a day of phone interviews – experience it for yourself!

Today I did a slew of phone interviews for an open position and thought you guys might find it interesting to peek into the hiring process from the employer’s side. This is pretty typical of how a day of phone interviews go.

The position I’m hiring for is an entry-level job, doing administrative work that isn’t the most glamorous but which requires a high level of attention to detail and organization. It doesn’t require related experience, although that’s helpful; more important are “soft skills” like meticulousness and work ethic.1. The first guy doesn’t seem to know what the job entails, despite the job description being easily accessible online. (These were scheduled phone interviews, so he had time to prepare — just didn’t.) He’s a “no.”

2. The second candidate is promising, but when I tell him how quickly we’re moving to fill the position, he mentions that he is in the running for other positions and not sure how fast they’re moving (and this is a low-paying, entry-level job, so it’s unsurprising that he’d prefer something else if he can get it). I explain that the reason we’re moving so quickly is that we want someone hired while the previous person who filled the position is still there, so she can train the new person. If we hire him and then he takes a better offer a few weeks later, we’d be stuck without the predecessor around to train the next person. He’s honest enough to say he’d be worried that would happen, and we agree that he’ll withdraw his candidacy for this job but that I’ll contact him in the future if I have something that might be a better fit. And I will — he showed integrity by being honest and looking out for our welfare, not just his own.

3. This candidate is promising. Clear, to-the-point answers, able to describe in a compelling and intelligent way why this admittedly unglamorous job appeals to her, and talks about other detail-oriented work that she’s done well at.

Also, one thing that’s notable about interviewing for entry-level jobs is how few candidates have any questions of their own to ask. This doesn’t surprise me too much — knowing what questions you should ask often comes from experience in the workplace, and most of these candidates don’t have a ton of workplace experience. But when someone does have good questions (meaning not just “what are the hours?”), it stands out. This candidate asks insightful questions about the work and what we’re looking for and generally seems genuinely thoughtful.

I schedule her for an in-person interview.

4. Things start well, but it turns out that she isn’t available until about a month after I need someone to start, so we abort the conversation.

5. Candidate #5 impresses me right away with clear, succinct answers about why she’s interested in the position and her understanding of what it entails. But when I ask her what kind of feedback she’s received at jobs in the past, she tells me that doesn’t work well independently and prefers to be part of a group and that she’s been told she needs to socialize less on the job. My heart breaks slightly.

6. Candidate #6 is overqualified for the job (has a law degree, among other overqualifications), but he convincingly explains why he wants the job anyway. Often with overqualified candidates, my concern is that they’re deluding themselves about what the job really entails, but this guy speaks in clear and accurate terms about the work he’d be doing; there are no blinders on there, and he addresses my concerns head-on. I’m moving him on to an interview.

7. Candidate #7 has a decent amount of relevant experience, but his phone manner is casual to the point of being unprofessional, which alarms me. This is an entry-level job so it’s not automatically prohibitive, as it would be with a higher level job, but it’s a big enough strike against him that he’ll be a back-up candidate, only interviewed if none of the other candidates work out.

So there you have it — seven phone interviews. Anything surprising here, or is this pretty much what anyone would figure it would be like?

{ 34 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    What made you contact the overqualified candidate for a phone interview? Why didn't you immediately move his application/resume to the "no" pile based on being vastly overqualified?

  2. Ask a Manager*

    Ah, good question! He addressed it head-on in his cover letter (actually, very similar to what I recommend here) and made a convincing case, so he had already lowered my skepticism.

  3. Anonymous*

    Can you further explain Candidate #7's casual phone manner that gave you a red flag? If I'm ever phone interviewed, I don't want to (unknowingly) make the same mistake.

  4. Ask a Manager*

    #5 does get points for being honest … but not an interview, because those two traits are really at odds with the needs of this position. I would much rather turn someone down at this stage than have to fire them later, or have them struggle in the job.

    This is so tricky, because I don't want to encourage people to lie, and I'm constantly writing about how important it is to show who you really are in an interview, so that you end up in a job that's a great fit for you, rather than one you struggle in. But I know that human nature is to read something like this and draw the lesson that #5 shouldn't have been so honest. And I understand why, but I think it's short-sighted … but I also understand that people don't always feel they have the luxury of waiting until the "right" job for them comes along. Agggghhhh.

