Assessing candidates for a job is a crucial, but often misunderstood skill – and in the first of a three-part series, we explore ways that interviewers can get the most from initial screenings. Generally accomplished remotely, screening interviews are a favourite way to increase hiring efficiency – and our guide lists the questions you mustn’t forget to ask every candidate. Even veteran interviewers have something to gain from checking out these tips.
Some subjects are so broad and interesting that a single article would just never quite cut the mustard. In this case we’ve had to split things into three parts to ensure that everything gets covered, so this article is the first in a series. Right now we’re going to concentrate on the first stage of the interview process – the screening phase – giving you the questions which will help you to spot the candidates you’re looking for before you’ve even met them face to face.
If you’re interested in this subject, but don’t have time to read the whole article right now, then feel free to grab our executive summary in the form of this handy PDF.
Why should you screen candidates?
The word ‘screening’ has got a bit of a bad rap. Screening calls refers to avoiding people by only answering the phone to those you want to speak to. In a medical context, screening is the practice of checking apparently healthy people for an increased risk of an unpleasant condition. But what of screening candidates?
As anyone who’s successfully carried out screening interviews will tell you, they are no bad thing – and can save a lot of time and effort in the long run by helping you to avoid a bad hire. While there’s no one ‘best’ way to do this, there is a method which will allow you to spot the general attributes you’re looking for in a person, before you expend very much time and energy on actually interviewing them. That’s what we’re going to concentrate on here.
Arranged or impromptu?
One thing you might not have considered with regards to a screening interview is whether you should conduct it in an arranged or impromptu manner. The suitability of these methods can depend on the medium through which you choose to carry out the interview (see the next section, below, for more details), so this is a decision you need to make in tandem with that one. But first, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of the two methods:
The most obvious way to conduct a screening interview is to contact the candidate beforehand and set it up in advance. The ‘I’ll call you on Tuesday at 3pm’ approach has a number of benefits, but also a number of potential limitations, and you should take these into consideration when designing your screening strategy.
The main benefit to this approach is that everyone can make sure they’re free for the interview. You can clear relevant time in your schedule, because you know that it’s going to take place. The candidate shouldn’t feel pressured and will have time to prepare for the interview. It will also allow them to ensure that they find a suitable environment to sit it in.
One downside of an arranged interview is that it can make the conversation feel a little stilted – which might not be the best way to begin a working relationship with the candidate. Formal isn’t always better, and this is something that you should take into consideration if you’re aiming for more of a laid-back approach to recruitment.
Less obvious, but in many respects superior is the impromptu or unarranged screening interview. Although this might sound a little unfair at first, if taken in the right context, this can be a really useful method for getting to know a little about a candidate.
Remember when you were a kid and you cut your knee? Hopefully someone put a plaster on it for you. The plaster (and the attention) usually made things better – until a few days later at least, when the time came to remove it.
There were two main methods of plaster removal in those days, and for the purposes of this metaphor we’ll refer to them as the fast method and the slow method. Can you see where we’re going with this yet? An impromptu interview is a lot like the fast method. The candidate doesn’t have time to worry about the interview, because by the time they realise what’s going on, it’s over. With a pre-arranged screening, they could be spending days stewing, over-preparing, and generally getting worked up about it. This definitely represents the slow method of plaster removal.
Quite simply, impromptu interviews work because the candidate won’t have time to be on edge when you speak to them. Although in one respect you’re catching them off-guard, in another, the surprise nature of the interaction should allow for a much more natural flow of conversation – hopefully getting any potential working relationship off to a much better start than a pre-arranged screening might.
In the best case scenario (and if you’re good at this), a candidate might not actually realise that they’re being interviewed. We have a section below on how to open the screening interview, and this is clearly important in this context – but in short, the ‘do you have a minute to chat about the job’ approach will work better than asking the candidate if they ‘can spare five minutes for a quick screening interview’.
The main problem with unplanned interviews tends to be actually getting hold of candidates in order to carry them out – which is especially true if they are already in full-time employment. Part-time workers or unemployed people are more readily contacted – but how do you contact someone who works most days and likely doesn’t want their current boss to find out that they’ve been applying for jobs?
