If there’s one complaint I hear from HR Business Partners most often it’s how much time recruitment takes out of their already-busy days. I know, I’ve been there. After years of struggling with scheduling hours for screening resumes, phone interviews, in-person interviews, assessments, offer letters, etc., I finally came up with a way to shave off some of the time.
Just one thing before you read too far. This blog post is for recruiters who either don’t have access to AI-equipped Applicant Tracking systems, or don’t want to rely strictly on AI or the ATS’s screening system. In my personal opinion (and, yes, it’s an opinion), these ATSs can sometimes eliminate people who don’t fit the minimum criteria, but who would be a good fit nonetheless because they bring some other element that would help them succeed.
Ok, with that said, let’s get to it.
I found that the screening and interviewing process took a big chunk of time in the recruitment process. In fact, screening always took more energy out of me than anything other aspect of recruitment, and I ended up procrastinating more than I’d like to admit, causing the whole cycle to length, frustrating my hiring managers. So, I had to find a better way.
The 15-minute phone interview
I find that recruiters use phone interviews as a method of screening candidates, however, most recruiters don’t do them right. They usually narrow the phone interview candidate pool too much because they feel they need to spend half an hour or more per candidate. And they end up spending the 30 minutes only to rehash the same questions at the in-person interview. Certainly not an efficient use of time.
I use phone interviews to screen my candidates, but I only spend 15 minutes per interview. I don’t use it as a full-on interview, just enough to get the basics down and see if I want to get to know the person some more. And by doing that, I can get through more candidates to ensure I really have picked the best of the best applicants.
The idea of the 15-min phone interview is simple. You’re only asking them a few short questions and the key things you’re looking for are:
- Can they stick to the time they’ve been given?
- Can they convey their point concisely and explicitly?
The key to doing this without compromising the candidate experience is 3-fold:
- Have a structure
- Set expectations
- Provide feedback
And it can all be done in 15 mins, plus a minute to spare.
In the following sections, I’m going to outline my exact phone interview process. I’ve also created a 15-Minute Phone Interview Guide with the exact process I use and a question page that you can customize for each of your roles and use. You can download it here.
Of course, depending on the position you are hiring for, the questions will change, but I keep a few questions consistent to easily evaluate and compare the candidates.
Phone Interview Structure
Here is the basic structure I follow:
- I ask them to summarize their resume in 2-3 minutes
- I ask them to tell me why they’re interested in this specific position at this company in 2 minutes
- I spend 1 minute talking about the role, the manager, the team, and the company
- I pick 2 job-specific questions or the non-negotiable things that they need for the role. For instance, I ask them for an example of when they used a particular software, or an example of when they had to deal with a difficult employee. The key is to ask them for an example. Again, 2 minutes per question. Remember, the purpose of this phone interview is just to screen them. You’ll invite them in for an in-person interview if you like these answers they’re giving you.
- I ask them to tell me what their salary expectations are. If it’s way out of range, I’ll let them know and ask if they want to proceed with the process. Some people will back out at that point, and you’ve only spent 10 minutes of their time. A note here, even if you have asked salary expectations in you applicant tracking system, ask this question again. I find sometimes people will change their answer.
- Finally, I leave 3-4 minutes for them to ask me any questions and letting them know what the next steps will be and timing. At this stage, it’s important to let them know right away if they don’t have a key skill or qualification. For example, if you need strong software skills, let them know that you’re looking for someone more proficient and that you will not be proceeding with their application at that point. It’s best to give people immediate feedback if possible. It’s not always possible, but if it is, then please be human and do it so they’re not waiting around for you to call them.
What you learn in 15 minutes
The idea of the 15-minute phone interview is to get to the lowest possible level in the shortest amount of time. What I mean by this is you’re trying to get as much detailed information from a candidate without spending too much time. 15 minutes is enough time for you to give a high-level overview of the role and the company to the candidate. This is valuable if and when they come in for an in-person interview.
I’ve done phone interviews in many formats over the last 12 years of my HR career. Sometimes I’ll do a longer 30-minute phone interview, but over the years, I have learned that I don’t learn much more from a person in 30 minutes than I do in 15 minutes. In fact, because of the time crunch of the 15-minute interview, both the candidates and I are “forced” to get as much information in as possible. Believe me, there’s nothing like a deadline to get the most out of people.
