Career / Climbing The Ladder

6 Phone Interview Mistakes I Hear Daily As A Recruiter (& What To Say Instead)

By Monday, April 05, 2021

For the last five years, I’ve worked in the human resources and people operations field. Some of those years (like now) have been spent as a recruiter, while other years I was on the HR operations and programming side. 

Regardless of the position, conducting phone interviews has always been part of the role. At this point, I would wager I’ve hosted hundreds of interviews, and most of them have been phone interviews. And very quickly, I began to observe patterns and have collected a barrel of dos and don’ts. With the hiring process being nearly 100% virtual, it’s as crucial as ever to nail the phone interview. 

Here are six ways to impress a recruiter — and I’ve even included scripts!

1. Awkward Greetings  — Instead, answer the phone with confidence

I know that I sound like the headmistress of an outdated charm school, but it’s true. Too often, a phone call starts with an awkward hello.

Me: Hello?

You: Hi! Is this [candidate name, let’s say Jane for the examples today]?

Me: Yes. 

You: Hi, Jane, it’s Jazmine from [company name]. Is now still a good time for the [position] interview?

This kind of initial exchange, albeit pretty much the norm for phone interviews, adds additional work on my end. I need to ensure I’m speaking with the right person and that they’re still able to conduct the call. When a candidate answers the phone with timidness in their voice or as if they weren’t expecting my call, it makes me wonder if they’ve prepared for the call. The good news, it’s easy to recover from this and isn’t a dealbreaker for any recruiter. Instead, I suggest answering the phone with a salutation and your name, “Hello, this is Jane!” It seems small, but it lets me know you were expecting my call and that I have the right person on the phone. 

2. Cliche “Right” Responses — Instead, be specific. Bonus points for a story with examples

As recruiters, we have heard every buzzword and cliche response to interview questions. Pile on the fact that detecting bullshit is basically an aspect of the job, we become skeptical when someone’s greatest weakness is “being too much of a perfectionist” with absolutely zero evidence to corroborate their claim. 

That said, it’s important to use your words as storytelling tools. On a phone interview, we’re not face-to-face; there’s no body language to read or smile that signals a message has been received. The most memorable phone interviews are the ones where I can use my imagination to see the candidate at a former job doing the tasks they are explaining. 

Now, that’s not to say you need to break out soliloquies or fill the air with flowery language. Instead, I want to encourage your storytelling; and every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. For professional interviews specifically, a good story has a problem, a solution, and a metric-focused end result.

Here’s a generic, not bad, but not amazing answer I often hear to the question, “What’s your greatest weakness?”

Me: What is your greatest weakness*?

You: My greatest weakness, I would have to say, is that I am a perfectionist. Like, I care so much and need something to be 100% right before handing it to a client. 

Me: *bullshit detector goes off.* 

But if that truly is your greatest weakness (first, congratulations, I would love that problem), here is how to frame it in a way that is authentic to you and feels genuine to the recruiter. 

Me: What is your greatest weakness? 

You: Last year, I received feedback from my manager saying that my perfectionism was a blindspot to my growth. After engaging with the feedback, I learned that, while it’s well-intentioned, my need to deliver blemishless work causes my team frustration because my QC work can cause us to hit up against deadlines or send the message that the team’s hard work isn’t appreciated. Since getting the feedback, I’ve not only explored where my need to control comes from, but I’ve worked to respect boundaries as an individual contributor and use moments where I see mistakes or lackluster work to inspire my team members with encouraging words or share my favorite hacks and systems for catching typos. Since being more intentional, I’ve seen a positive change in the relationship I have with my team, and we’re able to produce great work, meet deadlines, and have time to catch a celebratory happy hour when the project wraps.

Author’s Note: I actually don’t like this question. Instead, I like to ask, Tell me a time you work on an area of self-development/professional development? Or, Tell me how you’ve grown as a professional in the last five years? In my opinion, we’re all “bad” at (some) things. It matters more to me how you handle your shortcomings and leans into your strengths to still get a job done.

