when an employer calls me at work, can I ask how long the call will take or to reschedule?

A reader writes:

When a recruiter/manager of a job I’ve applied to calls me back, I almost always let it go to voice mail — mostly because I work in an open space and can’t drop what I’m doing right away and take the call in front of my boss. They leave a message asking if I have some time to talk about the job. In past experience, “some time” can mean anywhere from a few minutes to a 20-minute phone interview. I can step away from my desk for a few minutes to discuss some details, no problem — but when it’s closer to the the 20-minute mark in the middle of a work day, that’s something I really need to schedule into my day, plus prepare for a bit.

Is it okay to ask at the beginning of the call how long this is going to take and what is going to be discussed? Is it unreasonable to ask to reschedule the phone call for a different time?

It’s absolutely reasonable to say something like, “I’d love to talk. I’m at work right now and only have a couple of minutes — will that be enough time or should we schedule a time for later?”

However, be aware of the following drawbacks to this plan:

1. Some people will tell you that it will only take a couple of minutes but end up taking much more. I think these are the same people who tell you that they’ll be at dinner/the movie/wherever in “just a few minutes” when in fact they haven’t left their house yet.

2. Some people will reschedule for later, but then never call you back. This is actually a widespread phenomena with these calls, where employers say they’ll get back to someone but meanwhile find other strong candidates, move forward with them, and never get back to the earlier person.

How should you as a candidate respond to this? Ideally, you’d decide that you’re going to handle these conversations the same way you would in other part of your professional life, which means that if you don’t have time to talk, you’d explain that and ask to reschedule for later, and if the employer is rude/disorganized enough not to reconnect with you later, then they’re not a desirable employer anyway. But while that’s easy to say, it’s harder to do, especially if don’t have the luxury of lots of options.

So, like many things with job-searching, this ultimately comes down to how well-positioned you are to not care if you end up screening out a rude or disorganized employer. If you don’t feel like you have a lot of options, you might calculate that it’s not worth the risk of screening them out, because you need a job. On the other hand, if you do have options, you might be quite glad to screen them out.

{ 59 comments… read them below }

  1. Erik*

    I generally never took calls at work, mainly because I would be in the middle of something and couldn’t run off somewhere to talk in private. I always scheduled my talks so I could be on a short walk where I could talk more freely.

    In my experience, whenever a recruiter says “this will only take X minutes”, they really mean 5-10X minutes.

    I’ve had a lot of recruiters recently who seem to have the “hurry up and wait” routine, who never follow up with emails/phone calls or are simply impossible to reach. I just move on. I figure I just dodged a bullet.

  2. Lily in NYC*

    I would answer the call, and then tell the person that you sit in an open area and say that you will go to a private area and call them back right away. I just feel like letting it go to voice mail is a risk because of what Alison wrote – so many times you will just get lost in the shuffle and never hear back. Of course, if you are in the middle of something that can’t wait I guess let it go to vm.

  3. Cat*

    Re (2), it does seem semi-likely that you wouldn’t have gotten the job anyway in that case even if you had advanced further in the process.

  4. TBoT*

    This is why when I’m hiring, 100% of the time, before I do anything else, I say, “Is this a good time to talk?” Then if the person says no, I schedule a time.

    1. [anon]*

      One of the ways I knew my now-current (new-in-December) company was on the ball was that any time anyone–hiring manager, recruiter, other members of staff–called me during the hiring process, while they knew I was still employed elsewhere, they usually e-mailed first to set up a time or if they just called, they asked if it was a good time or if I needed to call them back later. Since I shared a 6′ office with both my boss and our intern, I really, REALLY appreciated that minimal level of courtesy. So +1000 internets to you for being reasonable.

  5. Belle*

    Simple rule: when an employer calls you and you are not in a position to speak for at least 30 minutes, let the call go to voicemail, and call back when you can talk.

  6. blu*

    I actually don’t even think number 2 is rude unless you have scheduled an actual follow up time. If you haven’t agreed to a particular time and you go with another stronger candidate in the interim it seems weird to me to call up and say “Hey you know that job we didn’t get a chance to discuss, well were going with someone else.”

