They may not be everyone's cup of tea, but telephone interviews have a lot of advantages. They are fast, easy to arrange and arm you with just the right level of information to begin whittling down your applicants.

Of course phone interviews present challenges too. Mostly arising from the fact that you can't see the person you are talking to. Here's a primer on the kind of questions you should ask to get the best out of your phone interviews.

How to interview a candidate over the phone...

It's important not to get carried away with telephone interviews. Remember they are intended as a screening measure to decide who to invite for a face-face interview. You don't need your candidate's entire life story. Simple questions are the best policy.

Candidates can often be nervous, which can make for an uncomfortable conversation where you fail to get the insight you need on your candidate. Put interviewees at ease by introducing yourself, explaining how long the interview will last and telling them how it will be structured.

The type of telephone interview questions to ask

Remember to keep things simple. The lack of visual interaction means that phone interviews are not suited to complex questions that require lengthy answers. Of course, you want your candidates to be thorough with their answers - but don't attempt to ask anything too brow-furrowing.

Questions should be geared to find out more about the applicant - expanding on the information supplied on a CV and cover letter and assessing whether their professional experience is suited to the role. Here are our tips for the best phone interview questions to ask candidates.

1. What made you apply for this position?

Does your candidate sound like they want the job? Look for a passionate answer. You want a candidate who really cares about getting hired by you, rather than someone who sounds indifferent and apathetic. Genuine enthusiasm shows that your candidate believes they have what it takes to succeed in the role.

2. Phone screening questions to ask candidates

Phone screening questions allow you to gauge whether an applicant has the essential minimum experience or skills required for the role – such as expertise with a certain piece of software or a key qualification. Example screening questions might be:

  • Are you willing to travel?

  • Do you have a clear driving license?

  • Do you have PRINCE2 certification?

Phone screening questions to ask candidates will always be determined by the type of role you are recruiting for – and should be led by the job description. They are a simple way to make sure no unsuitable applicants make it through to an in-person interview and can be as simple as yes/no questions.

3. What experience do you have that will help you succeed in this role?

Look for evidence that the applicant has studied the job description. They should provide concrete examples that prove they have the experience required. Ideally their answers will also show how they have applied their knowledge/experience to provide tangible, measurable results.

4. Why are you leaving your current job/Why did you leave your previous job?

If your candidate launches a full scale diatribe about how much they dislike their current employer, it should probably set your alarm bells ringing. Seek out candidates who are hungry for a fresh challenge or who have been waiting for an opening in this particular field or – even better – with this organisation.

5. What challenges are you looking for in a post?
6. What is important to you from a job?
7. How would you describe your approach to work?

This set of questions to ask in a telephone interview is great for finding out more about the professional mindset of your applicant. How ambitious are they? Are they looking for professional development? What's their self-discipline like? Listen carefully to how they structure their answers and look for similarities with the person specification document.

8. What motivates you?
9. What type of work environment do you perform best in?

These questions allow you to assess how well the candidate will fit with your organisation's environment. Do they need a lot of assistance or are they self-starters? Do they prefer working alone or are they great collaborators? Sometimes individuals simply aren't suited to certain working environments, no matter how talented they are.

10. What are your strengths?

Could this be the ideal phone interview question to ask candidates? It’s certainly one they are likely to anticipate – an invitation to sell their skills, talents and what makes them perfect for the role. And let’s hope the answer isn’t the cliched ‘I’m a perfectionist’ – a response that generally cuts no ice with seasoned hiring managers. This is a challenging interview question. You’ll be listening for how the candidate’s strengths will add value to the team, the potential for their skills to develop the role, and you’ll get a picture of how their strengths have carried them forward in previous roles. In framing their answer to such a positive question, candidates may also best demonstrate their communication skills, passion for their work, general attitude, and confidence.

11. What are your weaknesses?

In a traditional face-to-face job interview, this question is the most likely to visibly unsettle unprepared candidates. Who likes to point out their flaws, after all, especially in front of a stranger they are trying to impress? As telephone interview questions go, this is one that candidates will be glad to answer remotely, away from your watchful scrutiny.

