surprise — it’s a phone interview that you didn’t know was coming!

A reader writes:

Is it customary to surprise applicants with a phone interview?

I’m applying for an internal promotion with my current employer. I had an appointment to call my potential boss to ask questions about the position (this is standard practice at my company). HR told me I would have a phone interview Tuesday.

When I called the boss today – surprise! He had HR on the line, and asked if I could do the phone interview today instead of an informal Q and A session with him as we had planned. I was caught off guard and didn’t give the best interview. I’m not sure whether they did this on purpose as a stress test or what.

Do you think surprise interviews are a good way to produce qualified candidates? (I don’t think so, but maybe I’m just upset because my interview didn’t go well and I need to prepare further in advance or something.)

It’s not uncommon, and it’s not a good idea.

In fact, even worse than your situation, there’s an epidemic of employers calling applicants and trying to phone-interview them on the spot, without any warning or advance notice. And many applicants are afraid to say that it’s not a good time for them and to try to reschedule, because often they never get called back after that — so you have people trying to do a phone interview outside the grocery store, frantically trying to remember which job this was at which company, with zero preparation.

It’s obvious why this isn’t good for the candidate, but it’s not good for the employer either: Interviewing a candidate who just woke up or is late for a meeting or just hasn’t had time to focus their brain on your needs isn’t going to give you the most useful information about that candidate. The only exception to this might be if you’re interviewing for a position that requires really compelling extemporaneous speaking, and even then I’m skeptical.

Frankly, operating this way is the sign of a employer (or at least their HR rep) just going through the motions, trying to check off boxes as if hiring is one more chore to get through, rather than something that’s crucial to the success of the organization.

Now, your case is a little different. You had warning that you’d be talking to your prospective boss at that time but you were told to prepare for a different sort of conversation. That said, you probably should have prepared for the informal Q&A session in much the same way as you’d have prepared for a more formal phone interview, since the boss certainly could have had his own questions to throw right back at you.  So I’d say that this is less about not giving you the chance to prepare and more about the fact that it can be mentally jarring to discover that the conversation you thought you were going to have is actually going to be a different type of conversation (in other words, it’s more about mental preparation than substantive preparation).

I doubt they did this on purpose. That kind of conniving would be pretty unusual. What’s more likely is that they’re trying to move more quickly than than originally planned (or they moved too slowly at first and now need to make up for it) and when HR heard you were going to be talking with the manager that day, someone said, “Hey, let’s do the phone screen at that time too so that we can keep this moving.”

They should have told you in advance, but the fact that they didn’t is — I suspect — less indicative of deliberate strategy and more indicative of the fact that employers often neglect to think about what kind of candidate experience they’re creating, and what the impact of that experience is on their ability to hire the best candidate. That’s a very, very common aspect of job-searching, and it’s not in anyone’s best interests.

{ 16 comments… read them below }

  1. Shawn*

    I agree that they aren't a good idea. I typically schedule my phone screens in advance, for a time convenient for both the candidate any myself. This also allows the candidate to refresh their memory on which job/company they will be talking about. Win-win in my book.

    This is contrary to our HR Director's preferred method. She would prefer I review the resume and just call them to do an on the spot phone screen. She (our HR Director) is very much a "now now now" person. She doesn't like waiting for anything that could theoretically be handled by just picking up the phone.

    Most of our hiring is entry level stuff so much of the phone screens are very basic, they are not full blown phone interviews. I've tried to justify my method to her, but she feels the candidate doesn't need time to refresh their memory, that this isn't a real phone interview just a conversation about a position.

    I still think it's dumb. I gave her method a go and all I had to show for it was a lot of left voice mails (which of course called back when I was tied up) and plenty of confused candidates. Some of the screens did get done right away but I swear the candidates weren't sure what they were getting themselves in to, not good.

  2. Taria Shadow*

    I agree, it's not a good idea. I actually had an employer call me (first contact I had with them after submitting my resume electronically, by the way), and want to do a phone interview right then and there. I was at home and happened to have my laptop right there, so I could probably have done the interview, but I did not feel ready and once I realized that was what they wanted, respectively declined. I figured that if they didn't want to reschedule, I wouldn't want to work for them anyway, despite really needing a job.

    On another note, I just recently had another interview that was supposed to be just 2, maybe 3, other individuals and myself. I walked in and was introduced to the entire department – 10 people in a panel-style interview.

