The Initial Interview: Don't Be Screened Out

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Every interview I've had began with an initial phone screen, where the HR person/internal recruiter wanted to assess basic skills for the job and asked a few internal assessment questions. The skills questions should be a slam-dunk, as they're almost always just an extension of the job requirements. The internal assessment questions, however, can be potentially dangerous. You need take care not to be screened out of the next round of interviews.

For anyone who isn't sure what I mean by "internal assessment" questions, there was a funny and very relevant scene in the 1988 movie "She's Having A Baby," where an interviewer asks job hunter Kevin Bacon, "How do you feel about slave wages?" and, "How do you feel about alcoholics?" As funny as these questions may be, they aren't that far removed from real interview queries. You have to be prepared for anything.

Below are some recurring questions I've encountered, along with my responses - distinguishing answers that worked well from those that fell completely flat.

What salary/compensation are you looking for?

This question seems to come up every time during the initial interview screen. What it really boils down to is this: We're using salary expectations to filter out candidates before making invitations for on-site interviews. Please help us put you in a box.

The following two answers fell flat: "I don't yet know enough about the job to be able to give you a salary expectation," and, "If we both decide the position is a fit, I'm sure we will be able to come to a mutually agreeable salary."

The HR person/recruiter has a form in front of them and "salary expectations" is a "required" box on that form. They're going to push you hard to give them a number.

Although I don't expect the above answers will satisfy the interviewer, "leading" with one of them helps me get to a successful answer. While the recruiter pushes hard for a salary number, the resulting back-and-forth dialogue often provides an opportunity to ask about the salary range. Once I have the range, I always tell the recruiter that my expectations fit within it. When I can't get a range, I say "other positions I have been exploring that sound comparable are paying between $X and $Y." I immediately follow by asking if this range fits within their budget. Using either answer, I have been able to successfully move past this potential objection.

Which other companies are you interviewing with?

This question also seems to come up in every interview process.

I think companies are looking at two things here:

- Are your skills truly marketable and are other companies interested, or are we the only ones talking to you? (Remember very few companies want to be out in front of the pack.)

- Are you so far along in the interview process with another company that you might try and play us off each other to get a better offer?

What was worked successfully for me is asking for clarification. I ask directly whether the interviewer aims to explore the above questions, or some other underlying question.

No matter your situation, I think you always have to tell a company you're actively interviewing. You need to help them feel they aren't taking on risk moving forward with you.

I generally tell the recruiter I am in mid-stage interviews with a few other companies, but am actively interested in this particular opportunity and would like to move to the next step. It really helps when you can assure a firm that you are actively interested in them and aren't just taking interviews with anyone who happens to call.

Turn the Tables

Every interaction you have should be a two-way dialogue. Don't give up your power for fear you'll be screened out if you ask questions. I've gotten a lot of great information by initiating a dialogue with the recruiter. Ask what the interview process is, ask what the next steps are and when you will hear if you are moving forward, and ask how many candidates they are looking at and how your candidacy compares with your rivals.

Actively engaging with the company's HR/recruiter can go a long way to increasing your odds of landing the position.

Rob Gordon (a pseudonym) is a senior professional who has held management roles in product development, business management and technology.

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