    1. Ann O'Nemity*

      When in doubt, tuck. Especially in the case of shirttails.

      An untucked blouse under a suit can look great, but it takes a little more style sense to pull it off.

        1. I'll Play!*

          Do you read Corporette.com? They’re kind of a fashion-oriented blog with extremely active commenters, so you’d definitely get a fast, right answer! :D

  7. Rachl - HR*

    As someone making these recruiting calls…

    Be aware that as the candidate you have a lot of control over how long the calls takes. When I make calls for phone screens I anticipate them taking 5-10 minutes. Often it’s the candidates that make them 20-30 minutes because they won’t stop talking about every minute detail.

    Also, this reminds me of a recent phone screen I did. I called the candidate and left a message. The candidate then immediately returned my call, so I start with my “is this a good time” and the candidate tells me no, they’ll call me later. I was quite annoyed the candidate wasted my time to call me and tell me they couldn’t talk to me right then.

    1. Dan*

      Well, you *did* ask the candidate if it was a good time. Why bother with the question if you’re going to be annoyed with an honest answer?

      As per why he called you back when it wasn’t a good time to talk — you didn’t discuss it further, but I presume what he would have wanted to do was set up a time for him to call. I mean, I’m sure he figured if he got back to you instantly, you’d still be at your desk, and by getting a hold of you, you could coordinate a time later that you’d both be available.

      Internal recruiters have a reputation of poor follow through, sorry.

      1. Adam V*


        Agreed that they probably just wanted to set up a time before they got caught playing phone tag with you and missed their shot. Please give them a break.

      2. Rachel - HR*

        It wasn’t an immediate returned call. They called an hour after I made the initial call. I asked the question out of habit. I didn’t actually expect someone to call me for the sole purpose of telling me they can’t talk to me when they’re calling me.

    2. Cara Carroll*

      I feel your pain. I will call candidates and leave a detailed message, they call back and ask “Who is this?”, I don’t get it. Also, I have emailed candidates (thus giving them the advantage to schedule something, which I am doing more now because I hate phone tag) to ask to set something up and they call me immediately to talk. When I ask “So tell me what you know about my company or the position” they have no answer. I mean I just gave you the opportunity to schedule something and you can’t even take 5 minutes to look up my website? In my email signature is my name, title, phone, and links to all of our social media. I blows my mind sometimes when even we try and give candidates the advantage they don’t take it…

      1. BausLady*

        This, a thousand times this. My biggest pet peeve when I’m calling candidates is when I take the time to leave them a detailed message explaining exactly who I am and why I’m calling and I get a call back in 5 minutes from them saying, “Yeah, I just got a call from this number?”

        I recruit for a call center so I’m constantly looking to hire at least 5 people at a time. Chances are when I called you, you’re one of 20 people I’ve called that day. If you can’t refresh my memory of who you are or why I might have called you, I might not even remember!

    3. Kelly O*

      I am extremely unclear on how this is annoying.

      You called, they responded. You asked a question and they responded honestly. How does it waste your time to set up another time when you can talk?

      I know people say “no offense” and then say something that may be personally offensive, and I’m sorry this comes across that way, but that’s where candidates start getting sick of dealing with recruiters. You never know what people want, and it seems no matter what you do, you’re going to annoy someone.

      1. Rachel - HR*

        I asked the question more of habit from when I first call them. I don’t expect people to call me and then tell me they can’t have a conversation with me. I wouldn’t call a candidate and then tell them I don’t have time to talk to them.

        1. BausLady*

          I get where you’re coming from on this. It’s silly that they didn’t just wait to call you back when they had a few minutes to talk.

