Use the Phone Interview to Convert Strangers into Acquaintances

Use the Phone Interview to Convert Strangers into Acquaintances

The phone screen is the single most important tool in any manager’s or recruiter’s hiring toolbox. Here’s why:

  • The phone screen is the first time all of the decision-makers in the hiring process have a chance to agree on whether it’s worth proceeding or not, and if the process is effective. Candidates learn if the job is worth seriously considering. Hiring managers learn if their recruiters can source and recruit top-tier talent and if the candidates are worth meeting onsite. Recruiters learn if the people they’re recruiting are good enough to get hired and, if so, if they’re interested in the job, and, if not, what they need to do to find stronger and more hirable talent.
  • The phone screen is a great tool for converting strangers into acquaintances. This is critical since acquaintances and strangers get sourced, recruited and interviewed differently. Most critical though is that the performance of acquaintances is far more predictable.

The reason hiring acquaintances is more predictable is that these people are hired based on their known performance doing comparable work in comparable situations. Strangers, on the other hand, don’t get this free pass. Instead, they’re first screened on their level of skills, experiences and academic background and then assessed in large measure on the quality of their presentation skills, first impression and personality.

This difference is shown in the graphic. Strangers need all of the skills and experiences listed on the skills- and experience-laden job description before they’ll even be considered. Acquaintances, on the other hand, are judged on the “Ideal Mix” criteria before they’re even approached for the role.

This always seemed odd to me since hiring managers and recruiters were eliminating excellent candidates for reasons that were unrelated to the person’s ability to do the work.

As a recruiter I didn’t like to lose strong candidates for these types of non-sensical reasons. Convincing hiring managers to assess strangers the same way they hired and promoted acquaintances seemed like a workable approach.

When I asked hiring managers to describe why they were confident that a person known to them who was hired or promoted into the role would be successful, it always related to knowing the person’s past performance doing comparable work under similar conditions with similar types of people. They went on to say that to attract these people they also had to offer a better job with more rapid growth to get them initially interested and ultimately hired.

I suggested there were no reasons strangers couldn’t be assessed the same way. This starts by first replacing traditional skills-based job descriptions with performance profiles defining the job as a series of 5-6 KPOs (key performance objectives). For example, for a product manager one KPO could be, “Lead the effort with engineering to prepare a complete product requirements spec within 90 days.” During the interview you then need to ask strangers for examples of accomplishments most comparable to these KPOs. This is how to bridge the stranger vs. acquaintance assessment gap and level the playing field.

To find highly qualified strangers, instead of searching on skills, it turned out it was better to search for a few people who had been formally recognized for doing outstanding work handling similar kinds of projects. While I could write a book or design a course on how to do this, this approach was always more effective than posting a boring job description and hoping some remarkable people apply.

After identifying these people, it was just as important to go slow. This “go slow” approach is generally what happens when first contacting an acquaintance who might be a good fit for the job. That’s why the exploratory phone screen is so important. In this case you’d just call the person and conduct a no-stress, two-way conversation describing your opening to see if there was some interest. If so, you’d arrange for a more detailed conversation. You’d even make the job more attractive to get the person more excited and even sweeten the compensation if necessary. Then you’d meet in person to get into the details and to start the recruiting process.

As untraditional as it may seem, there is no reason you couldn’t use the same recruiting and assessment process with strangers. Just start with the 5-6 KPOs clearly in mind and contact a dozen or so top-notch people who would see your opening as a realistic career move. It’s important to not oversell the job as a means to engage these people into the discussion. Instead, sell the exploratory conversation about a possible career move. This is what you’d do if you knew the person so use the same “let’s have a conversation” approach with strangers. Collectively, this is how you build a deep network of acquaintances and hire some remarkable people.

Posted in: Quality of Hire, Recruiting & Closing

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