Hacking The Hiring Process: Initial Phone Screens

This is a post by Kaitlin O'Neil, Recruiting Manager at Bishop Fox. When she's not at the Fox Den, she writes, guests on podcasts and does all manner of cool stuff. Check her out here!

Love them or hate them, you’re unlikely to escape the recruiter phone screen, even if you’re a referral and the perfect fit for the job.

There’s a tendency to see these calls as a piece of administrivia, but when both parties approach the screen with genuine curiosity and a commitment to partnership, it can help smooth the entire interview process and set everyone up for a successful offer stage.

Hacking The Hiring Process is a series of deep dives into each stage of the technical hiring process, with real, actionable advice and examples you can take away and implement immediately in your next job search.

Your first chance to shine!

BLUF - Bottom Line Up Front

If you just want a specific piece of advice in this article, the below list details the areas we'll be going through in this piece:

  • The Business Case for the Initial Phone Screen
  • Advice for Candidates
  • Example Interview Questions
  • Advice for Recruiters

The Business Case for the Initial Phone Screen

Like Matt discussed in the Recruiters and Headhunters article, recruiters are more than just business development reps on the hunt for new candidate business, or gatekeepers who narrow the candidate funnel.

A true recruiter is a guide who will take you through the interview process and help lighten your load with interview prep, offer guidance and more.

A simplified view of the cybersecurity hiring process

They’re also your best advocate - they represent you to the interviewers and hiring team, make the case for your offer package, and ensure you come in at the right title/level.

When you understand the impact the recruiter can have on your salary, bonuses, title, and even perks, you know that you want a real relationship with your recruiter - the initial screen is the place to start!

When utilized effectively, the primary purpose of the initial screen is to help recruiters assess fit for the role, team, and company.

The recruiter will capture the preliminary information that the entire hiring team will want to access throughout the process.

By sharing this information with the recruiter, you are (hopefully) saving yourself from having the same conversation with every interviewer you meet.

The secondary purpose of the phone screen is to find alignment on title, salary, bonuses, equity, benefits, and more.

If the recruiter seems trustworthy, then consider leveling with them and communicating with them transparently throughout the interview process.

On that subject, most of the recruiters I have met in my career are genuinely people people. Many come from backgrounds in education, psychology, non-profit management, HR, etc.

They are driven by a desire to help candidates find the right job and hiring managers find the best people to grow their team. They care deeply about the teams they support and the candidates with whom they partner.

  • When you botch an interview, we feel terrible.
  • When the title or offer is low, we’re disappointed too.
  • When the role is closed unexpectedly, we are just as frustrated as you are.

If you withhold information from the recruiter in the initial screen and throughout the interview process, then they can’t effectively advocate for you. Do your research and be clear in the initial screen about your non-negotiables whether those are:

  • Title
  • Pay
  • Vacation time
  • Remote working schedule, etc.

When you withhold information until offer, you make it difficult for the recruiter to adequately advocate for you. Additionally, you risk losing the trust of the hiring team.

It’s absolutely okay to be firm and to advocate for yourself during negotiations, but remember that you may be negotiating with your future coworkers, so always be respectful.

Advice for Candidates

The initial phone screen usually isn’t the interview where you face tough technical or behavioral questions.

Still, the initial phone screen is used to cull the candidate pool with the generally accepted pass rate around 50%.

So how can you ace the initial phone screen?

There's a joke about the grind being worth it somewhere in here... Be Prepared

Come to the call ready to use video or clarify video expectations ahead of time with the recruiting team.

When in doubt, it’s better to be the one who is camera ready and overprepared vs the person who is fumbling to get the video conferencing and working.


Even if the recruiter reached out to you and asked you to apply for the role, a little bit of research can go a long way in impressing the hiring team.

While I will always advocate for visiting a company’s website and LinkedIn Life page, ChatGPT has made it easier than ever to conduct pre-interview research.

For example:

Prepping for interview with a ChatGPT battlecard Prepping for interview with a ChatGPT battlecard

As always, you have to be careful and doublecheck whatever ChatGPT spits out. My battlecard described Bishop Fox’s incident response services, but that isn’t a service line that Bishop Fox provides.

Don’t Be Rude

There is a tendency to assume that recruiters are just administrators who don’t have the technical acumen to dig into more complicated questions and answers.

Not only is this assumption regularly wrong, it’s just plain rude.

Furthermore, as a security practitioner you will need to interact with people at all different technical skill levels.

Show the recruiter that you can do this by freely sharing technical examples and checking in throughout the story with polite questions like:

“Are you familiar with XSS or cross site scripting, or do you want me to break that down a bit further?”

The key here is to check-in without being condescending.

You may be an amazing technical talent, but nobody wants to work with a condescending jerk!

Recruiters are paid to help sniff those people out and remove them from the hiring process, so as not to waste the hiring team’s time.

Bring Your Own Questions

The initial screen isn’t just for the recruiter, it is also your chance to ask the questions you need to assess if the company is a good fit for you.

Don’t hesitate to ask questions that organically arise throughout the conversation, and come prepared with your own questions.

Some questions that I have found to be good conversation starters are:

  • How did the need for this role come about?
  • Is it a new role? Did someone quit? Were they terminated?
  • What skills and experience does someone need to be successful in this role?
  • How will success be measured in this role?
  • Tell me about the company culture. What truly makes your company different from the competition?
  • If you could change one thing about the company, what would you change?
Be Mindful of Audience and Time

If the recruiter only has a passing understanding of the role or the team, then shift to the more general questions and save the targeted questions for the hiring manager.

If there’s only 5 minutes left in your designated time slot, recognize that there are only a few minutes left in the call and ask the recruiter if you can pose 1-2 questions.

You may have a big list of your own questions, but it’s better to prioritize your questions and demonstrate that you can respect the time of others.

