Since employers usually have far more qualified job applicants than they can realistically interview, they're increasingly using preliminary phone interviews to screen candidates and narrow down their pool before bringing finalists in to talk in-person.
But what are employers really looking for in these phone screens? Are they just checking to make sure you're not crazy, or are they looking for more substantive information too? The answer is usually a bit of both.
Most phone interviews have the following seven objectives:
1. Making sure that you're sane and reasonably intelligent. And yes, employers are really checking for these things. No employer wants to bring someone in for an interview and then discover in the first five minutes that the person falls short in either of those areas.
2. Checking on basic logistics like availability. Are you available fairly quickly or are you planning to take a two-month trip overseas in a few weeks? Smart employers screen for these sorts of issues up-front. Other logistics questions at this stage are often about whether you're able to relocate (if you're applying long-distance) and what hours you're available.
3. Finding out your salary expectations. Phone interviews are often used to check whether your salary expectations are in line with what the employer intends to pay. This is a tricky area for job seekers, who worry about pricing themselves too high or too low—especially when many employers refuse to name their own range first.
4. Checking your understanding of the job. Do you think the job is research when it's actually sales, or that it's based in New York when it's actually in Calgary? Do you think you'll be writing press releases when you'll actually be doing data entry? It's more efficient to find that out now than after you've both set aside time for an in-person meeting.
5. Clearing up any questions about your resume. For instance, how much did you really work with that software program you listed? And what's up with that mysterious two-year gap after college? Employers often have basic questions about your experience that they want answered before deciding whether to bring you in for an in-person interview.
6. Starting to establish basic qualifications. Once the logistics are out of the way, many employers use phone interviews to begin to probe into your skills and experience. Don't make the mistake of thinking the call will only cover the basics; you might also get fairly complex behavioral interview questions, like "tell me about a time when you had to deal with a difficult customer," or "tell me about a time when you came up with a new approach for tackling a problem."
7. Seeing if you'll say or do anything obvious that takes you out of the running. Employers usually have far more qualified candidates than they can interview, so they'll look for ways to narrow down that pool. If you sound low-energy, unfriendly, distracted, or simply unprofessional, or if you chronically interrupt or don't communicate clearly, they'll put you straight into the "no" pile.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.