    I was totally thrown, and fumbled quite a few of the answers, because I was taken off my stride. I apologized profusly for being nervous and explained that it was my first panel interview, without mentioning that I had been told it was something different – I figured it could have been a last minute change, but one of the employees responded by saying that it wasn't a big deal (that I was nervous), he knew what it was like since he had just been "in my shoes" a few months before.

    This, of course, leads me to believe that they actually knew it was a panel-style interview and made me think it was a stress-interview type of thing.

    Of course, I could be reading more into it – I got asked back to a second interview, and even though I was told it was only going to be 3 people from the department, you can bet I will be prepared for another panel interview.

  3. Sabrina*

    I had a company do a surprise phone screen with me. I was on my way to another interview at the time. She didn't even ask if it was a good time. This was the first of many red flags that I should never have taken that job. If it ever happens again I'll politely decline and consider it bullet dodged.

  4. Anonymous*

    OP here.

    I agree that I could have been more mentally prepared. My company relies heavily on behavioral questions, and I struggle with nervousness during interviews. I usually try to boost my confidence by looking at a list of my accomplishments over the past year before walking into an interview. I did fine on the more basic questions, but blew some of the behavioral ones because my mind went blank. Next time I will review my accomplishments before the pre-interview questioning.

    I originally assumed that the interviewers called me a day early just to speed up the interview process. However, my current boss and a colleague both said that the "surprise interview" was probably an intentional tactic to test my performance under stress. Their comments fit in with my company's mentality in a lot of ways, so I believed them. I agree with AAM that putting candidates on the spot is unproductive, so if the surprise interview was intentional maybe this position is a bad fit for me.

    Either way, thanks so much for taking the time to answer my question!

  5. Anonymous*

    It's rude of them to conduct an impromptu interview, but…

    It's hard to imagine that OP would be calling the potential manager to ask questions but that the questions wouldn't flow the other way too. I think OP should have been prepared that at least SOME questions would be asked of them, even if not by an HR panel.

    Also, I think anyone who is a job search should ALWAYS be ready for a call from a potential employer (and if it isn't a good tim to talk, then don't answer!). Since OP initiated the call, I really find it surprising that they weren't prepared to talk at all about the position, the company that they already work for, or their interest in the new job.

    I'm not saying employers should spring unscheduled interviews on applicants all the time. Both sides have an obligation to be prepared and courteous of each other.

  6. Anonymous*

    OP again.

    @AAM The position is training manager for a retail store. Some ability to speak under pressure might be an asset in this position.

    @Anonymous 10:50 I was prepared to discuss my interest in the position and the company. I think I answered those questions well. I flubbed the "tell me about a time when you…" type questions. I got nervous and couldn't think of good examples from my recent experience that fit the questions. Of course, after the interview was over, I thought of many examples I could have used. I am disappointed in myself, but I'll learn from this experience and do better next time.

  7. Christine*

    I disagree that you always need to schedule a phone screen. I work in politics and during the election season hiring is so fast and furious that if I tried to schedule every initial conversation with an applicant, I would never get anything done.

    While I don't agree with doing a full-scale phone interview without warning, I see nothing wrong with the initial phone screen occurring unannounced. I actually think it helps weed out the people who really want the job from those who are sending their resume for any open position. My first question is always "Is this an okay time to talk?" and my second is "Tell me how much you know about my company. Did you get a chance to check out our website?" If it's obvious that the person doesn't recognize my company because they sent so many resumes out that they can't keep track, I keep the conversation very short. At times I've even suggested that they do some research on us and the job to refresh their memory and give me a call back when they have time to chat.

    I sometimes get someone on the phone who says it's a good time but then ends up talking to me on the street with loud traffic or very quietly because they're at the office. I have no problem whatsoever if someone says that now isn't a good time and asks to call me back. If they aren't ready to talk I'd rather they call back when they are.

    For me the bottom line is that if you have submitted your resume for a job, you should be prepared to be called anytime thereafter. No, we shouldn't be springing full-fledged interviews on anyone but an initial phone screen is necessary to get the process started.

  8. Anonymous*

    "If it's obvious that the person doesn't recognize my company because they sent so many resumes out that they can't keep track, I keep the conversation very short."

    … how dare unemployed people be looking for any port in a storm, in other words. Particularly since you're looking for short-term election work — do not even pretend that you care about the people you're hiring — yet you expect people to care about you before you've even called them. You make me sick.