    But I do sometimes hire for jobs that require working in groups and being really outgoing and social. And she could be great for that.

  5. Ask a Manager*

    #7's casual phone manner: Picture a really, really, really relaxed tone, like you're talking to your best friend after you just woke up, possibly with a hangover, while you're simultaneously watching TV and eating doritos, and not really caring too much about the conversation. Include some slang.

    When people tell you to dress up for a phone interview and to stand while you're on the phone because it will affect your manner, this is what they're trying to get you to avoid.

  6. Anonymous*

    If I may post an overeager recent grad question about this post…

    What makes a candidate stand out enough to even BE interviewed for "soft skills" jobs? How did these seven stand out amongst the (undoubtedly, quite a few) applications that you received? I understand the process that is involved with standing out for non entry-level positions, or ones that require very specific skills, but it's the fluffier stuff I seem to not understand.

  7. Anonymous*

    Just what do you consider being "overqualified" for a position like this? I ask because I am a recent graduate with a bachelor's degree and six months part-time experience in finance. So, technically, no, I don't think an administrative position is exactly the next logical step based on my qualifications… that is, if we were in a normal economy. What do hiring managers think of the newly minted grads who stoop to apply for positions like this?

  8. Ben Eubanks*

    Hey, Alison! Can you elaborate on #7 just a little bit? What were they doing that was too casual? Burping in your ear? ;-) Seriously, I'm curious.


    Ben Eubanks

  9. Ask a Manager*

    @ Anonymous at 12:50 AM: Great question re: what makes a candidate stand out for "soft skills" jobs! Things like notable evidence of conscientiousness, intelligence, organization, attention to detail, work ethic … which is why the cover letter can really matter for these jobs, as that's a great place to paint a convincing portrayal of yourself as having those traits! (And often easier to do there than on the resume.)

    @ Anonymous at 3:58 AM: Overqualified in this case was that he was a lawyer. But actually, for someone with a recent bachelor's degree, I wouldn't say they're overqualified for an admin position — in fact, that's the universe of people I'm usually looking at for those jobs. Which might be horrifying to hear.

    @ Ben: Yes! See the explanation a few comments up, at 10:42 PM.

  10. Anne*

    This was really interesting and helpful. I've actually only ever had in-person interviews (maybe there aren't many phone interviews in my field? I'm a children's librarian, so not your typical business setting.) and have always been curious about what phone interviews are like.

    Plus, now that I have a little bit of experience on the other side of the interviewing desk, it is good to hear that other people make pretty instantaneous decisions about who would be good for the job in question.

  11. Anne*

    This was really interesting to me! I've only had in-person interviews so I've been curious about phone interviews as well as the thought process of interviewers during an interview. I'm not looking for a job currently, but I will keep this in mind for the future.

    What happens if any of the candidates for the posistion read your blog?

  12. FrauTech*

    Anonymous at 3:58:

    I'm a job seeker, not an interviewer, but I applied for an entry level admin job with a bachelor's degree and three years of part time clerical experience. This was in 2005, when the job economy was supposedly "good." the people i interviewed with seemed to think I was underqualified for the job. So it's hardly a "stoop" to apply for an admin job.

    At the same time, we've hired a lot of admins since 2005 and are still hiring now. Unless you have five years as a receptionist or as an admin previously (or have an inside connection) a BA is almost a requirement for the job. We get plenty of great candidates for admin jobs that don't have a degree and usually pass them over for those that have a degree and have experience. It's the new normal. If you got a BA that you can't get a "related" job in, getting an admin job somewhere is very natural. But don't expect to be the leading candidate based on your degree alone. I've seen a lot of people move on from admin roles to something else, but a lot of other people stay admins. It's just the economy, and getting a BA in something where you really can't get a job somewhere else.

  13. Anonymous*

    Overeager recent grad here with another question…

    How many applications (ballpark) did you receive for this job? Or if that's too personal, how many applications are you averaging per posted job listing? And of these, approximately what percentage do you deem "qualified" or "interview-worthy?"

    This information will not actually help me in my search, but considering how many jobs I've applied for, I'd like to know my odds.

