Hiring: The Phone Screen, 10 Minutes to Make It or Break It

12 min read
February 01, 2023

For as long as XYPN has had a hiring process in place, we've utilized the 10-minute phone screening as our preliminary interview stage to trim our applicant pool to the most promising candidates. Interviewing is a time-intensive job and phone screening helps you cut to the chase faster, identifying your best candidates early on. The phone screen isn’t about making a decision about whom you’re going to hire—its purpose is to identify candidates you’re certain won’t make the final cut.

The phone screen provides incredible benefits to you and your company, as well as to the interviewee. We’ll cover exactly what it is, why we use it, how we use it, and what you can do in your firm to ensure the 10-minute phone screen is as effective as possible.

What a Phone Screening Interview Is (and What It’s Not)

On average, we receive about 30 applications for every XYPN job posting. We use a four stage interview process to ensure we make the best hires for our team:

1) Phone screening

2) Virtual interview with the Department Director

3) Work sample

4) In-person interview with the Executive Team.

Out of the 30 applicants, we hope that the applicant pool is reduced by 60-70% after the phone screen. We could invest upwards of 10 hours per applicant, and we want to be especially sure we’re not wasting anyone’s time.

We hope to advance about 8-10 folks to the interview stage, where we can really learn more about the candidate and what they could bring to our team. By the time the phone screen process is complete, we should feel confident that our future teammate is sitting in the pool of candidates that will be advanced to the interview stage. Ideally, there are three or four top-notch candidates in that pool.

What the phone screening interview is:

  • A casual conversation

  • An introductory exchange with the candidate, both about themselves and about your company

  • An opportunity to gauge interest, passion and excitement for the position

  • An opportunity for the interviewee to ask pressing questions

  • An opportunity to let the candidates opt-out of the process

  • An opportunity to explain next steps

What the phone screen is not:

  • A full blown interview

  • An opportunity to talk the whole time about the position

  • An opportunity to create undue stress or nervousness in the candidate

  • Confirm bias (we’ll get to that soon)

  • An opportunity to invite the candidate to re-apply for other positions

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How to Prepare

We use Recruitee to manage our applications. Once the application is open and submissions start rolling in, we begin preparing for our first round of phone screening interviews.

Preliminary application review is important. You should spend five minutes on each application ranking the resume (asking questions like, “Does the candidate have the professional skills needed for the job?”) and cover letter (do they actually sound interested in the position?) on a scale of 1-5. Indicate on the same spreadsheet if there are any red flags like glaring typos, unthoughtful cover letters, or canned applications. You won’t use this to eliminate anyone, so don’t overthink this task. You’ll use this data to confirm your “gut instinct” and trust me, you’ll be surprised with how on point it is!

Before you begin scheduling calls, you should have an automatic scheduler (e.g. Calendly or ScheduleOnce) updated and ready with a “15 Minute Phone Interview” option to take calls. This automatically triggers an event on both of your calendars. Because the call is usually the same week, or even the next day, we do not send confirmation emails.

Our team typically reserves 15 minute phone slots for 3-4 days in a row, with no wait time in between. This allows us to get into a rhythm with the calls and process the applications in mass. You should send out a simple email within 48 hours of receiving the application, which can look something like this:

Hey Chris!

Thanks for applying for XYPN's Director of Advisor Success Position.

We've reviewed your application and I'd like to schedule a 10-minute phone call to talk about your experience and this position. Please use this link to schedule a call with me. 

Looking forward to connecting.

We find that when asking candidates for a phone screen, 10-15% of them never respond. Amazing! We’ve already narrowed the pool and we’ve only invested 5-10 minutes of our time. Most serious candidates will book a call immediately and not have issues with the time slots you’ve provided. If someone does, they will email and you can schedule an “off-hours” phone screen as needed (don’t dock them for this!). Repeat as each applicant comes in.

***There may be instances where you offboard the phone screen to another teammate. Be sure the teammate who is doing the phone screen is someone who embodies your culture, understands the position and team, and who has a “gut” you can trust. Ideally, this is someone who has worked intimately with the company and understands the company’s mission and goals.

Pro Tip: Grant this individual the autonomy they deserve. If you have a “must interview,” let them know that ahead of time so they can advance the candidate. But most importantly, don’t second-guess this person’s choices in ruling out candidates as it can quickly reduce the success of this stage by making your staff member question their gut (which can cause them to advance every candidate, rendering the whole process pointless!). 

The Phone Screening Interview Itself

At this stage, you should have roughly 25 phone screens (depending on how many applications you received) on the calendar ideally over the course of a few days. Get ready to knock them out! We rely on Recruitee, which allows us to record our notes on each candidate. If you type fast enough to catch the interviewee’s answers in their own words, great. If not, you can take some cliffnotes.

