HR and Technical Phone Screenings

Original Content Created by Heather R. Houlton (heather dot houlton at gmail dot com)

The application and hiring process has become, in many cases, a complicated dance. Employers now use a variety of ways to evaluate potential new hires. For an article that discusses Interview 101: The Four-Step Process, check out this information from the American Geophysical Union.

We'll start by discussing the initial interview screening process. A few tips for you to prepare before a screening interview:

  1. Practice your responses to common interview questions. Write them down. Recite them. Do what you need to do to have a confident, even-keeled response.
  2. Always relate your responses to each question back to the role or company in which you're interviewing. Think: How do I connect what I just said back to the critical functions of the role or needs to the company? Make those connections explicit in your responses. 
  3. Do your research on the company! Understand the company's mission, key projects, who is in leadership, trends in the news, and of course, reach out to anyone you might have a connection with in the company to get insider information. 
  4. Connect with the hiring manager, technical lead, or supervisor of the position on LinkedIn. Don't be shy! Send a message explaining your interest in the role. 
  5. Always come prepared to ask your own questions at the end of the interview. This is part of the test. Your ability to ask relevant and interesting questions about the position shows the interviewer your research skills and how you can identify missing information that is helpful for you to know as the interviewee. 

Here are some of the questions we've experienced along the way during our job searches for scientific or technical professions. 

Human Resources Phone Screenings: In many cases, but not all, the first introduction the company has to you is a basic HR interview where they ask legal employment questions, general questions about your experience to fill the position, and what your hiring requirements are. Below, is a list of some example questions we've experienced during our first phone screenings with HR and the key to answering them. 

Basic behavioral questions:

  1. Tell me about yourself. Advice: Companies want to get a glimpse of who you are and if your passions, hobbies, and intellectual interests align with the position and the company's overall mission. Be sure to connect who you are with the specific job and things you learned about the company when you did your background research. 
  2. What do you know about Company X? Advice: This question is testing to see if you've done your research about the company. We recommend you make an outline of how the company is structured, how this position fits within the bigger landscape of the company, how it applies to their mission, and any other interesting or relevant info you find about the company. Think: News sources, info on decisions made by leadership, etc.
  3. Describe what you did in your last position. Advice: What they want to know here is how your skills and knowledge from your previous employment experiences relate to this role. They want to make sure that you bring the necessary expertise to go above and beyond the requirements listed in the position description. So, have an outline ready of what your previous responsibilities were, the impact they made at the company, the skills you've gained, and relate that all back to how it applies to the position in which you are interviewing. 
  4. Why do you want to work for Company X? What about this role is attractive to you? Advice: Again, this is a test to see how much you researched about the company. It evaluates your ability to build a compelling case for why you are the best candidate for the position. If you are able to connect the information you learned about the company directly to the needs of the position and relate that all to why you are passionate about this kind of work, it will help get your foot in the door for the next round. 

HR Legal (right to work) questions: These are often questions that HR is required to ask. They may include information about citizenship status, your right to work in the United States (or other country where you are applying), and your age (above 18). Answer honestly and concisely. 

Potential start date: Companies want to genuinely know your availability. Maybe they need someone to start right away (within a week), maybe they can onboard new hires in the traditional time frame (2-4 weeks), or maybe the position won't start for a few months. Remember, the interview goes both ways: it's just as much you interviewing them as they are interviewing you. Ask them what their ideal start date would be and see if that works within your timeline and discuss it with your interviewer. 

Salary questions: These are some of the trickiest questions. Maybe you're lucky and the anticipated salary range was posted as part of the job description. Then this makes your life a lot easier. Always say the upper-most range or a little over. If there's not a salary listed, we recommend trying the following strategy: 

  • "I prefer to save any salary discussions until an initial offer is drafted. I recognize that there’s more to compensation than just a base salary. With saying that, if both Company X and I believe that I am a good fit for the "Title of Job" position, I’m confident we can negotiate an agreement that suits both parties’ needs and requirements. Then ask...
  • "May I ask what is the anticipated salary range for this position?" - They may or may not be allowed to tell you. If they do tell you, then you'll have a good idea where to start in negotiations later down the line. They might follow up after telling you and ask if that range is acceptable for you. Unless it's REALLY below your desired salary, just say yes. There's always negotiations later in the process. 

Technical Phone Screenings: If you pass through the first HR screening process successfully, you might have a technical phone interview next (sometimes this is even your first interview!) This interviewer might ask similar behavioral questions again - be prepared and be consistent with what you said last time. This interview will go deeper into your qualifications and ask more complicated and perhaps technical questions. And remember, these interviews are always evaluating your communication skills. Be clear, concise, and passionate with your responses. 

Detailed behavioral questions:

  • How do you handle fast-paced environments? Advice: This question assess how well you are able to handle multiple projects at once, your ability to multitask, and your ability to meet strict deadlines. Be sure to address these three components in your answer using specific examples from your experience. And of course, relate those stories back to this role. 
  • What is a difficult challenge you had to overcome and how did you do it? Other similar questions include:
    • What is a problem you had to solve and how did you solve it? 
    • Describe a time you failed.
    • What is one of your weaknesses?

Advice: These are assessing your ability to handle conflict in different forms. Be sure to find specific examples of your experience that highlight your problem solving skills, your ability to work in teams successfully, and ones that emphasize your grit, determination, and integrity. They also want to see how these predicaments catalyzed personal growth. For example: When I'm asked, "What is one of your weaknesses?" I respond with: "I tend to dwell on failure. I take great pride in my work. I'm very goal oriented. When something happens out of my control that causes me to fail in some way, I tend to dwell on the details. However, I'm learning that without these failures, I won't learn new skills or grow. And so I've been working on turning my failures into learning opportunities. Here's an example: ... " 

  • Describe your project management experience? What is your management or leadership style? Advice: These are questions about how you take the lead, make decisions, and how well you work with other people. Be sure to emphasize your teamwork and listening skills, your ability to juggle multiple responsibilities and deadlines at once, and how you communicate with your peers or subordinates when giving directions. 
  • How do you like to be supervised? What style of supervision works best for you? Advice: This type of question is for your direct supervisor to assess how easy it will be to work with you, to give you directions, and how you communicate and follow through on your tasks. Provide examples of when a supervisor gave you direction, what type of communication is easiest for you, and how you followed up with your supervisor after completion of the task. 
  • Why are you best qualified for this position? What do you bring to this position that sets you above other candidates? Advice: These questions are basic but are often overlooked. Candidates find these hard to answer because it requires them to highlight their best qualifications. It feels like bragging. Don't get intimidated by these questions - answer them using your passion and providing specific details on why you'd love and be good at the job. 

Technical questions: Unfortunately we can't give a list of examples here because questions range so greatly depending on the type of position for which you are applying. Follow our main tips of advice from above to prepare. And remember, speak confidently, concisely, answer the questions logically without going off on tangents. Most importantly, if you don't understand the question, ask them to repeat it or see if they can explain it or say it in a different way. 

  • Sometimes an interviewer will ask you to answer multiple questions in the same prompt. If this happens, take a pause to write down all the different components of the question before you start answering. Don't be afraid to ask them to repeat parts or relay the information you wrote down back to confirm you got all the pieces. 

Applied questions using details about the role and company to assess your abilities: These can be difficult, especially if you're not familiar with the company. These kinds of questions go beyond reciting facts found on the company website. Be sure to do as much research as you can about this specific role by talking with others in the company, connecting with employees on LinkedIn, and by researching specific projects and decisions made about this role. Then apply that knowledge to your experiences and use your critical thinking skills to answer the questions to the best of your ability.