  14. Ask a Manager*

    @ Justin – See the second paragraph for a description of the job :)

    @ Anne – I thought about whether it was problematic that one of them might read it. (I never know if candidates find my blog or not but frequently wonder.) But there's nothing here that I wouldn't be willing to tell them directly if they asked for feedback.

    @FrauTech – Totally agree. An admin job is not a "stoop" for someone with a new BA.

    @Anonymous 5:11 PM – I'd say we got a couple of hundred applications, but a lot of those were rejected immediately simply for not following directions (we require a cover letter and won't consider applications without one; we even have an auto-reply that tells candidates they need to submit one if they didn't already, and still a huge portion of them don't). So if you count just the ones who submitted a complete application that we could actually consider, I'd say about 80. And I'm doing about 15 phone interviews from those 80, with the goal of doing 4 or 5 in-person interviews.

  15. Erica Friedman*

    I'd like to comment on the issue of having questions for the company. I am an experienced (and excellent) interviewee. I speak on topic about relevant experience, I am confident and have appropriate answers to almost all of the typical interview questions I am asked.

    I go in to any interview with as much information about the job as possible and about the company. one of my specialties is social media and I am an online researcher – finding relevant info about a company is easy for me.

    However, having relevant questions is pointless in aboit 99% of the interviews I have ever gone on. HR people are almost universally clueless as to what the job actually entails and frequently lack the kind of human skills that make "tell me about the corporate culture here" a meaningful question. They don't know, can't articulate it, even with prompting, or unwilling to be honest.

    I don't *need* to ask about the company, and asking about the manager at a HR level is also pointless, since they hardly know the people they hire for.

    When I'm with the hiring manager, I often ask for a run-down of a typical day, and comment appropriately to highlight where I can add value. That almost always goes well – I'm not kidding when I say I interview well – and then I meet the VP or whoever that makes the actual decision. About half the time, that person is so clueless about the business that they actually contradict what the hiring manager wants and says, and often has requirements from, oh, 1950. I've even encountered senior management that were outright hostile to the kind of work the job was for and were aggressively attacking skill sets that the hiring manager wanted and needed. Questions to them are a waste.

    So much of your good advice is predicated upon the simple fact that the person you're interviewing with is competent, well-schooled in the area and intelligent. The reality is that this is *rarely* true.

  16. Anonymous*

    Hmm… I still can't help but feel that taking an admin job would be a stoop for a recent undrgrad with a degree in finance, considering that many of us who are lucky enough to live in larger towns often start off as financial analysts. The thought of all the work I did in college just to become an admin almost makes me sick.

  17. Kara*

    Wow, Anonymous. It makes you sick? Because your college degree entitles you to something? I have worked with some amazing admins who were whip smart and well educated. To say it's stooping is what's sickening.

  18. Anonymous*

    I'm just sayin'. I learned how to analyze financial ratios, budget, create financial plans, analyze securities, understand statistics and stock options, and create three-year comprehensive plans to run a business just so that I could type letters and answer a phone? Not to mention all the debt I got into over it. Why? Couldn't I have qualified for the same job just by getting my GED and attending a two-year technical school? Doesn't this reflect that SOMEBODY (perhaps the colleges) is ripping us off?

  19. Anonymous*

    Very few 22 year olds are creating three year business plans, outside of the classroom. I think your expectations might be out of whack. But yeah if college led you to believe you would be, they're running a scam.

  20. nuqotw*

    Anon 11:10 PM

    As a teacher of finance undergrads (among other people), I have to say that this attitude is one we find remarkably prevalent, and consider an impediment to getting/keeping a job.

    Where I am right now, *everyone* acknowledges that our admins make they our entire department run, and that we would be lost without them. None of us know how to do what they do, or would be good at what they do, and we all know it. They know who to talk to, how to talk to them, where things are, etc. They are kind and helpful always, even when I am asking them something for what must be the 100th time, because I just can't remember it (that's why I would be a bad admin). Wherever you work, remember that the admins can make or break you. Treat them well, with respect and admiration for the enormous skills and service they provide.

  21. Rebecca*

    @Erica Friedman:
    "Having relevant questions is pointless," you say, but you ask for the rundown of a typical day — that's a VERY relevant question! (And not one that a lot of people ask, actually.) As for "Tell me about the corporate culture," try asking "What's your favorite part about working here?" Almost every time I've asked this, I get the favorite, a couple other good things, and anywhere from one bad thing to a whole laundry list of bad things. And if they just spit out a single answer with no elaboration, that's almost as telling.

