why do you sound surprised when I call you for our scheduled phone interview?

There’s a weird behavior going around, and I have to say, I think I’ve only seen it in people under 30.

We have a specific time scheduled for a phone interview. I call you at that exact time, precisely on the dot because I’m neurotic that way.

You answer after quite a few rings and sound like you’re genuinely curious to hear who might be on the other end.

I identify myself and you say something like “Oh … hi” with a distinct tone in your voice that really sounds like you weren’t fully prepared to hear me on the other end of the phone.

More experienced candidates don’t do this. Good interview or bad, they generally at least sound prepared from the minute they answer the phone.

Why are younger candidates doing this? It’s as if they think it’s some kind of charade where we pretend I just happen to be calling them unexpectedly. And it is very strange.

{ 42 comments… read them below }

  1. DrJohnDrozdal*

    I have heard about this pattern of behavior from some of my clients. Given that there is a significant amount of blogging going on about over-generalizing about the characteristics of a given generation – particularly about Millennials – I offer the following explanation with caution.

    Among people who spend a great deal of time observing and studying the behaviors of generations in general, and Millennials (the under 30 crowd) more specifically, there is a tendency for twentysomethings to lack good time management skills. Without parents or schools to remind them about when and where they need to be or what they should be doing, some under thirty individuals end up not being very self-aware on how to manage their time effectively – and that means being prepared for the telephone interview when it was scheduled.

    A very common problem that Gen X and Boomer managers report to me is the pattern of behavior among twenty-somethings of missing deadlines and either missing or being late for appointments. What is extremely interesting is when these managers confront the offending employee about the importance of hitting deadlines and being on time and prepared for meetings, the twenty-something will get very defensive and deny that there is a problem.

    Again, I do not want to over-generalize, but a pattern of behavior among a certain demographic is still a pattern of behavior.

  2. Ron*

    They are clueless, because they haven't had the right examples and mentoring to know how to act otherwise.

  3. Anonymous*

    Can I ask how the subsequent interviews went in these cases? Did it seem like they had completely forgotten but were still interested, did they have a slow sinking realization that they were indeed applying for a job, or some other reaction altogether? I think it's one thing to have let it slipped your mind and catch you off-guard, but it's quite another to act as though they have no idea why you're calling.

    When I have phone interview calls, I usually answer "Hello?" and then something like, "Yes, hi! How are you?/I was expecting your call." Is that the right way to go?

  4. Tracy Tran*

    As a Gen Yer, I think it's that new voice that gets them and in an instant, they're stunned.

    From also the last comment mention, the Gen Yers have the social skills, but can't translate it to personal/business skills. I think for some, technology has taken over their lives and too much.

  5. The HR Store*

    Could it just be a case of interview anxiety? Not having enough information on ways to handle a phone interview could be another one (maybe an idea for a post).

    Whatever the reasons, it shouldn't stop candidates from going out there and learning from experienced folks.

  6. Coral*

    It's kind of painful to see the "under 30 crowd" being generalized in this way (I refer to the comments more than the original post). Technology has not made us unable to communicate, or to pay attention for long periods of time, any more than it has done the same for the "over 30 crowd." Nor are we so much worse at time management. I've worked with a fair number of people, both older and younger than 30, and both are terrible at paying attention in meetings, at being on time for meetings, and at attending all of the meetings they commit to attending. Neither can be trusted with an open laptop, if the goal is to discuss something and come to a decision–they will try to multitask. Maybe this varies by profession, but it does not vary by age.

    I probably do that weird thing the original post describes. I'm not actually surprised. I'm a little shy, and, to some extent, I don't want to sound like I've been sitting by my phone, alternately staring at it and going over my notes, for the past 20 minutes, even though I have. Sometimes, I'm really just pleased to talk to the person and relieved that they sound so friendly. Sometimes, I'm worried that some idiot car salesman or one of my friends will call and take up the line, and I'm relieved that that's not what's happening.

    There are lots of reasons. None of them have to do with stupidity or "generational issues."

    1. Laurie*

      Nice response. It’s true. I don’t think I’ve answered the phone sounding surprised that the interviewer called at the scheduled time, but your description about not wanting to sound like I’ve been staring at my phone and my notes is definitely true. Maybe that ends up coming across like, “uhhh.. you actually called?! are you for real? wow”.

  7. Anonymous*

    I am a Millennial (27) and have worked really hard to overcome many of the often accurate generalizations about my generation. I think that part of the issue is the mentoring/training many of us received (or didn't).

