Getting the most out of candidates phone screens is as much art as science, but the Heller Search team has advice and best practices to share.

You are on the hiring committee - or maybe you are the hiring manager - for a top-notch IT professional, such as a CIO, CISO, or VP of Appdev or Infrastructure. You've identified several promising candidates whose resumes or LinkedIn profiles leave you wanting to find out more. How do you quickly hone in on the best candidates who are worth the time and expense of recruiting?

This is where the initial phone screen comes in.

The phone screen is often conducted by HR/talent acquisition pros who are charged with whittling dozens of candidates into a short list of the most qualified and interested prospects who are worth a full length interview with members of the hiring committee, either in person or face to face. But more and more, CEOs, hiring managers and other members of the hiring committee are screening candidates by phone or Skype to make the best use of everyone's time.

On a phone screen, you have only a short time – 20 to 30 minutes – to get a bead on those IT leaders who have the background – and the temperament – to fit in at your company.

Getting the most out of a phone screen is as much art as science. While there certainly is a baseline of questions to ask, those who elicit the most insight from candidates are adept at focusing on the intangibles – the interpersonal and communication skills that turn a promising prospect on paper into the perfect hire.

Do They Meet Minimum Qualifications?

At the beginning of the call, don't waste time reviewing career background and credentials. The goal is to verify their qualifications for the specific role your company is hiring. You're essentially trying to fill out a checklist by making sure that candidates have all the requisite skills and experience needed for the position.

As the term “screen” implies, the objective is to separate one group of candidates from the rest. Which ones meet the minimum for the number of years in a similar role? Who in the group have managed teams of a certain size before? Have they worked in a global environment? What about experience with a specific CRM or supply chain platform?

Probe for Soft Skills

Then delve into a more probing line of inquiry. You certainly want to know details about a candidate's current role and career ambitions – but you're also looking for more subtle attributes. Here, smart questions can give you a glimpse into the candidates' communication strengths and presentation style. For example:

  • Why did you choose to work at your existing employer?
  • What was a project that failed, and what lessons did you learn from the experience?
  • What unique contributions do you bring to the table?
  • How would people on your team describe your leadership style?
  • Why would you consider leaving your current job?

In this part of the phone screen, you're not listening for answers that check off a box. You're looking for critical soft skills:

  • Can he/she they communicate clearly?
  • Is he/she able to answer challenging questions succinctly?
  • Is he/she comfortable describing what they could have done better?
  • Can he/she explain technical topics in ways that business people can understand?

Phone Screen Interview Best Practices

To get the most out of phone screens, approach the calls in a methodical manner. While the short length and the fact that they are conducted by phone may suggest informality, you should build structure into the process.

  • Ask questions in the same order 
    When reviewng the position requirements and asking questions, be consistent and use the same order across all the candidates you screen. This will make it much easier to compare the candidates' strengths and weaknesses after the phone screenings are complete, and determine who from the group will be moving forward.

  • Listen more and talk less 
    Since time is limited, the phone screen is all about the candidate. Listen attentively and take good notes. Then you will be in the best position to identify which candidates are the most qualified for the role in question -- and why.

  • Finish every call
    In some case, you will rule out a candidate early in the conversation. When this happens, don’t fret. Some of the highest performing, most experienced IT professionals will not be a fit for a job for various reasons: they don't want to relocate; their current compensation is too high, and so on. But finish the call - you will not have wasted your time connecting with them. Any person who drops out of the candidate pool is a new networking contact who may lead you to your next hire. Don’t forget to ask them if they know someone in their professional network who might be interested and qualified for the job.

  • Do a little selling
    Finally, even though your speaking time is limited, don't forget to spend a few minutes pitching the job and the company. Think through your selling points beforehand, keep them succinct, and jot them down. In a tight market for experienced IT leaders, the candidates at the other end of the phone - especially the really good ones - will be doing a little screening of their own. 

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