Congratulations! Your resume passed the first test and you are set up for a phone interview. Just because you passed the first hurdle doesn’t mean it’s time to slow your pace. There are many hurdles to come and when it comes to interviewing, the first hurdle you hit will be your last as you become disqualified from the race. While it might be tempting to plan out the entire interview process from start to finish, it is more important to focus on the next hurdle ahead.
Preparing, planning, and practicing your interview skills can be the difference between moving on and falling flat. A unique aspect of interviewing is that each course is different. Every company has their own vetting process which usually consists of a mix of phone, video, and face to face interviews. Some interviews may be “easier” than others, but the most successful interviewers prepare like each hurdle is the highest. It is better to leap high over a low hurdle rather than splat to the ground, underestimating the amount of effort it takes to clear the obstacle.
The goal of interviewing is to receive an offer, while the goal of each interview is to get one step closer to an offer. It important to be on your game at all times. Remember, you can always turn down an offer that you don’t want, but until an offer is extended, the choice isn’t yours to make. Being offered a position not only validates your experience, achievements, and interviewing skills, but it also gives you a taste of what competitors are offering, making sure you are being paid a market competitive rate for your talents.
By focusing on each interview, one at a time, I am going to break down each stage of the interview process and offer best practices for preparation and execution. Properly following these steps should increase your interview to offer ratio, giving you more potential paths to take your career. There will be several recurring themes that apply to all interviews, though some will be specific. Regardless of the type of interview, keep in the back of your mind that those who are over prepared are more likely to receive favorable feedback than those who are just winging it. Let your competition fly solo.
Phone Interviews: Internal Recruiters/Human Resources
Internal HR led phone interviews (either by internal recruiters or a human resources representative) are usually the first step in the interview process. It is common for companies to have their internal recruiters or HR reps handle multiple types of positions, spanning across different skill sets. Based on the ebb and flow of hiring needs, it is beneficial for most companies to train their recruiting representatives to be jacks of all trades, being able to work with different internal departments on an as-needed basis. Since these teams work across many different skill sets, phone interviews tend to be less detailed than the hiring manager interviews to come. They mainly focus on qualifying candidates. Conversations tend to revolve around making sure applicants have the minimum experience required, a walkthrough of previous job transitions, providing insights into the company’s corporate culture, and aligning salary expectations. The ultimate goal of this interview is to make sure that only viable, qualified, and interested candidates are presented to the hiring manager as the hiring manager’s time is best spent running their department, not interviewing. These initial phone interviews are meant to weed out candidates.
In addition to the general screening process, the hiring team may provide a list of specific questions for HR to ask each prospective candidate. These questions are usually more detailed and technical in nature. HR will usually type up the answers and pass them along to the hiring team to review. These are the key questions to pay special attention to as these are the questions that represent the key skills and problems that need solving. The more confident the team becomes in your ability to solve their problems, the better chance you will make it to the next step of the vetting process.
How to Prepare:
Do your research.
Start preparing for the HR interview by researching the company. Take a look at their website and do a quick Google search. Scroll down the first page or two to see if there are any interesting or relevant articles, updates, and industry news that might be able to help familiarize yourself with the organization. Using Google’s News tab can be effective to stay on top of recent updates. Perhaps the company had recently published an exciting press release, or maybe one of the executives just posted a status update on their project. Interviewers like when candidates are well informed. It shows that they have done homework, are interested in the position, and is a sign of professionalism.
Know your strengths and your weaknesses.
Beyond doing your research, make sure you are confident in your strengths and be able to promote your successes. At the same time, realize your limitations and how to combat them. Put yourself in the interviewer’s shoes and figure out what you would want to know if you were them and have well-thought-out answers prepared. Having answers prepared, or potential stories to tell will help your conversations roll more smoothly. When an interviewer asks a question, the less you need to search for an answer, the better.
Find the right place to take the call.
When scheduling a phone interview, make sure you commit enough uninterrupted time to complete the call. Generally, 30-60 min should be efficient unless otherwise noted. If you plan on using a cell phone, make sure you pick a place that offers adequate reception and privacy. Since most phone interviews will occur during normal business hours, there is a good chance that you will have to take the call during work hours. Find an unused conference room or sit in your car. Try to avoid taking the call in a break room where others might pop in or sitting outside in busy public places. Outside noise can be a distraction, both to your performance, but also to the interviewer who is trying to pay attention to your answers.
Use your resume as a cheat sheet.
Be prepared to walk through your career history by having your resume in front of you. One of the main goals of the HR interview is to align your job responsibilities with the vacancy’s requirements and, most likely, you have a lot of experience to share. If you haven’t interviewed in a while it can be surprisingly difficult to recall all of your past experiences. It is common to slowly forget specific dates of employment, job responsibilities, and even key achievements. Having your resume in front of you is like a voice-actor having their script in their hand, relieving the need to memorize the lines. Keep in mind, no one can talk about your experience better than you can. It is your responsibility to execute a well-delivered speech.