    Our parents were Boomers – the hard working, career focused, financially successful group that wanted to provide everything for their family. Unfortunately I think that parents often fell short in that they provided *too* much. Many kids my age skated through high school and college with nary a job on their resume, and unless you get lucky, they don't teach professionalism in college.

    I worked throughout college – jobs I found on my own, not because Daddy had a connection. They weren't glamorous jobs, and included retail, a call center, and various admin positions. I took classes where I learned to write a resume and conduct an effective interview. I was young and inexperienced, and my employers knew it, but they gave me the chance and helped me grow. Once I hit the "real" world post-grad, I knew how to stay organized, keep a schedule, and interact on a professional level in an office environment. Most of my peers were different. They may have done an internship the summer before senior year…maybe.

    I think that the Millennials missed out on the training that generations before ours received. That "training" included a parenting style that forced kids to get off the couch and set up a lemonade stand, babysit, mow lawns, or get other such jobs that required commitment and follow through. Those kids learned the value of hard work and money before they were 22 with a shiny new degree in their hands.

    To the experienced hiring managers out there: I urge you to take a Millennial under your wing and develop them into the professional they are capable of being. We have the knowledge, drive and education, but we aren't always prepared to use them effectively.

  8. John-Lee H*

    D�j� vu. I think I have read almost this exact post and corresponding comments on several blogs, including this one. It seems like we are writing the same arguments over and over again, using slightly different examples.

    Any truly interesting comparison would consist of more than simple rantings and anecdotal evidence. It may be that any usefulness there was in having informal and anecdotal discussions on generational behavior is quickly disappearing. The first signs are that the subject is becoming tired and boring.

    We must remember that these discussions are not a new phenomenon though, and I'm sure it will not end here. Even the "Millennials" will be having these same conversations when they are older. This is because, believe it or not, as they mature, they will not be that much different from current boomers.

    I leave you with a classic song written for a musical first put on in 1960. That was around the time the boomers were growing up (or had just finished depending on your definition).

  9. HRD*

    Woah….analysis paralysis!

    It's about answering the phone….or did I misread the original question?

    Surely its just different approaches to the formality of a phone call because of the availability and constant use of phones?

    Call me a traditionalist, but I don't think its a deep psychological trait…and remember generation Y doesn't exist….its made up to provide consultants with something to sell….

  10. Kerry*

    It could be that your caller ID is unclear on who you are. Sometimes that gets goofed up. When my husband calls me from work (at a very large hospital, not a tiny little hole in the wall), it comes up as:


    For the first month he worked there, I thought it was a telemarketer, so I didn't answer the phone at all.

  11. Rebecca*

    I thought it was because all of us under 30 deliberately caused ourselves to have no decorum, skills, or common sense.

  12. Ask a Manager*

    I don't know that it's something about Millenials; I think it may just be something about youth in general and I wouldn't be surprised if my generation did this when we were recent grads too. On the other hand, I suppose you could theorize that maybe Millenials are less comfortable with the phone because they rely more on texting, etc., so it's leading to what I described. But I really have no theory; it's just something I'm observing and thought it would be interesting to share (except to John-Lee H).

  13. John-Lee H*

    Hi AAM,

    I just reread my comment, and thought I might have come across as a little crass. I am sorry about that.

    I just wanted to say quickly thank you for the blog. I read it on a regular basis, and I think your advice is right on the money. The service and help you provide is extremely valuable.

    Thanks again for everything!

  14. Anonymous*

    Maybe they are trying to sound enthusiastic and you're mistaking enthusiasm for surprise….

  15. Just Another HR Lady*

    LOL…this has happened to me before, to the point where I even have to say "I'm calling for our scheduled telephone interview, do you have the time to talk now"? Seems a silly question, but they sound so perplexed when I call!