3. Not Knowing The Job Description — Instead, reference the role description

Ok. So this is something I started to do once I had a “fail” moment during a phone interview when I was the candidate. She asked, “I assume you have the job description in front of you. Which responsibility excites you most, and which excites you least?” You can guess that I didn’t have the job description in front of me. And that I didn’t have an eloquent answer. And that I didn’t get the job.

Now, the added bonus of this advice is that should you get the curveball question, you’re prepared. But I also believe referencing the job description is important because it allows the recruiter to clarify any questions you have based on the description. Further, acknowledging specific line items only affirms your preparation and enthusiasm. 

Referencing the job description in action could look like:

Me: What intrigued you about The Financial Diet and the Social Media Content Creator role itself?

You: I got excited when I learned the role would “create 5 pieces of content per week for TikTok + Instagram Reels” and that it would be “a mix of new ideas and repurposed ideas.” Not only have I migrated my existing clients to TikTok, seeing a 10% engagement increase across all accounts, but I also love that I can pitch new ideas and help The Financial Diet jump on trends while still staying true to the brand and message. I could see a world where we translate contributor stories into TikToks or host member-only gatherings on Clubhouse.

Referencing the job description can also look like this:

Me: Do you have any questions about the role?

You: Yes! I saw the role was part-time, around 12 hours per week. Do you have insight into the team’s preferences on this person working each day for a couple of hours or on a block schedule, available all day? 

4. Assuming The Recruiter Has All The Answers — Instead, ask the appropriate questions to the appropriate party

Admittedly, this shouldn’t make or break your interview, but asking hyper-focused questions about a role, especially if the role is not HR or recruiting-related, can be a pet peeve of the recruiter you’re speaking with. 

Most people forget that a recruiter typically only has a high-level overview of a role. Outside of special circumstances, we are most prepared to answer questions about the company, the culture, benefits, pay, and context around why the role is open and how it relates to the company mission. 

Questions like, “What content management system does the Marketing Director use” are best directed toward the team you’re going to be working with. However, here are questions you can absolutely ask a recruiter during a phone interview:

  • What has your experience been like working at the company?
  • How would you describe the workplace culture at the company? 
  • Do you all currently offer any professional development incentives or have a continued learning program for employees? 
  • (If applicable) How would this role partner with the Recruiting team?

5. Asking “Did I get the job?” at the end — Instead, DON’T

Based on anecdotal evidence, I’m led to believe this could be a closing question that is expected during a Sales interview or even a tactic that was welcomed decades earlier, but please do not ask me, “Did I get the job,” at the end. 

First, it feels too chummy and borderline tacky. I think the person asking hopes to come off as charming or as having moxie, but it feels like a cheap attempt at building rapport. Next, it comes off as disrespectful. Surely, a candidate must suspect that there is a process a recruiter and hiring managers need to follow. Twisting our arms to give you an answer is inappropriate and unfair. Finally, and perhaps the most obvious, you’re putting a recruiter in an awkward situation. I’ve played it off with a quip in the past, but if an earnest question, how does that dialogue go? “Yep, you got it. I have to talk to the person you’ll be reporting to, but yeah, you got it.” Or worse, “No. I think you’d be a poor fit and will be sending you a rejection letter at the end of the week.” Just don’t do it. 

6. Not Respecting Their Time — Instead, keep their time in mind

Finally, as with all professionals, respect the time of a recruiter. If you see you’re coming up on the 30 minutes scheduled, be courteous enough to acknowledge, the time is ending and ask if they have a hard stop. I think when a conversation is grooving, it can feel like going over is a “good sign,” but typically, it makes recruiters late for other appointments. It’s best to respect their time and end it on a high note.

Jazmine has been a contributing writer for The Financial Diet since 2015. While her spending habits have changed over the years, her advocacy work surrounding social change and mental health has not. She hopes her writing and activism can empower all women to occupy their space at work — and everywhere else. Outside of TFD, Jaz (as she likes to be called) is a career coach, full-time writer, and a plant + dog mom residing in Dallas, Texas. She spends her “fun money” on trips to Trader Joe’s, throw pillows, and white wine. You can follow her Target shopping adventures here, and learn more about her at JazmineReedClark.com.

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