There is a good chance that the interviewer will start the interview by walking through your job history. The conversation may begin by talking about your education or discussing how you got started in your industry. From there, prepare to talk about each job, starting with your first, working your way through to your current position. The interviewer will be assessing what led you from point A to B, the skills you have mastered on the way, your achievements, and reasons for change.
Be prepared to talk about gaps in employment and short-term positions as both are red flags to employers. Part of the preparation process should include the creation of well-scripted responses to, “Why did you leave that position after six months?” or, “How come there was an eight-month gap between this position and the next?”
If available, have the job description handy as wee. It is common for the interviewer to focus on comparing the job description with your current and previous job responsibilities. If you have questions regarding the description, HR may have some answers, but the hiring managers are usually better able to answer more specific or technical questions.
Be the expert the team is looking for.
Present yourself as an expert. If you are interviewing for a position that requires a special expertise (indicated by a minimum years of experience), you should know more about the day to day responsibilities and duties than the internal recruiter or HR rep. I am not suggesting that they are unfamiliar with your job, but there is a good chance that they haven’t worked in your shoes. The more confident and knowledgeable you present yourself, the more comfortable the interviewer will be with the conversation and the more likely they will recommend moving forward to the next interview. If you are struggling to draw parallels between the job description and your resume, there is a good chance the interviewer will pick up on the lack of confidence and will become less confident in your abilities.
Be prepared to talk about dollars and cents.
Salary history and salary expectations may also be discussed; however, many states are starting to prohibit employers from asking candidates about current salaries in order to protect against salary discrimination. In order to make sure salary expectations are aligned, be prepared to at least talk about your salary expectations to make sure they match with what the position is offering. Refusing to talk about salary (including salary expectations) will generally throw up another red flag. Hesitancy to talk about compensation is usually the result one of two situations, both of which generally lead to things not working out. First, the salary for the position is so much more than what you are making now that there is a good chance your experience is too light for the role. Second, your salary is well over what the position is paying, but you are hoping that after the team meets with you that they will be so smitten by your awesomeness that you will be able to negotiate a salary outside of their range. Sure, once in a blue moon either of these situations may turn out to work in your favor, but 95% of the time salary discrepancies lead down a road to wasted efforts.
Ask questions during each and every interview. Each interviewer has a different perspective of their organization as well as the vacancy so take their perspective into account during your interview preparation. For example, HR is better at discussing company benefits, PTO, and other compensation related items. They are also able to shed light on corporate culture along with the company’s mission. Besides interviewing candidates, they are also responsible for representing the company’s branding image so you can get an idea of the type of image that corporate is trying to portray.
Working with an Agency Recruiter:
Internal recruiter/HR interviews should be a piece of cake if you are represented by a staffing agency. The agency recruiter should be able to prepare you for everything that HR is going to discuss. Since the phone interview with the agency and the internal team can be very similar in nature, it is not uncommon for hiring managers to bypass the initial HR phone interview and move right to a discussion with the hiring manager.
Phone Interviews: Hiring Managers
Speaking with the hiring manager (or hiring team in some circumstances) is the first real test. Of course, you were well prepared for your call with HR (leaping high over the first hurdle), but that was just the warm-up. If there is one person you need to impress during the entire interview process, it is the hiring manager who, in many cases, will wind up being your future boss. By now, you should be familiar with the company and the position. Don’t get too comfortable because this interview takes the cookie-cutter Q&A session with HR to a whole new level of detail.
Want to know a dirty secret? Hiring managers stress over interviewing. They are busy with their “day jobs” so any time spent interviewing takes them away from what they do best. By this point, they already were debriefed by HR that you met the minimum requirements and they already reviewed your resume. The goal of the hiring manager interview is to nail down on specific skill sets and qualifications along with assessing personality fit with their group. Be prepared to talk about your experience, but more importantly, be prepared to talk about your achievements. Put yourself in the hiring manager’s shoes and ask yourself, “Why would I hire myself over any other candidate?” If you can answer that question successfully, you’ve got the hiring manager’s attention.
The goal of this interview is twofold. First, you want to clear the hurdle and move forward to the next interview. Second, you want to get a better idea of the position, department, and company to see if the opportunity aligns with your career goals. The hiring manager is better equipped to provide specific details on the position and are prime targets for questions regarding day to day duties, challenges, or expectations.
How to Prepare:
Do your homework, again.
