why I am losing at interview phone tag?

A reader writes:

I wondered if perhaps you could shed some light on a situation that I’ve just encountered for the second time since I got laid off last October.

I received a call late Tuesday afternoon and was not somewhere that it was convenient for me to take a professional phone call. The caller left a message that she was from company X, had received my resume for position Y, and wanted to schedule an interview with me. I returned the call first thing Wednesday morning (I wasn’t in a good spot to return the call until very late Tuesday evening), and was sent to the woman’s voicemail, where I left a message saying who I was, that I was returning her call, expressing interest in the position, and how to get in touch with me. I tried again Wednesday afternoon with the same result.

Thursday I did a little more research and discovered that the person I was trying to reach is actually the HR person (among other things), and the poor person who kept having to put me through to her voicemail is the secretary. I still hadn’t heard back by Thursday afternoon, so I called again. I got the secretary (big surprise) who told me she was on the phone and I could leave a voicemail. I explained the situation to the secretary, emphasizing that the other person had called me first to set up the interview, and the secretary apologized but said there really wasn’t anything she could do but put me through to voicemail, so I left yet another message. Now it’s Monday evening, and I still haven’t heard back from the woman. I’m probably going to try one more time tomorrow, but then I’m just going to write the whole thing off.

I just don’t understand why someone would do this…even if there’s something in the voicemail I left that made her decide she wasn’t interested she could at least send me an email. Even if she’s not comfortable telling me whatever pushed the wrong buttons with her, just tell me the position’s filled, or put on hold, or whatever. I guess my question is, how often and how many times should I try to get in touch to schedule this interview? Also, do you think it would be worth it to try to circumvent the HR person and email the head of Marketing directly (the position is in the Marketing department)?

Thanks for any light you can shed, and even if you can’t, I still love your blog.

Here’s what I suspect is happening: The HR person has way more qualified candidates than she can interview, and lots of demands on her time. So she’s interested in you, but when she doesn’t reach you immediately, she’s moving on to calling other candidates, and once she reaches enough good candidates, she stops. And probably moves on to the other positions she has to fill or whatever other work is on her plate.

I’m in a similar situation right now myself: I’m being inundated by really great candidates. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and it’s clearly a reflection of the current job market. I have a limited number of interview slots, and once I’ve filled those slots, more good candidates keep coming in. I’d love to talk to all of them, but the reality is that there are only so many hours in the day and a ton of other demands on my time. So there are good candidates who I’m not even able to speak with, just because my time is already booked up with other good candidates. This makes me nervous because I don’t want to miss out on great candidates who might be even better than the other great candidates. But I’m in triage mode.

Of course, I’m emailing them all and not leaving them hanging — and it’s really rude to not get back to you once they’ve already reached out to you — but I’m pretty sure this is what’s happening to you. You were clearly a strong enough candidate to get their interest — but there’s this constant ocean of strong candidates streaming by, and the reality is that their goal is just to get the position filled with someone great, not to give everyone a full and fair hearing.

So what can you do about this? Well, silly as it sounds, do whatever you can to take the calls when you get them — don’t put it off for later, given that this is going on. You could also email the hiring manager directly, but there’s a good chance that the HR person is just going to tell her that they’re up to their ears in good candidates as it is. (But doing so shouldn’t hurt you, so you might as well give it a shot.)

Any ideas from anyone else?

{ 15 comments… read them below }

  1. Evil HR Lady*

    I think you are right. Annoying behavior. What is more annoying is that the receptionist couldn't tell the person what was going on. Why have a receptionist?

  2. Kerry*

    Well, first off, the HR person is an idiot. She should be emailing the candidates, not calling them. When you call 20 candidates, you spend the next week on unnecessarily long phone calls, cleaning out your voice mail, and generally wasting way more time than you needed to. There's the length of time she took to leave you the initial message, the length of time it look to listen to your voice mails, and the length of time it takes to actually talk to you live (if that ever happens). Multiply that times a large number of candidates, and the Wednesday-to-Monday timeframe might just mean she's behind on phone calls (especially if she had meetings scheduled in there anytime…I used to spend 90% of my time in meetings).

    So she could just be behind on calling you back, or she could be ducking you.

    I would call one more time, and ask the receptionist for her email address. Then I'd email her, explaining that you thought you'd try and get in touch with her this way rather than playing phone tag. Make sure you don't sound annoyed. This way, she can reply off-hours and either blow you off or get you scheduled. It doesn't always work, but it's worth a shot if you need a job.

    Also, make sure you're not leaving these voice mail messages from a cellphone. Not everyone has perfect hearing, and cellphone messages can be fuzzy. I've had lots of people leave me messages that I couldn't understand even after repeated attempts. Those people never got return calls from me, because I couldn't understand who was calling or what their phone number was. Use a landline for job hunting.

  3. Anonymous*

    Everyone always says to use a landline for job hunting, but that isn't always possible for people. I don't have a landline in my house and I won't use the landlines at work to take job searching phone calls as that is in poor taste. Are cell phones really that horrible to use?

