In the January 16, 2018 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader gets tired of recruiters and HR reps who want to do phone screens, then do nothing.


phone screensSeveral companies and recruiters in the past year have reached out to me on LinkedIn regarding job opportunities. They do phone screens, tell me how great my experience is, love my ideas … then radio silence.

I believe some HR reps and recruiters are using LinkedIn as part of their due diligence process. They already have a final candidate in mind, but they want to be able to tell their employer or client that they have chosen the person from a selection of prospects — and I’m one of their fibs.

It’s impossible to tell which of these recruiters are for real until I either get the interview or get dissed. How can I figure it out faster and avoid wasting time with phony phone screens?

Nick’s Reply

Recruiters and HR reps don’t just do this as cover, to pretend they’ve got more candidates so they can fib to their bosses or clients. (But doesn’t that give the lie to claims that Linked and other online sources make it possible to interview more good candidates?)

LinkedIn also makes it instantly easy for recruiters and HR to check off Equal Opportunity boxes fraudulently. “Look, we recruited three women and three people of color!”

The technology is abused in more ways than we know. But I think your real question is, how can you instantly separate the tire-kickers from someone who might really have a job for you?

If an employer gushes and expresses the sentiment that you’re so great, why not test them on the spot?

How to Say It: Are you serious?

“If you’re serious, then schedule a face-to-face meeting and I’ll come in to talk.”

If they defer, then really test them. Take a more aggressive approach, since the odds now are that they’re tire-kickers:

How to Follow Up
“Thanks, I’m flattered, but please don’t waste my time if you’re not ready to act to fill the job.”

This sort of approach terrifies most people. What if the recruiter is offended and this costs you an opportunity? Well, what of it? If a recruiter or HR rep isn’t taking action, they’re being offensive. Leading someone on is not a skill. It’s a revelation of ineptitude that job seekers see almost every day. (See Job Spam: 6 tip-offs save you hundreds of hours!)

If the recruiter presses you for a phone screen, test them some more. Just say you don’t do phone screens.

How to Say It: No phone screens

“No offense, but if a recruiter doesn’t see a clear match, I don’t have time for phone screens. I would be glad, however, to invest as much time as a hiring manager needs to talk face-to-face about how I can do the job profitably.”

Any recruiter who won’t do that is not serious, and your experience (that’s why you wrote to me) already confirms you know that. Telling you how great you are and how much they love your ideas without taking the next step is frankly puerile. They should be fired for wasting valuable time blowing smoke. Their job is to schedule interviews so jobs can get filled. (Even if you advance from an HR phone screen to a phone screen with an actual hiring manager, you’ve at least moved the ball down the field. Use these tips to decide How and when to reject a job interview.)

I think we all know that most HR reps and recruiters lack confidence, judgement and skill. (To those who are better than that, stand up and be counted!) Pretending that a tire-kicker is going to give you a ride is not a reasonable way to spend your own time. The best thing you can do is test the recruiter so you can move on quickly — or get an interview if they’re legit.

Some insight from my book

Here’s a tip from the “Talking to Headhunters” section of How to Work With Headhunters… and how to make headhunters work for you, p. 66. When a recruiter or HR rep reaches out to you:

Your challenge is to learn all you can before you commit hours and hours of time to delivering a resume, attending interviews, filling out forms, calling for updates and agonizing over whether you’ll be chosen.

Don’t be afraid: A legitimate headhunter [or recruiter or HR rep] will not hang up on you because you behave like a prudent business person. A good headhunter wants to know that you are enthusiastic, but also smart and careful. If a headhunter [or HR rep] gets testy, end the call, because his objective is to control you, not to recruit you.

The serious headhunter will have already qualified you — or he wouldn’t be calling. Please remember that. You should detect that the headhunter already recognizes you when you begin your conversation. [That is, the recruiter has done a level of homework to vet you in advance, otherwise, why are they contacting you?]

I think there’s nothing to lose in this approach but aggravation! And at least it puts you in control, which will make you a more potent (and serious) job seeker.

This is indeed an assertive approach — it’s not for everyone, so please use your judgement. Perhaps it will give you some courage and ideas of your own that you can try comfortably.

So here’s my question to you. Do you use a recruiter’s first contact to test them? How do you judge whether an “opportunity” is real? How do you say it? Let’s have some provocative suggestions and tips that might help others move the ball — and avoid wasting their time!

: :

  1. We were once so desperate to find someone for a very specialized opening that we resorted to LinkedIn. We did get HR to screen – only to the extent of seeing if the candidate was interested in moving and if he or she was anywhere close to what we needed. I hope HR didn’t leave anyone hanging. It was a real opening.