Just like before, spend some time researching the company. It never hurts to re-familiarize yourself with the company website and review any new news articles before each interview. When interviewing with anyone on the hiring team, do some research on each interviewer to get a better understanding of their background. One option is to simply Google their name (you may want to add the company name to limit search results) to see if there are any interesting articles that they may have posted, industry events they attend, or publications that they have written. A second option is to do some sleuth work on LinkedIn. LinkedIn is a phenomenal tool that, more times than not, you can find their career history, education, and even their list or hobbies and interests. All of this information can be used to your benefit, giving you the upper hand compared to your competition. Perhaps you both play tennis. Maybe your son is currently attending the manager’s alma mater. Similarities create instant comfort, immediate bonds, and make you more memorable after the interview concludes. Furthermore, it is easier to prepare for the conversation by having background details on the other party, keeping in mind they already know quite a bit about you. This background information will also help you prepare better questions. For example, you might prepare different questions when talking to someone who has been at the company for the last 23 years compared to someone that just started a couple months ago.
Be specific with examples.
Since this interview is about diving deeper into your experiences, make sure to prepare solutions to their problems. If the team is looking to hire someone, it literally means that their team is not running a peak efficiency. Identify the gap and give examples of how you can fill it. Don’t speak in generalities. Be prepared to detail specific and relevant achievements. Walk through actual situations that you have encountered. Describe the situation at hand, the task that needed to be completed, the actions you took, and the results of those actions. Speaking vaguely equates to not having the experience. Giving detailed step by step accounts of the situation, details that only come from having completed the task solidifies your knowledge and experience.
Have questions prepared.
One of the biggest pet peeves that hiring managers have is candidates not having any questions for them. Changing jobs is a life-changing decision, one that greatly impacts your livelihood. To go into an interview without any questions is basically saying, “I just need a job and don’t really care that much about the details.” Obviously, this doesn’t create a positive perception. Beyond showing mutual interest, questioning the hiring manager gives you the first real opportunity to vet the position, making sure it is aligned with your career expectations and goals. Keep in mind, you will be getting answers straight from the horse’s mouth. Just like your HR interview, have a list of questions prepared. Some, or even most, of your questions might be answered during the conversation so make sure to add questions that may not be so obvious. We will discuss some examples a little later below.
Block out enough time.
As before, make sure you block off enough time on your calendar to remain uninterrupted during the duration of the conversation. Sometimes these interviews are on the longer end, lasting well over an hour (the longer you are on the phone with a decision maker, the better). Sometimes they are tight on time and may only have 15-20 minutes. Try to find out the expected duration of the call beforehand, and plan for it to run 50% longer, just in case. Just like with HR, make sure you find a location that is quiet, private, and offers a clear cell signal if you are using your cell phone.
Be a listener and note taker.
During the interview, listen carefully and let the manager finish what they are saying before interjecting. No one likes to be cut off when they are talking and it doesn’t look good to project impulsivity. Take notes as the manager is giving you pertinent information about the position while making special notes of the underlying problems they are trying to solve. When it is your turn to do the talking, be able to give specific situations, specific achievements, and offer solutions to their pain points (which you should have practiced during your pre-interview preparation).
Have your cheat sheets handy.
Have your resume, the job description, and if possible, the company website open as all are helpful tools during this interview. The manager might ask what you know about the company, testing to see if you did your research. They may ask specifics regarding certain positions you have held or certain achievements listed on your resume. They may also reference the job description, offering you an opportunity to interject with questions regarding specific duties. As a recurring theme, it is better to be over prepared rather than not prepared enough. You can see how a conversation could slowly tumble downhill should a manager ask, “What questions do you have about the job description?” only to be met with awkward silence.
The interviewer will usually allow you to ask any outstanding questions at the end of the interview. There may also be times during the conversation where you will have the opportunity to interject while discussing specific topics. Prepare a list of questions and have them in front of you throughout the call. Cross out any questions the manager answers during the natural flow of the call and jot down additional questions that pop up during the conversation. In fact, having questions based on the content of the interview shows the manager that you are fully engaged in the call.
If you are struggling to come up with questions or if the manager already answered everything on your list, here are a few examples of questions that help continue the flow of the conversation, showing the manager that you are vested in the conversation and their insight:
The next step in confirming your interest in the position is by following up with a Thank You email. The email should be short and sweet, something that the manager can read in around 30 seconds and leave with a smile and a nod. Include some of the notes that you took from the conversation, highlighting how your experience is relevant to the key qualifications of the position, or better yet, offer solutions to their problems.
It is important to note that the goal of a Thank You email is not creating a laundry list of reasons why you should be considered. That is what the interview was for. If you bombed the interview, don’t think that a seven-page letter dissecting each line of the job description and pairing each bullet point with your experience is going to change the hiring manager’s mind. That said, there may be a time where you forgot to mention something during the call or there wasn’t enough time to finish the discussion due to hitting the time allotted for the conversation. In these cases, it would be appropriate to mention, “When we were speaking about [topic], I forgot to mention that I had [talk about your experience or achievement]” or, “Time flew by while we were on the phone, we didn’t get a chance to talk about [topic], but want to mention that [give a brief summary about your experience or achievement]. I would be happy to discuss further in a later interview.”
…To Be Continued
The Headhunter Guide is RECRUITER WRITTEN'S way to provide insider's knowledge to candidates and employers alike. Enjoy!