After the phone interview for a job ended, the candidate thought he had shut off his phone and began to make fun of the interviewer to a friend. But the unamused interviewer was still on the line, and the applicant's laughter smothered any chance he would be called back for a face-to-face interview.
That's just one example of a phone faux pas that sends an applicant's résumé into the trash, according to a recent survey of 3,000 North American hiring managers by job site CareerBuilder.com.
Some managers said they disqualified candidates who put them on hold in mid-conversation to take a call from a friend; others were put off by the sound of chewing gum or slurping soup.
The examples may bring a chuckle, but they indicate how vital it is to treat phone interviews as seriously as a face-to-face interview, career experts say.
And the likelihood that you'll have to make your first impression with an employer by phone is increasing.
"In a competitive job market in which employers can get dozens of applicants … it's becoming common for time-pressed hiring managers to screen the flood of candidates first in phone interviews and invite only those who make the best first impressions for in-person meetings," said Daisy Wright, a career coach who runs The Wright Career in Brampton, Ont.
It is crucial to consider the initial phone conversation as a main event, not a preliminary contact, she said: "One slip in the interview could disqualify you from further consideration, so careful preparation is essential."
If you are in the job market, you should be prepared to make your pitch whenever you get the call. However, as eager as you may be to talk to an employer, there are times when it makes good sense to ask to reschedule, Ms. Wright said.
"It is okay for you to ask to call them back in a few minutes if you're in a bad location or feel unprepared. This gives you time to gather everything and get to a spot where you won't be disturbed," she said.
One of Ms. Wright's clients, for example, underwent a phone interview for a job while he was driving. When he didn't hear back, he called the company and was told he was incoherent; there was too much background noise and the hiring manager couldn't hear him.
"That would have been the ideal time to reschedule the call," Ms. Wright said, if for no other reason than to point out it was unsafe to talk and drive. If you take the call on a cellphone, you should excuse yourself to find a land line which will have a clearer signal.
Because the hiring manager can't see you, you must paint a mental picture of your enthusiasm and worthiness to be hired, said Sharon Graham, president of Graham Management Group in Toronto.
The best way to make a great first impression is to sound up to speed. "There is nothing worse than starting a call with a question such as, 'What job is this about?' Be prepared in advance by doing some online investigation of the company and the position they are filling," Ms. Graham said.
Typically, questions in phone interviews are screening questions, designed to determine whether the candidate has the requirements for the position.
"It's essential for the candidate to review their résumé in advance and determine if they have the mandatory qualifications," Ms. Graham said. " If you're weak in a certain area, practise responses to potential questions about it. The goal should be to highlight the strengths you offer and refocus the conversation to the value they bring in other areas."
Too many candidates forget to express their interest by asking questions of the interviewer, Ms. Graham added. These could include questions that anticipate another interview, such as: "I'm excited about moving forward with this process, what are the next steps?" or "When are you setting up in-person interviews?"
And don't forget to follow up. "You significantly increase your chances if you are pro-active after the call," Ms. Graham said. Write down the name and number of the person who is calling so that you can thank the employer for the call, express your interest in the position, and highlight a strength that you may have forgotten to mention during the call.
Being well-prepared for the call will pay off. "It's definitely better that you practise in advance with someone face to face, so you feel more comfortable. It should be someone who is honest enough to tell you where you were falling into habits that can be picked up by a listener," Ms. Wright said.
"And always put a smile on your face, because the enthusiasm and friendliness comes through in your voice even if someone can't see you."
Interview Tips: Before the phone rings
Prepare for the preliminary phone call by performing mock interviews, either by yourself or with a friend. Record them if possible and get feedback from friends on how you sound.
Have a crib sheet
Keep your résumé and a short list of discussion points in a handy spot for reference.
Get facts straight
Ask the interviewer to repeat his or her name and title and jot it down for future reference.
When taking the call, be sure you are in area where you can speak without interruption. Avoid disruptions by turning off call-waiting, as well as the television or radio. If you receive the call at a bad time, apologize and ask to reschedule.
Be sure to smile
Even though the interviewer can't see you, smiling makes you sound happier and more relaxed. Don't eat, smoke or chew gum during the conversation.
Let the interviewer lead
Listen to each question asked and answer clearly and briefly. Don't interrupt the interviewer.
At the end of the call, stress your interest in the job and request a face-to-face interview. Ask about next steps and get a contact name and number. Always thank the interviewer for his or her time.
Source: Graham Management Group