        2. KH*

          I don’t see anything wrong with the candidate’s actions. The recruiter’s expectations are different from a candidate’s . The candidate is thinking that the call they just missed might be a missed life changing opportunity. They would want to, at nearly all costs, return the call to let the recruiter know that they are still interested and want to get on the schedule before the recruiter moves on to someone else and it’s too late.
          Perhaps the candidate could have framed it better:
          “Hello – I was unable to answer your call an hour ago. Unfortunately I don’t have time to discuss now but I wanted to get back to you as soon as possible to let you know I am very interested in the position and I think I would be an excellent fit. Can we arrange a time soon to discuss in more detail?”

  8. Adam V*

    On a similar note, I’m afraid I told off a recruiter at a company I’d never contacted, after their third email to my work email address. I essentially told them “if you’re so clueless that you send recruiting-related emails to my *company* email address, then you’re not someone I want to deal with”.

    1. Dan*

      I had a recruiter call my office phone. I was a low level peon and fairly certain I never gave out my phone number to anybody at that point, so I was really confused as to how he got it. When I asked him, he said that they have a “database.” Uh huh.

      The funny thing is that it was for a VP job paying $180,000/year. I told him I was definitely interested in making that kind of money, but with a BS and 2 years of experience, I probably wasn’t qualified. He didn’t argue that.

      1. Ruffingit*

        LOL! Yeah, I’ve had that happen. Recruiters send/call about jobs and you’re like “SERIOUSLY? Have you read my resume? I have liberal arts degrees, I am in no way qualified to be a mechanical engineer. WTH?” I’ve gotten to the point now where I just laugh.

  9. Anonna*

    “I think these are the same people who tell you that they’ll be at dinner/the movie/wherever in “just a few minutes” when in fact they haven’t left their house yet.”

    THESE PEOPLE. Can we put them on a bus and ship them to Monster Island?

  10. HR*

    I do a ton of recruiting, and always email candidates ahead of time to schedule phone interviews. It’s more convenient for me, and if I were a candidate, I would hate to be caught off guard in the middle of the work day and have to switch gears from “work mode” to “interview mode”. Do lots of recruiters really do this?

    1. Sunflower*

      this this this!!!! This makes so much more sense than surprise calling a candidate- especially when sometimes a month or two has gone by since applying to the position.

      I’d say 75% of the time, I get a phone call and 25% of the time I receive an email. Every phone call I get is different. Sometimes they will only ask me my salary requirements and when I can come in. Sometimes it’s a couple questions like what my daily duties are at work, why I’m looking to leave and sometimes it’s a full blown phone interview with behavioral questions asked.

      It’s especially great when you email and include about how much time it should take. That way I have an idea of how many questions you are going to ask.

      1. HR*

        I am going to take your suggestion of including how much time it should take; I actually never thought of doing that, but I can see how it would be helpful!

        1. Anonymous*

          If you’re going to give timing guidelines, think about how long it should take and then add 10-15 minutes. I’d much rather prepare for and clear my calendar for a 30 minute phone interview that actually only takes 15, than think the conversation is only going to take 15mins and ends up going for 30.

          (Although on the other hand you don’t want to overestimate – tell me it’s going to take and hour and then when it takes only 20mins I’ll be concerned/worried/writing to AAM about the fact I screwed it up because it was over so quickly).

    2. Cara Carroll*

      I am going to this practice now. In the past I’d just pick up the phone and call but find it is much easier for me to schedule something. I am young in the HR field so when I started in my position I just did what I was told. But still I feel the ball is in the candidate’s court they do not have to pick up either, that is their choice. It seems many job seekers are just scared of not picking up, but so long as they can contact me with in a few hours, via phone or email, or even the next day, I don’t see it as a big deal and doesn’t mean they aren’t still in the running. But I am an internal recruiter, I don’t know if maybe this isn’t the case for staffing firm recruiters who maybe work a lot quicker.

    3. Mints*

      Because it’s not so difficult for me to sneak away for a coffee break at a “random” time that is actually pre-planned for twenty minutes. But I can not answer calls at work when I’m two doors down from my manager.
      Even if you prefer the phone, phone tag sucks

    4. Adam V*

      Great idea! Do it a day or two ahead of time if possible, in case they can’t get to their non-work email during office hours.

