When Home Is the Interview Room

By Susan Kreimer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 6, 2009

One of Debbie Shalom's clients conducted a phone interview while in the bathroom. On the toilet, to be exact.

Shalom, a career-management coach in Baltimore, wouldn't recommend that approach, though the client did get an in-person meeting after that call.

"It wasn't the most conducive place to hold an interview," she said.

Mastering phone interviews is critical in any job market, but even more so in a tight one. Employers inundated with résumés may screen multiple candidates by phone before deciding whom to invite for face-to-face interviews.

"Phone interviews are very, very rarely a formality, meaning they're a critical first step in the evaluation process," said Anna Colton, senior director of technology search at HireStrategy, a staffing firm in Reston.

With a phone interview offering "the first opportunity to shine," she added, the job seeker "needs to be conscious of projecting energy, enthusiasm and confidence."

Tone of voice often conveys how self-assured someone is. For instance, a high pitch can imply nervousness, said Paul McGee, director of human resources at the American Health Care Association in Washington. Speak slowly to give your voice a lower tone. That's easier when you have prepared answers for questions you're likely to be asked, McGee said.

"A lot of this is smoke and mirrors," he said. But when an interviewer is trying to narrow a large field of competent candidates, "you've got to make every word count."

As phone interviews become more common in an employer's market, some job seekers are doing their best to come across as professional and personable to the decision-makers.

Gracie Daniel was laid off in March when her employer of 12 years downsized. In phone interviews, the Reston resident came up with what worked best for her.

"I used to sit. Now, I stand and I walk around" in hopes of sounding more animated, she said. "You're literally trying to sell yourself. It is so important that you be attentive when they're talking."

Interviewees should be comfortable and conscious of their posture, Colton said. For some, that may mean sitting up straight, while for Daniel -- who was recently hired after three phone interviews and one in person -- it means walking around.

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