over to meet, I think it is important to recognize that people have personal and professional obligations and may not be able to schedule something until the following week. Why should that be held against them? It doesn't necessarily mean they aren't interested or flexible if they can't show up right away. 

Interesting topic for discussion, thanks for putting this up here. 

~KB @TalentTalks 

Comment by Jason Roznos on January 30, 2014 at 11:58am

I hire for high end professional services organizations.  I work with my practice leads and sr level talent to get washout questions before I dig in on basic and insure they are qualified. That gives you the opportunity to humble the candidate that claims they are great and verify, or setup someone that is almost there to be a future hire.  I wish I had the luxury of quality applicants in the old jobvite or taleo bucket but that is rare and only about once a year for me. My space is more on the true consulting side not glorified staff aug side of PS.  My philosophy is one call does it all. Finding out first if they are qualified, then recruiting 101 ( where,when,why etc..).  Phone is king because you can gauge confidence, ability and the BS factor of their level of skill.


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