  16. Anonymous*

    Another possible theory is that Gen Y (or any entry level candidate, for that matter) is used to being let down, and so they don't hype themselves up for anything that isn't going to happen for certain. Just a thought, but we're so used to "groupwork" where a team player bows out and leaves us stranded at the last minute that it's also possible that I expect to be abandoned the same way by anyone else when I don't have something that person specifically needs. How many times have I asked young coworkers to help me out on a project and then have an entire team of them not show up as scheduled? I can barely get people to commit to showing up at my birthday party. Stood up for job interviews? I cannot tell you how many interviewers have forgotten about appointments, how many informational interviews were rescheduled at the last minute, and how many times "I'll give you a call" just doesn't happen. I went on an interview just last week where the manager I was interviewing with double-booked, so she parked me in some partner's office for him to do the interview. I only met her to discuss how late she was running before she dashed off. A majority of my interviews I spend preparing for the crisis–either I am not authorized to enter the building, they thought I was coming in to fill a different position, or they weren't expecting me at all–"completely forgot." I sometimes feel like I should put on my resume "handles logistical interviewing errors gracefully" as one of my major accomplishments. Sadly, not everyone out there is Ask a Manager:)

    So, it's a possibility these candidates feel the same way about phone interviews–shock that someone followed through. Now I'm not saying that it's an excuse to underprepare for an interview, but it's a thought as to why one might sound surprised. Seems only calls I get are to reschedule:)

  17. class-factotum*

    And do they, like, say, like, Yeah! Dude! Like, is this, like, our interview?

    OK. I am taking a sample size of like, one, but it is a sample size of an otherwise intelligent, educated, professional young woman who is aware of her overuse of "like."

    She said, "And there was, like, a fountain in the urinal."

    I asked, "Was there 'like' a fountain or was there a fountain in the urinal?"

    She answered, "There was a fountain. I say 'like' a lot."

    I thought, "If you know you say it a lot, then why don't you cut it out? You sound like an idiot."


  18. Anonymous*

    The only time I've been surprised is when someone from HR (or sometimes a recruiter) cold calls me for a job I applied for, and then expects me to drop anchor to do a phone screen interview on the spot.

    Generally speaking, if I expect someone to call me, then I don't have any surprise because I know when they're calling.

    Perhaps it's not so much the "under 30" crowd, but more about how each generation handles communication. They typically text and don't really use enough of their personal and social skills to their best advantage.

  19. LW*

    I agree more with Coral than DrJohnDrozdal. Any "Millenial' or Gen XYZer who really wants a job will know exactly when that call will take place and be prepared. But, at an age where us young'ns don't have as much (if any) experience, we're trying to play it cool. Hunting for jobs can feel a lot like dating, and we don't want to be the overeager date that seems like they're sitting by the phone, waiting for your call … even though we are.

  20. Joselle*

    When I read this, I thought of exactly what LW said. Job hunting feels dating and you don't want to seem too desperate for the job or the date. As you get older, you realize you can only be yourself and not play games. So, you don't sound surprised.

    I think most of these younger candidates you speak of are probably just nervous. I wouldn't make too much of it, especially if the interview itself goes well.

    I'm 29. I'm sorta half X/half Y. I had a scheduled phone interview with an older, GenXer and, as I waited by the phone, all set to roll, I realized she wasn't going to call. I worried that perhaps I was supposed to call. So, when I called the office, I was surprised to find out the interviewer wasn't even in. Later, when I checked my email, I realized she'd sent a very short email to cancel about an hour before we were due to talk. I thought that was incredibly rude. She should have called to cancel on such short notice.

    Anyways, we did eventually talk, I came in for an interview and was offered the job but the whole office was full of nutters and incompetents so I passed on the offer. In fact, I found this blog when looking for ways to handle them asking for a reference from a current employer and realized they had no regard for my current situation. So, thanks for that tip!.

    Point is, cluelessness, rudeness, and yes, nerves, comes in all generational forms.

  21. The Office Newb*

    Nothing beats the time I called the hiring manager for a scheduled phone interview, and he was surprised to hear from me!

  22. Productivity Guy*

    As a Gen Yer, I don't think a lot of the stereotypes mentioned in these comments are true, at least not in a broad sense. But I remember back a few years to my first phone interviews; I was "prepared" to answer the call but not answer the questions on the phone. If someone's new to the job hunting game (especially if they just graduated from college), I don't think it's that unreasonable for them to be caught off guard – I had no idea what a phone interview was going to be like, and I massacred myself on the first one.

    That being said, to be surprised when you receive a call at a certain time that you're expecting – that's a bit odd. Again, though, partially it's just a matter of growing up in the age of CallerID. If we don't recognize the number, I think we resort to the "better be safe than sorry" awkward "Hello, who the hell is this?" response.

  23. Justin*

    The dating analogy is most apt, you don't want to be too eager or come across as hyper and aggressive. Also, from my experience we young job hunters are so overwhelmed by information about how to go about the job seeking process (with conflicting opinions from various sources) that blank stares and "umm..hello?"'s are are an unintended by product of today's discerning and competitive employment environment.

