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what to listen for when phone screeningPhone screening candidates is an underrated piece of the recruiting and hiring process. In many cases, you hear about resume stacks and interviews but nothing in between. In reality, phone screening bridges the gap between deciding who catches your eye and who you want to actually interview in person. But what does a phone screen actually entail and how do you know if it’s a good one? How do you know what to listen for when phone screening?

As I said, phone screens serve as an intermediate step, helping you determine who is worth interviewing on-site. Those on-site interviews are long and often take time out of several schedules in order to run smoothly. Phone screens, on the other hand, are quick and painless. A typical screen should last 10 minutes and be a handful of thought-provoking, open-ended questions.

You can ask all kinds of questions (within the realm of legal questions, of course, and there are plenty of illegal questions you can ask) as long as you’re asking the same questions to everyone. You should have a template pre-made and use it for each of your phone interviews.

Once you have that template of questions, you know what you’re going to be asking. But how do you know what to listen for when phone screening?

What to Listen for when Phone Screening

The one thing that should always be on your radar when conducting a phone screen is confidence. The type of confidence will vary based on position – think charismatic confidence for a sales representative vs. knowledge-based confidence for an accountant – but it remains important that the person makes you believe that they know what they’re doing. A candidate who can’t make you believe that they’ll succeed is one that you probably don’t want to hire.

Of course, some people just get nervous over the phone or in interviews. It happens. That’s okay, too.

Bear in mind that your perception will be influenced by what position you’re trying to fill. A customer service rep will need to be friendly, outgoing, and some level of cheerful in their job so it stands to reason that they must come off that way during an interview. If you’re speaking with someone who doesn’t exude confidence and it’s for a position that requires hard skills more than it does personality traits, you can find out what you need to know by asking knowledge-based questions.

Does your applicant know how to use Quickbooks? Can they explain how they would handle a certain software malfunction? Can they tell you about a project they’ve led in the past?

Each of those answers will present you with an impression of their confidence (or lack thereof).

But be warned; confidence is best in moderation. A phone screen candidate who picks up the phone and says, “Cancel the rest of your calls – I’m getting this job!” might be a bit overbearing. Phone screen candidates who ignore your questions to tell you how great they are have a way of finding themselves in the “thanks but no thanks” pile real fast.

Be sure to consult your original job advertisement and look back at what your key accountabilities are for the job. Set up your phone screen to ask about those things and take notes as the candidate talks. You might not remember everything they say, but your notes will fill in the blanks and you’ll have a strong understanding of the kinds of people you’re seeing.

The Hot Standby

Chuck Smith —  April 29, 2013 — 3 Comments


Have you ever been caught in a situation where events out of your control left you with few options? An important supplier fails to deliver on time. A business partner’s promise is broken and you’re left picking up the pieces. A key employee suddenly quits. At one time or another, it has happened to us all.

That’s why a piece of advice I heard recently from Jim Dolan, CEO of The Dolan Company, struck such a nerve. He said, “Do the extra work to have a Hot Standby.” Dolan’s example was about an investor who made promises to him and then at the last minute changed the terms of the deal. Since Jim’s investment banker insisted on “hot standbys,” they were able to close the deal with a back-up investor on the same day.

At NewHire, the examples we see of this overlooked necessity fall into two broad categories:

  1. Business owners who run into trouble when a key employee leaves with no one trained and ready to take that person’s place, and;
  2. Hiring managers who slow down or stop the recruiting process because a single well-matched candidate is identified.

In today’s business world few small and mid-sized companies (SMBs) have the resources to maintain a team of reserves. The GE model of management (where backups are constantly groomed for each position) is nice to talk about but not a realistic option for most SMBs.

Here are some suggestions more suited to most mid-sized businesses:

  • Cross train wherever possible. Make sure that your employees are able to do more than one job, paying special attention to the most critical job functions.
  • Maintain a pipeline of candidates, even when you are not hiring. You may not have the resources or the need to hire anyone today, but keep your eye out as if you do. Always be on the look-out for talent and create a method for keeping track of who you might like to have on your team in the future.
  • When you ARE actively hiring, schedule a second set of first interviews, even when you have identified a well-matched candidate in the first round. This second round of first interviews is an important way to have a hot standby for both short and longer term hiring needs.

When you are in the midst of recruiting for a job, don’t stop the process until your new person is on board. Too often we see employers say things like, “I like Terry, let’s see how the interview process goes before we meet anyone else.”

If we apply the concept of the Hot Standby, Terry is still the number one candidate. We just keep talking to candidates two, three, and four, until we know Terry is on board. What if Terry gets a better offer or a counter offer, or has a terrible 2nd interview or a no-go reference? If the recruiting process is put on hold waiting on Terry, it can add weeks, even months, to reach your desired outcome.

Jim Dolan’s Hot Standby concept is so powerful in recruiting and hiring. Our best-practice recommendation: keep the top candidates engaged all along the way and continue to develop and screen the candidate pool for other top talent. Having options takes additional work, but it’s often worth the effort!

