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Conducting a Phone Interview: 4 Things to Listen For


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phone interview Phone interviews provide small businesses with a convenient and efficient way to conduct the first steps of the hiring process. In comparison to in-person interviews, phone interviews are easier to schedule – and they let small businesses consider candidates from a larger geographic area, without having to invest in travel costs. In fact, they don’t even require an office – a benefit for many startups and small businesses.

For all their advantages, though, phone interviews can make it hard to identify the strongest candidates. Because the interview isn’t conducted in person, the interviewer can’t evaluate the interviewee’s mannerisms, body language, or appearance of professionalism – all important indicators. All the interviewer has to go on is the voice on the other end of the line.

However, for an experienced and savvy interviewer, that’s enough information to make a smart hiring decision. Below, we’ve put together a list of 4 things to listen for to help you pick out the best candidates over the phone:

1) Oral Communication Skills

The phone may eliminate non-verbal communication, but it’s highly useful for gauging a person’s ability to express themselves orally. Encourage the interviewee to converse freely by asking open-ended questions. Do they express themselves clearly and cogently? Can you understand what they are saying easily? You’ll naturally want ask follow-up questions – but do you find yourself continually asking for clarification? A candidate with strong verbal communication skills will be good at expressing themselves articulately over the phone.

2) Interjections, Not Interruptions

Interjections may be frowned upon during an in-person interview, but they are helpful in a phone interview. Phrases like “Mmm,” “Mm-hmm,” “Uh-huh,” are informal, but they show that the interviewee is actively listening – they’re the over-the-phone equivalent of eye contact and nodding.

Interjections, it should be noted, are not interruptions. They may come mid-sentence, but they are not intended to stop the interviewer from speaking. Interruptions, in contrast, disrupt the conversation and prevent the interviewer from finishing their thought. Interjections show an interest in what the interviewer is saying; interruptions reveal a lack of respect for the other person’s thoughts.

3) A Verbal Image

Throughout the interview, listen for a verbal image of the candidate. Avoid over-analyzing every detail, but try to think about the image a candidate presents over the phone. Does it sound like they’re sitting, standing or lying down? Do you think they’re taking notes? Do they seem distracted by something else – perhaps a television show or a pet? Are they actively listening, or only half paying attention? You can intuit a surprising amount just from the verbal image they present, allowing you to make a much more accurate judgment about their potential as an employee.

4) Interest in the Position

In any interview, the most promising candidates will exhibit interest not only in the position being offered, but in the unique benefits of your company as an employer. Your best prospects won’t be looking for just any job. They’ll want to work specifically for you–not your competitor or neighbor.

Phone interviews, which often occur at the beginning stages of the interview process, make it especially easy to gauge an applicant’s interest in your company. Ask questions to find out whether the candidate is invested in your company and willing to go through a potentially lengthy hiring process, like:

  • “Do you have a timeline for finding a new job?”
  • “Are you currently entertaining any offers that require a decision before our process is complete?”
  • “It will take us a week before we are ready for the next stage of the interview process. Will that be okay?

Of course, this isn’t an excuse to drag the process out on your end. But applicants who are especially interested in your company will be willing to wait a little longer than others.

Use Phone Interviews Effectively

Next time you need to hire a new employee, consider beginning the process with a round of phone interviews. They’re a convenient and useful way to narrow down your pool of candidates – without investing too much time or money. Listen for applicants with strong communication skills, good listening skills and an apparent interest in your company. Those are the candidates you should invite to the next stage of the process.

Originally published Jan 13, 2015, updated Aug 12, 2020

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