Maintaining "Ear Contact": Top Tips for HR Telephone Interviews

Let’s face it; telephone interviews are only getting more common. Long gone are the days when senior HR Leaders were hired on the basis of just one interview. Nowadays it has become the norm for a successful HR recruit to require the approval of a large and complex group of international decision-makers and stakeholders. Some of us predicted that video interviews would supersede phone interviews, and indeed they have become more prevalent. But it’s not always possible for an HR Leader to leave their place of work to travel to a videoconference facility, and informal videoconferencing tools, such as Skype, are often banned from the workplace. Rarely will a company take the decision to fly an entire shortlist of HR candidates to its global or regional HQ, so in most cases we’re still stuck with the telephone.

How do you make the most of the telephone interview? Here is a quick list of pointers for both HR interviewers and interviewees to keep in mind, particularly when speaking internationally.

1. Speak slowly and clearly.

The most obvious point first: make sure you can be understood. This is particularly important when speaking with someone whose native language isn’t the same as yours, but it can be equally significant when speaking the same language. Phone lines can still be temperamental, there might be background noises that are off-putting, and it’s just that much harder to be sure that the message is getting through in the way you intend. If you speak slowly and clearly, you minimise the risk of being misunderstood.

2. If you didn’t hear something, don’t wing it.

It’s very tempting not to disturb the natural flow of a conversation, but when you didn’t hear something properly, it’s quite dangerous to try and guess what was said. It is always safer to politely ask the other person to repeat the last thing they said. This avoids the confusion and potential resulting irritation of answering a different question to that which was asked. In HR interviews, this can often ‘make or break,’ because communication and comprehension skills are, of course, critical to the success of an HR Leader.

3. Be succinct!

There is nothing worse than being on the end of the phone line with the other person droning on, not allowing you a chance to speak. In a face-to-face meeting, it’s much easier to read the visual signals that you’re losing the interest of the other person. It is of course more difficult to judge this over the phone. If in doubt, keep your sentences shorter and allow pauses so that the other person has a chance to interject when necessary.

4. ‘Ask permission’ to go into more detail about specific points.

Sometimes being succinct is just not enough, and it’s necessary to go into more detail, in order to properly convey a point, or to illustrate your involvement in one project or another. The best way to do this is to first answer the question in a short and direct manner. Afterwards, ask a question yourself, such as ‘Actually I can explain that in more depth, if that would be useful?’ This will allow the person on the other side of the phone to either let you continue, or decide to move onto another topic, which is more relevant to the position. Again, you minimise the risk of boring the other person about a topic that is not pertinent.

5. Be specific!

We’ve all heard tired phrases such as, ‘I’m more of a strategic HR Business Partner, rather than an operational HR Generalist.’ If you end your sentence there without giving any extra context, you run the risk of it coming across as a meaningless and empty statement. Be sure to illustrate the ‘larger’ points with as many concrete examples as possible, so that the other side knows what you mean and can see how you convert general ideas into concrete practices.

6. ‘Ear Contact’: Be interested and engaged.

As with eye contact in a face-to-face interview, be sure to maintain ‘ear contact,’ to ensure that both sides are engaged in the conversation. People can tell when the other person on the telephone line isn’t focusing on the discussion, in the same way that it’s obvious in person. Don’t be tempted to play with your iPhone or go online to book your theatre tickets while you’re on a call like this, just because you can’t be seen. In our current age of electronic information overload, you’d be surprised how many people forget this!

7. Be yourself. But if in doubt, be polite.

We all know that the best interviews are those where you can be yourself, and let your questions and answers come out naturally and authentically — and to some extent, even casually. This is particularly salient in HR, because people are not just looking at your hard skills; they’re assessing you on your personality, empathy, approachability, chemistry and influencing skills. The same goes for phone interviews, but the added danger is that you can’t see the whites of the eyes of the person with whom you’re speaking. Even when the conversation feels relaxed, be aware and don’t let your guard slip too much, because you may be falling into a trap. If in doubt, keep it polite and professional.

8. And finally… Cheat!

The great thing about phone interviews is that you can look at reference notes. While you need to be very good at asking and answering questions ‘off the cuff’ in a personal setting, there’s nothing stopping you preparing crib notes for a phone interview. Be sure to write down the key points you want to raise, any key names, numbers or details that you might otherwise forget in the moment of the interview, and whatever else you think might help you to relax and feel prepared. For all the potential pitfalls of the phone interview, this is the one key advantage that can help you go from ‘good’ to ‘great’ in the mind of the interviewer.


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