I begin every call the same to set the stage and assess their buy-in.

Me: Hi, this is Maddy Roche with XY Planning Network. Is this X?

Them: Yes it is! Hello!

Me: Great, thanks for scheduling this call. Is now still a good time to talk about the X position?
Them: Yes, yes it is. I’ve looked forward to chatting.

Me: Awesome. I don’t think we’ll talk longer than 10 or so minutes. I have just a few questions for you, and I’d love to give you an opportunity to ask me a few. How does that sound?

Them: That sounds great!

Me: Great. So….

Then I dive into three questions:

1. How did you first hear about this position?

We ask this question to make the candidate comfortable. It gives them an easy win and provides us some much needed context around how they found us. They may have been reading an article and we were mentioned, they may have been on our prospect list or job posting list, they may have been referred, they may have found us on Indeed or they may know someone on our team (extra plus!). All of these are awesome responses, especially if they’ve been patiently waiting for the ideal XYPN job to arise.

We’re not looking to judge this question too harshly, but it does give an opportunity to spot some red flags, like the following cringeworthy responses (and yes, these are real examples of responses we’ve heard over the years):

  • My mom is making me apply to jobs
  • I want a new job because X, Y, Z (which doesn’t answer the question)
  • I found you on Indeed because I hate my boss and I want a new job
  • I’m not totally sure, I’ve been applying to a million jobs
2. Tell me about what intrigues you most about this particular position?

This question is substantive, and we’re looking for a specific answer about what attracted the candidate to the position (this is also another opportunity to identify additional red flags). Ideal answers discuss the specific duties and responsibilities of the role, the department, the purpose of the role, and why a job like this fits their skill set.

You’ll know when you hear a good answer. They candidate will mention specific tasks they want to handle, and how they think the position fits within the company. Answers that show a candidate’s passion is aligned with the role—for example a response that screams “I love customer service” for a customer-facing job—are obviously the strongest. You’d be amazed with how few people understand that.

Weak answers include responses like “I’m looking for a cool new company to join”, “I like your culture handbook”, or “I have great project management skills that will lend themselves well to this position” (without ever telling us how). Those responses answer the question “Why do you want to work here?” not “What do you find most intriguing about this position?”

Red flag answers are things like, “I honestly don’t recall the position” or explanations about why they’re unhappy at their current job.

3. Tell me, in your own words and through your research, what does XYPN do?

This is a big question and sometimes can feel like a trick question, especially if the candidate’s answers to the first two questions were shaky. The point of this question is to tell if the candidate did any research before the 10 minute phone interview (and hopefully before they even applied).

This question trips folks up the most, and that’s okay because XYPN’s platform is unique. The candidates who slam dunk this question understand we’re a membership community, that we help advisors work with young people, and we help connect consumers to advisors. Conversely, candiates who don’t understand our company will say things like “You deal with investments”, “You work with Gen X and Y”, “XYPN helps people have money so they aren’t grumpy” (real answer), or other times, people pause for a second and then begin reading off our website.

Although some of these answers are immediate disqualifiers, this question provides an opportunity for us to clearly explain what XYPN does and gives the candidate more context if they proceed to the interview stages. We always either confirm that their intuition is correct, or clarify that we’re a membership organization supporting financial advisors across the country. We do not get into the fee-only and/or fiduciary conversation at this point. Most people applying for an entry-level job will need to do their research between now and their next interview to demonstrate that understanding. You should define what a good answer looks like for your individual firm.

Sometimes candidates blow through these questions and give only cursory responses, which may not be enough to judge them on (but is a red flag in and of itself). If someone answers those three questions in less than three minutes or so, I ask a final question:

[Bonus Question] Tell me about your current role and what you’re responsible for? 

This question again gives the candidate an easy win. If they weren’t passionate during the first three questions, they may begin to shine when talking about something familiar: their work. This is not the time for people to bad mouth their position or try to explain why your available position is better. This is a time to concisely answer what the scope of their current job is. If they sound passionate, interested, and genuine in their response, you’ve given them another opportunity to be advanced to the next stage of the hiring process. 

After this final question, you’ll open the floor to any questions the candidate has. It’s this stage that I find most eye-opening during an interview, especially if it was rocky from the get-go. XYPN shares our culture handbook online, and most candidates (if they’re smart!) will read it ahead of time to decide if XYPN is a company they want to work for.

However, candidates who lead with “Is the compensation negotiable?” or “Is it really true that you can take as many days off as you want?” are automatically disqualified. Questions about whether what we include in our culture handbook is really legit (it is!) should be asked further into the hiring process, not now. And questions that suggest the candidate is more interested in the benefits we offer than the position itself are huge red flags.

