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October 26, 2020

Phone Interview Questions: 13 Non-Cliché Questions from Top HR Straight Shooters

Thought bubble stating "Tell us about yourself"

Gone are the days of traditional interview questions. 

In fact, the parameters of ‘normal interviews’ have shifted altogether, as many companies have been forced to skip out on in-person interviews completely. 

Candidates now expect the option to interview via phone or video call—and for recruitment pros and hiring managers, this means totally reframing their approach to interview questions. 

But the challenge doesn’t end there. 

Alongside the ‘remote vs. in-person’ dilemma, interview questions are evolving. Many companies have moved away from predictable questions like, “What’s your best quality?” to more nuanced alternatives like, “What prank would you pull on your new manager?” (We know which one we prefer. 😜)

In other words: times are changing—and as an HR pro or people leader, you need to make sure your phone interview approach can keep up with the competition.

To help you develop an awesome phone interview process, we’ve asked some of the world’s best HR and talent experts to share their favorite phone interview questions and top remote interview tips.

Check it out! 

13 non-cliché phone interview questions nominated by top HR experts

Phone interview question #1.  What are you looking for next?

“One person’s perfect job is another person’s nightmare job. So, it’s important to make room to get to know the person on the other end of the phone and not make assumptions about their vision, mission and goals.” Laura Mazzullo, Owner at East Side Staffing

As owner of NY-based boutique recruitment firm, East Side Staffing, Laura Mazzullo is an HR pro who knows her stuff.

Her recruitment style is all about aligning the company mission with the candidate’s goals.

“We don’t see enough employers asking candidates what they are looking for next. So often, [company’s use] a phone interview as a sales pitch, without understanding if it’s even aligned with the goals of the person on the other end of the phone! That’s why my favorite question is ‘What are you looking for next?’ I break it down deeply with the candidate (ideal boss, role, environment, etc.) to see if the role is aligned with their goals.”

For Laura, phone interview questions should be based on data—that includes both current market trends and employer data. 

“In today’s market, many [candidates] are looking for a value-alignment in their next opportunity—they want to ensure the company’s mission is meaningful to them.”

“They also want to ensure the role is dynamic and interesting, and this is defined differently by each person. When HR pros prepare questions for employers, they should look at their data to find out what they’re looking for next (I show how to gather this data in my webinars/1:1 coaching sessions). This will help them evaluate if it’s a match based on what they’re looking for and what the employer has to offer. So, if you know you need a boss who has a supportive coaching style, you need to ask them to directly describe their leadership style—and then evaluate your interest in the opportunity accordingly!”

And that’s not all—Laura’s biggest tip is to stay focused on the candidate and avoid an unrequited love scenario.

“Generally, questions need to be based on the core competencies required for the role and the candidate’s interest (avoid unrequited love here! It doesn’t matter if you want them, do they want you back?!). Candidates need to ask questions based on their goals/desires (which they should write down beforehand to hold them accountable and help them stay on track).”

Laura’s top phone interview tip? Be authentic.

“A great phone interview is when both parties show up authentically, are curious to learn more about the other party and feel comfortable to address concerns and ask clarifying questions. A great phone interview is one where both parties feel respected, heard, and valued and where both parties feel they have much more clarity afterwards than at the start of the call.” Laura Mazzullo, Owner at East Side Staffing

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Phone interview question #2. How would you support your team through tough times?

“You want team members and leaders to be able to identify how they have contributed to their team’s wellbeing or how they would support a team during these times.”Tanjia M. Coleman, President at Reimagine Organizational Development, Inc.

With 18+ years as a senior level HR pro in non-profit and Fortune 100 companies including Microsoft, Starbucks and Motorola, Tanjia Coleman has got experience and then some.

For her, great phone interview questions boil down to two simple things:

  1. Incorporating current trends and challenges.
  2. Understanding how the candidate can contribute to team wellbeing. 
“[My top phone interview questions are] ‘What specific initiatives have you taken to support your team through these current times?’ (For example, COVID/Social and racial injustices and unrest/Kids being home-schooled). You want team members and leaders to be able to identify how they have contributed to their team’s wellbeing or how they would support a team during these times. [I’d also ask] ‘What practices have you initiated to ensure business objectives are met while working virtually or with a partial-virtual team?’”

Tanjia’s top phone interview tip? Try the STARS model.

The STARS model helps break down the candidate’s thought process as they answer a question. 

“Use the STARS interview model to explain your contributions:

  • Situation: [What is the situation the interviewer wants to know about?]
  • Task: [What task was the candidate trying to accomplish?]
  • Action: [What did the candidate do to achieve their goal?]
  • Result(s): [What happened because of the candidate’s action?]
  • Sustainability: [How likely is it this action would be repeated in a similar situation?]” 