    5. BausLady*

      I do a ton of recruiting, but for just one position in a call center. I don’t email candidates because with my candidate pool it’s not a reliable contact method. But when I call candidates I’m looking to schedule a phone screen within a couple of days. I don’t expect the candidate to be ready right then and there. Most of the time, I’m not ready right then and there. I’ve probably got a pile of resumes in front of me and I’m trying to get through as many of them as possible to get them scheduled for later.

  11. Job Seeker*

    I have applied to nearly 200 jobs I think I am at about 250 now. This is between 2011 and present. I have a job so I am looking for something specific. Anyhow, I have gotten at least (trying to imagine my spreadsheet in my head) 50-80 responses, maybe more, at least from all the those applications. I let it go to voice mail every time and never lost out on an opportunity. What happens when they leave a voice mail is they usually leave their number, name, and company. I go to the bathroom or car and listen to the voice mail. I hop on Google the moment I can and look them up and look for their email (often it is public somewhere and I find it). Then I immediately email them and say “I am sorry I missed your call. I am currently at work. May we schedule a time to talk?” or something along those lines and I usually set something up for the next day. So this gives me plenty of time to refresh on the job posting, look up the company on Glassdoor, CareerBliss, etc. I think if you can be prepared that you will often times come off in a better light. Most recruiters will understand if you have to call them back, least that has been my experience. Once when I was home and actually able to pick I still let it go to voice mail, I did lots of research and called them back an hour later and was able to talk right then and they were very impressed with all I knew about the company and they asked to have me in for an interview that same day! Good luck on your hunt! Be resourceful and smart and I think you will already have an advantage over most candidates.

    1. Sunflower*

      I do this too. Right now, I only have 2 open applications and I received a random phone number call the other day and let it go to VM. Even with only 2 applications, I still need time to refresh myself on the job and company.

      I have also never not gotten a call back. I’ve read that some people will get phone calls and the recruiters won’t leave messages or can’t get back in touch with them. I can see this happening with temp work a lot or other jobs like that. But I would think for most long-term positions, if you get back to the recruiter in that day, even if it’s a call back to reschedule that time, they aren’t going to give the position away. Considering this is still the interview stage, I’d be a little concerned if you managed to hire someone within 2 hours of calling me for an interview.

  12. holly*

    for me, if i’m really interested in that job, i think i’d assume it will take 20 minutes and call them back at a time when i have the 20 minutes, just in case.

  13. Carolyn*

    One time an internal recruiter left me a voicemail while I was on a plane. It was a job I was really interested in so I called back as soon as I could (maybe three hours after he left the message). And I never heard back! Super annoying. I followed up a week or two later, and nope, nothing. Even if I hadn’t been on the plane I probably wouldn’t have answer, because I never used to pickup when I didn’t know the number, but ever since then I try to answer and set up a time to talk later if I have to. Although I definitely shouldn’t have to…3 hours is NOT unreasonable to return a voicemail!

    1. Adam V*

      > 3 hours is NOT unreasonable to return a voicemail

      The next day isn’t unreasonable, either – what if they’re in an all-day meeting? Or out on a business trip?

      Unfortunately, you probably got caught by Alison’s note #2 – they left you the voicemail, kept calling people, found enough qualified people to fill their interview slots, and put you on the back burner just in case no one works out.

    2. kdizzle*

      This happened to me too. I was on an international flight and the HR guy who was hiring called and left a message on a Saturday night (8 PM) for a job and industry that’s M-F 9-5 (city government).

      I got home too late to call him back that night, and so I called the next morning around 9:30. He thanked me but said they had moved on. What the what?

      Then he called three hours later and offered me an interview the next day at 8AM. So glad I ended up turning down that job.

  14. PoohBear McGriddles*

    What really gets my goat is the 3rd party recruiters that call the receptionist and ask for me. So, you saw my LinkedIn profile and – instead of sending me a message there – decided to call me at work? Sure, I’ll sit at my desk and talk about your wonderful opportunity! I’ll need it when people figure out I’m looking to leave.
    I’d never drop in someone’s office for an unscheduled interview. Don’t see why they should drop in mine (figuratively).

