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‘How Can I Make a Good Impression in Phone Interviews?’

Photo-Illustration: The Cut

Dear Boss,

I’m currently in the middle of a frustrating and fruitless job search after having lost my job when my company shut down its local office. I have more than a decade of professional experience in media and marketing, but now that I’m on a job search again, I’m encountering something frustrating: companies are relying much more on phone interviews than they used to, even when the job is local and I’m in the same city as them. Obviously this is very often the case now with the pandemic, but I was finding it to be so even before the lockdowns happened.
I understand doing an initial call with a person on the talent team just for screening purposes, but I’ve encountered multiple hiring processes where I then have a call with the hiring manager after clearing the screening stage. And I’ve had really good phone calls with hiring managers and it felt like we were on the same page and everything seemed primed to move to the next stage, but nothing has come of them. 
I find this process puts the interviewee at a disadvantage because it’s harder to build a rapport with someone over the phone than it is being able to sit across from them in person and make eye contact. It’s much harder to generate small talk — the calls tend to move straight into business much faster than they would if we were in person. And there’s no opportunity to even impress them on a sartorial level (like a nicely tailored suit that shows you care). It used to be you would get called in for an interview and often meet with multiple people right off the bat. So, what is the point of these phone interviews and how do you make a good impression when you’re just a voice on the other end of the line?

I’d argue that the increased use of phone interviews is actually a good thing, for both employers and job candidates.

Phone interviews let you get some immediate potential deal-breakers out of the way before you  invest the larger amount of time in-person interviews typically take. When a first interview is in-person, you might take time off work, maybe even set aside half a day, possibly buy a new suit, only to find out in the first 10 minutes that the job requires relocation or is something totally different than what you thought it was.

The same is true on the employer’s side of things. It doesn’t make sense to carve out time for an hour-long interview in-person before a shorter phone call to do some initial screening of the candidate. As someone who has interviewed literally thousands of candidates by phone, I can tell you that it’s often apparent in a short 15-minute call when someone isn’t right for the job — and I’d much rather figure it out that way than by asking them and me to invest time in meeting in-person. A phone interview lets me find out early that the candidate isn’t available for another six months when I need someone now, or that they have other interpersonal or logistical deal breakers (for example, weak communication skills or wildly out-of-range salary expectations), or that their experience isn’t as strongly matched with the job as I’d hoped from their resume. And that’s good for the candidate too — because it saves you from investing time in an in-person interview if the job isn’t the right match. Phone interviews let us both find that out much more efficiently.

Interestingly, all the reasons you list for preferring in-person interviews are things that employers really shouldn’t be factoring in for most jobs. Small talk helps build rapport, yes — but ultimately employers ought to be assessing you on your skills and experience. Managers shouldn’t hire based on who they most enjoyed chatting with; that tends to advantage people with similar backgrounds as their interviewers and disadvantages others (which can have significant implications along race, gender, class, and other demographic lines). Putting the focus on skills and experience more quickly is a good thing in that regard. Similarly with clothes — there are some jobs where sartorial choices matter, but it’s not something hiring managers should put much weight on for most jobs. So seen from that light, phone interviews can level the playing field a bit and that’s a good thing, even if it’s a little different from the interview set-ups you’ve been used to.

But it’s understandable to feel anxious about a process that you don’t think plays to your strengths. So here are some things to know about phone interviews that might help you feel more prepared for them and perform better when you have them.

You can build rapport — it just might not be through small talk. Phone interviews do tend to get to the point more quickly, so you probably won’t be doing a ton of small talk on the call. But as the interview unfolds, you can be conversational in your answers. You don’t need to — and shouldn’t — give stiff, rehearsed responses to every question; you should sound relaxed and collaborative, like you would if you were discussing a work project with a colleague. The best interviews are genuine conversations, and if you approach it that way, you might find it’s easier to connect on a human level with your interviewer.

Pay attention to your tone of voice. You and your interviewer can’t see each other’s eye contact or body language, so your tone of voice really matters. Make a point of sounding warm, upbeat, and engaged. (If you’re naturally more monotone, make a special effort to put more energy into your voice on these calls. One way to do that is to smile when you talk, since that will often come through in your voice.)

Treat it as a real interview. Some people treat phone interviews as informal get-to-know-you chats … and sometimes they are. But more often they’re real screening interviews, meaning that the interviewer is making a decision on the call about whether or not to move you forward in the process. They might end up just covering some basics with you, or they might end up asking a series of rigorous “tell me about a time when … ” questions and otherwise truly probing into your skills and accomplishments. That means you should prepare for the call in the same way you’d prepare for an in-person interview; don’t go in thinking you can wing it.

You can have notes! One big advantage of phone interviews is that you can have as many notes in front of you as you want. Obviously, you don’t want to sound like you’re reading from a script or for your interviewer to hear the shuffling of papers before you answer every question, but you can use notes to help you remember key points you want to cover or language for answering especially tricky questions — something that you can’t do as easily in-person.

Use the opportunity to get your own questions answered. Remember that phone interviews are supposed to benefit you, too, by giving you a chance to determine how interested you are before you invest more time in the process. In fact, the more you can see any interview as an opportunity for you to figure out if the match is right — rather than just waiting for the interviewer to render a judgment on you — the better you’ll likely come across! Hiring managers want to see that you’re thinking critically about whether the job is right for you, not just hoping to be hired, and when you show that you’re doing that, you’ll be a more appealing candidate.

You might never like phone interviews as much as you like in-person ones, but I think if you look at them through this lens, you can at least dread them less … and maybe even come to appreciate them.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘How Can I Make a Good Impression in Phone Interviews?’