    However, on the other end, the writer never mentioned if he or she asked about the job. I have gotten calls, and I’ve always asked this question. It is easy to discover that the job is not a match for you, so the HR phone screen saves everyone’s time. But if you jump at every opportunity, no matter how remote, you are sure to be disappointed. When HR sends the info to the hiring manager, it might get rejected out of hand as not being a match, then poof.

    • @Scott: You raise a good point. Because it’s so easy to apply, many job seekers apply for jobs that aren’t really a match, then can’t understand why they’re rejected or (worse) ignored. It’s important to choose wisely to start with.

      But LinkedIn makes it possible for recruiters to initiate the contact. I think that’s what the OP is talking about. In that case, the recruiter has an obligation to make a judgement before making contact.

      • @Nick,
        I understand, but not everyone on LinkedIn is looking, and profiles are sometimes a bit sketchy in details. So it makes sense for HR to see if a person is interested in moving, and asking a bit about the person’s background.
        But then they should get back to the person yes or no. Not following up is rude.
        HR might not know all the details about job requirements, especially in tech. HR might have to call back with some more details.
        Radio silence, the kind that the questioner got, is wrong. HR called first.

        • Scott, I’m not saying employers should not do phone screens — but the phone screens should be done thoughtfully, not rudely and thoughtlessly. If an employer is going to reach out to a candidate, then it should be ready to do the interview on the spot. Or why contact the person at all?

          Recruiters turn all this into a crapshoot. They have no idea why they’re contacting a person — no plan, no intent. That’s the problem. The job seeker is left wondering, “What did I do wrong, or what is wrong with me?” It’s the recruiter that’s the problem.

          • That has become my beef with phone screens–they’re not being done thoughtfully. Instead, they’re a time sink for me if someone in HR calls me and asks me to repeat what is on my résumé and/or cover letter. Did s/he even bother to read it before wasting my time? (No–every phone screen I’ve had consisted of questions, probably a from a script, the answers to which could be found on my résumé or in my cover letter.) Then there’s not even a thank you for your time much less anyone getting back to you to let you know one way or the other. And some of them are even ruder and wouldn’t let me ask any questions. Maybe I want to use the phone screen to determine whether I want to continue to be considered.

          • I have had recruiters who have contacted me on my cell phone while I was in a doctors office being examined by my doctor and they were so pushy to get an interview with me but when I asked them “when I could start work” they backed down. Doing a phone screen interview while you are sitting in a doctors office getting a examination done is not very professional But this is what happens when you give out your cell phone number on your resume. This why I give them my landline number and tell them to do the phone interview with my electronic secretary. All they want to do is ask stupid questions. I find that these on the spot phone screens are not professional at all

  2. Nick,

    I’m sorry, but this one has me scratching my head. Perhaps I’m not understanding the lingo – is a phone screen something different from a phone (or Skype) interview?

    I would imagine almost all recruiters and companies use phone interviews as the initial step in identifying their candidates. Even using all your other techniques of networking, doing the job during the interview, etc., I cannot imagine that any company would NOT use telephone or Skype interviews as an initial step in the process. Yes, it can be a pain, but the end result is that it DOES lead to the face to face process. As a cost savings measure alone, I can only imagine that the response to “I don’t do phone interviews” is a terse “thanks.” and a crossing your name off the list.

    Unless you are literally an industry-wide well-known superstar, how can you possibly advocate to refuse a telephone interview? Or is it JUST the initial cold-call from a recruiter or HR flack when you aren’t exactly looking?

    • What’s an interview has become blurred by e-mail, Skype, phones, etc. When a recruiter e-mails you to recruit you, and suggests a call, then doesn’t do it, what’s that?

      If a recruiter calls you to discuss setting up a phone screen with someone else — what’s the point of that? If you’re of enough interest for that initial call, then that should be the screen.

      My point is, interviewing people has become so convoluted that recruiters stretch the process unreasonably. For instance, the recruiter contacts you, teases you about an interview (screening call or otherwise), then asks for a resume and wants you to fill out online forms first. What’s the point of any of that?

      A recruiter should not contact a person unless the recruiter has done ALL the homework necessary to decide whether the person is worth a real interview — even if it’s on the phone to start. All the tech and automation makes it easy for recruiters to put all the recruiting tasks on the job seeker. “Here, do this, this and this, then we’ll decide if it’s worth talking to you.”

      So, what’s the point of a recruiter? They are NOT administrative assistants and call schedulers.

      I do get your point. My point is that if a recruiter wants to do a phone interview, then just do it. Read the person’s number off their LinkedIn profile or resume, call the person, and do a full phone screen. Why all the extra steps?

