5 Things not to do during an interview phone screen

During my time here at Zynga I have had the opportunity to do a lot of phone screens.  These have ranged from the initial screens for CTO‘s to the final interview pass for a an engineering intern.  During that time I have seen a lot of really interesting behavior by candidates.  Below I want to list out 5 basic things to NEVER do during a phone screen.

1. Don’t type on your keyboard to find an answer.

Since most of the phone screens I do involve engineering related positions – this one particularly annoys me.  Too often in the IT or Software industry it is very tempting to fudge what we are good at. If I read a post about how to create a “Hello World” app in Python – I must obviously be an expert in the language and will claim it on my resume.   Too often I see inexperienced software engineers claim a language skill on their resume.  The problem is that when I ask them a simple question about the language I hear them typing in the background searching Google for my answer while the idly say something like “let me think about this for a quick second…”.

If the phone screen is successful, the candidate is often brought onsite for a more in depth analysis.  Too often we see candidates who do amazingly well answering syntax and technical questions over the phone yet when they are put in a room without the internet they cannot even function.  It is far too easy to tell when a search engine aided in the phone screen.

It is very easy to tell when someone truly understands a language and when they are faking it.  In all honesty though – I have been a victim of doing this in the past.  If I had dabbled in a language for a month or so I would claim it on my resume.  The key difference though is when you are asked a question you don’t know – be honest with the interviewer.  Let them know you don’t know the answer – but will research it and provide an answer during the next session.

2. Don’t be on a cell phone in an area with bad reception

I vividly remember having a phone screen with a candidate where the phone call quality was so bad that we could barely even hear each other.  The amazing thing was that the candidate even had the gall to insist that the poor quality was on our end (I was on a hard line at the office and had just finished another phone screen without issue).  To be honest the call completely destroyed the interview session and I was so put off by how the candidate handled the situation that I had no interest in pursuing them further for the job.

Don’t let something so trivial as a bad call quality destroy your chance at landing your dream job.  Whenever you can use a hard line.  If you have to use a cell phone – ensure that it is fully charged before the call starts.  You also might want to look into using a connected microphone so that your volume is consistent throughout the interview.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification

A phone screen really only engages listening and speaking activities.  It does not offer you the benefit of sight, visual queues at the company, body language from the interviewer and so on.  For that reason do not be afraid to ask for clarification when needed.  It is also a good habit to restate the question to them to ensure that you are providing the correct answer.  You can preface it by saying something like, “Because this is a phone screen I want to ensure I properly understand what you are asking.  Did you mean xyz …”.

I admit that this may seem daunting at times to do this.  For some odd reason it may also feel as if you are sounding not as intelligent since you are asking for confirmation of the question.  On the contrary.  From the interviewers perspective it is refreshing to have a candidate over communicate to ensure that he or she is providing the best possible answer to the question to truly demonstrate his or her skills.  In essence the candidate is showing that he or she does not want to waste anyones time by providing an irrelevant answer.

4. Don’t say you’ll do any job as long as you are hired

This one is truly a pet peeve of mine.  I hate it when I ask a candidate what they want to do and they say something like “I don’t care what I do I just want to work at Zynga”.  Or a close cousin of that response is something like “I want to work on a project of importance”.  I mean – come on…  I honestly doubt that most business become successful by putting all of their employees on unimportant tasks.

If you don’t answer this question with honesty and substance then you are really causing two problems.  The first problem is that the Company will not know where to put you.  They will simply move you into whatever open slot they have open regardless of the exact skills match.  The second problem is that this “whatever” position may not be exactly what you want it to be and you will not enjoy or be passionate about your work.  If you then combine those two problems together you get a situation where the employee does not excel, compensation for hard work is not able to be rewarded, there is little to no career growth and generally speaking it is a bad working relationship for both the company and employee.

Express your interest, have a 5 year plan of where you want to be in your career.  Communicate that you are willing to “put in your dues as a team player” but be honest with yourself and your potential manager about what you want long term.  You will find that in time the position of your dreams is often crafted, rather then immediately available.

5. Don’t be bored in the interview

I still remember one particular phone screen where the candidate just did not seem interested in the position.  Halfway through the screen it was starting to tick me off so I asked the candidate if there was true interest in the position.  It turns out after re-asking the question a few different ways the candidate was not really that interested, it’s just that a friend worked at the company and the candidate was told to apply.  I have to admit I was ticked off for wasting my time with a candidate who did not want the job.

Now I understand that a certain amount of selling goes into the interview process from the companies perspective.  However if the candidate is truly not interested – then no amount of selling will fix that.  You might offer great perks – but the candidate will just take the perks, do what he/she has to in order to get by and then will jump ship at the first chance the candidate gets.

If you are not interested in the position – then don’t waste anyone’s time.  In fact – doing so will have a negative effect.  Many companies work off of some sort of interview recording system (many legal reasons also force this record keeping).  Chances are good that the feedback from your interviews is being recorded for a very long time.  If you give a bad experience to an interviewer – it may completely shut the door on you, even if you become really interested in the future.

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