  4. Ask a Manager*

    Anonymous, I've been wondering about this very problem, because yes, cell phones really can be bad to use on phone interviews, but at the same time, there are a lot of people who really don't seem to have access to land lines anymore, and I'm not sure what to tell them to do.

    Cell phones can be a real pain in the ass though — I sometimes have to strain to hear the caller, we get cut off, etc. You don't want to be a pain when you're interviewing, and sometimes a cell phone can make you so.

  5. Valerie*

    If you don't have a landline, often the career resource centres in your city will have dedicated 'phone booths' that you can use, at least for calling out. (I know that in Canada, these are funded by EI and free for jobseekers – I don't know about the States.)

  6. Kerry*

    That's one reason it's a good idea to have a landline at your house (or have a friend with a landline, or something). If I can't understand what you're saying, I can't hire you.

  7. class-factotum*

    Anon, yes, cellphones are that much a pain in the neck. I work for a friend in San Francisco and he'll leave me messages from his cellphone. They are almost always garbled. (Part of it is he makes his calls while he is walking to BART.) I only know to call him back because I saw that he called, not because I understand the message.

  8. Anonymous*

    It's one thing to expect a person to be sitting by the phone when an interview is scheduled, but it's entirely another to expect a person to be constantly available to answer job-related phone calls at all possible hours. If I'm unemployed and I have no interviews scheduled, you bet your biscuits I'm going to the grocery store during office hours, when the lines are shorter.

    I feel like if the HR person had no real intention of scheduling an interview with the jobseeker, leaving a message saying "I'd like to schedule an interview with you" is a bit disingenuous. If her message indicated she wanted the jobseeker to get back to her, she should have been prepared for the jobseeker to attempt to get back to her. She presumably had several options at her disposal that do not include playing hard-to-get through her receptionist.

  9. Laura Y.*

    Hi — I'm the one who asked the original question. Thanks for the quick response, AAM (and everyone else!). After reading your response, I tried back one more time this morning. The receptionist (who sounds very sympathetic — I must not be the only one in this boat) told me that the HR person won't be in until the afternoon, so I left yet another voicemail. I said I understood that her interview slots might be already filled at this point, but that I'm still very interested in the position and believe I'm a great fit, so would really appreciate it if she would keep me in mind. I left my email address as well as my voice number and was careful not to sound annoyed with her for not getting back to me (I am using a land line to make all my job-hunt related calls).

    I'm kind of wondering at this point if I even want to work for this company, and frankly, if it wasn't a position that will be attached to a specific client I'm very interested in, I'd have given up long ago. I'll update if I hear anything else from these folks. Thanks again to everyone for all the advice.

  10. Charles*

    To add my two-cents worth to the landline vs cell phone discussion here are some thoughts;

    1. Yes, as so many here have said cell phones are not always good for phone interviews. Even if you think that you have a good connection, the person on the other end may not hear you well. Even if you are not moving, the cell tower that has given you a good connection may get overload and suddenly your call is switched to another tower with a worse connection. Yes, it happens!

    2. Without a landline you may have trouble applying for unemployment from home as many unemployment offices (here in the states) do not always accepted calls from cell phones. You will have to go to the unemployment office to use their courtesy phones. This kind of defeats the whole purpose of being able to call in unemployment claims, doesn't it?

    3. Lastly, but most importantly, I guess many of those without landlines today are either too young or they were not in the Greater New York area on September 11, 2001. Most cell phones in the Greater NYC area did NOT work that day. This was due to the destruction of the cell towers on the World Trade Center and that the whole system was overloaded.

    I have kept my landline for this very last reason – you never know when it might be needed the most.

  11. Anonymous*

    I don't think a cell phone if the applicant uses some common sense and calls in a quiet area. There's nothing more annoying than trying to talk over traffic or a bus driving by. I'll sat in my parked car(sometimes for up to 30 minutes) on a phone interviews. I prefer to do this, with my resume and other documents in front of me, rather than driving through a dead zone or near a busy intersection (it isn't the best for concentration either, how great of an interviewee are you going to be if you are trying to avoid the big rig dumping onions on the road?). I've gotten several jobs from my cell phone using the parked car strategy…it may sound a little nuts but it works!

  12. Anonymous*

    I had the same experience just a couple of days ago. I submitted for a job and I got a call from their HR. I returned the phone call within 30 minutes, with no luck. I called the next day and the following day. I think 3 tries were enough, obviously they found someone else within 30 minutes.

  13. Anonymous*

    Since they reached out to you… it would be out of respect and courtesy that they contact you again. If a company cannot even hire HR people who can return calls, do you really want to work for such a company? I'd say move on and take your skills and talents were they will be appreciated and you'll be treated with respect

  14. Anonymous*

    And for the love of all that is holy, if you happen to get the HR / Recruiter on the phone, don't apologize for playing phone tag. It is not phone tag when you call 20 times after I call only once.

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