The obvious way is to call them outside of normal working hours – which in many job roles will give you a reasonable degree of success. But in roles with less-traditional hours, this could prove difficult. Unfortunately, this process can be a little hit-and-miss, so do be prepared not to get in touch first time. This can be problematic in the sense that some candidates might end up having arranged screenings with others getting impromptu ones, so if you do decide to go ahead with this approach, it’s something that you’ll need to take into account when assessing candidates.
You may also come across candidates who will pretend to be unavailable in order to give themselves chance to call you back once they have prepared fully. Although it’s not ideal, the fact that you won’t know and will be treating their interview as ‘arranged’ anyway will mean that it shouldn’t really matter.
Screening interview methods
The next thing you need to think about when screening candidates is how you’re actually planning to carry the interviews out. Although the telephone is the first thing that will spring to mind for most people at this point, there are actually a few methods available to you – so don’t forget to consider your options. Here we’ve listed the pros and cons of the main weapons you have at your disposal:
The classic, go-to device for a screening interview. But just because something is accepted doesn’t mean that it’s automatically the best, right? Even so, it’s certainly true that the telephone has a lot going for it in this context. It’s fast, and almost universal nowadays – which can allow you to conduct the impromptu type of screening interview we mention above. This is much more difficult with some of the methods we go into below, and a real boon of the telephone. But do take a second to consider the sizeable benefits that the following more specialised methods could bring to your screening interviews.
Next up, we have the 21st-century telephone. Here we’re getting everything that the telephone gives us, but with the added bonus of being able to see a person’s body language as they speak. Given that body language can be incredibly important in ‘reading’ a candidate, that’s a very big bonus from one perspective.
But also consider the downsides of being able to see the person you’re considering bringing in for interview. Being able to see a candidate opens up another avenue for discrimination and bias (whether conscious or otherwise) on grounds of appearance, which can be more of an issue before they and the interviewer(s) have actually met (because they’re more easily ‘disposed of’). This could also be more of a liability in legal terms, so do give this careful consideration.
Aside from potential issues with discrimination, also consider the fact that not everyone knows how to use / has ready access to a device allowing them to use webcam-based chat systems. This, and the generally pre-arranged nature of video chat, means that it is difficult to carry out impromptu screening interviews using this technique.
Another potential downside of using video is that it makes things much more difficult for candidates who are technophobic, or simply not 100% up to date with developments in computer hardware. Candidates will also have to consider the speed and reliability of the internet connection they use, to ensure that it won’t show them up on the day.
Whilst this is a great way to weed out candidates who would be unsuitable for technical roles where this type of knowledge would be expected, there are many jobs which simply do not require a candidate to possess much technical prowess in order to excel. The context of the job is therefore important in making this decision.
At the other end of the scale to a video-based screening interview, we have its text-based cousin. Whilst this may seem counterintuitive, for some roles, this could actually be well worth considering.
Yes, it’s true that opting for a text-based screening interview will deny you both audio and visual cues – as well as making the conversation flow differently – but just think about that for a moment. For an organisation that takes discrimination and egalitarianism seriously, this can be a great way to avoid any unconscious bias in terms of accent, dialect, or gender / sexual identity. It’s also a reasonably worthy test of skills such as spelling, grammar, and typing speed – so could be great if you’re looking to fill a role like Copywriter.
As well as losing those all-important audio and visual clues as to how a person might perform in their job, however, a text-based interview does have one major downside. That’s because you will have no real way of knowing whether the candidate you’re screening is actually the person they say they are! It’s not beyond the realms of possibility to imagine a situation where a candidate might have another person stand in for them if they’re nervous about progressing to the next round of an interview, so this is something that you should be aware of.
The ‘live’ screening interview
Another method you could consider for a screening interview is to go ‘live’ – or literally just call the candidate(s) in for a chat. Whilst this is a great way to get the measure of anyone, there is one very critical (and fairly obvious) problem with it at this stage. This is that it pretty much defeats the object of having a screening interview in the first place!
The idea of a screening interview is that it saves time and cost for all parties involved – so calling someone into your office for one is counterintuitive in the extreme. At best, everyone will spend a lot of time doing something that they needn’t have, and at worst you’ll ‘turn off’ potentially good candidates from your organisation by doing this. Our verdict is to keep the ‘live’ interviews for the next stage – when you’ve actually decided that the person in question has a good chance of being right for the job.
