Getting Past the Telephone Screening Interview

by Robin Ryan

When an employer calls to say, "We'd like to discuss your qualifications a bit." what they are really saying is "We want to know more about your exact skills and verify your resume, before we offer you an interview." Human Resources professionals refer to this interview as the Screening Interview. In today's job market this kind of screening process has become very popular and is frequently used. This initial employer contact is designed to narrow the pool of acceptable candidates, and you don't want to be one who is not scheduled for the in-person interview.

Telephone Interview

The interviewer hopes they will catch you off-guard with their initial call. Employers typically phone in the evenings or on weekends. I've personally conducted a lot of these for employers and I'm amazed at how many people say it is okay to talk when there is obviously TV, loud children, and other distracting events going on around them. Preparation is the key to success. Remember that if you don't pass this screening, you're sunk.

When you get this type of call, tell the person you are just finishing something and ask if you can call them back in ten minutes. Then prepare yourself. Find a quiet spot, get your resume out and think about the questions the interviewer will ask. The employer's objective is to clarify experience and salary expectations. Mentally rehearse your answers. Have a pen and paper in front of you. Jot down the caller's name and take notes as they ask you questions. Smile, so your voice sounds friendly.

The interviewer's job is to validate an applicant's background (after all, too many people lie on the resume). Employers need to hear that you have the experience needed to do the job. Demonstrate that you do with answers that offer examples of your past performance, and that reiterate your top strengths and key selling points. Be concise -- keep answers less than 60 seconds and, above all, sound interested and enthusiastic about the job. The worst thing you can do is to sound monotonous, robotic, uninterested, and dull. This can happen unconsciously if you get nervous, so actively work to sound self-assured and enthused.

The screening interview seeks to weed out the unqualified and overpriced. The disadvantage here is that the human resource person often is not specifically familiar with all the details of the job. They are generalists and seek to validate job experience, not job potential. Be sure to structure answers to demonstrate how you have done the work in the past and how you focus on self-improvement and making contributions to your employer. To move to the next level you must convince this person that you CAN do the job.

One Major Caution

Be ready for any salary questions. These are tricky. Revealing your financial desires can be used as a measuring stick to screen you out because they can clue the interviewer to your "real" skill level. It's always best to avoid answering any questions on salary until you have been offered the job. If questioned, respond to the interviewer by inquiring, "What is the range this job pays?"

Keep this adage in mind: Whoever mentions money first loses. Don't let it be you.

America's most popular career counselor, Robin Ryan, is the author of four bestselling books: 60 Seconds & You're Hired!, Winning Resumes, Winning Cover Letters, and What to Do with the Rest of Your Life. She's appeared on over a thousand TV & radio shows including Oprah, Dr. Phil, NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw, CNN, and CNBC, and has been published in most major newspapers and magazines including USA Today & the Wall Street Journal. Ms. Ryan may be reached via e-mail at info@robinryan.com.

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