How to Hire – Part 3 – Phone Screen

Selling and assessing in less than 30 minutes.

Read How to Hire – Part 2 – Agent Briefing

The purpose of a phone screen is to assess whether or not both parties should invest time in talking further. I emphasise the word both, because it’s not a one-sided investment i.e. it’s not a test.

Who does phone screens?

There are variations to this stage. With most roles, it’s going to be your hiring manager or talent team running the call. For a very senior role (VP, C-level) it might be a coffee rather than a phone call, and as the Founder/CEO, you’re likely to be the person running it. The principles are similar, but the tone and format is different.

That said, I do firmly believe that all phone screens should be conducted by someone who:

  • Knows how to sell your company.
  • Knows how to engage with and attract talent.
  • Is highly observant and emotionally intelligent.
  • Is reasonably senior themselves i.e. has managed before, knows what good looks like, will impress candidates.

Truth is, the best person to do a phone screen is the person who is going to be managing that hire. The second best is a senior talent person.

Having a manager conduct the phone screen creates an immediate bond, makes it clear that hiring well is their responsibility (because it is), and sends a very strong message to the candidate that this role matters.

There are only two reasons why a manager wouldn’t complete phone screenings for their own hire:

  1. They’re struggling with time.
  2. They haven’t developed the necessary skills.

If it’s the former, bringing in a senior talent person may be an option. First, sense-check it’s a genuine capacity issue and not a “I don’t want to spend my time doing this” issue.

If it’s the latter, work on it. All your managers need to be able to sell your company, attract talent and make good hiring decisions. If they’re struggling, bring someone in to coach or support them – but make it temporary. A manager’s sole job is to build and lead a high-performing team. If they can’t impress talent, if they can’t make decisions on high-quality or low-quality talent, then they aren’t right for the role.

Setting up the call

I personally prefer phone over video. I want to focus on what they’re saying, and not be distracted by visuals. Body language is a strong communication method and I don’t want the candidate to leverage that at this stage – I want to hear how they express themselves.

Allow half an hour and ensure you’re prepared.

In ‘How to Hire – Part 8 – Candidate Experience’, you’ll find ways to automate the logistics of tasks, such as setting up calls, without compromising on quality.

Running the call

I break the half hour into three chunks:

  • First 10 minutes: selling.
  • Next 15 minutes: assessing.
  • Last 5 minutes: chatting.

First 10 minutes: sell you, the company, the role. In that order. 

Many companies like to start by asking “What do you know about us?” as a means of testing the candidate or agent. I think it’s a waste of time. I relish the opportunity to share my passion and explain everything in my own words, I would rather assess them on other things, and I don’t expect any candidate at this stage to be sold on me or the company.

Instead I tell them a bit about myself, talk briefly about the company, explain the role, and try and give an honest account of what I need, and the challenges I foresee. It’s in my words, but I’ve scripted it and rehearsed it. I never want to get it wrong or risk waffling.

It’s important here that the candidate gets a sense of my personality because they’re going to experience it 40 hours a week (those of you who have worked with me will either be smiling or groaning right now).

Next 15 minutes: let them sell themselves, and ask them questions

At this point I hand over to the candidate, saying something like “Now that you’ve heard me describe the role, can you spend five minutes telling me a bit about yourself?”.

I love to express it in this way because:

  • I want to see if they keep track of time.
  • I want to hear how they tailor what they say, based on what I’ve said.
  • I’m interested in what they choose to include and leave out. I haven’t specifically asked for their motivation, their work experience, their life story – I want them to use their judgement and then I’ll assess their judgement.

I may probe or ask questions about what they’ve said, but I always have one or two questions prepared for the role. Please don’t ‘wing’ any kind of interview – it’s time-wasting, exposes you to personal bias, and it’s likely you’ll end up unsure at the end of the call. If you’re unsure it means you run the risk of progressing or losing candidates you shouldn’t have.

I like to craft questions that assess multiple skills and behaviours in one go.

For example, when I’m screening for Project Managers I’ll ask:

All our teams track their time on projects. If you see that someone’s actual time is a lot more than what was forecasted, what are three things this could mean?

An example of a great answer:

  1. We didn’t scope the work accurately.

  2. There’s a training issue – someone may not know what they’re meant to do or may not have the right skills.

  3. We’re over-servicing the client.

Why do I love this question?

