Two Basic Steps in Job Interviewing
Most employers that are large enough to have a human resources department split the hiring function into two steps: screening and selection.
- Screening interviews are Step 1 in choosing someone for a job. Designed to narrow the candidate pool for the managers who make the hiring decisions, screening interviews weed out unqualified candidates. If you don’t get past Step 1, you’re out of the running.
A screening interview is typically conducted by an employee in the employer’s human resources department (often a support person or a junior recruiter) or by an outside recruiting contractor.
Your goal in a screening interview is to show that your qualifications fill the employer’s bill. It’s not to quiz the interviewer about job suitability for factors important to you, but to keep yourself in the running for the job.
- Selection interviews are Step 2 in choosing someone for a job. Selection interviews provide a wider and deeper evaluation of qualified candidates who survive screening interviews. (Selection interviews are also called “hiring interviews.”)
A selection interview is typically conducted by one or more managers to whom the new hire will report. Sometimes it includes potential colleagues as well.
Hot News about Screening Interviews
In a frigid job market, job seekers experience a heat wave of screening interviews.
As one example, global talent management firm Ol Partners (www.ol partners.com) recently surveyed l84 organizations throughout North America and found that 54 percent are more frequently screening potential employees via phone interviewing than they did in the past.
The uptick in a rush to discard unqualified candidates makes sense. It can be explained by digital traffic jams caused by the mobs of people who “spray and pray.” The spray-and-pray theory is that if you apply for every open job within reach, qualified or not, you’re sure to land one. (This hope is misplaced, akin to counting on the lottery as a retirement plan.)
As a consequence of the continuing resume floods caused by too many unqualified candidates, employers have developed an understandable preference to cut to the chase as a strategy to save both time and money. That’s why when you apply for a job, if and when you’re contacted by the employer, your first acknowledgment is likely to be made by a screener.
Screeners can’t hire you. But they can keep you from being hired. Give a screener enough information about your qualifications to satisfy the job’s requirements. Engage! Go all in to help the screener connect the dots from the job to you.
Learning Your Lines for Screening Questions
Screeners usually aren’t concerned with evaluating your personality or thought processes. They have one basic responsibility before putting you on an approved list and waving you up to the next interviewing level: to be sure you qualify. They do so by zeroing in on your experience, education, jobrelated skills, and track record.
In looking for reasons to rule you in, or to rule you out, screeners quiz you on questions that prove you can do the job — or can’t do the job. Here are the kinds of job-related root questions to mentally gear up for:
- What is your experience? Can you describe your past/current day-to-day routines and duties?
- What are your skills, particularly your technical skills and competencies?
- What is your education, training, and certification?
- Where do you live? (Is your geography convenient or inconvenient? Relocations are a tough sell.)
- What is your salary requirement? (If your requirement is too low for the job’s predetermined range, employers think you’ll move on as soon as possible; if it’s too high, they think they can’t afford you.)
Additionally, screeners may send zingers your way to probe inconsistencies on your resume (work history gaps) or ask questions designed to highlight lies in your resume.
Short Script of Screening Styles
Screening interviews come in three basic models:
- Human screening: A person asks specific job questions. Usually the interviewer follows a script and has no specific knowledge of the related position. Successful applicants are passed on to a hiring manager for the next step, a selection interview. Most screening interviews are conducted by telephone, whether mobile or tethered to land lines. These interviews aren’t typically recorded.
- Automated phone screening options: A phoned set of preset questions is asked of all comers. Answers are recorded and often shared among company hiring managers.
- Online screening questionnaire: Questions in this model are attached to a job posting. From the company’s perspective, this step is considered not an interview, but a “prescreening.”
An organization’s automated tracking system ranks a job seeker’s responses based on how its recruiter weighted each question.
For instance, if 100 people respond to a job posting, only the highestranked job seekers would be considered viable for further consideration. The next step usually is a phone screen, either automated or human.