  9. Christine*

    Is there any point in me trying to defend myself against two people who are so quick to judge without knowing a thing about me? I�m smart enough to know that I can�t change the minds of such narrow-minded people but I would like to explain my thoughts for those that care to have an open mind.

    Of course my company is a port for those caught in the unemployment storm. And out of the 50+ people I have hired over the past three months, the majority of them were unemployed for months or even years. So how dare you tell me that unemployed job seekers can�t find a position at my company?

    I do not find it unreasonable to expect that an applicant will at the very least know what my company does before applying for a job with us. Just as I wouldn�t call someone without first reviewing their resume, I expect that you are going to read about my company before applying. As the previous comment has proven, politics is not for everyone so I want to be sure each person who interviews for a job knows what we stand for. Part of the hiring process is to ensure the right people are in the right job. This, amongst other things, is common business sense and allows the company to grow year over year which in turn continues to provide employment for those people. If that makes you sick, or makes you think I don�t care, that�s your own opinion and you are entitled to it.

    I�m sorry that the past two commenters have chosen to turn this conversation personal instead of exploring the thoughts I presented. I wish I didn�t care about your attacks seeing as they are completely baseless, but, as it turns out, I happen to care a lot. Go figure.

  10. B9312*

    This is a topic that drives me nuts. People seriously think that their time is the only time that's valuable. I actually had a manager of a potential employer call me (it was an unknown number when I answered) and proceed to just launch into the phone interview without even asking me if it was a good time! I actually had to politely interrupt her and tell her that this was a bad time, as I was standing in the middle of the grocery store doing my food shopping for the week. We picked a better time, but she must have taken offense because when I called, I got no answer, and never heard from her again. Sorry I didn't want to conduct a PROFESSIONAL interview over the Perdue chicken breasts! The narcissism is crazy.

  11. The Serial Candidate*


    While an impromptu call is okay, and asking if it’s an okay time to talk is fine; to then proceed with asking the recipient of the call about whether they have seen the website or read up on the company information, and moving on from there is rather jarring at best.

    The point of the matter is, you’re dealing with people who expect such a phone interview to be planned so that they can not only prepare but also not be caught in a bad situation where to continue such a conversation would be inconvenient at best. See B9312’s example above.

    I had a similar experience where I received a completely unexpected call from a company regarding a position that I had supposedly applied for. I had never heard of the company before, and the two interviewers were quite unfamiliar with the contact who had forwarded my CV to them without my solicitation.

    I was surprised, but I took it well and as best as I could, declined to continue the unexpected interview any further.

  12. M*

    I’ve noticed that a lot of employers do this now.

    Here’s what I do. Ignore the phone call–which I typically do anyways unless I recognize the number. Wait until the caller leaves a message, if it’s a job they usually do. Or do a reverse look up of the number.

    Then I listen to the message and in 15-30 minutes I call back after I’ve mentally walked myself through what I’m going to say. This also gives you time to do some Googling before you have to talk to them.

    Hope that helps.

  13. Zaheed Shariff*

    I completely agree with this article. Case in point, I am a Recruiter and I had a young graduate student apply for a entry-level sales position, informing her that the client would be contacting her without notice. The client ended up calling almost 4 business days later and caught her off guard. However, during the conversation, she felt a little bit flustered and on top of which, they offered her another opportunity instead. She was not prepared to look at another opportunity, however hesitantly agreed to take on the other position, her flustered nature turned off the client and they ultimately turned her down…what a waste…

    When we talk about employers, we are talking about HR and that is the main source of the problem, they are quite the unambitious, paper pushing folk…they need to understand the lives they are affecting…

  14. Anonymous*

    i have had the on the spot phone interview happen to me on a few occasions, the first time was full on that lasted over half an hour. I was so unprepared and in shock i found myself pacing back and forth while my heart was racing lol i get quite nervous and anxious with the whole interview process! at the end she didn’t even ask me if i had any questions (which i did weird for an on the spot thing right?) so i asked and i think she seemed a bit shocked…sometimes i think, do recruiters these days really know what they are doing? now i’m actively looking for work again and someone called me while i was driving on the highway! i called back as soon as i got home to get the organisations’ customer service menu, i was on hold for half an hour and finally got through to a rep who had no idea how to transfer me to HR. I left my name and number and was told that the team leader would call me back…that was not long ago..i’m still waiting for that call and am wondering should i call back tomorrow? or have i already blown my chance due to an unscheduled phone call that i accidentally missed. just my luck huh

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