  • It encourages specificity: I have asked for three, so I want three answers.
  • It gives them the opportunity to demonstrate they can think quickly and answer concisely.
  • It assesses so many skills in one go: analytical problem-solving, stakeholder management, project planning etc.
  • It tells me all of the above without having to ask time-wasting yes or no questions first e.g. “Have you used time tracking tools before?”.
  • It’s skills-based, not experience-based. Someone who hasn’t been a Project Manager or used a time tracking tool before could still answer this question excellently if they have the right skills.

My next question is usually a follow-up to their answer. For example:

Yes, often projects aren’t scoped accurately at the onset. Why do you think that is in our case?

An example of a great answer:

  • You’re a young company, with a broad range of clients. If the client’s needs are very diverse you may not have enough data to define upfront what’s needed to deliver on their needs.

  • You mentioned the sales team lead scoping, does there need to be better alignment between the sales and delivery teams?

  • If it’s a new product for the client, maybe they don’t yet know what they need at the time of scoping.

This kind of follow-up is great because I get to hear how the candidate talks about other teams and clients, and how they think on the spot. I’m looking to see if they’re expressing problems versus symptoms, and whether they’re expressing problems in a way that can be fixed. I’m also starting to get a sense of how much they know about my company.

At this point, I would be convinced to progress the candidate onto the next stage. I don’t know yet know if they’re right for the role, but I want to interview them and find out. If you’re not certain, ask another question (from your set list). If you’re still uncertain, you’re asking the wrong questions, or it’s possible you’re not sure about the skills you need or how to assess them. In this case, it might be worth investing in some coaching.

In any case, after 25 minutes you should know whether you want to interview them or not.

Final 5 minutes: chat

I keep this pretty informal because I want to create a friendly and positive candidate experience. It’s here I usually invite the candidate to ask questions, but I don’t mind if they don’t have any at this stage. Many candidates would prefer to process what you’ve told them, and will bring questions to the interview. Plus, if you’ve done a good job in the first 10 minutes, you might have answered their initial questions.

I may use the time to ask them a few questions about the recruitment agent (if that’s how they came to me).

For example:

  • You came in via <agent>, who were you speaking to there?

  • Was <name>’s description of us similar to mine?

  • Have you had a good experience with <agent> overall?

Asking candidates for this kind of feedback shows you care about their experience, and it helps identify areas where you can improve.

Finally, be clear on the next steps when you wrap up. Don’t waffle. Tell them when you’re going to get back to them and what the next stages of the process are.

Follow up

Some talent teams take days to get back to candidates, without good reason. I try and get back to people within 24 hours. You should be able to make a decision quickly at this stage, and there’s just no point leaving anyone hanging.

In ‘How to Hire – Part 8 – Candidate Experience’, you’ll find general tips on how to engage with and manage candidates.

How many phone screens is too many?

Don’t get hung up on this. Some roles are in high demand, some less so. Sometimes you want to talk to lots of people to get a feel of the market, sometimes you know the market well already.

These questions are more important:

  • What is your phone screen success rate?
  • Of the candidates you progress from phone screen to interview, how many of those pass that interview?

If you phone screen eight candidates, progress all of them to interview, and all of them perform outstandingly in the skills interview – kudos to you! That’s a 100% phone screen success rate. You are in the rare position of someone who has found more people to hire than they have vacancies for.

If you phone screen two candidates, you progress both of them to interview, and neither of them pass the skills interview – well, you have a 0% phone screen success rate, and you don’t need me to tell you that’s a bad thing.


Phone screens should be done by the hiring manager, or a senior talent person in your company. If you’re prepared and manage the time effectively, a 30-minute call will be enough. Take 10 minutes to sell, 15 minutes to assess and 5 minutes to chat. Make a decision and follow up promptly – the candidate experience is formed in between, as well as during, interactions with your company.

Read on to Part 4 – Skills Interview

All parts:

Introduction, Part 1 – Job Description, Part 2 – Agent Briefing, Part 3 – Phone Screen, Part 4 – Skills Interview, Part 5 – Cultural Interview, Part 6 – Offer, Part 7 – References, Part 8 – Candidate Experience.

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