Phone Interview Questions – What to ask

By Adam Robinson,
July 18, 2012

What phone interview questions should you ask?  Consistency is key when conducting telephone interviews – you want to make sure that you follow the same script for every candidate so that you eliminate variability from your interview process. Stick with this high-level outline and phone interview questions when conducting a telephone interview with a potential employee.

1.  The Introduction.

A proper introduction is important in any interview situation, and telephone interviews are no different. In the introduction, you’ll start by introducing yourself (genius, right?) and thanking the candidate for setting time aside to speak with you. Then, you’ll take a minute to walk the candidate through your company’s interview process so they can know what to expect. Finally, you’ll say a few words about the importance of performance management to your organization, and confirm the candidate’s acceptance of the overall approach.

2.  Career Plan.

You’ll begin the interview portion of the conversation with a discussion about the candidate’s career plan. Why? Because asking a candidate to talk about their career goals is a non-threatening way to break the ice and put your interviewee at ease. If you dive right into their resume (like 99% of everyone else does) you’ll get programmed answers that tell you what they think you want to hear. You’re looking for authenticity.  Ask them their 20 year, 5 year, and 1 year professional goals. You’ll get a good overview of your candidate, and good sense of their vision for themselves.

3.  Best At / Don’t Like.

Personally, this is my favorite part of the entire telephone interview. After discussing the candidate’s career plan, you’re going to ask them two questions.  First, you ask them what they think they’re best at, professionally speaking, and what type of work they enjoy doing. You’re going to begin to create a career audit trail that shows you the type of work at which this person excels. You then ask the candidate what type of work they don’t like doing. These answers will tend to be things that the candidate will be less good at, but you’ll verify that down the road in the personal interview (should they make it to that point). Experience has taught me that people really enjoy work that they’re good at, and tend to dislike things that they’re not as good at.

The moral of the story at this stage: If the person tells you that they’re great at performing the type of work that you’ll need them to perform in your open role, you’re in good shape so far.  If you’re looking to hire for an administrative position, and the candidate tells you that they “hate doing paperwork,” then you’re probably wise to cut them at the telephone interview.  The Best At / Don’t Like approach is a good spot-check to make sure all parties are on the same page.

4.  Job History.

Notice that you don’t start talking about the candidate’s job experience until the mid-point of the interview. Why?  Because if their Career Plan and Best At / Don’t Like isn’t a good fit for the role that we’re trying to fill, what does job history matter? This part of the interview isn’t the typical, “tell me about your role at XYZ company” approach that you’re probaly used to… you save that for the in-person interview. Instead, ask a few simple questions of each experience listed on their resume, in reverse chronological order:

• “What was your boss’ name at XYZ Company?”

• “When we talk with them, what will they say about your performance there?”

• “On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being highest, how will they rate your performance, and why?”

Why ask in reverse chronological order? Because candidates are a lot more comfortable talking about their boss ten years ago than they are talking about their current boss.  So by the time you work your way up to their current or latest role, they’ve already given up the goods on every previous job. To then refuse to do so with their current job would raise questions.

5.  Discussion of Your Open Position.

Okay, so you’re ready to talk about the open role. You’ll do so by reading a summary of the role from the Job Profile that you’ve created, and then you’ll ask them whether or not they feel that they’re a good fit for the role.  You’ll then ask them if anything they’ve learned about the job or the company thus far gives them cause for concern.  Weaker candidates, having been called to task on previous employers and job experience, will many times take this opportunity to tell you that they’re not a good fit. This is a good thing.

6.  Wrap-up and Next Steps.

You cap off the interview with four questions. You’ll know by their answers whether or not your candidate is truly interested and available for employment with your company.

• “What’s your timeline for making a decision on a new job?”

• “Do you have any offers pending that will make it hard for you to complete our four week interview process?”

• “As you evaluate your next move, what things are most important to you?”

• “Is there anything that you feel is relevant to our conversation that we haven’t yet discussed?”

All told, this phone interview will last about 45 minutes, but experience phone interviews can ask these questions in 20-30 minutes. With this approach, you get so much more than the typical exercise of reading through a resume together. You begin to get inside the candidate’s head, and start to learn what makes them tick.

Ask these phone interview questions and get the data you need to make a truly informed decision.


Free Download: The Applicant Tracking System Buyer’s Guide

See how to set yourself up for success and build your best team with our free ATS Buyers Guide.

About the Author

Adam co-founded Hireology with the mission to help growing companies make better hiring decisions through data and better technology. Adam is passionate about entrepreneurship, donating time to a number of organizations that support the entrepreneurial cause. Adam completed his undergraduate study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and received his MBA from DePaul University in Chicago, IL.

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter and learn how to build your best team.