    1. HR*

      This seems to be a really common practice with recruiters/staffing firms. It’s so annoying, and one of the reasons that I let most calls from unknown numbers go straight to voicemail.

        1. Chocolate Teapot*

          Oh I’ve had that too. Why would I want to “have a chat” to you about other employment opportunities when I am at work?

        2. anonintheuk*

          And most of the people who call with stuff like that don’t even have anything relevant. No, I don’t want a job at a lower grade and probably a lower salary. No, I don’t want to work 85 miles away. No, I don’t want an audit job when I work in tax.

  15. shawn*

    I facilitate hiring at my company. I always email to schedule phone screens and phone interviews. I will never just randomly call a candidate and try to do an interview on the spot.

    The only time I would call a candidate out of the blue is to debrief after an interview or to make an offer. Even then I might schedule it in advance if the candidate has told me this is best or if I just have a feeling it will be. Once I get them on the phone, even if it’s a scheduled conversation, I confirm if this is a good time to talk. It is completely fine to say it isn’t and for us to set up a time in the future. The worst responses are the ones that are kind of wishy washy. You can sometimes tell that a candidate wants to say no, or thinks they should say no, but they say yes anyway. Maybe they are driving, maybe they are in a store, maybe they are at work. Then they often end up sounding distracted and/or stressed and the conversation doesn’t go as well as it could.

    If you can’t give your full attention then either let it go to voicemail or ask to reschedule.

  16. HR Courtesy*

    When I’m wearing the recruiting cap I email first giving a date and time range to set up screening calls. This isn’t just a courtesy for the candidates but also less frustrating for the recruiter.

    It also allows for a great screening device, since there is no surprise in the process there is no reason they to not have researched the company.

  17. The Other Dawn*

    “I think these are the same people who tell you that they’ll be at dinner/the movie/wherever in “just a few minutes” when in fact they haven’t left their house yet.”

    Huge pet peeve! Don’t tell me “a few minutes” or “shortly” when that actually means an hour, possibly more.

    1. IronMaiden*

      Most of my friends are like this. It’s very annoying, especially when they get peeved if something like car trouble makes me late, which happens rarely.

    2. Ruffingit*

      Pet peeve here too. I just continue on without them. If you’re late for dinner, the start of the movie, etc. that’s your problem. I’ve found the only way to deal with the chronically late is to move ahead with your plans. If they want to participate, they’ll show up on time next time.

      1. ESL Language Teacher*

        +1 I know lots of people who are permanently late for everything. Now, I just tell friends, “We’re meeting at [place] at 7.00, and leaving at 7.05. If you haven’t arrived by then, you’ll have to come and find us/ do your own thing”. And I follow through on my threats.

  18. Chocolate Teapot*

    I once had a recruiter call me on my mobile at work and I said I would like to have a proper conversation, however, I was at work, so could we perhaps schedule a meeting? Her offices were just down the street from my company so I suggested I could drop by at the end of the day.

    This proposal did not go down well.

  19. A Jane*

    Yesterday, I had two scheduled recruiting calls that I needed to duck out of the office for. I can officially say I have interviewed at Quiznos and Dunkin Donuts for a technical architect job.

  20. Area51*

    This happened to me twice last week–recruiters from Company C and Company D called me out of the blue and asked if it was a good time to talk. Unfortunately it wasn’t, as I was within minutes of taking scheduled calls from Company A and Company B recruiters.
    So I give Co. C and Co. D recruiters good days and times to talk–and haven’t heard from them since.
    Lesson learned. I’m letting these types of calls go to VM now.
    Thank goodness for Caller ID!

  21. Zena Thomas*

    I would think a professional recruiter calling you at work would understand that you may not be able to take the phone call. Additionally, I don’t think you should use company resources (phone) to pursue other opportunities. If the recruiter doesn’t understand that you cannot talk or doesn’t return your phone call it speaks volumes for their professionalism. Which will somehow manifest again the ought the recruitment process anyway.

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