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I recently had a phone screen for one of the "big" tech companies. I know that I should think of the interview process as a bit of a "black box" and just try to do my best, but I can't help but be curious.

Does the phone screener simply give a pass/no pass answer to HR? That is, is my fate entirely in that person's hands?

Or, is there some discussion between the screener and others involved in the hire about the questions and my answers? Is there any kind of objective measurement, or does it all depend on the "vibe" or general impression of the screener?

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    Depending on the volume of resumes, it would be impractical to have a group discussion about ever candidate. Look at it this way, most likely the person you talked to can't get you hired, but they can prevent you from being hired. Prepare accordingly. – Andrew T Finnell Apr 23 '12 at 1:24
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I can only speak from experience of doing phone interviews in a smaller company. I think the methodology is the same though.

The first phone interview is just to weed out the obviously wrong candidates so you don't waste time doing a real interview. Those who wouldn't fit in with the culture, can't speak English or don't know basic technical skills should be identified at this stage.

You normally ask a few basic questions about the skills and experience they list on their cv (we had one candidate who put down unit testing on her cv for example. Turns out she had just googled it a few months ago and had no real knowledge...). You also ask a few questions about their past work and ambitions, often you can weed out the candidates that don't actually want to be in the job you're listing.

Ultimately it does all boil down to the impression of the interviewers. They chat afterwards and compare overall impressions and key answers. It's very hard to objectively measure people. Also, the objective of the interview is to find those worth spending time on not to actually stretch the good candidates.

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Like Tom Squires, I only have experience in conducting phone interviews for smaller companies. But yes, it is a screening interview, which means it really is going to boil down to "no, don't proceed any further with this candidate", or "yes, get this candidate in for an interview".

Obviously there are degrees from "no" to "HELL NO!" and from "yes" to "yes get them in RIGHT NOW!!", but ultimately it's a filter.

And in my experience (this could well be different at larger companies), it is indeed all in the hands of the phone interviewer, without any particular discussion of the interview. The goal of the phone interview is to filter out unsuitable candidates with the minimum amount of time and effort, which does pretty much mean one person needs to take care of it, not a group.

Objective or subjective measurements? I'd like to think it would be more objective than a full interview. I'd prepare some questions based on the candidate's resume and previous work, and if they couldn't answer them to a satisfactory degree, that would probably make the outcome a "no". But I'd be reluctant to rule someone out based on "vibe", I'd prefer to leave that sort of judgement to a face-to-face interview with multiple interviewers.

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I work for a large government contractor (high-tech). We have a standard set of questions from which we draw for phone screens (so everyone's getting measured against the same yardstick), and the phone-screener submits a written evaluation, not just a yes/no. The written evaluation covers both technical issues and soft skills; in the phone screen the focus is on the technical, but issues around communication ability, or if the person volunteers any information about how he works in teams or the like, will also get noted here. (We use the same form for the on-site interview.) The evaluation ends with a recommendation, which is a free-text field (not yes/no). So, for example, a recommendation might be "interview, and drill into (some area that was weak on the phone)", or "consider for a lower grade" (the senior position he applied for isn't a fit but he'd be good to have on the team in another capacity). I think a rejection after the phone screen involves a consultation between the screener and the hiring manager.

Bottom line: yes, the phone-screener's opinion is pretty important, but that opinion has to be backed up by documentation. If the screen is positive an interview with several people follows.

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The only time I have ever personally seen a no from the phone screener turn into a yes later was when all the candidates who made it through the phone screen were rejected and then the phone screen was looked at more closely. this can be especially true if the phone screener was HR not technical. I have only known one person to get hired this way and I was the one who overrode the phone screen because it was clear from the candidates who passed it that I was not seeing the qualified people. But if you have qualified people to interview and one or more of them does well, there is no reason to look at who the phone screen rejected.

However, the phone screener may say that while you aren't a fit for this job, you would be good for this other job and I have seen people interviewed (and hired) for a different job than the one they applied for. Sometimes it's for a job they haven't advertised yet. So a no on this job may not be a "never consider this person for any other job" rejection.

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Yes, the yes or no from the phone screen is going to be binding. They're not going to discuss it with anyone because no one else knows anything about you yet (unless you're a direct internal referral or something).

In larger organizations, you have three kinds of people who do phone screens. Unfortunately, they can be hard to tell apart.

  1. An engineer, or engineering line manager. They'll look over your resume, ask you questions, see if you're worth bringing in and spending time on. If they pass, it's probably for a good reason. You can easily tell if this is the case by asking the interviewer who they are and what their role is, if you're not told up front.

  2. A HR professional who works closely with Engineering and has a good idea of the kinds of things they're looking for. (aka "good HR", and yes this exists, I've worked at companies where we had internal recruiters dedicated to Engineering we worked with closely). They'll probably do some behavioral questions and ask about stuff on your resume to validate that it seems like you really did it. If you're a poor communicator, you may get a pass even if it's not technically merited - but on the other hand, basic communications skills are part of the job description for most jobs. Don't try to dazzle these folks with deep technical facts unless they ask them for some reason, couch things at a higher level - I did X, we got results Y.

  3. A HR professional who is just doing untutored pattern-matching. They demand a job description from the line manager and then do keyword matching from the resume to the job description. Hard to tell apart from #2 above, as they'll have the same title. The best way to not get an unjustified pass here is to get a copy of the job description and make sure and state the exact things it says there where applicable. If the job description says MongoDB and you say "Oh I've worked with a lot of NoSQL stores" this person is going to have absolutely no idea those two sentences are related. If you haven't done MongoDB you say "I've worked with X which is much like MongoDB." They're going to pass you or not based on keyword match, and whether they like the sound of you over the phone.

For all of these people, they're going to ask about things off your resume - don't lie on your resume. If you have a list of tech that lists X and they ask you about X and you have to say "Well, actually, I haven't used X" you're out (and should get blackballed, frankly). Be eager, confident, and honest and you should get through the phone interview for stuff that you should.

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