  24. MeredithElaine*

    I don't get it. You have a call SCHEDULED for a certain time. Wouldn't you actually EXPECT it at that time, and be ready and prepared?

    It's one thing if you're calling a candidate randomly in response to a resume they sent. That can be unexpected (although, really, try to answer the phone sounding at least like you are somewhat awake). But if you've gotten past that point, and have set up a more in-depth phone interview…I would pretty much bank on the fact it's going to happen.

    If someone tells me, "OK, we'll have so-and-so call you at 3pm on Thursday," I've got the phone next to me waiting. I'm probably watching TV, or online, or otherwise occupied, but I have my phone and I'm ready to switch gears into interview mode.

    I'm 34, but I was always this way. And I didn't have a lot of work/interview experience fresh out of college – just filing in a small office where my mom worked, and 2 retail jobs. No internships or anything like that.

  25. Ask a Manager*

    For you guys saying you don't want to sound desperate or over-eager: That's fine, don't sound desperate. But sounding like you weren't expecting the call? That makes you look disorganized or barely engaged in the job prospect — both NOT traits an employer wants.

  26. Ask a Manager*

    Also, for Anonymous way up above who asked this: When I have phone interview calls, I usually answer "Hello?" and then something like, "Yes, hi! How are you?/I was expecting your call." Is that the right way to go?

    I think that's fine — or "thanks so much for calling" or "I've been looking forward to talking" or anything that doesn't sound like you were just taken completely off guard!

  27. Anonymous*

    So I�m curious, AAM. How would you like candidates to say �hello?� And exactly how many rings should I wait before answering your call? I�m dying to know since, apparently, these are the important things hiring managers look for these days.

  28. Ask a Manager*

    Oh, come on. I pointed out something objectively odd — people who sound surprised and confused when they get a scheduled phone call at the time they're supposed to get it. You're making it into something way bigger than it is.

    And if your comment is in response to my advice to Anonymous who asked a very specific question, well, tough shit. I answer people's questions. Horrors!

  29. Erica*

    This is insane. I don't care what age or generation you belong to – we all know how to use a phone. This is just a case of being incompetent or woefully unprepared for an interview. Not exactly an age-specific problem.

  30. Marisa*

    I think this is a generational thing, but not for the same reasons as many of the people posting here. Speaking as a Gen Y who's had phone interviews, I probably made the same mistake that AAM is referencing. I was prepared and excited and everything else, but I'd never heard/seen how you answer a phone at a pre-determined time.

    Growing up with email and cell phones didn't leave a whole lot of room for parents/bosses to model this behavior, so we (Gen Y) don't have a built-in template or auto-response. We don't know to say, "Thanks for calling, I was looking forward to chatting today" unless we hear it and/or until we've gone through the situation a couple of times. I don't think it's a lack of planning or interest, I think it's a normal (at least understandable) response to a situation for which we don't have a script.

  31. Mervino*

    As a recruiter I am often having phone interviews with people who are either unable to get to my office or who I need to screen, and like you I invariably find them unprepared, surprised, or they just drop the call and ring me back at another time.

    I have often asked why they were unprepared/unready and the usual answers that they give are:

    – have forgotten
    – were somewhere were it was difficult to speak
    – thought I was someone else
    – had bad reception

    Interestingly, no-one was particularly apologetic and, being an agent, no-one seemed to think that they had given a bad impression.

    I think that part of the problem lies in the medium…the cellphone. To all of them it is an extension of themselves, it is the major way that they communicate and therefore becomes very personal. I think that a lot of them agree to phone interviews but don't really want to do them – it's like an invasion of the personal privacy! Cellphone communications tend to be either short or by text and people do not feel comfortable imparting the amount of detail needed for a proper phone interview.

  32. Charles*

    May I chime in with my dime's worth on this issue? (get it? "chime" like "ring" and dime's worth – what a call from a pay phone used to cost. Okay – bad jokes and I'm showing my age!)

    I don't think this is a generational issue or even an age thing. It has to do with their upbringing.

    It is just a lack of good manners. To those commenters who have said "we don't have a template on how to deal with this" or "no one ever taught us" I can only say – What?! No one ever taught you how to say thank you? or taught you how to be prepared for something? Does mommy still tie your shoes? (okay that last comment was rude – sorry)

    Actually, AAM, this might be related to something that I have noticed through all my years (okay, it really is decades – but let's not go there!) of teaching and training. I can often tell when someone in one of my classes grew up watching a lot of television and did not spend a lot of his/her formative years interacting with others.

