A phone screen is the first step of the interview process, at which point a recruiter or a human resources professional calls a job candidate to gauge their interest and weed out candidates who wouldn’t be a good fit.
“They are trying to determine if you hold those minimum qualifications, so they’ll know whether they need to invest more time talking to you,” said career coach Jessica Hernandez. “[In] later interviews, interviewers are going to be looking more for your contributions and your accomplishments, and how you add value.”
Just because your future boss may not be interviewing you in this phone call, you should still know that you are being evaluated. “The phone screening is a pivotal point in the application process. Although some candidates may think it’s just an invitation to the interview, the recruiter is still assessing the job seeker,” said job search strategist Melanie L. Denny.
Here are some pro tips from career experts on what you should avoid doing if you want to make the best impression during a phone screen:
1. Don’t take the call if you’re in a distracting environment.
Screener interviews can be scheduled, or they can happen randomly after a recruiter finds a job seeker’s contact information. You should be prepared for both scenarios.
Even though you are not having this initial phone interview face-to-face, the company recruiter can still hear what’s going on in your background, so you want to minimize distracting noises. Ashley Watkins, a job search coach with corporate recruiting experience, recalled people picking up calls for screener interviews in the checkout line at the grocery stores and in bathrooms. “I’ve had a phone interview with someone who was in the bathtub, I heard water splashing, the soap dropped,” Watkins said.
Candidates may feel like they have to pick up the phone immediately, or a company recruiter will never call them back, but Watkins said that’s not necessarily true. “They feel like, ‘Well I may miss my opportunity,’” she said. “But if I call a candidate that I’m interested in screening, I’m going to leave a message. I want to talk to you. I’m interested in knowing more. You already have my attention.
That’s why Watkins advises letting these calls go to voicemail and calling back once you’re in a quiet environment and are set to go with notes and talking points.
If you do pick up the phone when you are not ready, it’s reasonable to say that you will call back at a better time. You could tell the interviewer something like, “I’m not in an environment right now where I can freely discuss. Could I give you a callback in an hour, or a couple of hours, or tomorrow?” Hernandez said.
2. Don’t wing it, especially if it’s been a while since you applied to the job.
There are often days or weeks in between when you apply for a job and when you get a phone screening interview. It’s important to have notes ready, so that when a screener interview happens, you can show that you know which job you are applying for, and why you are the best candidate for it.
“You don’t want to go through that entire process, take off work, invest that much emotional energy into a position that you find out pays $50,000 less than you want.”
“A lot of times people don’t perform well on the spot, especially if you are not expecting to have that conversation about your salary,” Watkins said, which is why she advises preparing how you will answer questions about your qualifications and salary expectations for this job. Speaking of salary ...
3. Be prepared to answer questions about your salary expectations, but don’t try to negotiate over it.
Recruiters will typically ask job seekers, “What are your salary expectations?” during this initial phone screener interview. The goal here is for both sides to figure out if “we have some common ground before we move forward,” Watkins said.
“You don’t want to go through that entire process, take off work, invest that much emotional energy into a position that you find out pays $50,000 less than you want. You’ve wasted all of that time,” Watkins said. “You want to go ahead and find out the range for the position, but that’s not a time for you to actually negotiate.”
To answer the salary expectations question well, talk with colleagues and do online research to figure out what’s an appropriate salary range. When a company recruiter does answer with a range, you can also ask if that range is just the base salary or also includes other benefits like bonuses, commissions, or mileage reimbursement, Watkins said. “Make sure you’re talking the same language,” she said.
If you do give a salary range, Hernandez recommended giving yourself room to make adjustments at the job offer stage, especially if you find out later that the role is more than what the initial phone screener suggests. You could do this by saying, “Based on the position and what I know about it so far, I believe that this range would be what I would like. But if I learn that there are other requirements, or different expectations for the role, then that might vary.”
4. Don’t forget to project enthusiasm.
In a phone interview, hiring managers and recruiters can only evaluate a voice, so remember to express enthusiasm while you are talking.
Watkins said if you think your personality will not translate over the phone, she recommended doing the interview standing up, when voices project better. But “try not to pace back and forth, because then you can sound out of breath,” she said.
You can also show enthusiasm by referencing the job posting in your answers. “If you reference the posting, you reference the company, what you know about them, or the job ad, it shows them that you’re interested, you’re excited, you’ve taken the time to read through things, and that always leaves a great impression,” Hernandez said.
5. Don’t forget to ask about next steps.
Beyond figuring out what the role entails, this phone screen is a time for you to figure out next steps in the hiring process. Silence from a company after an initial interview can be nerve-wracking, so asking for a timeline can help. “To ease some of that anxiety, just ask what you can expect going forward in the process. That way, you know it will be two weeks before I hear this, because the hiring manager is on vacation,” Watkins said.
“You want to know, ’OK, where are things going? Are they going to be scheduling in-person interviews? How much longer is that going to be?” Hernandez said. “Always ask what’s next, if they need anything else from you.”