by Maureen Crawford Hentz
One of the parts of my job that I love the most is conducting phone interviews with candidates. This past week I’ve conducted more than 50 of these interviews, with other members of the staff team conducting at least 70 more! Since this experience is so fresh in my mind, it’s a great time to share phone-interviewing etiquette advice.
Phone interviews are terrifying to some job-seekers and absolutely painless to others. Regardless of your feelings about phone interviews, you can develop techniques and skills that will maximize your phone interview’s impact on the hiring staff.
Here are some phone interviewing tips to get you going:
It’s important to prepare for a successful phone contact even as you are applying for positions. I recommend that the last paragraph of every application letter include contact information in the event the recruiter needs to contact you with questions or offer an interview. When providing this information, it’s important to list the number(s) at which you can be reached, indicating whether or not it is acceptable to be contacted at your current position. Also include your email address if you check it often. Even if your letter is on a letterhead that includes contact information, it never hurts to repeat the information in the last paragraph.
In certain circumstances it may be important to give additional contact information. For example, a college student going on spring break during the contact interval after submitting a letter and resume might choose to include a sentence such as “From March 17 to March 29, I will be out of the state/out of the country on spring break. During that time I can be reached at this number/I will be unreachable/I will be unreachable by phone but plan to check my email daily.” An applicant who cannot be contacted during work hours might include information such as “Although I prefer to receive messages at my home number, I check messages frequently throughout the day and can usually return calls during breaks.” Finally, if you will soon be moving, include “until” dates with your phone, email and mailing information.
Next, think about your answering-machine message. A trend observed by many recruiters is voicemails/answering machines that treat incoming callers to a snippet of music from the resident’s favorite band of the moment. When I was a 20-something myself, I felt that my three-minute Depeche Mode greeting was an expression of my individuality and coolness; as a recruiter, I am mildly annoyed if the concert goes on too long before I can leave a message. It’s important to decide what’s right for you while at the same time creating a professional impression.
It is helpful if recruiters can be sure they’ve called the right number. For privacy and security issues, many people do not list their first names, last names, or telephone numbers on their answering-machine/voicemail greetings. My recommendation is usually to leave one of these identifiers in the message: “You’ve reached Amy, Cathy, and Mark. Please leave a message” or “You’ve reached the Sizemores. Please leave a message” or “You’ve reached 617-555-5235. Please leave a message.” Again, each job-seeker must determine what is comfortable. Don’t change your message if you feel uncomfortable about having this information on your outgoing greeting.
If you have roommates, housemates, a spouse, or children it’s important to work out a system of message-taking. Twice this week, I have called a candidate only to be greeted by a toddler who told me, “Daddy’s in the shower” before she hung up. If you anticipate a “season” of job searching, it might be a good idea to invest in individual voicemail boxes for each member of your household. You can also instruct them not to answer the phone unless they can carefully write down the entire message and remember to give it to you (this strategy works equally well for both preschoolers and roommates!).
After you submit your applications and while you are waiting for the phone to ring is a good time to create a mini-job log to have near the phone. My advice to job-searchers without photographic memory is to make a list of the companies at which they’ve applied and the titles of the positions applied for. Some people even list qualifications requested for each position. (See a Sample Phone Interview Log.) Thus, if you are called by hiring staff, you will have some idea of which job they’re calling about. This week of phone interviewing has really sensitized our staff to this issue. Ideally, the interviewer would like to think his or her company is the only employer to which you’ve applied. But this hope dies quickly when you say something to the effect of “now what job is this again; I’ve applied for so many…?” At best, it makes you look disorganized and at worst as if you are sending out hundreds of resumes desperately.
When You Miss the Contact
If the hiring staff leaves a message for you, return the call as soon as you can. As you are returning the call, remember that the recruiter may have called 10 other people that day about the same or a different position. When you return the call, give your full first name and last name and indicate that you are returning the recruiter’s call regarding the xxx position.
If the message was left for you at 1 pm, and you didn’t get it until you returned home at 7:30, call and leave a voicemail then. In this circumstance, voicemail is your friend. Again, give your full first name, last name, specific position and your contact information for the next business day. Caution! Be prepared in case the recruiter is still there at 7:30 and wants to do a phone interview right then!