    Many people who spent a lot of time interacting with others give me "clues" when I am teaching them such as nodding their heads when they understand something or frowning when they don't. Perhaps, a subconcious shugging of their shoulders, or any sort of body language clues. Folks who watched, in my opinion, too much television don't do any of this.

    It has taken me several years to stop from asking if they understand (I don't want to marginalize anyone in class) when they sit there with just a "dumbstruck" look on their faces. I do believe it is because they did NOT have to interact with the television; so they never properly learned how to interact with others.

    So, maybe AAM, what you are experiencing is something along these lines. I don't think it is a generational, or even age, thing. I think you may have just recently had a bunch of folks who didn't learn how to interact with other people properly.

  33. TheLabRat*

    I'm over 30 but just barely. But I feel somewhat qualified to answer this anyway. Honestly, I've never had a phone interviewer call at the appropriated time. It's always an hour late or early if not a whole day late. I would be shocked to get a call from a phone interviewer on time. Seriously shocked.

  34. Anonymous*

    This happens for a few reasons, but I will put a lot of the blame on older generations. Interviewers feel like they can treat candidates however they want right now, so don't be surprised if we are surprised that you actually called. As far as millenials (I'm 22) we are able to communicate better than the previous generations by far. Who do you think was using social networking websites to communicate globally before mom/dad/grandma learned how? Everyone says our generation is clueless yet the older generations let the economy,enron, Iraq, national debt, social security, oil spill, (insert catosphrophe here) happen.

  35. Ask a Manager*

    Uh, anonymous, just because some employers treat candidates badly doesn't mean you should assume that all should and thus not prepare for the phone interview.

  36. Penelope*

    Just because I know you are calling and recognize your number doesn’t mean I won’t answer with “Hello?” It would be odd to pickup and say, “Hi Jim, so glad you called” just because I have caller id.

    After the initial hello and your introduction, I will go into the thanks for calling/looking forward to your call bit.

      1. Anonymous*

        My .02:

        A little late to respond here, but I found this one pretty interesting.

        Whenever I am expecting a business call, and when a call is transferred to me at the office, I simply answer and say “This is (first name)” in a cheerful tone. This is the only way I have seen others answer the phone in a business setting. I don’t really like the sound of “Hello”. How many businesses answer the phone and just say hello? Just a personal preference. *shrug* Maybe I’m a little conservative here. I’m not saying it would count as a major strike against my hypothetical interviewee, but I don’t think it’s the way to go either.

        Also, while I agree with most of the “job searching is like dating” advice, I think it’s being taken a bit too far here by those who say that they don’t want to sound like they’ve been waiting by the phone for the call. You SHOULD be waiting by the phone for this call! It’s not quite the same as a love interest calling you–the interviewer wants to know that you’ve been preparing for this interview (IMHO). It’s a scheduled, important phone call. I don’t think it’s a good idea to try to sound casual. I think it’s a happy medium that you also have to find for in-person interviews: you don’t want to show up 30 minutes early and pester the receptionist, but you’re not going to come in fashionably late and try to hide your enthusiasm about the job. you’re going to show up on time, be enthusiastic when you greet your interviewer, and make it clear that you’re happy to be there.

  37. Vivian*

    I am very interested in what sort of answer you think would be appropriate. I’ve never had a phone interview before– I hear they are becoming more common, but when I was last searching for a job in-person interviews were expected even for low-level professional jobs, at least in Indiana. I have one next week, and I do not intend to be surprised when they call. I wouldn’t be reading Ask a Manager several days in advance if I did. So how do I ensure that I do not sound surprised?

    Honestly, I agree with Marisa above, who said that younger people, of which I am *almost* one, simply don’t have a template for how to answer the phone in such situations. I can be polite and courteous on telephone calls in the course of business, but… is there something specific one is supposed to do in these cases? Is “good afternoon, _______ speaking,” insufficient?

    This may seem like a silly question. But I was once told I got a job because I spelled the name of an employee who was not actually the interviewer correctly in my thank-you note, when it was an uncommon spelling. I’m a little twitchy about getting these things as close to textbook-perfect as I can, considering This Economy (TM).

    (No, I don’t expect you to see this and get back by next week. But your recommendations might be very helpful for both myself and others in the future. Thanks!)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Just answer normally. The problem I was writing about is people who sound surprised and like they weren’t expecting the call — as long as you are, you shouldn’t end up sounding that way.

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