Sounding Qualified on the Phone
Even though talking on the phone gives a casual impression, you need to present yourself as a qualified professional for the job you want.
Mobile phones are wireless and include cell phones, smartphones, and feature phones. Although mobile phones have become the norm in a mobile world, they still suffer from too many can-you-hear-me-now moments to be your first choice for a life-altering event like a screening interview.
Generally, wired land-line phones of good quality remain the most reliable for excellent audio quality.
Because most people don’t prepare for screening phone interviews as rigorously as they prepare for face-to-face meetings, the casualty fallout is heavy. The telephone “screen call” can come at any time, day or night.
If surprises aren’t your thing, stick to the steps I outline in the upcoming sections.
Stock your back-stage office with essentials
Stash one phone in a quiet room stocked with all your interview essentials. Must-haves include
- Your current resume (preferably customized to the job you’re discussing)
- A list of your professional accomplishments
- Background information on the employer
- Questions about the company and position
- Outlines of brief stories that illustrate your qualifications and problemsolving abilities
- A calendar, with all scheduled commitments and open dates
- A notepad, pen, and calculator
- Water and tissues
Make phone appointments
Screeners sometimes purposely try to catch you with your guard down, hoping surprise strips away the outer layers of your preparation and hoping you’ll blurb out genuine, unrehearsed thoughts and feelings. They may see unanticipated calls as useful for measuring your ability to think on your feet.
But you want to avoid giving answers from a brain frozen on standby status, right? Whenever possible, don’t answer stuff on the fly when a call comes in. You won’t be prepared and you won’t do your best. Schedule an appointment for your phone interview. Say that you’re walking out the door to a meeting across town and will call back as quickly as you can.
Thank you for calling. I appreciate your attention. I’m very interested in speaking with you about my qualifications. Unfortunately, this is not a good time for me — I’m headed out the door. Can I call you back in an hour or two? Or would tomorrow be better?
If a recruiter insists on calling you back rather than the other way around, do what you would do for any other interview: Be ready early as a reminder to interview as a professional. Change out of your jeans and into the type of dress you’d wear in a business meeting. Most importantly, treat the call as an overture to an in-room meeting that you’re going to snag by doing an excellent job on your screener.
Project your winning image
When the call comes, heed the following suggestions, most of which come from Mark S. James, a leading executive career coach (www.hire consultant.com).
- If you have a home office, use it. An office just feels more businesslike. You may find it helpful to face a blank wall, to eliminate distractions of gazing out a window or spotting dust on your favorite painting.
- Gather essential information. At the start of the conversation, get the caller’s name, title, company, e-mail address, and phone number. Read back the spelling.
- Market yourself. Assume the role of “seller” during the interview. If you sell your skills and abilities effectively, the listener sees value in bringing you in for an interview.
- Strike the right tone. Be enthusiastic, but don’t dominate the conversation.
- Have an answer ready. Be prepared to answer the “tell me about yourself” request early on; keep your answer to two minutes.
- Don’t rush or drone on. Speak clearly and be aware of your pace — not too fast, not too slow. Don’t ramble. Keep your answers short and succinct; if the interviewer wants more information, she’ll ask for it.
- Use check-back phrases. After answering a question, you can add such follow-on phrases as, Does that answer your question? Have I sufficiently answered your question about my managerial experience? Is this the kind of information you’re seeking?
- Be a champion listener. Prove that you’re paying attention by feeding back what the interviewer says: In other words, you feel that . . .. Interject short responses intermittently to acknowledge the interviewer’s comments: That’s interesting . . . I see . . . great idea.
- Get specific. Describe your ability to benefit the company by using specific dollar amounts and percentages to explain your past accomplishments. Let them know how you did it.
- Divert important questions. Tickle interviewers’ interest by answering most of their questions. Then when they ask a particularly important question, give them a reason to see you in person. Tell the interviewer that you can better answer that question in person:
That’s an important question — with my skills (experience) in this area, it’s one that I feel I can’t answer adequately over the phone. Can we set up a meeting so that I can better explain my qualifications? I’m free on Tuesday morning — is that a good time for you?
