The Critical first HR phone screen or making it to the next round of the HR American Idol.

It is Critical when you do your first phone screen with a company you know your goal in doing the phone Screen, and also what the goal of Human resources is, as they are totally different.

Your goal is simple, to get a second interview!

You must speak on the phone again with a potential decision maker or in person with a peer of the hiring manager or directly with the hiring manager.

Your phone interview is not to get the job. You may be many steps away from getting the job, and if you get too far ahead of yourself, you may never make it to another interview. Walk through the interviewing process a step at a time.

HR’s goal is also simple. To screen you out!

Imagine your interview is like American Idol and you think you are speaking to Paula Abdul or Randy Jackson on the phone, but in both cases, it is really Simon Cowell in disguise.

Now this is no statement as to the actually personality of the HR person you are speaking to, but rather the role that this HR person has been thrust into.  The HR person must be
cut-throat.  Why?

Here’s the reason. HR has a lot people to talk to,especially in this challenged economic market. Say HR has 1000 people applying for a single job opportunity. HR has whittled down the 1000 applicants to 100 actual persons that make it to the selections that are qualified for some consideration for hiring.  After a bit more scrutiny, HR whittles some more and gets the stack of applicants down to 20.

From these 20 applicants, HR needs to phone screen them to find 5 strong applicants to present to the hiring manager. From that 5 they are hoping to get 2 to 3 that will make it too the second round.

How does HR do the whittling? Throughout the process, they look for red flags or factors where you are not confident, not direct or determined in your approach toward getting the job.  Yes, they are looking to knock you out of the contest, send you back to your home town, back to sing karaoke.  You’ll get no record deal, no tour with Clay Aiken
or Fantasia.

Now how do they screen you? They may have a bunch of prepared questions, or use some kind of rating system. They’re are a multitude of different ways to evaluate you, but it really comes down to one simple thing, what can they find that is wrong with this candidate so they can screen them out.

The majority of HR people are not qualified to determine if you can do the job technically. They are talking to you because on paper based on what they know you can do the job. They will usually defer a “technical” or “skills” first interview to a second phone
or face to face interview.

HR will interview you on are topics like these:

  • resume details
  • job history
  • career goals
  • communication skills
  •  relocation
  •  attitude
  • how close you live to the office
  • what you know about the company

Now Lets look at some resume details. You can bet that if there are details in your resume that could come under question, they will be.

 Say if you had 2 or 3 jobs that were only for a year. Be prepared to have good answers for why this is. Answers that make sense and that you can speak confidently and in a “matter of fact” nature.

If your answers come out weak or stumbled, your history baby, Simon will “send you packing”.

A pointed question about career goals can also be very tricky, such as “what are your career goals” or “where do you see yourself in three years”.  For instance, if you are interviewing for an engineering role, and your answer is “my career goal is that someday I would like to be an engineering manager”. Your answer may be interpreted as ” this person wouldn’t be happy in a mere engineering role since he’s looking to be a manager”.


 As a recruiter, I have had this kind of comment come back to
me too often. So when I prep a candidate I do my best to get what the career
path of the job is so this won’t happen.

 What you can do is respond to this question if HR asks
“what are your career goals”?

Your answer could be “well this position really fits what I
am looking for in my career right now. What is the next step in this job and
how long does usually take to get to it?”

That way if HR answers “oh in 5 years they might consider you for a management role.”You can reply with “Oh great well that’s something to work for” and you have dodged a bullet.

Recently I had a candidate who was asked by HR to respond to this question:

“So how long was your commute to the interview?” asked the HR rep.

“Oh about 1 1/2 hours by train,” the candidate replied.

“Would it be better if you could work from home sometimes?” asked HR.

“Sure, that would work well,” the candidate replied.

The feedback that came back was this: “The candidate is unhappy with the commute and would rather work from home sometimes.”

Now this particular candidate had other things that made them not right for the role, but this was an example of how things can be perceived in an interview.

So how do you assure yourself the best chance of getting past the mine fields of the HR phone screen.

1. Do your homework:

Study the job spec. and really know their website. Many times I have had candidates say that they were very glad they studied the company’s website as they were asked questions about the company they would not have otherwise known. Plus this helps you have good questions to ask.

2. Don’t say too much:

“Any thing you say can and will be used against you”. Be personable, be confident, be prepared, but do not talk too much. No matter how much you feel a connection with the HR person interviewing you, they are not your friends so definitely do not “open up” to them or “spill your guts”. Keep it professional and brief.

3. Don’t get ahead of yourself.

Questions about “flex time”, or “4 day weeks” are definitely not to be discussed. Even salary should be only touched on if they bring it up. Tell them what you made and that you are flexible on the salary based on the position. Ask them what the position pays. Even if it is not quite at the level you are looking for don’t get into a discussion about it. Many times companies will pay more than what HR thinks they will pay. But if you do not interview with the hiring manager you will never find this out.


4. Give them a reason to call you back.

Preparing a few questions only the hiring manager can answer is a good way to promote them having to talk to you. Also ask when you can come in to their office to interview. In sales you have to ask for the business. Interviewing is selling yourself, so if you goal is to get to the next interview, tell them you are very interested in the company and when could you come into to meet the team and interview. It shows confidence and interest, something all people respect in a person.

The point of this blog is that although a first phone screen with HR is often compulsorily and only the first step in the interviewing process. If it is not treated correctly it will be your last interview. For although you will never ever be hired for a full time job with just a phone screen, you will never be hired at all if you do not get beyond it.

Just think if Kelly Clarkson stumbled her way through singing “Feelings” for her original tryout on American Idle, you wouldn’t hear her on the radio every 15 minutes.