Phone Interview Tips: 5 Questions You Must Be Able to Answer

chimp on the phone

Know what to say on the phone. | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If you’re looking for work in today’s hyper-competitive job market, you better be prepared for the phone interview. Online job boards and advertisements mean employers are inundated with resumes for the positions they want to fill. Recruiters and HR pros are looking for a quick and easy way to screen people before bringing them in for a face-to-face chat. The phone interview is a low-cost, relatively painless way to winnow down the applicant pool.

The phone interview may be an increasingly common step in the hiring process, but it can be difficult to prepare for. Not only do you have to worry about technical glitches, like dropped calls or background noise, but you can’t see your interviewer, which makes it harder to build rapport and gauge their response to your answers. Worse, if you blow the phone interview, your chances of being asked to come in for an in-person interview are basically nil.

“[T]his is probably your first point of real contact with the company,” Jeff Gillis of The Interview Guys explained in a blog post. “While you’re not going to land the job from phone interview (most likely) you certainly can lose it!”

To ace the phone interview, you need to understand what the interviewer is looking for. Usually, they’re trying to weed out candidates who might look good on paper, but aren’t really a good fit. Perhaps their skills aren’t quite as strong as they imply, their personality isn’t a good match, or their salary expectations are way off base.

Hireology, a company that provides hiring management software to businesses, has come up with a list of must-ask questions hiring managers should ask during an initial phone interview to help get the information they’re looking for. In other words, these are the questions you should be prepared to answer if you have a phone interview scheduled. From your biggest weakness to your salary expectations, here are five questions you’re likely to hear on your call.

1. What tasks are you good at? What do you consider a weakness?

phone interview

Tell the truth. | Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

What the hiring manager wants to know: They want to find out what tasks would be best suited to your experience, as well as identify areas where you might need extra training. They also want to avoid a bad hire that could hurt employee morale or the company’s bottom line.

What you should say: Be truthful. Sell your skills and accomplishments, but don’t claim you’re a whiz at something you’re not. The truth will eventually come out. When asked about weaknesses, don’t try to use the trick of framing a strength as a weakness. (“Sometimes, I just work too hard!”) Hiring managers will see right through you.

2. Can you tell me more about your experience with … ?


Give detailed examples. |

What the hiring manager wants to know: More than 75% of hiring managers have caught applicants lying on their resume, a CareerBuilder survey found. By asking you to explain your purported experience in more detail, they’re hoping to suss out whether your resume is real or fabricated. They also want to better gauge your level of expertise in a given area. Asking for specific details is a good way to do that.

What you should say: Give concrete, detailed examples of the experience in question. If the hiring manager is asking about your background with certain software, for example, tell her about how you use it in your day-to-day work or your professional certifications. If he’s inquiring about your experience with managing people, explain the number of people you supervised and the kind of projects you managed.

As with an in-person interview, how you answer this question can be as important as what you say. Stalling or the telltale clicking of a keyboard will let your interviewer know you’re not prepared and are struggling to come up with an answer on the fly.

3. What motivates you? What is your ideal work environment?

man slumped over his desk at work

Know about the company culture. |

What the hiring manager wants to know: Companies want happy, motivated employees. For one, it’s no fun to see an office fully of frowning faces every day. But more important, unhappy employees are a drag on the bottom line. Disengaged workers cost the U.S. economy between $450 and $550 billion in lost productivity every year, according to Gallup. Your answers to these questions tell the interviewer whether you’d be a good fit at work or have trouble getting into the office groove.

What you should say: Ideally, you’ve done some pre-interview research and already know something about the company culture. If you’re convinced you’d be a perfect fit in the office, make sure your answers reflect that. Stick with the words and themes the company uses to describe itself. Focus on your collaboration skills at a company that values teamwork, or your ability to problem-solve on the fly if the environment is high-pressure and constantly changing.

Be careful of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Pretending to be something you’re not in order to get the job (say, a laid-back creative type when you’re really a buttoned-up numbers guy), could possibly help land you an offer, but it also means you’ll probably be unhappy and more likely to quit.

4. Do you think you’d be a good fit for this position?

illustration of a happy employee

Decide whether you still want the job. |

What the hiring manager wants to know: While most employees quit because of low salary or limited opportunity for advancement, 10% leave because they’re bored, a survey by Robert Half found. Replacing an employee who quits costs anywhere from 16% to 20% of their annual salary. Naturally, companies would prefer their employees stay put. Employers want to avoid making the mistake of hiring someone who’s capable but disengaged, and therefore more likely to quit.

What you should say: Be honest. If, after hearing more about the position, you realize you’d be bored out of your skull, this is your opportunity to gracefully let the interviewer know. Don’t bad mouth the company, but you can say you’ve realized position isn’t a good fit for your career goals or the best match for your personality. Telling the truth won’t hurt the interviewer’s feelings, and will save you both a lot of grief.

5. What are your salary expectations?

Hand holding out money

Do your research.| George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images

What the hiring manager wants to know: They want to know if they can afford you – or if they’re going to get a bargain if they offer you a job. A hiring manager might also ask when you’re available to start, especially if they’re looking to fill the position as soon as possible.

What you should say: Let’s start with what you shouldn’t do, which is get flustered and pick a number off the top of your head, or just name your current salary. That locks you into a salary that may not be the one you want. Instead, you can try to dodge the question by asking what the employer’s salary range is or saying you want something that’s commensurate with your experience. But many interviewers will want a concrete number. Before the interview, do some research and come up with a range you’re comfortable with. “[C]hoose your range carefully, realizing that the employer may only focus on the lower end of it,” HR expert Alison Green wrote in U.S. News & World Report.

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