    Anon@11:10 & 11:34 — If the idea was "going to college = job after college," then yes, you have been ripped off. The last few years have shown that experience doesn't lead to a job anymore, either.

  22. Karl Sakas*

    @Alison: Thanks for sharing your insights into what it's like "on the other side"!

    Do you tend to 'know' pretty early whether someone's a match? When I group-interviewed candidates for a volunteer position, it was quickly obvious whether people had things together.

  23. Anonymous*

    I have a question about the candidates that did not provide a cover letter. When I am applying within a system, which has upload capabilities (or a text box for pasting), that particular modality, is obvious.

    When applying via email, the body of the email is the cover letter? Most of the advice I have read indicates it is not a separate document, as the resume, yet I am interested in your opinion.


  24. Anonymous*

    Let me try to make this clear. I don't have a problem with admins themselves. I'm sure they're wonderful, intelligent people. I don't have a problem with waitresses either. Heck, I've been one (and failed at it). But why are we making college kids jump through such big, stressful, expensive hoops to get there? Is four-year college really even worth it anymore? And, if not, why aren't we telling our kids this before they do it? And why are four-year colleges even still so prominent?

  25. Ask a Manager*

    @ Karl – Sometimes it's easy to tell early on that someone is or isn't a match — but only to a certain point. I've had candidates who I was really excited about in the phone interview who ended up not being quite right later on in the process … but you can definitely get a lot of information very quickly early on!

    @ Anonymous at 12:49 PM – Personally, I don't care whether the cover letter is in the body of the email or an attachment, but if I had to commit to one, I'd say put it in the body of the email. But again, not a big deal if you don't.

    @ Anonymous the frustrated recent grad – I think what people are trying to say is that it's very normal for your first job out of school to be an admin job or something along those lines. That doesn't mean you'll stay in it forever, but it's pretty common to start in a role like that.

    @ Anonymous at 7:49 PM -For this particular job, #5's traits were more of a problem than #7's. It could be the other way around with a different job.

  26. Anonymous*

    To nuqotw and anonymous re: admin jobs:

    I completely agree that admins can make/break a dept and a manager. However much an employee is valued as an admin, they are always viewed as "just the admin" – I know, I was one for years before rising through the ranks (yet now also among the jobless with 16 years of finance experience). It's unfortunate but true, and rare to find the kind of manager who gives the good admin a chance to break out and move up without having to leave the company to do so.

    Regardless of my education, I actually found it quite difficult to break out of the admin role; frequently interviewers would refer to the fact that I'd "only been an admin" thus they felt I wasn't qualified for any other positions.

  27. Anonymous*

    I got a phone interview on a Saturday evening about 5pm. The interviewer did not introduce herself or even say where she was calling from. I knew what the job was when she said I applied for a Inflight Manager position and the number was coming from out of state. After telling me about the job and the requirements she then asked me 1 question. "What does the job entail" I answered and then she said ok! well if you have any questions, please feel free to call me. THAT WAS IT!!! What kind of interview was this??? I never heard anything from the lady after she said she would call in 2 weeks..

  28. Just Had A Phone Interview*

    Hi @Ask A Manager, I just had a phone interview with NBC and felt I was almost OVER PREPARED- I thought and wrote out my answers so much to the point I felt like they were too scripted and sounded too unnatural (too similar to the job description.) I have been a coordinator for a year now (in DC) and applied for an admin/coordinator position at the headquarter in NY. I am glad to know that being over qualified and maybe too much experience can be harmful… Also, when I asked when the next steps would be in the process she said she would let me know in 4 days – I am guessing this means I am in the last running? In a phone interview- typically you would tell the interviewee right away if they are scheduled for an in-person interview, correct?

  29. ARS*

    Ugh. Having just had a phone interview today for a job I’d love to do for a company I know a lot about and have worked with in a volunteer capacity, this totally hit home. I have no idea how I did and my experience from phone interviews gives me no indication if I should have had an in person interview scheduled at the end of the phone interview or not. So panic ensues. All I can tell you is I was completely nervous, answered each question well (I think) and hope I hear from them for an in person.

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