Phone interview question #3. How do you stay relevant?

“Is a phone interview question different from any other kind of interview question?” Tim Sackett, President at HRU Technical Resources

Tim Sackett is a recruiter who can dance. From his high energy keynote speeches, to the straight-talking HR Podcast he co-hosts, Tim is a whirlwind of HR-focused energy that’s hard to miss.

In typical Tim style, when it comes to phone interview questions there’s only one way to roll: get straight to the point by asking hard-hitting questions (or even get them to interview you).

“Is a phone interview question different from any other kind of interview question? I mostly hire recruiters, so I like to have them call me and interview me. You can find out a lot by how someone does this and what they ask. For non-recruiter interviews, I would want to know how they develop themselves and keep themselves relevant within their industry on an on-going basis. I find some many people will say, ‘OMG! Recruiting is my LIFE!’ and then you ask them about that and their basic answer is, ‘Well, I mean I've been recruiting for five years and I come to work.’ So, basically you do the job and nothing else?”

Tim’s top phone interview tip #3? Lose the distractions.

“Get yourself in a position where you won't have distractions and you won't have interruptions. The last thing you need is a TV on silent in the background or your computer screen and you actually miss a keyword or phrase of someone talking to you on the other end. If you can't get yourself isolated, let the interviewer know that, so they aren't surprised when it happens. Unlike face-to-face, you need to have higher levels of concentration during a phone interview.”

Phone interview question #4. What are your strengths and weaknesses?

“You will never improve on a weakness you don't acknowledge, and you will never take advantage of a skill that you master.” —Mawande Molosi, Head of Talent at Hlika Mawa Ltd

Head of Talent at South-African-based Hlika Mawa Ltd, Mawande Molosi lives and breathes recruitment—and as a globally recognized talent specialist, he knows a great interview question when he sees one.

“My favorite phone interview question is ‘What are your key strengths and weaknesses?’ I love this question simply because I get to understand whether or not the candidate is aware of their strengths and weaknesses. Self-awareness is key to high performance. You will never improve on a weakness you don't acknowledge, and you will never take advantage of a skill that you master.”

Mawande’s top phone interview tip? Create a relaxed atmosphere.

“Start by telling the candidate about yourself in order to get them relaxed and ask questions that will give insights on the key skills you are looking for. Don't be too broad by asking generic questions.”

Phone interview question #5. What are you reading right now?

“Recruiters need to be mindful that they will miss important body language cues on a phone interview.” Dr Marcia Robinson, Founder of Raye Martin Group LLC

Dr Marcia Robinson is an inclusion-focused HR expert who helps organizations navigate what she’s dubbed the #Raging2020s. 🙈

To stay at the top of her game, Marcia needs to understand current trends—which is why her favorite question is all about keeping up-to-date during uncertain times. 

“[My favorite phone interview question is] ’What periodicals are you reading right now or in which professional association do you hold current membership?’ I like this question because it gives me good insight into if/how connected the candidate is to the profession and their work. It doesn’t require a long answer which makes it great for a phone interview, but it could tell more about the person’s interest and their connection to contemporary practices.”

Marcia’s top phone interview tip? Take note of energy and tone.

“Recruiters need to be mindful that they will miss important body language cues on a phone interview so it’s possible to misinterpret a candidate’s energy or tone.”

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Phone interview question #6. How are you misunderstood?

“Recruiting is both a team sport and a game of solving the puzzle of fitability.” —William Tincup, President at Recruiting Daily

If you’ve been in the HR world for long, you’ve heard of William Tincup. As well as being President of HR network Recruiting Daily, host of The Use Case Podcast and an undeniable HR influencer, William also rocks a 270K+ social following. Pretty cool, huh?

When it comes to William’s fave phone interview question, he’s all about thinking out-of-the-box.

“[My top interview question is] ‘We're all misunderstood from time to time, how are you misunderstood and why do you think that is?’ I like this question because to some degree it's true, we are all misunderstood. I want the candidate to unpack the question, reflect/be insightful about themselves, and give the answer they believe to be true. No ‘right’ answers per se, it's more of a thought process. Can the candidate share vulnerability, can the candidate be honest with themselves/me about said vulnerability and can the candidate explain why they feel misunderstood from time to time.”

William’s top phone interview tip? Create a safe space.

“The dialogue(ish) that I use with candidates is: ‘Let start with the rules. This is a two-way interview, I'll ask questions of you and you'll ask questions of me (about the company, CEO, job, hiring manager, hiring process, etc). In terms of me, no question is off-limits. I'll answer honestly about everything you ask. If I don't have a good answer, I'll ask folks at the firm and get back to you with a decent answer. Seem fair? Okay, before we get started, what would you like to get out of the call today?’”

