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Conducting an Initial Candidate Screen

February 13, 2024

You’ve found a candidate, and both of you are interested in connecting – great! When setting up your phone interview or initial screening (Zoom/Google Meets works too), we’ve found that the best advice is to try to prepare and organize in advance as much as possible.

Send details about the interview in advance. Include your name, job title, and how your role would interact with this hire (direct supervisor? peer?). Any context is helpful to share here.

Consider adopting a calendar scheduling tool like Calendly. Eliminate the back-and-forth of trying to find a time that works for everyone, especially for candidates that may need to interview around their current 9-5 gig. Send a link to your calendar and let the candidate find a time that works for their schedule.

Bonus points - we love the feature where candidates get an email reminder a day or hour before their scheduled interview. This reduces the chance of a miscommunication or even worse - a no-show.

Prepare your interview questions in advance. Write down your questions in advance as much as possible. Think of it this way – if you ask candidates completely different questions, it may be like trying to compare apples to oranges when deciding who to move to the next stage. Being consistent with your questions is a fairer process for the candidates (and it’s easier for you too).

Some of our top interview questions to ask candidates during the phone screen stage include:

1. Why are you looking for a new position currently?

2. What are you looking for in your next position?

3. Is there a specific type of company or industry that you're targeting?

4. What size of teams have you worked on?

5. What is your ideal company size?

6. What technologies and coding languages do you know?

7. Are you interviewing with any other companies?

8. What are your salary expectations?

9. What’s your ideal timeline and start date for beginning a new job?

Consider developing a scorecard system. When we screen candidates and during our first official call at RFS, we rely on scorecards. Basically, we format a candidates’ answers and our conversation into an easy-to-read, 1-2 page document on each candidate.

At the top, we include basic information, such as:

1. Candidate name

2. Who spoke with them from our team

3. Date

4. Our decision regarding their application moving forward

We give a few different answers here, which range from No, Maybe, Yes and Strong Yes.

  • “No” means we don’t want to move them forward in the process
  • “Maybe” means we may wish to move them forward, depending on the strength of the other candidates we screen, but are waiting to do so at this time
  • “Yes” means we want to move them forward and think they could be a good fit for the role
  • “Strong Yes” means we definitely want to move them forward and think they could be an excellent fit for the role. This is reserved for a very select number of candidates.

Here’s some examples of scorecard questions that we’ve used at RFS. This can be made into a template, and you can add role or company specific questions as you see fit.

  • What’s been their career to date/previous companies they’ve worked for? (This includes our notes on the candidates responsibilities, projects, problems they solved, or what their involvement was. Often, these notes come from a question like, “tell me about yourself” or “walk me through your work history”) 
  • Which project are you the most proud of, and why?
  • What are you looking for in your next role?
  • What technologies do you know how to use? (list years of experience with each)
  • What makes you interested in joining a [insert your company type here: startup, mid-stage company, later-stage company]?
  • What is your ideal timeline for starting a new job?
  • Are you interviewing elsewhere, and if so, how far along in the process are you?
  • Do you have a desired salary range you’re looking for in your next role?
  • (If the role is remote): Are you okay with working remotely? (this can also include questions on if the candidate has worked remotely before, and if they’re okay with working remotely within particular hours, for example, EST)
  • (If the role is in-person or hybrid): Are you okay with working in-person or a hybrid schedule? (this can also include you sharing your typical hybrid schedule and asking the candidate if they’re okay with it. For example, our team works in the office 3 days a week, is this something you’re okay with?)
  • What’s your desired salary range for your next role? (You may not need to ask this question if you’ve included the range with the role, but it can help make sure that the candidate is reminded of that range, and may also give you an idea of where they'll fall in the salary range you provided) 

Some examples of 5/5 answers and 1/5 answers. As you’re interviewing candidates, you’ll start noticing when you receive a great answer, and when you receive a sub-par one. Here’s some examples:

Example question: What is your greatest weakness?

5/5 Answer (Great Answer):

"One area where I've consistently sought improvement is my desire to be overly detailed in my work. While being meticulous can be a good thing, I've realized that there are instances where I could streamline my process and be more efficient. To address this, I've actively engaged in time management training and adopted project management tools to help me prioritize tasks effectively. I've also cultivated a habit of periodically reassessing my work processes to ensure I strike the right balance between attention to detail and overall productivity. Addressing this weakness has not only improved my personal performance but has also been positively received by the teams I work with.”

This response demonstrates self-awareness, a proactive approach to personal development, and the ability to turn a weakness into an opportunity for improvement. It also emphasizes the positive impact of the candidate's efforts on both individual and team performance.

1/5 Answer (Bad Answer):

"I don't really have any weaknesses. I guess sometimes I work too hard, and I'm too much of a perfectionist. But, you know, those are just things that come with being good at your job, right?"

This response is not effective because it provides a cliché answer that doesn't demonstrate genuine self-reflection. Claiming to be a perfectionist or working too hard can come across as insincere or as an attempt to turn a positive trait into a weakness. It's important to provide a more authentic response that shows a true understanding of personal areas for improvement and a plan for addressing them.

Example Question: Is there a specific type of company or industry that you're targeting? What's your ideal company size and/or funding level?

5/5 Answer (Great Answer):

"I am targeting companies in the technology sector, particularly those focused on innovative solutions and digital transformation. My ideal company size would be a mid-sized startup that has achieved some level of stability but is still working on interesting problems. I am drawn to organizations where my skills in [mention specific skills] can contribute to driving the company's success. In terms of funding, I am open to a range, but I believe a company with a solid foundation and a strategic plan for growth would be an ideal fit for my career goals."

This response is thorough and specific, providing details about the type of industry, company size, and funding level the candidate is targeting. It also connects the candidate's skills and preferences with the qualities of the ideal company.

1/5 Answer (Bad Answer):

"I don't really care about the type of company. Size or funding level doesn't matter to me; I'm not picky."

This response is dismissive and lacks any thought or consideration about the type of company the candidate is interested in. It doesn't demonstrate any alignment between the candidate's goals and the potential employer's characteristics. This kind of response may give the impression that the candidate is not invested in finding the right fit for their skills and career aspirations.

Finally, take post interview notes as soon as the interview is over. Write down a quick, few notes on your initial impressions of a candidate in addition to anything you’ve recorded from their interview scorecard. Was there anything that stood out that you didn’t capture in their answers to your questions?

This is also a good time to write down any impressions of their soft skills or communication during your call. Were they easy to understand? Did they seem confident in their answers? Were they enthusiastic about the conversation? While it may seem like an extra step, taking a few minutes to quickly debrief can save a lot of future headaches.

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