How long should a screening interview be?
One thing you definitely need to consider when screening candidates is where you want the time limits of the conversation to lie. Here we’re thinking both long and short. Too short and you’re unlikely to gain much information – whilst the candidate may feel short-changed or even abandoned at the end of it all. Too long, and not only do you defeat the object of a screening interview (we’re supposed to be saving time here), but you also run the risk of making the candidate feel that their time is being wasted. Don’t forget that interviewing is a two-way process, and you’re ‘on trial’ here too!
Although it might seem counterintuitive if you don’t currently carry them out, screening interviews can be a great way to speed up your hiring process. This is because by the time it comes to the ‘proper’ interview in the next round, you’ll already have sorted through the candidates and weeded out many that wouldn’t work for some reason.
We’re not going to prescribe a time that you should stick to, but do remember that this is supposed to be a short, informal conversation. Even if things seem to be going really well and the conversation is flowing, you’d be wise to stick to this self-imposed limit – you don’t want to run out of things to discuss in round two when you meet face-to-face, after all!
How to open the screening interview
Once you’ve determined how you’d like to carry out your screening interview(s), it’s time to start drawing up a list of questions to ask them – and every interviewer will vary here with regard to how much detail they go into when planning. But there’s one thing you should definitely consider before you pick up the phone, mic, or keyboard: how are you actually going to greet the candidate(s) and open the conversation?
This will obviously vary depending on whether the conversation is prearranged or not – and to an extent, the medium it’s being conducted through too. Let’s start with the prearranged interview to keep things simple.
Opening a prearranged screening interview
Given that the candidate already knows who you are and why you’re speaking to them, there’s no reason to spend too much time going over that. Simply mentioning who you are and where you’re calling from should be more than enough here. What you do need to do is to set the tone for the rest of the conversation – and in this regard, we’re fans of the laid-back and casual approach. Equally though, you don’t want to be so relaxed that the interview ends up being a poor example of your company’s culture – or worse – derailed altogether.
Approaches vary here – with some interviewers liking to make small-talk before moving on to more serious questions, whilst others will go with a very quick greeting and then move straight into the conversation itself.
Opening an impromptu screening interview
If the candidate isn’t aware of the interview, and you’re going for the impromptu style we mentioned earlier (which can work very well), then the conversation is going to take a little more introduction. For the purposes of this guide, we’re going to assume that you’re speaking to them on the phone at this point.
In this case, it’s important not only to introduce yourself and your company, but also to check that the candidate has time to speak to you. Be realistic here. If you know that the conversation will take 15 minutes, then don’t ask the candidate if they ‘have a minute’. For all you know, they have nipped into the corridor at work to answer the phone, and probably don’t want their current boss to hear them talking to you. Besides which, being lapse about timekeeping from the off is likely to give a poor impression of your company / professionalism in general.
Given that the candidate doesn’t know they’re about to have an interview, after introducing ourselves, we need to introduce the concept. Possibly the best way to do this is to ask the candidate if they have time to discuss a few things about the job. At this point they’ll either say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – where the screening will either go ahead or not. If the answer is ‘no’, then the only sensible option is to arrange another time and date for the interview to take place.
Do you want to investigate whether they’ve done their due diligence?
This one really depends on whether or not you’d like to know, but given that a lot of employers do care, it’s worth mentioning that you should at least consider including a question to see if the employee scoped out your company before they applied.
As we mention, this is more realistic in some situations than others – as people not currently in employment could conceivably be applying to a lot of jobs at once. Bear in mind it’s quite understandable that a candidate might wait until they’re sure they’ve got an interview before doing any serious intelligence gathering on your operation too – so this is not well suited to the impromptu screening.
For pre-arranged interviews however, this is a perfectly acceptable (and often expected) approach, and most candidates worth their salt will have at least glanced over your website to find out what you’re about. Ways of approaching the subject vary from the direct – e.g. ‘what do you understand about our business?’ or ‘what do you think the most important thing is about what our company does?’, to the more subtle – ‘what sort of contribution do you think you could make to what we do here?’.
One thing to remember if you do decide to go down this route is to make sure that the relevant info is actually available. Generally this would involve checking your company’s website to make sure that the candidate will actually be able to find out the things you will be expecting them to know – unless you’re hiring for a Private Detective of course!
