5 Phone Interview Questions for Uncovering the Best Hires

Adam SeabrookHow To Conduct A Phone Interview

Want to improve the quality of your hires, and save valuable time?

Doing effective phone interviews to screen candidates is a no-brainer. 

I'll walk you through the basics, give you my #1 best question and explain why I ask it, tell you what red flags you'll want to watch out for, and give you my favorite phone interview questions to ask. 

How to Conduct a Phone Interview

A preliminary phone interview is a great tool that will help you streamline your hiring process.

This is simply because they require a lot less time on everyone's part. There's no commuting and no scrambling to find a quiet space for the conversation. 

In 15 minutes you can check to see that the applicant understands the job, meets the basic job description, and has reasonable salary expectations. You can also do a quick probe of any resume gaps, or roles that didn't last long. 

This way when someone passes your phone screening, you can feel justified doing a quality on-site interview for longer and with more than one interviewer.

My 5 Essential Phone Screening Questions

Essential Phone Interview Questions

If you're trying to keep your job interviews to a reasonable length - say 15 minutes - you'll need to pare it down to some essential job interview questions that give you the most useful answers.

Remember, you'll probably spend a little over two minutes with introductions, and the same winding down. So, realistically, you've got about 10 minutes for questions. With that in mind, you've got no time for generic question about their greatest strength and weakness. 

You need the tough questions that get right down to business, and provide useful answers.

Here are my top 5 phone interview questions:

1. What is your current and expected salary?

I'm going to go a little in-depth with this one, because I think it's my most useful telephone interview question. Why?

  • It's a quick filter, in two ways. If an applicant is making well above what we offer, I know that we shouldn't move forward with them. People almost never go backwards on salary, and when they do, they rarely work out in the long term.
  • It tells me how senior they are. For example, a software developer making $100k and one making $150k are fundamentally different candidates.
  • It tells me how I should interview them. A candidate at $100k would fail the $150k candidate interview, and the $100k candidate interview would be too easy for the $150k candidate.
  • I get some important data. If, after interviewing several candidates for a position, I find that all of them are making more than what we're offering, I know we need to rethink our offer.  

If you decide to ask the salary question, make it the first one out of the gate - they'll be more likely to give a good answer.

If they won't give an expected salary at first, come back to it. It's a crucial piece of information, because if there is no way to get a financial fit for the candidate, it will be hard to get them to accept the job, and you'll end up wasting a lot of time.

2. Why are you leaving your current role?

This is a more common interview question. Understanding their motivation for leaving is key, because if it's due to an issue that is also common in your company, then they are probably not a great fit.

3. Detail the most successful idea you have you taken from concept to launch. 

This is highly dependent on the role, but can be asked for every position in a slightly different way. The goal is for the candidate to answer with the most successful piece of work they completed. It will give you an overall idea of their skills, and what level projects they're able to manage.

4. What are the typical mistakes other [job title]'s make? 

If they cannot answer this one well, and provide examples of when other people do their own job wrong, then they won't realize when they are getting it wrong. A good answer should identify common mistakes in the job, and maybe even delve into less common ones.

5. Tell me about a great [product, service, etc.] you've encountered recently. Why do you like it? 

In a way, this goes hand-in-hand with the previous question. The idea is to have candidates come up with an example of work in their field that shows they are keeping an eye on the industry and trends.

Finally, as a way of improving my overall hiring process, I ask my best candidates what other job search websites they've been looking on, and post to them.

5 Red Flags to Watch for in Phone Interviews

Red Flag Interview Questions

What are some clear signs that a candidate isn't going to work out? I often see hiring managers asking this question. No one likes to miss a signal that a candidate wasn't the right fit. 

Here are the top 5 red flags I look for:

1. They talk about money too much. You generally shouldn't hire people motivated only by money. 

2. LinkedIn profile and resume don't match. The skills listed on their resume aren't on LinkedIn, or vice-versa, there are jobs or gaps that are different between them, and the applicant gives poor explanations for discrepancies.

