Interview Questions

10 Phone Interview Questions to Ask Candidates

By Mike Baumgarten

Last updated: Mar 8, 2023

You’re screening candidates for your org. You want to get to know them a little better — and that means it’s time for a phone interview. No matter how good an applicant’s resume is, you can’t learn everything about them in writing. A phone interview, typically called a phone screen, is an easy, time-efficient way to get a better picture of who a candidate is and what their motivations are for applying to your org.

Before you make the call, however, you need to prepare for the interview — and we’re here to help you do just that.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • How do you prepare for a phone interview?
  • 10 questions to ask candidates during a phone interview
  • How to evaluate candidates after a phone interview

Note: If you haven’t read our 10-step recruitment guide you can get a complete overview of the entire recruitment process here.

Let’s get started.

How do you prepare for a phone interview?

The first thing you want to keep in mind is that a phone interview should be short and sweet. The call mainly functions as an introduction and is typically no longer than 15-30 minutes. If you think the call is going to be longer than this, consider inviting the candidate to a video or in-person interview instead.

Part of ensuring an effective, time-efficient phone interview is to go in well prepared. Before you call up the candidate, you should:

  • Decide which questions are most important. Depending on the candidate, some questions may be more important to get answers to than others. Whether you’re using standardized phone interview questions or more personalized questions for your candidates, decide which ones to ask first to make sure the candidate answers them before you run out of time.
  • Have the candidate’s resume fresh in mind. It’s easier to ask follow-up questions if you already have an idea of the candidate’s background and competencies — so look through their resume one last time before you make the call.
  • Keep a notebook or device close by. Write down as much as possible during the interview — you’ll thank yourself later.
  • Set aside time to review your notes after the interview. In the moment of writing them, your notes might seem clear. However, we still recommend that you set aside time to review and rewrite your notes after the phone interview. If you don’t, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself trying to decode cryptic fragments of sentences in a week from now.
  • Take a break between interviews. If you’ve planned to have a few interviews in succession, give yourself time to reset between them. Have a break, and think about something else. Otherwise, you’ll likely start comparing candidates — and that part is for future you to worry about.

Finally, before we get into what questions to ask during a phone interview, it’s important that you also know how to ask them. Most phone interviews are screening interviews. They mainly function as an introduction. This means that the questions you ask should not be too complicated.

During the interview, you want to ask questions that let the candidate answer from their perspective. Avoid questions where the answer can be a simple "yes," or "no.” For example, don’t ask the candidate, "Do you want to work at this company?" Most candidates will simply answer "yes" — and that doesn’t tell you much about them.

As a recruiter, you want to understand why the candidate is interested in working for your org. So, instead, ask the question in a way that lets the candidate explain why they applied. For example, "What are three things that excite you about working at our company?"

That being said, let’s jump into our list of 10 common questions to ask candidates during a phone interview:

10 questions to ask candidates during a phone interview

  1. Tell me about yourself
  2. Why are you interested in working for our company?
  3. What sparked your interest in this role?
  4. What makes you feel motivated?
  5. What type of work environment do you thrive in?
  6. Why did you leave/are you leaving your current/last position?
  7. Which of your skills and previous experiences do you think would be most valuable in this position?
  8. What are your salary expectations?
  9. If offered this position, when would you be able to start?
  10. Do you have any questions?

1. Tell me about yourself

If you’ve interviewed for a position, you’ve likely been asked to tell the interviewer about yourself. The question is a classic — and with good reason.

Although simple, this question takes some preparation to answer. As a recruiter, you want the candidate to tell you about themselves in a way that’s relevant to the role. This requires the candidate to have thought about themselves in relation to the job. It also demonstrates their ability to pick out relevant information and present it in a structured way.

A good answer to this question includes:

  • Present — “Currently, I’m…”
  • Past — “Previously, I’ve been…” and
  • Future — “Now, I’m looking forward to…”

If the candidate’s answer doesn’t cover their present, past, and future, you can always ask follow-up questions. For example, “I'm curious about what you did before. How do you think your previous experience relates to this role?" or, "How do you think this role can help you achieve your future goals?"

2. Why are you interested in working for our company?

This phone interview question can give you an idea of how much research the candidate has done prior to the interview.

In their answer, look for specific mentions from the job posting, such as, “I appreciated the description of the company’s values and work culture.” It’s a big plus if the candidate highlights something about your org that isn’t included in the job ad — this shows that they’ve done their research.

It can also be interesting to hear how the applicant perceives your org and work culture. This can help you in later stages when it’s time to evaluate the hiring process. For example, you might learn that you need to develop a stronger employer brand, or that you could benefit from having a more transparent company structure.

Note: You can make it easier for candidates to prepare for the phone interview by showing them exactly how they fit into your org. Set up your company page and let The Org help you get the most out of the interview process.

3. What sparked your interest in this role?

For a candidate to thrive in the role, one of the most important things they need to have is motivation. Asking what sparked the candidate's interest in the role helps you gauge if their motivations align with the job requirements.