Candidates who use their time to ask questions like “Is this position a replacement or a new addition to the team?”, “What does the typical day look like?”, or “What do you think are the most important characteristics for success in this position?” show they are genuinely interested in the position and are trying to get more context to ensure the position is what they thought. It shows they value your time and opinion. These are the candidates you want to keep around.

Once you’ve asked your questions and they’ve asked theirs, explain the next steps in the hiring process. For example:

“This was really helpful. Thank you again for your time. For context, we’re phone screening all applicants this week and hope to have offers to interview out within the next two weeks. You’ll hear from me one way or the other within this time frame. However, if something comes up, you get a new job offer, or you’re no longer interested in the position, please let me know. If you are invited to our next interview phase, it will be virtual call with the department director. From there, we’ll narrow the pool down and request work samples. From there, we’ll have our top 3-4 candidates in for in-person interviews.” 

For people who very clearly aren’t qualified, but sound like promising candidates, I go a step further:

“We’ve had a number of applications for this position. If for some reason, you don’t proceed to the final interviewing stage, I encourage you to re-apply for other positions at XYPN.”

Throughout the interview, you’re looking for things like “I’ve read your blog”, “I saw on your website…”, or “I read X, Y, Z.” These kinds of statements show the candidate is genuinely interested and did their research.

If you were to advance only the candidates who made reference to having done their research, you’d have a great candidate pool. However, if they haven’t yet done their research, taking a chance and pushing them to the next round isn’t the end of the world. You’ll be able to tell during the next stage whether or not they’re a viable candidate. We tend to err on the side of interviewing, but I love that this process does a lot of the heavy lifting for us.

Other key qualities you’re looking for are confidence, articulation, energy, enthusiasm, candidness, and aggressiveness. If someone is demeaning on the phone, talks as if she/he already has the position, or isn’t excited about being on the phone with you, then they will likely be a time suck in the future. Trust your gut and cut them.

Candidates who say “I love what XYPN is doing”, “I’d be honored to work at a growing company like XYPN”, or “Financial planning and supporting access to it is my passion” get a few extra points in my book. Trust me, rock stars will slip those things in. People who say things like “I’m perfect for this job because X” in a monotone voice and without any charisma or excitement aren’t that interesting to me and will likely not fit well on the team.

Eliminating Unconscious Bias

You want to be sure you’re aware of and careful about unconscious bias. I steer away from the idea of a “culture fit” because I understand it’s a tool used to perpetuate institutionalized racism. I’m not looking for the next Maddy, and we’re certainly not looking for someone who is just like everyone else. We value uniqueness at XYPN and approach every phone screen with an open mind.

What we’re trying to decipher in this initial contact is simply whether a candidate is genuinely interested in working on our team and their level of passion for the positon and for being a part of XYPN. By the end of your review of applicants, there will be candidates who are, and applicants who clearly are not.

Wrapping Up the Process

Once you finish all your phone screens, rank the candidates 1-10. Then compare your numbers to the application data. You shouldn’t be surprised to find that the candidates with stellar applications did well on the phone screen.

If there’s someone who had an incredible application but failed the phone screen, don’t advance them. If you have someone who submitted a weaker application but had a stellar 10-minute phone interview, use your discretion in advancing them. We are strong believers that if a candidate doesn’t have the thought to perfect their application (and rid it of typos, for example), then they won’t work well on our team. We’ve found that in the unlikely event you cut a rock star from the running (which they likely aren’t if they didn’t impress you in the application or phone screen), then there’s a good chance they will reapply and push for a different decision.

Depending on if you have a close date on your application, you may find that you continue to do phone screens as you advance other candidates to the other stages of the hiring process. This just means you’re doing your due diligence to catch any remaining rock stars.

An effective phone screening process is your best defense against pointless, time-consuming interviews. The phone screen is a powerful hiring tool that helps identify your strongest candidates in the early phases of the hiring process. It saves you the time of interviewing weak candidates who clearly aren’t a good fit for your company, and serves as a nice and easy way to break the ice with potential candidates. It’s a great opportunity to get to know candidates beyond their resumes and cover letters without the formality of an interview. Incorporating an effective phone screening stage into your hiring process will help ensure you’re spending your time on the right candidates instead of wasting your time on the wrong ones.

Your firm, your terms. It can be done. Show me how.

XYPN Maddy Roche Headshot

About the Author

Maddy Roche is the Director of Getting Shit Done at XYPN, and has been getting shit done since she joined the team in May of 2014 when the Network was made up of our first 30 founding members. Since then, Maddy has worked with and welcomed each of the Network’s members, and helps all of them take advantage of XYPN membership. Maddy is responsible for member benefits and services, including management of vendor partnerships and member rollouts and initiatives. She manages the XYPN Member Experience Program.

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