“I want to create a safe place for the candidate and myself to talk openly about the gig and see if they're a fit for the role. The goal of any great candidate interview is to get closer to answering the question of fit to the open position. In 15/30/60 minutes, can we get closer to answering that question? Notice I said ‘we’ as it’s just as important for the candidate to answer the ‘fit’ question. You want to visualize them in the position and they should want to visualize themselves in the position. Recruiting is both a team sport and a game of solving the puzzle of fitability.” 

Phone interview question #7. Why would you choose to leave?

“It's important to ask different questions and probe for different answers.Andy Crebar, CEO at Sapling

Andy Crebar believes in elevating the employee experience—and that starts with a quality interview. 

For Andy, the questions you choose should reflect the company culture you want to achieve. Which is why his favorite phone interview question helps him understand what employees really want from their working experience.

“If you come to me in a year and said ‘Hey Andy, this isn’t working out for me and I'm moving on’, why do you think that would be?”

Andy’s top phone interview tip? Get candidates off script. 

“Get the candidates off script! It's important to ask different questions and probe for different answers versus the basics of 'what are your strengths, what are your goals etc.’—tell me about your family, if you were an animal, what would you be and why etc. This helps lighten the mood and will provide different content to explore and better understand people.”

Phone interview question #8. What would you win an award for?

“Employers need to remember that any form of interview (including a telephone conversation) is a form of branding.”—Melanie Peacock, Founder of Double M Training and Consulting

HR pro Melanie Peacock believes you can do a lot with just one simple question—and with over 30 years of HR experience under her belt, she’d know.

“[My top question is] ‘You are presented with a national award for your contributions and achievements. What would you want this award to be for and why?’ This question reveals a great deal about a candidate. What are their passions and interests? What activities provide meaning and purpose to them? It is a powerful question that provides the opportunity for much to be shared.”

Melanie’s top phone interview tip? Be respectful.

“My top tips would be the same as those for an in-person interview:

  • Provide the candidate with complete information prior to the interview. Who will be conducting the interview, length of interview and the overall structure of the conversation.
  • Ensure that questions have been planned and that all candidates are asked the same queries. This provides for a more consistent and fair evaluation.
  • Open the interview by setting the candidate at ease. Be conversational and provide an overview of the process to ensure that the candidate understands what is about to occur.
  • Take notes to ensure that you remember the responses.
  • Stick to the timelines. Begin and end as scheduled.
  • Ensure that you leave time for the candidate to ask questions as well. 
  • Provide information and a timeline for the next steps. The candidate needs to be informed.
  • Overall, employers need to remember that any form of interview (including a telephone conversation) is a form of branding. Regardless of the outcome, you want the candidate to remember that they were treated in a professional and respectful manner.”

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Phone interview question #9. Tell me about yourself

“It's natural to want to ‘talk’ and ‘tell’ as a recruiter… [but] the power is being able to listen, connect and learn a candidate's story.”Colleen Drennen Pfaller, Founder and CEO at A Slice of HR

Colleen Drennen Pfaller’s internationally-recognized HR biz and unmissable HR blog has gained her a reputation as an HR powerhouse.  

So, it’s no surprise that Colleen knows a good interview question when she sees one.

“‘Tell me about yourself’ [is my top phone interview question]. I know it seems basic but it's powerful and telling how a candidate responds. Do they talk about work? Personal Stuff? Do they ask clarifying questions? Do they talk for 15 minutes straight without taking a pause?”

For Colleen, the key to a great interview lies in the ability to listen. 

“It's natural to want to ‘talk’ and ‘tell’ as a recruiter—I mean, we do tend to have great personalities😉. The power is being able to listen, connect and learn a candidate's story. Our job is to observe and look for connections between their passions and the culture of the company and the role of the open position.”

Colleen’s top phone interview tip? Talk no more than 20% of the time.

“Along the same lines, you should do only about 20% of the talking during the interview—a great interview should feel like a discussion. Be open to take the conversation to where the candidate wants it to go so they can decide if it's the right fit for them. A rookie mistake is to ‘sell’ a candidate on a job only to have them turn it down in the offer process—often that is because you didn't uncover what is important to them, you only focused on your objectives. Hiring is a two-way street. At my company, we like to think of recruiting more like matchmaking than hiring.”  

Phone interview question #10. How did your proudest work achievement impact other people?

