The Telephone Interview: Blind Gamble Or Sure Thing?

If a face-to-face employment interview can be classified as an “unnatural act,” then the typical telephone-screening interview between a client and a perspective candidate is tantamount to a blind gamble. This statement is based on feedback from hundreds of staffing industry professionals who have witnessed the product of their good work vanish in the “gamble” of the telephone interview.When you consider the fact that most employers, including many HR Professionals, have never been properly trained in how to effectively conduct a performance based selection interview, why would anyone believe these same employers could conduct an effective telephone interview?Studies continue to support the contention that the typical selection interview, as conducted by the average employer, is a poor predictor of future job performance. In the absence of proper interview training for the employer, little relevance exists between the candidate’s performance during the interview and their ultimate performance on the job. For these employers, the problem is compounded during a telephone interview.Telephone interviews may be a necessary and, when properly conducted, an essential element of a comprehensive selection process. However, their effectiveness can be measured on a quality continuum ranging from destructive and worthless to effective and productive. Where they end up on this quality continuum depends largely on the skill of the staffing professional and the level of control they have over the selection process.In looking at the telephone interview quality continuum we note the following benchmark levels.Level 1: Total, out of control, blind gamble worthless and destructive. This level is almost too scary to address. Nevertheless, it is representative of a small percentage of the telephone interviews that are actually conducted. At this level, the recruiter is basically not in the loop. Odds are, they only presented a resume on their candidate. In turn, their client calls the candidate directly without even notifying them. There has been no discussion of the steps involved in the selection process much less what would be covered during a telephone interview. In these instances, both the recruiter and the candidate are caught totally by surprise. This telephone interview can best described as a totally blind gamble, ending up being a worthless waste of time; as well as potentially destructive to what little relationship actually exists between the recruiter, the client, and the candidate.Level 2: Out of control, blind gamble potentially both worthless and destructive. The recruiter has submitted a resume on their candidate and is aware there could be a telephone interview. However, the recruiter does not know the time, date, and structure of the interview. Therefore, the recruiter is not in control of the process and cannot properly prepare either the candidate or client for the telephone discussion. Definitely a blind gamble but with a misguided expectation that something positive may result. In fact, the results could be potentially both worthless and destructive.Level 3: Limited control, yet still a gamble potentially worthless. This is typical for the majority of telephone interviews. The recruiter and client agree on a telephone interview for one or more of the candidates. The purpose for the interview is to “get a feel for the candidate,” or to determine whether or not the candidate is “qualified enough” to bring in for a face-to-face interview. Beyond these rather cloudy objectives, the recruiter (and probably the client as well) is unaware of the structure for the interview. Typically, a specific time is not set for the interview. Instead, the client or, in some cases the candidate, states they will make the call “this evening” or “sometime over the weekend.” Without a commitment to a specific time and without a carefully constructed format for the interview, this event, if it even takes place at all, is a gamble at best. However, if it does take place, without a carefully structured approach for the interview, the results could be worthless.Level 4: Good control with agreed upon structure potentially both effective and productive. The recruiter and client have agreed upon the objective of the telephone interview as well as to its structure and format. If the recruiter is properly positioned, the objective of the interview should not be screening for qualifications. In fact, the recruiter should have already completed that step of the selection process. However, in rare instances, the recruiter may have some doubt about the candidate’s qualifications and instead of arbitrarily passing on them, arranges a telephone interview in order to provide their client with the “right of first refusal.” Otherwise, the primary purpose for the telephone interview is to build the candidate’s interest in pursuing the client’s opportunity, particularly if relocation is required. Additionally, the recruiter who is truly interested in controlling the process will call both parties immediately before the telephone interview to insure everything is in place and everyone is properly focused on task. They understand that the telephone interview should not be a spontaneous event. Rather, it has specific objectives and a set format to follow in achieving them. When the telephone interview is handled in this fashion, the results should be both effective and productive.Level 5: Full control resulting in a sure thing definitely effective and productive. Everything from level 4 is included in level 5 with the addition of two major elements of control. First, the recruiter initiates the telephone interview by calling each party and conferencing the discussion. Secondly, the recruiter audits the call. After making the necessary introductions and reviewing the format for the discussion, the recruiter literally sits in on the call. They remain silent during the discussion unless either of the parties strays off track in which case the recruiter brings them back to the subject line. Also, if any information is misstated or distorted, the recruiter is in a position to clarify what was said and create a better understanding for both parties. Once the objectives have been reached, the recruiter brings a proper closure to the call, after which a follow-up critique and debriefing call is made to both the client and the candidate. This is the ultimate approach to controlling the process of a telephone interview. It demonstrates both the competence of the recruiter as well as the level of trust a client places in their involvement during this critical and sensitive step of the selection process. Under these circumstances the results will be both effective and productive, even if the client and/or candidate decide not to proceed further with the process. As close to a “sure thing” as you can find in this business.For most recruiters, their reality is somewhere around a level 3, some control but still very much a gamble. In order to reach level 4 or 5, the recruiter must be highly skilled in “client centered processes” and “performance assessment.” Otherwise, they will not be given the control necessary to be effective at these levels, whether working directly through the top decision maker or through a Human Resource Department.Functioning at a level 4 or 5 is a strong indication that you have arrived as a true professional in this industry and that you have developed your techniques, skills and abilities to impact in a positive fashion, the performance capacity of your client’s organization.Remember: Almost every recruiter is involved with telephone interviews at some time or another during the course of conducting their business. However, the difference between the levels clearly demonstrates that true qualitative differentiation is not created by “what” we do but rather by “how” we do it.If you have questions or comments regarding telephone interviews or how to enhance your control of the process, just let me know. Your contacts are always welcome.

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Recipient of the Harold B. Nelson Award, Terry Petra is one of our industry's leading trainers and consultants. He has successfully conducted in-house programs for hundreds of search, placement, temporary staffing firms and industry groups across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, England, and South Africa. To learn more about his training products and services, including PETRA ON CALL, and BUSINESS VALUATION, visit Terry can be reached at (651) 738-8561 or click to email him.


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