      • Nick,

        You’re preaching to the choir. Everyone in this forum knows that communications with HR recruiters is more likely than not a waste of time. And spending a good portion of a day, if not a day itself, would be a huge waste of time, rather than a much smaller waste of time. Was going to argue the point, but just realized I’ve been doing something similar for years with better results.

        I don’t need to refuse a phone interview with recruiters. I merely refuse to take the calls during the business day. I work in Manhattan. With no privacy in my office, I have nowhere to go for a private phone call. There are no private spaces for any kind of discussion, unless if I’m sitting in someone’s office for a planned meeting. If I’m working from a client’s office, it’s the same routine. I’ve heard the most ridiculous responses from recruiters when I explain this restriction. And that, of course, is the kiss of death, so to speak. Treat me disrespectfully when I’m trying to explain a serious employment situation and I’ll never talk to you again.

        Most of these imbecile recruiters have no concept of the modern world, where street noise is deafening, every coffee shop and similar venue appears determined to blast customers with loud music resulting in customers speaking loudly to each other. There is no solution to that, other than taking the day off from work. And I’m not taking a day off from work for a single phone call that might or might not happen.

        Only once did a recruiter agree to an evening phone interview, and that (predictably) was also a waste of time. But at least it wasn’t a huge waste of time.

        • @Steve: Any recruiter who calls you at your office should immediately explain who he or she is, why they’re calling, acknowledge you probably can’t talk, and ask if you’d be willing to speak in the evening.

          If they don’t do that, they’re not legit – or stupid. Time to hang up!

  3. A point about phone screens – it is difficult for a hearing impaired prospect to hear clearly the questions and the conversation, depending on the HR or recruiter’s speaking style.

    I had a bad experience in the past where a female employer posted a blind ad for a graphic design position.

    In the early 2000s, I was able to get the name of this employer, but I responded politely through the posted phone number. Once she started interviewing me on the phone, I got stuck in not understanding one of the questions and asked her politely to please repeat the question. She got hostile, so I had no choice, but to explain about my hearing problem. She got angry and slammed the phone down. I called back the number which went completely unanswered for days.

    Skype, Facetime, etc. need to be carefully considered for visual phone screens. Recording of the visual phone screens can bring legal problems, if misused improperly.

    • @JM: Good point, but you don’t have to be hearing-impaired to not be able to hear the other person clearly. Just yesterday I had to hang up and call back twice during a business call because the other person’s signal kept cutting out.

      Use of cell phones and unstable VOIP lines has turned phoners into problems.

      • @Nick,

        I know. That’s why I don’t have a cell phone – not worth the hassle to deal with the the dropped calls and static noises all the times! Then I have to watch out for the cell phone zombies everywhere I go… ;)

        • JM: I have a cell and a desk phone. The latest problem is people who text to my desk phone (landline), which doesn’t accept texts. Then they think I’m ignoring them.

          Note to people: THINK.

          • Nick, sometimes someone texts me and I get a call on my landline and hear a verbal version of the text. I guess that is optionally provided by the cell phone company.

  4. I, too, am confused by this Q & A. A phone interview is a good thing, because it saves everyone a lot of time and money if this is not a good fit. As a candidate, I want a phone interview before a face to face interview. When I am the hiring manager, I also conduct a phone interview before scheduling a face to face interview, which may involve travel expenses. Contingency recruiters only get paid if they present the winning candidate, so it is not in their interest to waste their time. I just went through a personal job search (and got several great job offers). Most of the recruiters were very professional. Yes, I got a few calls from recruiters that went nowhere – so what? It’s not a perfect process and never will be. This is a tempest in a teapot.

    • The problem is that phone screens are being used improperly. Recruiters tease you with the possibility of a phone screen — then there’s no call. Or they tell you that to do the phoner, you must submit a resume and fill out an online form.

      That’s when you tell them, “I don’t do phone screens. Interview me instead.”

      Or, the phone screen is nothing but a mindless fishing expedition by a greenhorn personnel jockey who just wants on the phone info that’s already on your resume, profile or application form.

      When a recruiter or employer does a proper phoner without wasting anyone’s time, I agree, that’s great. But few readers report anything but wasted time and tire kickers.

      • …Or they just wanna know what are your salary expectations (with a few lame “why did you apply for this job” -style questions thrown in to make it look like a real interview)…

        • Yeah let’s face it- the number one qualification required today is exploitability! Sigh!!

  5. Conducting interviews over a phone is a great option in my view. It saves a lot of time for recruiters. I would also suggest recruiters use AI for hiring. It helps in eliminating candidates based on their skill test. Check out the provided link: to know more and how AI drives accurate data about the candidates.