“It’s up to you to make sure you aren’t biased.”Shally Steckerl, President of The Sourcing Institute

As a founding father of Talent Sourcing, Shally Steckerl is already a mainstay in the HR hall of fame—he’s even been dubbed ‘The Elvis Presley of Sourcing’. 🤘

For Shally, the best phone interview questions are simple, allow candidates to brag a little, and tell you a lot about their team spirit. 

“[My favorite phone interview question?] Describe how your proudest achievement at work impacted your co-workers.”

Shally’s top phone interview tip? Be aware of introvert-bias.

“It’s up to you to make sure you aren’t biased towards extroverts, so be aware of introverts. They may not like small talk unless they have something to say. Small talk can make introverts feel uncomfortable so don’t think they are being rude if they just don’t see the relevance. Introverts may also undersell themselves, their lack of bravado is not disinterest in the job. Extroverts tend to respond more quickly. Allow introverts time to process and answer your question.” 

Phone interview question #11. Tell me something that others may be surprised to know about you.

“Always keep the principles of the in-person interview in place—ask questions but keep them short and listen.” Jenni Stone, HR Director and Partner at HR Shield, a division of FIRM Consulting Group

With 20+ years in HR, Jenni Stone is an official HR rockstar—and when it comes to phone interview questions, she keeps it fresh by finding out unexpected info about her candidates.

“[My top question is] ‘Tell me something about yourself that others may be surprised to know about you.’ Phone interviews can be impersonal, and this question is an opportunity to learn something very interesting and real about a candidate that might otherwise not come up in a standard interview.”

Jenni’s top phone interview tip? Be present and don’t dominate.

“Be present. Are you prepared and familiar with the candidate’s background and role they are being considered for? Often phone interviews are conducted in a rush, or in a few minutes between meetings. Focus on the candidate. Don’t dominate the conversation, you should only be talking 20% of the time. Always keep the principles of the in-person interview in place—ask questions but keep them short and listen.”

Phone interview question #12. What’s your proudest accomplishment?

“With follow up questions, the interviewer should get specifics, such as individual vs. shared accomplishments, etc.” Mary K. Williams, Registration Director and Board Member at DSHRM

Mary Williams is a top-level talent leader and influencer, and her insightful Twitter account is the place to be when you need an HR pick-me-up.  

For Mary, a great phone interview question allows you to dig deep. 

“If I have to pick just one question to ask a candidate, it’s, ‘What is your proudest career accomplishment? Tell me about it.’ As the candidate identifies this, I ask follow up questions—was this an individual or team accomplishment? (Listen to their answer, do they share credit with the team? What insights does this provide for what type of teammate they would be?) Was there an award or recognition given? Did they value the award or recognition? (This gives the interviewer the opportunity to see how motivated the candidate is). How was the accomplishment achieved? What was the impact of this achievement on career growth?”

Mary’s top phone interview tip? Use follow up q’s to unearth the specifics.

“With follow up questions, the interviewer should get specifics, such as individual vs. shared accomplishments, barriers and challenges overcome (what did they learn?), ‘bottom line’ results (quantifiable?), etc.” 

Phone interview question #13. How well do you work with a manager?

“Interviews are a great way to not just find out information about candidates, but to sell your company as a great place to work.”Micole Garatti, CEO of SocialMicole

As CEO of SocialMicole and Author of The Most Inclusive HR Influencer List, there’s no denying Micole Garatti knows her HR stuff. 

Micole’s rules for a great interview are all about understanding the job market and using your knowledge of current trends to influence your choice of questions. 

“The number one reason people voluntarily leave a job is because they don't get along with their boss. That's why one of my favorite interview questions is, ‘How do you like to work with a manager?’ This allows candidates to share their preferred work style and HR pros to match candidates with recruiters who will work well with a hiring manager.”

Micole’s top phone interview tip? Sell your brand.

“Interviews are a great way to not just find out information about candidates, but to sell your company as a great place to work. Do your research ahead of time and be prepared to speak about the personality of the team, why the position is open, what kind of person would succeed on this team and in this role, and then bring up things that every candidate wants to know like compensation, benefits, and culture. Even more, be transparent about the salary range. Don't make candidates guess.”

Bonus phone interview tip: Be engaged

“You can’t expect candidates to be engaged if you’re not engaged yourself.” Steve Browne, Vice President of HR at LaRosa's, Inc.

Our final tip comes from Steve Brown, Vice President of HR at LaRosa's, Inc.

According to Steve, the best interviews happen when you’re most engaged—something to be conscientious of when your interview is remote.

“Be engaged when conducting the interview!! You can’t expect candidates to be engaged if you’re not engaged yourself. This is especially true with remote interviews like telephone or video. Your energy and engagement reflect the culture of your company.”

Remote interviews aren’t easy, but as long as you’re structured, positive and set candidates at ease, the rest will fall into place.