Know what you want to ask, and know how to ask it
The most important thing when preparing to screen a candidate might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people (even grizzled veterans) don’t give it the consideration it deserves. The most important thing you need to know is: what it is you want to know.
We didn’t just drop a tautology par excellence here – we really mean it. The first thing to think about is what you would like to find out about your candidate. Then we can go about developing ways to achieve that goal. Played this way, the game is very simple.
The thing you most want to find out can really be anything, but it’s best to limit it to one concrete deliverable at this stage. Ask yourself what the most important quality for the candidate to have actually is. This might relate to the job role itself, some other professional quality, or even the candidate’s potential fit within your company’s culture.
The key is to find a way to ask the candidate a question that will generate an honest response. Whilst most people won’t consciously lie to you, an interview can be a big deal for many people – and this might encourage them to say things that they don’t really mean.
Recognising passion – the flow state
Perhaps you’re going to be employing an Accounts Assistant, and there’s a specific type of software (e.g. Sage) that you’d like them to be able to use. The obvious way to start is simply to ask if they know how to do it – but if you want to be sure they’re not overstating the truth, then you need to probe a little deeper.
This could be the ideal opportunity to utilise a strength-based interview question of the type that we advocated in our recent interview question design article. The key thing here is that a candidate who’s truly experienced or passionate about using the software should be encouraged to go into a state of ‘flow’ at this point.
You should be able to spot the ‘flow state’ easily enough even remotely once you know what it is. ‘Flow’ describes the state a person enters when they are dealing with their passions – areas where they really perform.
At this point you’re likely to witness the tempo of the candidate’s speech increase as excitement builds, and they begin to delve into the details of why this particular activity makes them tick. They’re also likely to take a bit of a lead on the conversation – so you should be ready to gently take this back! Although enthusiasm is something you should always look out for in any kind of interview, ‘flow’ is one step up from this – and you’ll almost certainly recognise it when you see or hear it.
Screening interview questions to ask every time
Many common errors when carrying out screening interviews involve questions that never get asked – leaving whoever is conducting the next round of interviews to pick up the slack. This isn’t ideal, and undermines the purpose of carrying out a screening in the first place – but fear not. We’ve compiled a list of questions that you shouldn’t forget to ask – or at least consider asking every candidate that you screen for any role:
Although you’ve probably already got an idea of these from the CV, you need to be sure that any which are particularly relevant to the job get checked at this stage. For one thing, there could be a typo clouding your understanding here – or to put a more sinister twist on things, a candidate could be deliberately lying to you. By checking their qualifications verbally, you can circumvent the problem of a potential typo, and gain insight into whether or not a candidate is being truthful (unless they’re an accomplished liar!).
It can also be useful to clear up what is meant by certain qualifications at this point – especially in the case of more obscure / international ones.
Why are you leaving your current role / why did you leave your last job?
Clearly this question is not particularly relevant if you’re interviewing a new graduate, but otherwise it’s generally a good one to ask. There are a number of reasons that someone might be leaving their job – poor management, low pay or dissatisfaction with their role being the main ones. Even with this being the case though, there is a certain etiquette that is generally expected of candidates – namely that they aren’t supposed to be mentioning any dubious treatment or discontent to anyone at their interview. How far you take this is up to you, but for many interviewers, such behaviour is an instant red flag.
Clear up any ‘grey areas’ on the CV
This one is more specific to the candidate in question, but there are a number of common things that you might want to consider here. One thing that might not be fully explained at this point is a change in career path. Whilst this is becoming increasingly common as careers become ever more flexible, you should check that the candidate in question has thought their move through thoroughly and isn’t simply ‘tyre-kicking’ by applying to your vacancy.
Another common thing to clear up at this point are any potential career gaps that the candidate might have on their CV.
Do they have any questions?
One thing you should never forget to ask is this – the ‘question of questions’. By checking if there’s anything the candidate needs to know, not only do you help to put their mind at rest that you’d be an employer who cares, and clear up any queries that they might have – you also get a gauge on how interested they are in working for you. Whilst it’s become somewhat of a clich to ask ‘any questions’ at the end of an interview, there’s still a place for this one in our hearts. Having at least one question prepared at the end of such a conversation is a time-honoured tradition that any good interviewee will be prepared for.