Example Phone Screen Interview Questions

I can’t begin to guess every question that appears on a phone screen, especially if the interviewer makes up their own.

But in my experience, there are a handful of questions you should be prepared for:

  • Tell me about yourself and your career up to this point.
  • What is it about this role/position that interests you?
  • Why are you interested in leaving your current position?
  • What about your current and past work experience makes you a great fit for our role?
  • What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your current or previous role? How did you overcome this challenge? What was the outcome?
  • What are your career goals?
  • How will getting this job help you advance toward your professional development goals?
  • How do you stay current on the industry?
  • How do you prioritize learning, personal growth, and professional development in your career?
  • What type of work environment do you prefer? Management style?
  • Have there ever been situations where you failed to deliver a project or meet a deadline? What happened? What would you do differently if given the chance?
  • What is the most frustrating part of your current role?
  • Have you ever taken steps to try and make this part of your role less frustrating?
  • What does your typical work week responsibilities look like?
  • How have these responsibilities changed over time?
  • What makes a job fun and motivating for you?
  • What career accomplishments will help you to perform well in this job?
  • Are you currently interviewing with other companies? Where are you at in the interview process with these companies?
  • What salary range and benefits do you expect for your next role?

Another trick is to search Glassdoor, following the “Interviews” tab to see what interview questions other candidates have encountered:

Bishop Fox Glassdoor Page Bishop Fox Glassdoor Page

Generally, I tell people not to put too much stock in Glassdoor (especially not Glassdoor salary estimates, but that’s another article….), but the interview questions feature is helpful.

Even if the questions you see listed don’t turn up in your interview, it is still a window into the company and the types of questions they like to ask.

Since it’s impossible to predict every question you will be asked, I always recommend preparing a few of your biggest wins and losses.

For each of these examples consider the situation, task, action and result or STAR.

Arriving prepared with a few strong examples like this will help you to answer any questions that come your way and ace the interview!

Advice for Recruiters

Flying the plane while building it

After even a few months in recruiting, it’s really easy to go on autopilot.

For any given role, you’re likely doing a dozen recruiter screens minimum, making it easy for the calls and the candidates to blend together.

Some days, the phone screens may be back-to-back with 8+ in a row. Given the high volume, repetitious nature of the recruiting role, how do you keep it fresh?

Staying engaged in each phone screen is certainly easier said than done, but here are a few tips that have helped me stay present and active in every phone screen:

Be Prepared

As a seasoned recruiter, it’s easy to “build the airplane while flying it,” or develop the interview questions during the call.

Coming into the call with the pre-screen questions built and the candidate’s resume reviewed sets an easy, polished tone for the call and makes it easier to be an active listener.

Read the Room

Recruiters come into the interview with set questions for a myriad of legal, compliance, and efficiency reasons. There is, however, a difference between cruising through a list of preset questions and actively engaging with candidates.

Take time to understand where the candidate is today - do they seem nervous, impatient, bored?

Read the room and adjust the course of the interview accordingly.

If the candidate is nervous, I will start with some softer questions or tell them about the things in their profile that excited me in an effort to set them at ease.

For the impatient candidates, I will cut out the chit chat and get straight to the questions I need answered and the information I have to convey.

Taking the time to meet the candidate where they’re at leads to a better candidate experience and it consistently yields the highest volume of quality information - a real win-win situation.

Listening vs Hearing

After ten years, my multi-tasking addicted brain can ask questions, hear candidate responses, take notes, and still answer incoming pings.

Still, I have found (not unsurprisingly) that when I shut off distractions I can more fully connect with the conversation and go beyond just hearing and reacting to truly listening.

Take a moment to reflect on the things that pull you out of the conversation - a good indication of this is when you are apologizing for a distraction (barking dog), slipping into “ummmms” and “just a minutes,” or repeating questions.

If possible, try to address the things that pull you out of the call and notice if it helps yield results.

A good indication of when you find yourself hearing vs listening, is when you are physically leaning into the conversation, even a virtual one!

Take Notes

While a necessary distraction, note-taking is still a distraction that pulls us out of listening and engaging in the conversation.

Scheduling a 15-30 minute buffer at the end of each screen to allow for post-call note taking enables you to stay focused on the conversation during the call and capture high level information after.

Studies show that the information you retain from a conversation or lecture drops off sharply at the 24 hour mark, so don’t postpone note-taking!

Another option is a note-taking application, but be sure to obtain candidate consent if you go this route.


Say yes to some of the relevant outreach you receive on LinkedIn, even if you’re happy in your current role.

Moving from the interviewer seat to the candidate seat is a great way to see the recruiting function with fresh eyes.

Whenever I have engaged in interview processes, I have come back to the recruiting processes I run with new ideas, and also some fresh perspective on how to streamline and enhance candidate experience.

TL;DR / In Conclusion

The initial phone screen is a way for the recruiter to quickly get to know candidates and determine if they are a good fit to continue the interview process.

It shouldn’t demand hours and hours of preparation, but it should be treated with respect.

Even if this turns out not to be the opportunity for you, you want to create a positive impression and expand your network.

The security community is small, so you don’t want to risk your reputation by blowing off an initial screen or being rude to the recruiter- we talk and we never forget!

  • Unless they prove they can’t be trusted, treat the recruiter as your ally.
  • Be clear and direct with your expectations and non-negotiables.
  • Research the company and the role using traditional OSINT and also fresh tools like ChatGPT.
  • Bring your questions to the call, remembering that this interview is an opportunity for you to gather information too.
  • Prepare answers to common interviews questions and polish a few of your best work stories guided by the STAR method.
  • Work to be an active listener, truly listening to what the other person is saying, not just hearing.

If you enjoyed this article, check out the other articles in the Hacking The Hiring Process series: