Recruiters Nominate Their Favorite Phone Interview Questions

March 17, 2020

Photo of yellow rotary phone on table next to couch

Let’s face it: Phone screenings can be challenging. More often than not, it’s your first opportunity to have an in-depth discussion with your candidates, and there’s a lot of ground to cover in a short period of time. You have to make a great first impression, give them more information about the company and role, and gather all the information you need to make an informed decision — all in the course of one brief phone call. That’s why it’s so important to ask the right questions. 

To help you get more out of every screening, we asked recruiters to tell us their go-to phone interview questions. Here are 10 of the most useful, eye-opening, and creative questions they shared.

1. “How would your manager describe you? Now, tell me — how would your best friend describe you?”

Question nominated by: Krista Williams, global talent acquisition operations manager at FM Global

This is a popular phone interview question among talent acquisition professionals, as it can give you a glimpse into how candidates view themselves both personally and professionally — and how they want to be viewed. For Krista, it’s also a good way to test how engaged and happy they’ll be in the role.

“The similarities and variances between the answers to these two questions can tell you a lot,” she says. “I find that those that describe themselves fairly similarly in both instances tend to enjoy the work they are doing more than just as a job.”

It’s okay for candidates to act a little differently around their boss than they would around close friends — most of us do. But ideally, their answer shouldn’t indicate that they’re a totally different person outside of work. If they come across as authentic and open in the way they present themselves, then what you see is probably what you get. 

“If someone’s personality is similar in both work and personal situations, there tends to be greater transparency later in the interview process,” Krista says. “[That] helps decision-makers feel more connected to the candidates.”

2. “Can you share a story (about anything) that speaks to who you are from a values perspective?”

Question nominated by: Sharon Hulce, president and CEO of Employment Resource Group, Inc.

Your company’s core values should inform everything you do, so it’s crucial to hire employees who align with them. They don’t have to match up entirely, but if a candidate holds completely contradictory values, your company may not be a good fit for them.

By asking candidates to share a personal experience or story, you’ll start to learn more about how they think, act, and feel, helping you determine what their values are. For Sharon, the secret to getting the most out of this question is to always steer the discussion back to the candidate’s career, even if the story is drawn from their personal life. 

“The key is to be prepared,” she says, “and only discuss personal situations or characteristics as they relate to the candidate’s work ethic and the value that they would provide to the prospective employer."

3. “What inspired you to apply here?”

Question nominated by: Scott Vedder, senior facilitator at the Disney Institute (via LinkedIn

Lots of recruiters ask candidates why they want the job. But since this interview question is so common, many candidates come prepared with a canned response. That’s why Scott puts a clever spin on the question by asking about their inspiration for applying instead. 

“I found it produced far more robust, vivid stories than simply ‘Why here?’ or ‘Why are you applying?’” he says. “Asking about a candidate’s inspiration really got them talking.”

Unexpected interview questions, or twists on the old classics, give candidates pause for thought. Not only will this allow you to hear their unrehearsed answers, which may tell you more than one that’s been workshopped and practiced, but it will make the interview stand out in their mind. 

4. “What are some of the most important things you’re looking for in your next career move?”

Question nominated by: Michelle Stinziano, HR talent partner at Ross Video (via Twitter)

Another way to determine why the candidate is interested in this job is to probe them about their career trajectory. 

Many candidates don’t switch jobs just to do the same thing again. They want to take the next step in their career — whether that means moving up the ladder, learning new things, or switching gears entirely. Finding out what they’re looking for in their next move is a good way to gauge whether this is a role they can really grow into and thrive in. 

Look for answers that are closely aligned to what the job can offer. If a candidate is really invested in doing more hands-on work, for example, and your role will provide them with ample opportunities to do that, take note — and be sure to let them know. 

5. “What is one thing you want to change at your current organization?

Question nominated by: Sujaya Nag, senior human resources consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton (via Twitter)

Hearing what a candidate doesn’t like about their current organization can tell you a few things. First, it can give you a sense of whether they’ll be a good fit — because if the thing that irks them also applies to your organization (and can’t be changed), they likely won’t be satisfied in the role. Similarly, it can give you an idea of the conditions they need to do their very best work, since they’ll probably share why the thing they don’t like is negatively impacting them. 

As Sujaya points out, it also gives you a sense of the candidate’s level of tact — and how strategically they approach their work. 

“It gives me perspective,” Sajaya says, “on how deep the employee has been involved and also whether he badmouths his company.,”

6. “What are the top three tracks on the soundtrack of your life?”

