4 phone interview questions you need to ask
Phone screening interviews are an essential tool in any recruiter’s toolbox.

But exactly what questions should a recruiter ask to get the maximum value out of the process? We ask the experts their top questions – and why they ask them.

“What is it about the role that attracted your attention?”

“Candidates may have applied for multiple roles,” says Dan Arden, recruitment consultant at Davidson. “Are they really interested, or just throwing CVs out there? Do they understand what they’ve applied for? If not, they’re not a very engaged candidate.”

“I want to understand the key takeaways that they got from the advertisement,” says Sunil Daniel, principal for executive search with Halcyon Knights. “What sparked their interest?  The role? The company?  A good answer is often the opportunities that the role presents for development.”

Daniel is generally looking for ‘80/20 capability vs. stretch’. “We need a level of ambition, but too little capability is too much risk for the client.”

“What are you looking for in your next role – and where do you see it leading?”

For Daniel, this helps in answering a number of questions. “What is their skill set, and what’s their next step? Is this really the right role for them, and where can it take them? Ideally, we want to place someone in a role and see them develop, and over time, become an advocate for the recruiter.”

Daniel always wants to get a sense of what prompted the response to an advertisement.  “Often with senior candidates, someone will have shown them the ad. They may have hit a ceiling in what they’re doing, but if their motivation is about a new challenge, that’s a positive.”

“Give us an example of your previous experience…”

“Candidates need to demonstrate they have the direct skills and experience for the role”, says Neil Dickson, general manager at Xpand. “If facilitating meetings is a requirement, ask them, when was the last time they facilitated a good meeting.”

“Get them to really talk about their role,” says Arden. “If they’re really passionate, you may wonder why they want to move, and if there may be a counter offer from their current employer.”

“Tell me about yourself…”

The simplest questions can often be the most revealing.

“I like to get an understanding of the person on the phone,” says Leigh Petridis, practice manager technology at Xpand. “Married, children, hobbies? I always ask the client about the demographics of the current team, as they’ll be spending a lot of time together.”

“Candidates are prepared for technical questions,” says Dickson. “Getting them to talk outside of that domain gives us an idea of their personalities, and their ability to adapt to different subject matter.”

Daniel has a variety of questions to get candidates out of their comfort zones. “’Tell me about the best leader you’ve worked for, and what was it about them that inspired you?’ is a good one,” he says. 

“Another is, ‘what does success mean to you?’ as this speaks to their thought processes. Is their definition of success individual or team focused? ‘How do you motivate yourself?’ is another, as it allows me to evaluate their work habits.”

The ‘watch outs’…

Dickson always asks about any short tenures on a CV. “Everyone fails at some point, but it’s important how candidates address this issue,” he says. “The better people can rationalize why it happened, what they learned, and why it won’t happen again.”

If candidates are evasive about a direct question, either technical or personal – what Dickson calls ‘the politician’s response’ – then recruiters should insist on a proper response. “Our job is not to be distracted from the fact they haven’t answered,” he says. “Don’t be aggressive, but rephrase and pursue the line.”

On salaries, Daniel is always curious how quickly a candidate broaches the subject. “If it’s the first question, then there’s an issue about motivation,” he says.

“Do they have an off-centre idea of what that role is paying in the marketplace?” asks Arden. “If they are 20k or 30k out, then find out their justification for that salary.”

For Arden, the ‘watch out’ questions are often job specific. “For a sales job, I’d ask ‘what have you sold?’ And remember that job titles may mask what a candidate actually does. You may find that a ‘marketing manager’ is actually a one-man band.”


Whatever the outcome of a phone screening, recruiters should always leave a candidate feeling they had a positive experience.

“I always try to make phone screenings memorable and valuable to the candidate,” says Petridis. “Candidates who are active talk to a lot of people, so make sure they always get some value out of it.”