Now, there is one caveat to that. Some people simply can’t deal with the pressure. I have had candidates with impressive, mind-blowing resumes completely bomb the 15-minute phone interview because they couldn’t find the right words. If this happens, it’s important to keep an open mind. I have, at times, brought them for an in-person interview and about 80% of the time I’ve made the right decision.
That said, I make a lot of decisions based on intuition (rather than data), so this works for me better than it would for someone who needs data to decide. I find there are limitations with data, and when you’re dealing with human beings, you need to look deeper than a statistic. That said, I did mention only 80% of my intuition-based candidates give a drastically different interview in the in-person. So, there are definitely limitations when I do it my way too.
In the end, the thing that most of us know as recruiters is this: Recruiting is no more a science than it is an art. And that means that you have to use a process, but you also have to use judgement and intuition. The best recruiters use both with comfort and expertise. Relying on your intuition to guide you is a topic for another blog post, but I thought it’s worth mentioning here.
The 15-Minute Phone Interview Process
Now that you have the basic structure and timing of the phone interview, let’s dive into a more detailed process. How exactly do I screen over 30 people over 2 days?
Prepare for the Phone Interview
Believe it or not, you do need to prepare for phone interviews. A little bit of preparation will help you do them back to back and you’ll remember who you spoke to. Believe me, after doing 30 of them, all the names and response will be a big jumble. To avoid that, you have to prepare.
Remember, we’re only spending 15 minutes with the candidate. You won’t need to type more than a page of notes (if you’re handwriting, I’ll allow you two pages!).
I like to have all the resumes printed or opened up in tabs on my computer so I’m not wasting time looking for them while I’m going from one interview to the next.
Schedule the Phone Interviews
Block off 2 2-hour time slots in your calendar. That will cover 16 phone interviews. You can repeat the process the following day, or a day later in the week for additional interviews. They key is to block the time off in your calendar. I find time-blocking most effective because I can put a sign up on my cubicle wall or on my office door. This is a perfect activity for your work-at-home days.
Next, start putting the interviews into 15-minute chunks into your calendar with each candidate’s name. I put this in the meeting/event title: “Phone Interview – [JOB TITLE] – [CANDIDATE NAME]”. At this stage, I mark these meetings as “tentative”.
You might be wondering why I put in the candidate name before scheduling anything. This is where the beauty of my system comes in. My phone interview scheduling process is perfected to the point that it only takes me only a few minutes to set up interviews.
Here’s what I do:
- Send them an email with the following language:
- Thank them for their application and resume.
- Tell them their experience looks interesting and you’d like to speak to them.
- Tell them you want to schedule a quick 15-minute phone call with them.
- Give them the date and time (from above) and ask if that works for them. Do not give them multiple options because 99% of the time people will say yes to my suggestion. Mainly because I mention it’s only a 15-minute call and they usually rearrange stuff. This method is 100x better than asking them what date/time works and going back and forth. This one trick has saved me hours over the years.
- I send out multiple emails one after the other to each of the candidates I selected
As people respond saying yes, you can mark the meeting status “confirmed” or remove the colour if you colour-coded above. I then respond to them and tell them I’ll call them at the number on their resume. Or if they give me another phone number to call, I put that into the “location” area of the meeting invite. You can also send them the meeting invite at that time.
On the odd chance they say that the date/time does not work or them, you can move to another time slot somewhere else in the calendar. However, as I mentioned before, 99% of my candidates accept the initial date and time I put forward.
During the Phone Interview
If you’ve already set up the questions in the preparation phase, then there’s not much for you to do here. I usually launch right into the interview saying I want to ensure I get them back to their day within 15 minutes. Download the handy guide I created to facilitate this step.
If you’ve followed the structure above, you’ll have exactly 1 minute before you move to the next phone interview. Take this time to jot down 1-2 points that really stood out for that candidate, followed by an A, B or C (or whatever scale you want. Yes, No, Maybe also works).
This method of phone screening has helped me manage 10-15 open recruitment positions along with a very full HRBP work load. It has also helped ensure I’m not leaving good candidates in the ATS.
Now, it’s your turn. I’d love to hear how you implement this system. Or if you have other handy ways to screen candidates before brining them in.
Don’t forget to download the 15-Minute Phone Interview Guide I created just for you. It contains this entire process in a neat visual and includes a worksheet with space for putting in your own questions (along with space for answers). You can use it every time you recruit.