When You’re There for the Contact
The moment comes! The phone rings, and you are there to answer! Our standard recruiting rap goes something like this “Hi Aurora, this is Bridget calling from the New England Aquarium in Boston. I’m calling regarding our water-quality position and would like to spend about 10 minutes on the phone with you asking some preliminary questions. Is this a good time to talk, or could I arrange a time to call you back?” Many interviewers like to make sure that interviewing now is convenient for the candidate. Most recruiting professionals will give candidates this courtesy, particularly when calling a candidate at her current place of employment.
Where there is less universal agreement among recruiters, however, is your answer. Many recruiters want you to talk to them when they call, and may not want to call again later. They may have only one or two clarifying questions that would take just a few minutes. Or they may want to do the full 10-60 minute phone interview with you, and they want to have you do it extemporaneously. Other recruiters want the candidate to feel composed and settled and have a quiet place to talk and think, and may not mind making a later appointment. If you are good on the phone and quick on your feet, you may want to go ahead with the interview. If you are in the middle of something, running out the door, or can’t remember what the job is, it may be best to suggest an alternate time. A good way phrase is “I’m so happy you called. I have about 10 minutes before I have to run out the door. Is that enough time, or can I call you back later this afternoon?” This way, you are expressing your interest, being clear about the time you have, and suggesting a time to connect later.
While you are talking, make sure that your phone battery is not about to run out, that your roommate is not about to run the vacuum, and that you will be able to concentrate. It may help to have your notes and resume in front of you, and to have a pen in your hand to take notes. If the entire hiring committee is on the other end in a conference call, you will want to write down each person’s name/role down so that you can refer to it later.
It’s important that you are clear about whether or not you can hear the interviewer clearly. Don’t say, “can you speak up?” Do say “I’m having trouble hearing you. Can you hear me clearly?” The latter is slightly less confrontational and clarifies whether the connection between you is bad or if the problem is on the recruiter’s end.
As with any interview, be prepared to ask questions at the end. You want to have the recruiter(s) hang up with a good impression of your interest in the company.
After the Call
Immediately after the call, write a short thank-you note. Correct phraseology for a phone interview would be something like “Thank you for spending time with me on the phone today talking about the enrollment-management position. I enjoyed the conversation and have a better understanding of the job. I’d be interested in an on-site interview, and would welcome the opportunity to further discuss my candidacy.”
For Individuals With Hearing Loss/Deafness
Phone interviews are not an impossibility. Many recruiters are quite accustomed to interviewing via relay service or TTY. Certainly, all companies should be prepared for and facile in communicating in these ways. Too often, however, they are not. For recruiters who are not, as unfair as it may be, the candidate may have to suggest alternatives to the speaking-and-hearing phone interview. A hard-of-hearing candidate may want to send a note to the recruiter before the interview indicating some basic TTY vocabulary. It is up to you whether or not you want to educate the recruiter about communicating via TTY or relay. In my opinion, the single most important vocabulary non-TTY users need to know is “GA,” which is a way for both parties to indicate that they are finished with their answer/question/comment. GA means go ahead, as in go ahead it’s your turn to talk.
In the computer age, another suggestion may be a real-time conversation via chat technology. Companies may have specific areas on their Web site where employees can meet in real time from different locations. Such a site would be an ideal venue in which candidates and recruiters can interview.
A Chance to Test the Waters
The phone interview is the second step in the process for many recruiters. During a phone interview, interviewers can check out whether you are as good as you sound on paper, if you are articulate and if you’d be a good person to have join the firm. Most importantly, a phone interview serves a way to narrow down the pool to finalists and semifinalists. Few people get hired solely on the basis of a phone interview. The phone interview is a way for both the candidate and the interviewer to test the waters. So, relax, be professional, and be yourself! Remember, the best thing about phone interviews is that you don’t have to wear a suit!
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key college, career, and job-search terms by going to our Job-Seeker’s Glossary of Job-Hunting Terms.
Regular QuintZine contributor Maureen Crawford Hentz is manager of talent acquisition, development and compliance for OSRAM SYLVANIA Inc., a Siemens company. She is a nationally recognized expert on social networking and new media recruiting. With more than 15 years of experience in the recruiting, consulting and employment areas, her interests include college student recruiting, disabilities in the workplace, business etiquette, and GLBT issues. Crawford Hentz has been quoted by The New York Times, NewsDay, The Boston Globe, and National Public Radio, among others. In addition to her work for QuintZine, she is a contributor to the Boston.com HR blog. She conducts workshops, keynotes and conference sessions nationally. Crawford Hentz holds a master of arts degree in college student personnel from Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH, and a bachelor of arts degree in international studies from The American University, Washington, DC. She lives outside Boston, MA.