3. Low energy. Most companies want self-motivated, driven candidates. It's hard to imagine someone who is low energy during a phone interview having these qualities.

4. Unsure what role they want. If I can tell that a candidate isn't decided on taking the role I'm hiring for, and that they're possibly looking into other roles, I usually decline. Applicants like this don't stay in their roles long.

5. Finally, always listen to your instincts. If something doesn't feel right about a candidate then hire someone else, even if you can't work out why it feels off.

Basics Phone Interview Tips to Improve Your Process

Here are a few things I've learned over the years that make the telephone interview process easier and less time consuming for interviewers and applicants. 

Fact check. When a candidate mentions a specific figure, write that down and ask about it again later in the interview. 

If they answer with the same number, you know it's most likely accurate and not embellished. Candidates rarely remember the exact embellished number they throw out.

Speak less, listen more. The candidate should be doing the majority of the talking - you'll want to talk too, of course, they want to learn about you - but it's mostly about them. 

Schedule smart. Use a service like Calendly so candidates can see your availability and book a time that works for both of you.

Schedule 15 minute calls, but allow 60 on your calendar. This way if you discover a great candidate you can delve deeper. For less impressive candidates, you can end the call at 15 minutes.

Offer phone interview times outside normal business hours. Great candidates may need to be at their current job during working hours.

Avoid burn out. Don’t do more than 4 total hours of phone interviews per day, or you'll get interview fatigue. Candidates pick up on this and it comes across as disinterest on your part.

Take detailed notes. Seems like an obvious phone interview tip, but worth mentioning. If you've got several candidates, it'll help you keep things straight, and remember their interview answers. If you decide to do an in-person interview, give the notes to all interviewers.

Stay organized. Use an applicant tracking system so that no candidates fall through the cracks.

Should You Do Freestyle or Scripted Interviews?

Lots of people wonder this - should you go into your phone interview with a script of questions that you're ready to ask, or should you freestyle it and see where your chemistry with the applicant naturally takes you?

Personally, I like to ask the same questions of every candidate during this phase of the interview process. 

It does 2 things: gives you a good way to compare the candidates, and gives them all a level playing field. 

It also means that you're going into every one of your phone interviews prepared, at least where questions are concerned. 

Of course, the interviews will still take their own shape. A particular answer may prompt you to delve deeper, but it's best to try to come around to asking a particular set of questions during each interview.

Phone Voice Tips for Making a Sound Impression

Since they can't see you to pick up on body language, applicants will be using their ears. 

You don't want to sound tired, burned out, or bored. Naturally, no one does, but often we're not aware how we sound. Here are a few quick tips to help you sound better right away.

  • Warm up your voice. Singers and actors know this is important. For interviewing purposes, a short conversation or a little singing should do the trick.
  • Drink. Water, of course! Have some on-hand during the interview. A quick sip can clear up a dry, scratchy throat.
  • Speak slowly. We all tend to speed up when we're nervous or excited. 
  • Be mindful - listen to yourself. Take a moment in an interview to consider how you sound and be sure you're not talking too loud, to fast etc.

Next Steps to Getting Great Candidates

Ok, that should help you get more out of your interviews and fill any job vacancy. What's next?  

If you find a great employee, and want to make sure they have a smooth transition onto your team, we've got a new employee checklist for you. But first, you may want to do some additional screening with an employment verification letter

If you need more candidates to interview in the first place, have a look at out guide to using social for recruiting, or use our tool to post your job to 100+ job boards with just a few clicks, or taps.

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Adam Seabrook
Adam Seabrook
Adam Seabrook is Co-Founder of Betterteam. Before Betterteam Adam spent 10 years recruiting for companies like Google, Atlassian, Dell, Symantec, Coca-Cola, Bigcommerce, and Oracle. He lives in Sydney, Australia.