Dolan was part of a nine-member panel put together by Bob Jordan to celebrate entrepreneurial success in the Midwest and the publication of his book: How They Did It.


Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.-Voltaire

A recent article from the New York Times states that even though companies have open positions, many hiring authorities are delaying their hiring process due to the fear of economic instability, as well as the fear that they have not located the “perfect” candidate. The millions of applicants available, coupled with unrealistic candidate expectations have led to a hiring paralysis. This leads HR Professionals to chase what the article refers to as the “Purple Squirrel”, and what we refer to in our office as the “Flying Mermaid.”

A comprehensive search for the best fit for an open position is imperative, but the quest becomes troublesome when an interview process that stretches for months and is rife with piles of assessments still does not yield a hire. It is easy to blame the candidate pool, or to reason that even if a candidate is a star, there surely must be a brighter star out there. In reality that logic may be as futile as blaming a restaurant for having too many enticing options on their menu, or as a single person railing against a dating world for having all of the wrong people. You have a need, and at some point you have to look at yourself and make a decision. If you don’t, the consequences for hiring inaction reach far beyond the empty desk: Many recruiting dollars have been ill spent, your current employees become stretched too thin, and the lines of people you have interviewed that were once full of hope are now possibly demoralized and angry. In addition, they could take their frustrations to Twitter.

As a current recruiter, I have heard in depth from both employers and candidates about the perils of the hiring process. I feel as though the hiring process is an exciting journey, that may be full of twists and turns, and one in which successful completion is unique in that it is a win-win for both the candidate and employer. Here are some suggestions that will help employers move through the process more swiftly and with unwavering confidence.

1.      Trust your process.

Most likely your company has recruiting processes and procedures in place to locate the right candidate for your open position. At best, you have first hand experience that it works since you have been through it or you have a current favorite employee. At worst, if you feel your hiring strategies need work, there are a variety of experts that can assist you in creating a new method. It is best to invest your time up front, so when you are in the midst of the hiring process the right candidate will naturally be revealed.

2.      Make a commitment to hire.

Hiring is no different that any other challenging goal you set for yourself. You have to ask yourself the hard questions at the start, so you can remain motivated to keep up with the endeavor no matter what comes along.  Do you really have the budget for this person? When do you want them to start? What tangible things do you need to see and hear in order to know that you met the right person, instead of going with your gut? Hiring takes careful planning, support, and most importantly action. If these things are not worked out in the beginning your open opportunity will remain just that- open.

3.      Move the best available candidates quickly through the process.

If you see a glowing resume or meet a qualified person you like right away, move them through the whole process immediately. They are not too good to be true, and most likely they are the right fit! Be sure to know that others will feel the same way that you do, and this person may not be available tomorrow.

4.      Accept the risk, and take the chance

No matter what you do, and how secure you feel with your hiring strategies,there is always a risk involved. There is never a guarantee that your choice will work out. But that is inherent in the process. The most you can do is know that you did your best. There are many variables in the recruiting process, but that must not lead to a hiring paralysis. If you have a genuine open position, and you have a genuine candidate, take a leap! Just make sure you do it with your eyes open.



If you have any tips regarding moving through the hiring process, please share below!


Young workgroupAs baby-boomers continue to retire, it is more and more obvious that we need to start building a replacement workforce. When previous experience doesn’t exist, think about hiring for behaviors and teaching skills.

Some of the areas you might explore include the candidate’s school record. Many high schools will share information about the student’s attendance in class and grades. Ask candidates for names of teachers who can verify their participation and ability to learn new things.

Another area to explore is participation in extra-curricular activities such as scouts, sports and volunteering. If the candidate has shown an interest in getting involved and committing to participation, this can be a good indication of the ability to work well with others and work towards a common goal.

If the candidate has been working in a different industry, try to verify his/her work history with previous employers. Was the candidate dependable, did he or she follow policies and rules? Was the candidate helpful to others? Is the candidate a job hopper? Did the candidate grow within the position or was the candidate promoted to other departments? Did the candidate express an interest to learn new things? Was the candidate considered an asset in the department? Did the candidate work all assigned overtime? Why did the candidate leave? What was the candidate’s greatest strength and where did he/she need improvement?

These questions can be easily verified by asking the candidate what the previous employer will say. Since many employers will be happy to verify what you already know, ask the candidate to write down answers to a variety of questions and then send the questions off to the previous employer for verification.

Using techniques to help you understand previous behaviors will lead to better hiring decisions in the long-run. Most skills need to be learned and training someone with a solid work ethic will pay off in the long run.


Karla Dobbeck

Karla Dobbeck is a certified professional in Human Resource Management with over 20 years of experience in many aspects of human resource management; including placements, employment law compliance, policy and system design and development, and supervisory and employee training. Her clients include professional & business organizations, privately held companies and associations. To learn more, visit