If the candidate refers to things mentioned in the job ad, it shows that they’ve carefully read and considered the description of the role. This is a sign of genuine interest — in both the role and your org.

4. What makes you feel motivated?

We mentioned it above: motivation is key. If a candidate doesn’t feel motivated to use their skills in the role, your org isn’t likely to get much out of those skills.

When asking this phone interview question, it’s up to you if you want to angle it towards what makes the candidate feel motivated professionally, or what motivates them in general. In their answer, look for motivations required to succeed in the role.

For example, if you’re hiring for the position of Team Lead, a good match could be someone who’s motivated by working in a team, helping others thrive, and meeting deadlines.

5. What type of work environment do you thrive in?

This phone interview question helps you determine if the candidate is a good cultural fit for your org.

Does the candidate thrive in a laid-back atmosphere, or do they prefer a more formal work environment? Do they enjoy after-work activities, or do they prefer to keep their work life and private life separate? Look for responses that line up with your work culture.

You want a candidate who likes the type of work environment you offer. After all, you, your team, and your new hire have to spend a lot of time together. That time will be both more productive and more enjoyable if you’re all on the same page about how to spend it.

6. Why did you leave/are you leaving your current/last position?

This question can tell you a lot about the candidate’s work ethic, attitude, and motivation for applying for the role.

It’s a good sign if the candidate is excited about new opportunities, growth, and interesting challenges. These things usually mean that the candidate genuinely cares about their professional life and career goals.

If the candidate was let go or fired from their previous job, this isn’t necessarily a red flag. Just make sure you pay attention to how they talk about this experience. You want someone who doesn’t badmouth their previous employer, but focuses on how the experience has made them a better and stronger employee.

7. Which of your skills and previous experiences do you think would be most valuable in this position?

You’ve read the candidate’s resume. You have an idea of their skills and previous experience — now it’s time to hear directly from them how they want to apply them to the role.

If the candidate gives examples aligned with the qualifications you're looking for, that's great! It’s even better if they provide clear examples of why they think these skills and experiences are valuable.

Depending on the role and the candidate, this is a good time to ask more personalized follow-up questions. This can help you determine if the candidate understands the finer details of the position they’re interviewing for.

8. What are your salary expectations?

This is a common phone interview question because it helps you quickly eliminate candidates who are outside your budget. This way, you can avoid bringing a candidate all the way through the recruitment process only to lose them when the topic of salary comes up.

It’s a good idea to tell the candidate exactly what you expect to pay them in this role. Their reaction will tell you if they’re comfortable with what you have to offer or if they’ll be looking for other offers elsewhere.

This question can also help you get an idea of the following:

  • Has the candidate researched the average salary range for the role?
  • What matters more to the candidate — the right salary or the right position?
  • Is the candidate open to negotiating on salary?

These questions can help you determine if the candidate is serious about the role and if they’re likely to be with your org long-term.

9. If offered this position, when would you be able to start?

You probably listed a starting date in the job posting, but the candidate might not be able to start on that exact date. For that reason, you should ask them when they can start — especially if you're in a rush to fill the position.

If you have two candidates who would both be an excellent fit for the role, it might come down to one being able to start three weeks earlier than the other. If you’re not in a rush, it’s still good to know when the candidate is able to start working for you, as it helps you strategize internally before that date.

10. Do you have any questions?

Last, but not least, you should let the candidate ask any questions they may have. The phone interview is usually the first direct contact the candidate has with your org, and they may want to hear more about their potential team members or other aspects of your company.

If the candidate asks questions, it’s usually a good sign. It shows that the candidate is curious and genuinely interested in what their professional life might look like if they get the job.

How to evaluate candidates after a phone interview

As mentioned above, a phone interview functions as an introduction — a first impression to help you gauge if you want to continue with the candidate or not.

After the phone interview, your questions hopefully give answers to the following:

  • Does the candidate seem excited about your org and the role you’re hiring for?
  • Why do they think they would be a good fit?
  • Which competencies can they bring to your org?
  • What motivates them?
  • Do you want to offer them a second interview?

When choosing which candidates to move forwards with, be careful not to let personal bias influence your decision. Studies show that recruiters might not always be aware of biased opinions, which can create a blind spot in the recruitment processes.

Focus on the evidence you’ve collected — this should be more than enough to determine if the candidate is a good fit.

Key takeaways

A successful phone interview helps you determine if you should proceed with the candidate to the next step of the hiring process.

To gather the information you need, you should:

  • Prepare for the call. Identify the most important questions, re-read candidate resumes, take notes during the call, and review and rewrite them after the interview.
  • Ask open-ended questions. Give your candidates the opportunity to answer in depth, and pay attention to what motivates them, if they’re a good fit for your work culture and environment, and how well they’ve prepared for the interview.
  • Ask follow-up questions if needed. Make sure to gather all the information you need to make the most informed evaluation of the candidate after the phone interview.

Once you’ve done the phone interviews and chosen which candidates to move forward with, it’s time to prepare for the second interview. Let’s move on to the next topic in our 10-step guide: common questions for in-person interviews.

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