Saturday, January 8, 2011

Hold the Phone! Is this really an Interview?

Phone screens have become a more common first step in the interview process. Understanding the advantages and disadvantages, and using proper "phonetique" can help you secure an in-person interview. While screening a candidate over the phone certainly can save the hiring manager time, it also puts you (the interviewee) in a vulnerable position. For HR screens, a phone interview offers a cursory glance over you as a person, communicator and professional. It can also provide both parties a rapport building opportunity in advance of a first meeting. But there are a few pitfalls that unwitting candidates can avoid to ensure an in-person interview will follow the phone call. Here are a few insights on what hiring manager's and phone screener's (HR) are looking for during that brief call:

1) How do you sound? Not just the quality of your communication skills, but do you sound approachable? Connected and engaged? Do you sound like a smart person? Are you comfortable with yourself? Do you have confidence and charisma? Do you sound like you know what you're talking about? This is the hard part. Everyone has a filter, and what someone chooses to hear is completely out of your control.

The primary problem with phone interviews is they rob you of critical sensory information, data that can actually help you self-correct in an interview. When you don't have the benefit of eye contact and body language, you have no clue as to what the interviewer is perceiving and responding to in that moment. Knowing whether they may be bored, distracted, or disinterested can sometimes be detected by eye contact, posture, physical movements or even by the way they are breathing. Can you tell if someone is smiling over the phone? Sure you can! Can you tell if they are listening with rapt attention or reading their emails? No, you can't. If the interviewer is simply going through the motions of the screen and has already determined you're not a good fit, you're going to waste a lot of time and energy trying to re-engage them. So, it's a good idea to employ active listening skills and "check in" after you've finished a sentence to ask whether they want you to expand or move onto the next question. During a phone interview, or any interview for that matter, go for balanced talking/listening time. Make sure you and the other person have equal portions of time for information exchange. You don't want them to hang up with more questions than answers, and vice-versa.

2) Do you fit the position? While you may not have a deep technical conversation during a phone interview, the hiring manager or HR person you are speaking with will run through the requirements of the position to ascertain whether your background fits the basics of the role. Education, career progression, industry, title, comparative company sizes, functional experience, where you "sit" in the organization, and compensation will be a few of the primary indicators of fit. But they may also ask you details about your prior positions and companies you have worked for. This is a distinct advantage of the phone interview and one that interviewees sometimes overlook. Having your resume in front of you takes an enormous amount of pressure off of you to blindly recall details and dates, specifics about your projects and accomplishments. It is normal to draw a blank in the middle of an interview when an interviewer asks you what month you left a company or the name of the software system you worked on ten years ago. The beauty of the phone interview is that you have that information at hand and no one will judge you for glancing down at your resume for key reminders.

3) Interest level. You don't know enough about the job yet, so how do you communicate the appropriate amount of interest and enthusiasm? Overstating your interest might make you sound naive or too eager, while understating it may give the impression that it's not your top choice or there's something about the opportunity that turns you off. Don't gush, instead simply state that you're highly interested in the opportunity, eager to learn more about the company and looking forward to meeting them in person. Also be sure to ask them for feedback if they felt, for whatever reason, you were not the right fit for the role based on what they learned during the call. This information can help you prepare for the next time a phone interviewer comes calling.

The difference between a phone screen and a phone interview is determined by who is conducting the interview, the amount of time they have allocated for the call, and the information they are gathering from you. As corporate "gate-keepers", the HR screen is often a way to determine in advance whether you are well spoken, appropriately aligned to the role and the corporate culture, and whether you have done your due diligence on the company and the position, and fall within the budget relative to compensation package.

A phone interview with the hiring manager should never be mistaken as a phone screen. Often this will be your one shot at convincing the decision maker they need to meet you in-person. It is your opportunity to demonstrate your fit relative to overall experience, soft skill set, caliber and personal chemistry with them. If you are not asked to come in for an in-person round during the phone interview, it's not necessarily a bad sign. They may need to run the process through the proper channels to ensure both HR and additional team members are scheduled accordingly. Or, they may be in the process of phone interviewing others and will hold off on making decisions about in-person invitations until after they have spoken with all viable candidates. It is perfectly acceptable to ask a hiring manager or HR where they are in the process and what to expect for timing on next steps. It is also in your best interest to ask how long the position has been open for and what their timing is on making the hire. Knowing this allows you to better manage your own process and timing relative to other potential interviews.

The best advice I can offer candidates who are not natural interviewers and struggle with connecting to another human being through a hand-held device is this; pretend that you are talking to a friend or colleague. Be yourself, be calm, be energetic but be aware of your speaking speed and volume. If you tend to be a "fast" talker, try to speak slowly and through a slight grin. When the corners of your mouth are turned up, you also tend to lift your voice. The perception is that you are a happy person. If you want to experiment with this idea, try it on the phone with a family member or friend. Don't tell them what you're doing, but ask them if you sound cheerful or phony. You will find most will feedback that you sound good natured and friendly.

If you really want to come across as a polished and professional executive, dress for the phone interview. Most home-based employees will tell you that they are far more productive, focused and feel more professional when they dress for their home-based desk. Though it's more common to dress for comfort, or stay in pj's and fuzzy slippers as most people do for morning phone interviews, putting on professional garb can boost your mindset and energy to a perceptible level of readiness that comes across on any medium. It is also a good practice to dress before a phone interview because you never know when a hiring manager may make a last minute suggestion to speak over Skype!!

As the US continues to evolve into a mobile workforce, our reliance upon technology to keep us connected will only increase over time. Getting comfortable with virtual connection to others is not only critical to your search process, it may someday soon become a requirement of employment. Now is the time to develop good virtual practices and stellar "phonetique" own word for phone etiquette and technique.

If you are looking for more tips on how to ace a phone interview, feel free to contact me for a consultation!

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