1. Not displaying a grasp of what the job is all about. I'm amazed by how often I ask a candidate to tell me what she knows so far about the job and receive an answer that's significantly off-base. If a job description is posted online, read it—and read it with clear eyes. I've noticed when candidates get this wrong, they tend to add more glamour to the job than really exists. For instance, if I'm hiring for a high-drudgery data entry job, I'll always get a candidate or two who tell me that they think the job involves research and lots of contact with the public. This is bad for two reasons: (1) It shows that they haven't paid attention to the detailed job description I posted, and (2) It makes me think they won't be satisfied with the reality of what the job actually entails.
2. Not asking any questions. I want to know that you're interested in the details of the job, as well as things like the department you'll be working in, your prospective supervisor's management style, and the culture of the organization. Otherwise, you're signaling that you're either not that interested or just haven't thought very much about it.
3. Not paying attention to tone of voice. During a phone interview, the interviewer can't see your body language or gestures; all they have is your voice, so tone matters more than ever. You want to sound upbeat, interested, and engaged—not sluggish, distracted, or unenthused. Let your personality come through—a major reason for the phone interview is to get a sense of what you're all about.
4. Having an overly casual manner. While the interviewer wants a sense of your personality, a phone interview is still an interview, not an informal phone call with a friend. Don't sound stiff, but don't use the same tone you'd use to talk about your date last night. I've phone-interviewed candidates who I'm pretty sure were lounging on the couch, watching the game with the sound down, and snacking while we talked.
5. Giving longwinded answers. One thing I'm screening for in phone interviews is the ability to answer questions directly and reasonably concisely, because I want to hire people who can organize their thoughts and convey needed information quickly. So, don't ramble on for five minutes. If there's more to tell and you believe your interviewer would be fascinated, after giving your direct, concise response (two minutes at the very most), you can ask, "Does that give you what you're looking for, or would you like me to go more in depth about this?" If the interviewer wants more, believe me, she'll say so.
6. Missing the call. Yes, this really happens. Missing a prescheduled phone interview is generally impossible to recover from, but you might be able to salvage things if you contact the employer immediately and express extreme mortification. You must apologize profusely, make clear you are horrified by your oversight, and offer an understandable excuse. ("A meeting with my boss ran over and I couldn't get out of it" is reasonable; "I wrote down the wrong time" is not.)
You could be well qualified for the job, but if you do any of the six things above, you're likely to take yourself out of the running. On the other hand, avoid these traps, and the phone interview becomes pretty easy—it's really just about getting some basic background on you and getting a sense of who you are. If you're professional, prepared, and enthusiastic, it's likely there's an in-person interview in your near future.
Alison Green is chief of staff for a medium-size nonprofit where she oversees day-to-day management of the staff as well as hiring, firing, and staff development. She is working with the Management Center to coauthor a book on nonprofit management. Her writings have been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Maxim, and dozens of other newspapers. She blogs at Ask a Manager.
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