In the case of an impromptu screening interview, this becomes a bit of a grey area. Perhaps if the candidate is currently employed then you can expect them to have done their due diligence and checked out your company / website just in case you call – but if they are currently unemployed, then don’t be so short-sighted as to assume that yours is the only firm they have applied to. An unemployed person is likely to have applied for many jobs out of necessity – but this doesn’t necessarily mean that their interest in your company isn’t genuine. We’d err on the side of making exceptions in this instance.
Making a decision / winding things up
Once you’ve found out everything about the candidate that you feel you need to, then it’s time to draw the conversation to a close – for the sake of both your timekeeping and theirs! But there’s a problem: how do you know whether or not to offer them an interview?
This is likely to depend heavily on a number of factors – although specifically what these are rests on what you feel is important to look for in a candidate to fill this particular job role. Remember earlier where we asked you to think up one concrete indicator of whether or not this candidate is right for the job? That is about to play a large role.
Whenever you’re interviewing, it’s good practice to have a pad of paper and a pen next to you, and one useful technique is to come up with a scoring system for screening interviews. Simply add the numbers up, and any candidate over a certain figure gets through (unless you veto them for some other reason).
Check their notice period and any restrictions on employment
Especially relevant if you need to fill your vacancy at short notice, but worth checking all the same. You should always remember to check the candidate’s notice period with their current employer, as contracts vary.
It’s also worth double-checking that there are no restrictive covenants in place on the candidate that might prevent them from working for you. This is mostly relevant if you represent one of their current employer’s competitors, and should be outlined in their contract of employment.
Offering a further interview (or not)
After you’ve been through all of the above, you should have a much better idea of whether the candidate is suitable for your vacancy. This decision will probably span a number of areas, including their potential fit with the corporate culture, relevant skills and experience, availability, etc., but the time has come to make a decision one way or another. Remember that unless you decide to drop them from the running at this point, you will have opportunity to further check out any concerns in the next stage(s) of the interview process.
Yes, you’d like to invite them for a further interview
If you think the candidate might represent an interesting prospect (i.e. they have passed the screening process), then it’s time to check how available they are to meet up for a face to face interview – the next stage of the process we will be outlining in this series of articles. It’s best to already have a date in mind at this stage so as to be proactive and keep the tempo of the process up. If you also have a backup date in place, then this will also help to make things easier.
No, you don’t think they’d be suitable, so don’t want to offer a further interview
On the other hand, if you don’t think that the candidate is going to be right for the role you’re recruiting for, then there’s no point wasting any more time – for either party. In this case, it’s time to end their interview process. There are a number of ways to do this, and the one you select will largely depend on how you feel about giving out bad news directly to a stranger. Although it’s nice to be honest, equally, you don’t want to hurt the candidate’s feelings – after all, your paths may cross again in the future.
The indirect way to say ‘no’ is to say something along the lines of ‘there are a few people that I need to discuss this with, but we will be in touch if we’d like to take things further’. This needn’t necessarily be a lie, and means that there’s nothing more for you to do unless you decide to offer an interview afterall. One way to make this more friendly is to say that you’ll be in touch ‘either way’ and then send a written communication to the candidate stating that unfortunately their application was not successful this time. This keeps them in the loop, but also avoids you having to give them the bad news directly.
The direct way to do this is of course simply to be honest with the candidate. This can take a lot of nerve, and certainly isn’t for everyone, but you’d be surprised how many people will genuinely appreciate the honest feedback.
Do take care if you follow this approach though. You’d be surprised how quickly a statement as simple as something like ‘thank you for your time, but I don’t think you’re quite right for the position’ could devolve into an argument. This could be especially bad if you end up saying something ‘off the cuff’ which could land you or your employer in legal hot water. Giving negative feedback directly to someone you don’t know is a skill that’s best avoided unless you’re sure you’re absolutely sure you can handle it.
Putting it all together / the next step
Hopefully after reading this article you either have a much better idea of how to conduct a screening interview, or you’ve refreshed your skills, and perhaps managed to pick up a few new tips. The key to success is to keep on learning, afterall!
Very soon we’re going to be publishing the second part of this article series too – which is going to look at face-to-face interview techniques, and how you can leverage this type of meeting for the maximum benefit – so don’t forget to follow us on social media to stay up to date.