Decide beforehand which questions can best be put off. You can use this tactic two or three times in the same conversation.
- Punt the salary question. Phone screeners often ask you to name an expected salary. Play dodge ball on this one. You don’t know how much money you want yet because you don’t know what the job is worth.
- Push for a meeting. As the call winds to a close, go for the prize:
As we talk, I’m thinking we can better discuss my qualifications for (position title) in person. I can be at your office Thursday morning. Is 9:30 good, or is there a better time for you?
(Interviewer’s name), based on the information you have given me, I am very interested in pursuing this work opportunity and would like to schedule a time for us to meet in person. What looks good for you?
When the interviewer agrees but can’t set a specific time, simply suggest when you are available and ask when would be a good time to follow up. Remember, what you want is an in-person meeting. Assume you’ll get it and give the interviewer a choice as to the time.
- Say thanks. Express your appreciation for the time spent with you.
- Write a thank-you letter. Just because the interview was via phone doesn’t negate the wisdom of putting your thanks in an e-mail.
Make it a sales letter restating the qualifications you bring to the position.
Acing Automated Phone Screens
An automated screening interview in which you use a phone to answer a fixed list of questions posed by a faceless recorded voice is becoming ever more common. How successful is the technology? The answer depends on who you ask.
- Recruiting professionals say they like automated phone screening because they don’t have to play phone tag with candidates, they can schedule blocks of time to listen to all the interviews one after another and forward the best to hiring managers, and they can listen at any hour of the day or night.
- Interviewees say they don’t like automated phone screening because answering canned questions is cold, rigid, and impersonal. They find it uncomfortable to realize that their recorded performances can live on and on and on. They much prefer live, reactive, and unscripted responses by someone on the other end of a phone call.
Particulars vary among automated interview vendors, but here’s a typical routine:
For each position to be filled, the recruiter records up to 12 interview questions. Each question allows a maximum of a two-minute answer.
Automated phone screening systems often work on a “one-and-done” rule. That is, once you have recorded your answer to a question, you cannot rerecord your answer even if you immediately realize that your original answer was weak or wrong. Double-check your understanding of whether the one-anddone rule applies to your interview before you begin recording.
How do you know when you’re selected to interview by recording? An employer sends an interview invitation to you by e-mail or includes an “interview now” button in a website job posting.
Pushing the Right Buttons: Computer Screens
Questionnaires and phone screens aren’t the only screening game shows in town. Computer-assisted screens are still around, substituting meetings with a PC or app that takes you directly to a screening website, especially for jobs with high turnover, such as food service and retailing. Here’s what you can expect keyboard style.
Most computer programs frame questions in a true/false or multiple-choice format, but some ask for an essay response.
A preset time limit for each question is the norm for digital digging, so be ready to keyboard your answers in a timely manner.
Encourage a friend to try a computer interview you plan to take so you can look at the questions before diving in. Make notes of the questions and reflect on your own upcoming responses before you hit the keyboard.
Additionally, if you’ve never participated in a computer-controlled interview, practice on the employers you least want to work for and save the best for last, when you know what you’re doing.
After you run through your computer lines, the computer compiles a summary of your answers, which the interviewer uses to decide whether you flunk the first cut or advance to the next round of interviewing.
Newer computer software allows candidates to type in comments they would like to have considered — eagerness to enter or reenter the workplace, a history of unemployment due to a sick but now recovered family member, an emphasis that you’re no stranger to hard work or that you never leave home without enthusiasm. Inject any comment you would have said to a human interviewer.
Screening Survival Skills Are Now a Must-Have
The goal of the screening interview is to land the selection interview. The goal of the selection interview is to land the job.
According to an old baseball truism, you can’t win if you don’t score, and you can’t score if you don’t get on base.
Moving beyond screening interviews is all about getting on base.