Question nominated by: Eileen Miramontez, recruiter at Maxim Healthcare Services (via LinkedIn)

Not all phone interview questions have to be serious. Asking a lighter question like this can help put candidates at ease — while still giving you some useful information.

Rather than just listing three songs and leaving it at that, many candidates will share why they chose those songs and how they relate to major achievements or pivotal moments in their life. (If they don’t readily launch into an explanation, don’t be afraid to prompt them.) 

For example, a person might talk about how the song “You Learn” by Alanis Morissette makes them think about the moment they realized they were on the wrong path and made the courageous decision to switch careers. Or, they might mention that the song “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves sums up their personality because they’re a very optimistic and cheerful person. 

“Keeps it fun,” Eileen says, “but you can get a little deeper look at their personal experiences [and] what makes them, them.” 

7. “What style of coaching do you respond to?”

Question nominated by: Vanessa Duarte, permanent practice leader at Adecco (via Twitter)

Probing candidates about the style of coaching they respond best to can tell you how invested they are in their own growth and development. If they take an active role, then they should have many experiences they can draw on here to provide a thoughtful, nuanced answer. On the other hand, if they struggle to come up with an answer or suggest they don’t like or need to be coached, then they’re unlikely to have the mindset of a lifelong learner.

This phone interview question can also help you assess whether a candidate will get on well with their manager. Every manager has a different working style, so it’s useful to get a sense of how well they’ll work together if the person is hired. 

Plus, if you know what kind of coaching the candidate responds to, you can use this information to help them better prepare for their next interview, whether that’s with your team or, if it doesn’t work out, with another company. This might include giving them a few tips about what they did well or pointing them toward resources they might find useful. It only takes a few seconds, but candidates will really appreciate your effort — and they’ll view your company more positively as a result.

8. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” 

Question nominated by: Frank Ziegler, director of sales and marketing of electric powertrains at evLABS (via LinkedIn)

This playful phone interview question will do more than make candidates smile — it can help you test their curiosity. Even a highly accomplished candidate who loves their career may have things they still want to do in their life, and their answer will give you an idea of how big they dare to dream. 

Great answers won’t necessarily include a specific job title. Candidates may talk more fluidly about career goals they want to achieve or skills they want to be using, like working in a job where they can be creative or feel like they’re helping people.

Frank isn’t the only recruiter to favor this question: Stewart Butterfield, CEO and co-founder of Slack, also loves to ask this. As Stewart explains, “Good answers are usually about areas in which they want to grow, things they want to learn, things that they feel like they haven’t had a chance to accomplish yet but want to accomplish.”

9. “What is one thing under $10 you can't live without?”

Question nominated by: Pav Manchanda, financial controller at Boast.AI (via LinkedIn)

The simple things that a candidate can’t live without can shine a light on their personality. Maybe they’re an avid reader who never goes anywhere without a paperback novel tucked into their backpack. Or perhaps they’re a coffee connoisseur who needs a cup of artisanal Columbian roast to start their day on the right foot. Whatever their answer, it’ll help you get to know them a little better. 

For Pav, there’s another good reason to ask this question: If the candidate ultimately gets the job, their answer can help you surprise and delight them when they show up for their first day on the job.

“Hopefully [I can] buy them a related gift card for the first day!” he explains. 

10. “What didn’t I ask you about but should have?”

Question nominated by: Alice White, head of talent at X, the moonshot factory (via Twitter)

A great way to wrap up the phone screening, this question serves two main purposes. First and foremost, it allows the candidate to share any information that they really want you to know about them. This can give you a more rounded view of who they are and what they can bring to the role.

Secondly, it lets you see how closely the candidate has been paying attention and how invested they are in the role. It’s impossible to cover everything in a short phone screening, so if a candidate says you’ve asked all the important questions, then they may not have a great deal of passion for the job. 

Ask great questions, get great answers

Phone interviews and screenings are the beginning of a candidate’s journey with your company, so make sure that journey starts on the right foot. By asking creative interview questions like these, you can learn more about your candidates and improve their experience.

After all, it’s more interesting to be asked questions that really make you think, rather than ones you’ve heard — and answered — a dozen times before. Candidates will appreciate that your company probed a little deeper to really get to know them, and you’ll have richer information to make an informed decision.

Once you’re ready to schedule interviews with the hiring manager and other members of the interview panel, you’ll need a whole new list of questions. For help strengthening your interviews and ensuring everyone on the interviewing team is prepared, explore our interview question generator, which lets you create customized, printable guides tailored to the traits you want to screen for.

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*Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash