Preparing for the All-Important Telephone or Video Interview

by Christopher D. Lee, Ph.D., SPHR

Photographee.eu / Shutterstock

Almost all positions today require at least two rounds of interviews during the hiring process. Most often there is an initial interview conducted via telephone or video conference and then a second, on-campus interview. Institutions might entertain as many as six to nine candidates for the first round of interviews and then invite only three to campus for the second round. The on-campus process might involve interviews with multiple parties (eg search committee, hiring manager, HR, faculty senate leaders, etc.). However, the gatekeeper activity is the all-important telephone or video interview that determines who gets the coveted invitation to campus.

Organizations choose one or the other — telephone or video interviews
— since they are interchangeable in their use to evaluate candidates. Yet, how candidates prepare for them is quite different. For example, one does not have to get a haircut, put on make-up, or dress any particular way for a telephone interview, although the questions answered are almost always the exact same.

Telephone interviews should not be conducted on cellular phones. It should go without saying that they are not reliable and calls seem only to drop when they are important. Robo-calls, text message alerts, call waiting indicators, and a host of other variables should scare risk takers away from this unwise choice.

With video interviews, appearance matters because ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ Technology is a variable that has to be managed. Few problems occur with telephones, speaker phones, and conference call lines as they are easy to operate, predictable, and almost always reliable. Video interviews have the added complexity of internet speeds, bad lighting, difficult angles, and the overall position and size of the candidate’s video image. There is no more important tip for candidates preparing for a video interview than advising them to practice and rehearse. A full dress rehearsal is in order. And it should be taped.

A taped rehearsal allows one to see what they look like in specific attire, setting/background, positioning, and lighting. The test of one’s computer, camera, microphone, and sound are also validated with this review. There is enough to worry about during an interview without having to conduct a sound check mid-interview. One should be focused on articulating coherent answers. Becoming familiar with the particular software used for the video conference is an important tip as well. If information about the software platform is not provided in advance, it is wise to request access to it in order to learn the technology and complete a self-rehearsal.

Some candidates and search committee members complain that telephone and video interviews are impersonal and are not the best way to get to know and properly evaluate candidates. While this might be true, there is no denying that their utility overrides their drawbacks. There is simply no faster, cheaper, and more efficient method of getting a good first look at a group of candidates than these screening protocols. As the old slogan argued, “It’s the next best thing to being there.” With this in mind, candidates who are in close proximity to the host institution are sometimes offered the choice of coming to campus during the first round of interviews; their fellow candidates, who are traveling distances away, are not offered the same opportunity. While the practice is unfair and ill-advised on multiple levels, a savvy candidate might jump on the opportunity to present themselves in person as it will likely give them an advantage over others. The next best option via technology is just that, not the ‘best’ option to make the best first impression.

After all of the administrative, logistical, and technological details are in hand, preparing for the telephone or video interview can begin in earnest. They are usually shorter in length and pose six to eight questions designed to evaluate the candidates’ technical qualifications. In no uncertain terms, search committees want to know that the candidates who make it past this round are fully capable of being successful in the position in question. A hidden agenda is always present, which is to screen away the ‘duds.’ A mentionable percentage of candidates look fantastic on paper, but the personification of the paper-based superstar is underwhelming. Telephone and video interviews save institutions from investing a lot of time, effort, and expense bringing lackluster candidates on site.

Getting information from the future employer helps candidates prepare for their interview. In addition to the question about the technology to be used, one should also ask for the names and titles of the interviewers. This will help interviewees appreciate the perspectives of the questioners since eye contact and body language are not easily discernible. The last tip on asking questions before the telephone or video interview is to ask if there is anything you should do to prepare for this call. The answers may surprise you. Often the respondent reveals the thinking of those interviewing — such as, “No preparation needed, we will just ask you a few questions about _______.

Anticipate answering questions about past successes, solving certain problems, and sharing examples of one’s core capabilities and know-how. A quick internet search of typical interview questions will yield questions designed to evaluate one’s skills. These are contrasted with on-campus questions that might emphasize one’s potential vision, plans, and creative performance of the job. The technical, skill-based questions found in this first round of screening are usually preceded by one “Tell us a little more about yourself” or similar warm-up, rapport-building question. Preparing to respond to these two types of questions can be done by reviewing one’s resume and work history, and jotting down good examples for quick reference.

In some ways, telephone and video interviews are more important than on-campus interviews. They are what experts call ‘hurdle’ processes, as you have to get past this stage to continue. Multiple on-campus interviews, presentations/lectures, portfolios, second interviews, and other selection processes allow multiple opportunities to prove one is the best person for the job. Yet, the chance to do so is denied to those who do not take this first, seemingly less formal and less important process seriously. Asking a series of preparatory questions of the employer before the interview, paying attention to the technology, rehearsing, preparing to answer skill-based questions, and appreciating the gatekeeping function of telephone and video interviews are all prerequisites to having a successful interview.

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