Your job is to tease out the information the candidate may be reluctant to share. You might need to ask for clarity if they mention something that doesn’t relate to a work environment, or that happened long ago, to assess how their suggested ‘weakness’ translates to the role or the team. They may be reluctant to find recent examples for fear of putting themselves out of the running, but your job is not to trip up the candidate – listen to how they describe the challenges they have faced and what action they have taken/will take to overcome them. This question sounds negative but prepared candidates will find a positive spin.

12. Where do you see yourself in five years?

Of all the phone interview questions to ask, this invites candidates to show their ambition. They will likely provide a general answer so as not to put you off by outlining specifics. You should listen for evidence that their plans align with that of the company, and for enthusiasm for the industry in general, which would indicate their hopes for a long tenure with the business. Of course, it’s impossible to know a candidate’s real hopes for the future, but how they answer the question can tell you more than what they say.

13. What are your hobbies outside of work?

When deciding on questions to ask during a phone interview as an employer, it can be easy to forget that your candidate is a person first and a professional second. Look for signs that the person on the end of the line will click with other members of the team.

14. Do you have any questions?

It's important to field any queries your candidate may have, whether about the job or the recruitment process. Once you have answered any questions, close the interview by thanking the candidate for their time and giving them your contact details - they will appreciate being able to get in touch should they think of any further questions.

Getting the information you need from telephone interviews is about keeping things simple and looking for evidence that your candidates have the essentials required for the role. Come the face-to-face interviews you will have saved a lot of time by filtering out unsuitable applicants, meaning less time asking basic questions and more time deep-diving into the people behind the CVs. Just the way it should be.

How do I interview a candidate over the phone?

Interviewing is a skill that takes time to finesse, and even the most seasoned interviewers can occasionally trip up or make an ill-judged decision. There’s a definite art to planning the questions to ask in a telephone interview and pacing the call to ensure you get all the details you need, within a set time, to make a well-informed decision about the candidate.

Nerves are still likely to affect the phone interview candidate so put them at ease by outlining what they can expect in the interview – the structure and type of questions, and rough length of time it will take.

As life begins to return to normal post-pandemic, the phone interview is returning to its intended role as a screening measure to check suitability, before bringing forward candidates to the next stage of either an in-person or video interview.

Try to keep questions to the point and avoid the temptation to cover second interview questions.

For more advice on interview techniques, please read our blogs:

How to conduct effective phone interviews

Interviewer tips for conducting a perfect job interview

The path to success in phone interviews

What should I not ask in a telephone interview?

The questions you don’t ask are just as important as the phone interview questions to ask candidates. Be sure to do your research before the call and be clear on the points you want to address regarding the candidate’s experience and skills. Keep their CV and cover letter to hand and be sure to clarify any gaps in their career history. Avoid any personal questions, don’t mislead by glamorising the role or making promises that can’t be kept, and avoid dead-end questions that leave the candidate struggling to give a fuller answer.

For more information on interview questions to avoid, read our blogs:

How not to conduct interviews

Five common mistakes interviewers should avoid

What are the recommended next steps to take after a telephone interview?

So you’ve decided on suitable candidates for the second stage, and need now to decide on the next set of telephone interview questions to ask. Ensure the candidate knows how to contact you. Stay in touch with a follow-up email, or call, as soon as possible after the phone interview. Thank the candidate for their time and remind them of how things will progress, and the time scale they can expect to hear back. Keeping candidates notified throughout is not only polite and good practice, it creates a positive impression in the mind of the candidate about the business in general.

When following up with unsuccessful applicants, be sure to thank them, ask if they would like constructive feedback, and offer some positives about their telephone interview to ease any disappointment.

If you have identified great candidates through your initial phone interview questions, you won’t want to delay in contacting them to tell them about the next steps and hopefully securing them for a second, more in-depth, interview.

To help with your post-interview decision-making:

Read How to choose between candidates

Find out How to prepare for a second interview.

Discover the Top 9 second round interview questions to ask candidates

Looking to recruit? Contact your local Reed office.

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