    • You sound like you’re pitching something, and your “AI can screen candidates” is just a variation of all the other silly tests that HR et al try to shove in our faces. No thanks.

    • @Robin: I don’t normally leave promotional links in comments — I remove them. But I’m leaving yours because it’s a good example of the insane practice of removing live recruiters from conversations with live job applicants — and substituting “Talk to the hand!”

      When employers use technologies like HumanIntelligence, its a great way for job seekers to “save a lot of time!” Move on to an employer that respects you enough to have a human talk with you.

      Robo-recruiting is as stupid an idea as anyone has tried to invent. See

    • Yeah great! A great tool!! Then why do so many of the same jobs re open months later or stay un filled? And why are so many employed looking to move immeadiatley??

  6. For clarity’s sake, I’m going to repeat a few things here because I think some people are getting confused. Like… me. :)

    I don’t think the answer is not to talk to people on the phone. In this specific instance, it sounds like a recruiter (likely from outside the company where there may or may not be a position) is proactively calling people who weren’t necessarily actively looking for something. They then have a “great” conversation with the possible candidate, wasting that candidate’s time, and are never heard from again.

    To me, one of the hallmarks of a “phone screen” (rather than a phone interview) is that it is quick – less than 15 minutes. Caller: “Hey, I’ve got this thing, here’s where it is, would you possibly be interested? We’re looking for X, I think you have it, right?” Candidate: “Maybe – where/when/how much? If I say yes, what happens next?”

    As the recipient of such a call, 10 minutes to learn about a new job (because I’d spend 30 seconds if I’m not interested) and be assured of the specifics is worth it. If they can’t answer key questions, then forget it.

    Of course, having seen “the other side” – companies using VMS (vendor management systems) for hiring REALLY exacerbate this problem. @Nick – have you written about these and the effects they have on recruiting? The first recruiter to submit a name is the one who gets paid if that person is hired. It drives all sorts of bad behavior.

  7. Phone screeners walk through generic Qs and then say stuff like .. but your last job was x but this one is y, or we thought you would get bored with p because you like q, or we found someone who matched b and you were c.

    If you pass a phone screen then you get the privledge of doing it all again. The process is corrupt. Don’t feed the beast!

  8. Nick, I tried your advice with the “fishing “recruiters. I did not obtain an in person interview. I never get interviewed by the client of these so it worked to get rid of these time wasters and I feel empowered! Thank you

  9. Isn’t some of the root cause of the flailing phone calls as needless preambles to serious interviewing the fact that employers have been brainwashed into regarding any “premature” face to face contact as a waste of company resources? Many would rather die than bring a candidate on to the premises for anything but a pre-on boarding or seal-the-deal type of interview. I wouldn’t doubt that some company counsel/attorneys even warn them about the appearance of a serious “undertaking” if a candidate steps across the threshold of the employer. They feel they may be more liable to complaints about discriminatory hiring if someone of another demographic is ‘left at the altar” by way of an on site interview that doesn’t lead to a hire.
    Even if we cleanly distinguish the phone screen from the phone interview you are left with trying to explain career choices or aspirations to a low level functionary over the phone who is unlikely to adequately convey any good impressions to a hiring manager who wasn’t on the call. And there are the pitfalls of the open ended questions such as “walk me through your resume…” or “tell me about examples of projects that….”. Even the most concise and nicely wrapped answer can come off as a ramble, imperiling any chances of moving on.
    There is a lot here to mine in further discussions, I’m sure, including the new tendency to put out requests to the candidate for a call, then never acknowledge the response accepting the request. Extreme aversion to any spam or unsolicited approaches even gets in the way of solicited responses.

  10. An interesting story about doing a Skype “screen” or interview. I’m a Nurse Practitioner, and before graduating, began looking for a new job in the Western US (I went to school on the East Coast, but wanted to return back home). Recruiter set up phone interview for a great job. Went well. Prospective employer asked if I would do a panel interview using a Skype-type video conference. I did this, but felt embarrassed because it was during finals week and I looked like hell. That went well though, then clinic paid for me to travel for face to face interview. I mentioned the video conference during the in-person interview, and the clinic staff laughed. “We didn’t care about your hair, makeup, or clothes!” This is a mental health facility. They told me that in the past, they just did a regular phone interview, and ended up paying travel expenses for face to face interviews, and had multiple Nurse Practitioner and Physician Assistant candidates show up with facial tattoos, multiple facial piercings, and bizarre hair and clothing! Not only is this unprofessional, it could agitate mental health patients. So they started doing the video conference to make sure that candidates just looked “normal.”