Telephone interviews can be one of the most uncomfortable pieces of the job-seeking puzzle. For one, there’s none of the human warmth that can (some of the time) make an interview tolerable or even fun. Instead, your fate is being decided by a tinny, disembodied voice on the other end of the line. Still, employers resort to these interviews because they are a necessary step, primarily for cost reasons. Without them, companies would overburden themselves interviewing candidates face to face who could have been disqualified much earlier on.

It’s this "disqualified" part that is so essential to understand. A telephone interview is not an opportunity to be hired, it is an opportunity not to be hired--a chance to be disqualified. This, along with the impersonal nature of the transaction, is probably the major reason people feel such discomfort during the process. Although perhaps unconsciously, you recognize that the reason you are on the phone with a prospective boss or an H/R staffer is that she is trying to whittle down a stack of 20 CVs to something a bit more workable. And the person doing the whittling doesn’t have a lot of time to make a decision about you--generally 20 minutes or less!

Some people caught in the frustration of the moment forget that a telephone interview can be valuable, even if it isn't comfortable and the intended outcome isn't positive. If you encounter a courteous and respectful caller, you may learn something from the conversation. In order to help turn some of these potentially negative scenarios into opportunities, first understand the reasons behind these calls.

Different Reasons for Telephone Interviews

Companies use telephone interviews in several ways:

The screening call from Human Resources--Quite often, the H/R department needs to learn more about you for the purposes of sending your credentials (with their notes) down to the manager who has the open position. This person will be looking for more details on why you believe you fit the job, and he or she may ask you several of the "usual" H/R questions. One big one may be the "Tell me about yourself" (or " TMAY") query. Although they most frequently make these initial contacts quite unassuming, in all likelihood this H/R person is trying to "short list" a big stack of prospects for her department manager. For every 10 résumés that the H/R department pulls out of the stack to review, perhaps only three or four will go down to the hiring manager. Each company has its own set of rules about what makes a person "our kind of candidate," and this H/R associate is responsible for that process.

The first pass from a hiring manager--When a manager with an open position runs an ad, which might receive as many as a couple of hundred responses, they often have to run brief telephone interviews on the top 10 or more résumés. Frequently, they’ll just pick up the phone and conduct these sessions--most lasting 10 to 15 minutes--at their convenience. Although these calls place more emphasis on the technical aspects of your background than a call from H/R, they are still relatively short and used primarily to take a broad swipe at that big stack of ad responses.

The in-depth telephone interview--Generally, once a prospect has proven to be interesting to a company--already screened by the H/R department or by a recruiter--the hiring manager will want to conduct a more intensive session dealing with the past experience and skills of the applicant in comparison to the job requirements. This telephone interview is truly a substitute for bringing you onsite, and it can last 45 to 60 minutes, with far more detail on whether or not you can do the job.

The recruiter interview--After being recruited for a position, or after presenting your credentials to a recruiting firm, you may have a telephone conversation with this outside consultant. This interview could be connected to a specific project, or it may give you an opportunity to discuss your general aspirations and goals. Most recruiting companies will wait until they have a potential fit before they call to conduct an in-depth interview.

The committee telephone interview--Sometimes several hiring managers will decide to get together on the interviewing process so that they can share their conclusions afterward. This rarely occurs until the company has reduced its number of applicants to six or eight or less and is trying to find the top three for a round of onsite interviews. This is one of the most difficult kinds of phone screens; instead of one tinny voice on the line, you’ve got two or three.

Eight Tips to Help You Improve Your Odds

Is there anything that can be done to make the process, if not pleasant, at least more productive? Is there something that you can do to increase your chances of making it through? Remember that this interview works the same as a normal interview, except that it takes place much faster and without the nonverbal clues that go with personal communication. Here are some ideas that will help you sharpen your telephone-interview skills:

  • The person on the other end of the phone may be just as uncomfortable as you are. Concentrate less on your feelings of anxiety and more on how to make the other person feel at ease. Most people do not like telephone interviews; remember that it works both ways. When you sound like a person who would be fun and easy to work with, you’ll get more onsite invitations.

  • Smile over the phone. It sounds corny, but believe it or not, smiling while you are talking will actually help you sound more friendly and open. Many telemarketing offices have a mirror on each desk to help people remember to smile!

  • During the telephone interview, you are judged by the same criteria used in an in-person interview. This is difficult in areas such as self-confidence, which is judged differently on the phone than in person. Your self-confidence will be determined by a much more subtle set of factors: the sound of your voice, your level of enthusiasm, knowledge of yourself, and so on. This is where doing your homework on the open position and how you fit that role can be very beneficial.

  • The ability to speak succinctly about your past experiences and accomplishments is even more important on the phone than it is in person. Attention spans are shorter over the phone, and it's much harder to tell if the person on the other end of the line has gone to sleep. So keep it short.

  • Many people find that those moments of "dead air"--silence--are the hardest part of a telephone interview. It's important to get used to a certain amount of silence; the ability to be quiet can be a sign of strength. But it shouldn't go on too long, and you need to be prepared to find a graceful way out of it. So have some questions prepared and, if the silence becomes too prolonged, just ask, "John, would it be appropriate for me to ask a question?" and refer to your prepared list. Don't jump the gun; the interviewer may just be thinking, so don't jump in with questions like this too early.

  • A related point: Although you are always judged on your ability to listen well, nowhere in the recruiting process do listening skills become more important than in the telephone interview. I can’t stress this enough. You’ll find that your nerves will sometimes make this very difficult. I suggest that you close off all thoughts about whatever is going on around you and concentrate on the words and voice of the interviewer.

  • Because so much of your success in this situation is determined by how comfortable you are, make certain that you get yourself situated properly. Maybe you just need to suggest a time after the children have gone to bed. Or, if the caller takes you by surprise, ask for 5 minutes to get organized and get a phone number to call them back. (If they say they will call you at another time, take their name and number!) Or maybe it will help to make yourself a cup of tea before the call; whatever helps you relax.

  • Don’t talk about compensation, benefits, problems with your current employer, and so on, during an initial phone interview. This is solid advice for any first-interview situation. This isn't the right time to criticize your boss's management skills or to ask "What’s the job pay?"

  • When I first started recruiting, the majority of employers would invite their best candidates directly to their onsite location for an interview. Then recruiting budgets shrank and some of them started using phone interviews as the first step, but still only for entry-level talent.

    Today, even senior executives get phone interviews first. There are just too many good people for companies to choose from, and we have all had to learn to live with the phone screening process and the chance it brings of being "disqualified" for your dream job.

    Is that YOUR phone ringing?

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    A writer and speaker on career issues worldwide, David Jensen is the founder of CareerTrax Inc. and managing director of Kincannon & Reed Global Executive Search.