Job Doc

Taken by surprise by an on-the-spot phone interview? Elaine Varelas provides techniques to handle an untimely request

When faced with a hiring manager who insists on an impromptu phone screen, it can be a challenge to decide how best to proceed. Agree and potentially be too flustered to do well? Ask to reschedule and risk missing your chance? Elaine Varelas advises on best practices for on-the-spot phone interviews.

Ask the Job Doc.

Q: I’ve been applying for jobs and recently got a call back from a company—and the manager insisted on having the phone screen that moment, rather than scheduling one at a later time. I was too flustered to try to get out of it, but I was not prepared and I don’t think it went nearly as well as it could have if I had a chance to prepare. What should I have done? I wish I had never answered the phone!

A: I’m sorry that the hiring manager didn’t give you an opportunity to shift gears before holding an important conversation. It’s possible that this person is just impatient or spontaneous and unable to recognize the strain they’re putting on interviewees. It’s also possible that he or she was employing a hiring strategy designed to assess your phone skills and ability to think on your feet or handle interruptions—if the role you’re applying for has similar demands, it may have been a strategic approach to test your skills. Strategic or otherwise, this is not a recommended approach to phone screens and a good learning opportunity for this or similar situations in the future.


So, your phone screen may not have gone well. On the one hand, life doesn’t always give you the opportunity to plan or prepare. On the other hand, it’s not an ideal situation and you may want to follow up with the hiring manager. Think about what the situation was. Was it strategic to assess certain skills in real time? Was it just an impatient manager with a deadline? The interview may not have gone as poorly as you think, but if you decide to follow up, thank the manager for the opportunity to discuss the role, while briefly mentioning how you had to make a quick transition from what you were involved with when you took the call: “Thank you again for the time to talk yesterday; I was just coming out of a project planning meeting, and I don’t believe I had a chance to discuss ABC with you. I was particularly intrigued by…” Don’t apologize for not doing well—they may think you did fine and you do not want to plant seeds of doubt as they reflect on your conversation. When you follow up, acknowledge that you were making a transition from a task that you were heavily involved in, were eager to talk to him, and needed to shift your mindset—then pivot to a key topic or question related to the role.


When you are faced with someone insisting upon a non-ideal situation, you need to be able to manage that confidently and professionally. You want to be able to say, “I understand that you would like to have this conversation right now, and I would be more than happy to accommodate that in five minutes when I can get to a private space.” You have to know how to push back professionally. It will not affect their willingness to see you as a potential candidate; in fact, being able to say “Yes, but not now” is a professional skill that is important to develop. Asking for five or 10 minutes is reasonable and does not constitute a “later time”; you are still honoring their preference while protecting your own needs of finding a private space, pulling yourself together, and getting into the right mindset. When your options are taking the phone call immediately and being flustered to the point of not doing well vs. professionally stating that you would welcome a conversation in five minutes when you are in a quiet and private location, the latter puts you in a much better position. If you give the hiring manager a good reason why you need some time and offer a reasonable alternative—10-30 minutes or even until the end of the business day if a deadline is imminent—there is no reason for there to be an issue. And if it is, consider what that might say about someone who could potentially be your future boss.


You might walk away from this experience thinking you should be ready for an interview at the drop of a hat. And yes, there is an extent to which this is true—within reason. When in a job search, it’s always wise to have your resume easily accessible, as it can be the support you need if struggling to find something to discuss. You want to be available when a job prospect calls, but more importantly, you want to be positioned to present yourself at your best.