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Phone screen guide

The goal of a phone screen is to assess a candidate’s rough fit for the position we’re hiring, and to evaluate if a candidate should be interviewed for the position.

Phone screens are performed by someone on the 18F Engineering Hiring team, and often the same person performs all phone screens for a given hiring group.

Watch out for unconscious bias!

Remember that we all have unconscious bias, and that hiring is especially susceptible to bias. However, when we recognize and accept bias we can be on the lookout and it’ll be less likely to unconsciously guide our decisions.

Learn how.

Research shows that the effect of unconscious bias can be profound. For example, in one study, “applicants with white names needed to send about 10 resumes to get one callback; those with African-American names needed to send around 15 resumes to get one callback.”

This bias prevents us from achieving the results we want, which is to select the best possible candidates regardless of background.

Humans are not only biased, but we almost never realize that we’re being biased. However, when we realize and accept bias, and recognize it, we can be on the lookout for bias and it’ll be less likely to unconsciously guide our decisions.

In that spirit, here are a few ways you can look out and correct for bias during the hiring process.

  • Review these guidelines before every interview or round of resume review. Studies show that we’re less biased when we’re conscious of our own thinking, so continually reminding yourself to be aware will help.
  • Remember that we’re especially susceptible to assume that underrepresented minorities — women, people of color, etc. — are less qualified than their white male counterparts. When considering candidates from underrepresented backgrounds, check your thinking about qualification. Ask yourself: am I reading this person’s qualifications the same as if they were white, male, etc?
  • Continually re-check the guides and scoring rubrics to make sure you’re reviewing fairly. After a while, you’ll start to feel like you’ve memorized the guides and rubrics. This is good since it’ll help you be more efficient, but our memories are fickle things. The more you remind yourself of the concrete, established metrics, the less likely you’ll be to make “gut” decisions that could be colored by bias.
  • Watch out for assessments of candidates that may be colored by age, gender, race, etc. For example, we tend to be more likely to use words like “aggressive” or “competitive” when describing men, vs “supportive”, “nurturing” when describing women. Are you surprised that an older person has cutting-edge technical skills? Ask yourself if an assessment might be colored by an applicant’s demography.
  • Don’t check out the candidate on social media, or Google them. A person’s public profile almost certainly won’t have anything relevant to work, and might instead reveal all sorts of irrelevant information (age, gender, political affiliation, race, etc.). If the candidate application/resume links to a personal website, LinkedIn, or GitHub you can check those out — these are more work-focused, and we can assume a candidate has put what they want an employer to see there. If you use Chrome, the Unbias Me extension (written by Fureigh) can help by removing avatars and names on some websites such as LinkedIn.
  • If you come to a conclusion about a candidate very quickly, before you’ve read the whole resume or finished the interview, spend the rest of the session trying to disprove that conclusion. Snap judgments are much more likely to be prone to bias than considered ones. We tend to jump to conclusions and then look for evidence to support our hypothesis. To compensate, if you find you’ve reached a Yes/No conclusion very quickly, spend the rest of the session trying to disprove that hypothesis. Explicitly look for evidence that you’re wrong. If you’ve decided immediately that a candidate is not qualified, spend the rest of your time trying as hard as you can to find evidence that they are qualified.

Purpose

Broadly, a phone screen accomplishes two purposes:

  1. Make sure the candidate is aware of the unique nature of the job, and is happy to move forward. Working at 18f presents unique challenges of working in government, remotely, and with external partners. If candidates aren’t up for the mission and challenge, we want to find that out quickly! It’s also not uncommon for candidates to self-select out after the phone screen.

  2. Screen out candidates who would not be successful. Candidates who don’t share our values, do not match the required skills for the position, or are interested in working on things or in ways which we cannot offer.

Phone screens are a rough filter: it can’t be used to really qualify a candidate, but it can be used to disqualify.

Because phone screens are decided upon by a single individual, phone screeners should be especially wary about their unconscious bias.

Please remember to take notes and pass them along: they can be very useful to future interviewers.

Before the call

The candidate will have already received guidance from TTS Talent on what it’s like to interview at TTS and an explainer of payscales and term limits. This guide changes depending on the hiring authority used and the specifics of the role, but here’s an example candidate guidance for a DHA role and for a reserved hire role.

Take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the candidate’s resume, copy the notes template, and review what to look for during a phone screen.

Make a copy of the notes template.

Conversation Outline

Introduce yourself and set expectations

Begin by introducing yourself by saying this or something similar to it:

Hello! My name is ___, my pronouns are ___, and my role at 18F is ___. In a nutshell, 18F is a digital consultancy and we work with our clients, who we call our partners, to develop and modernize technologies in service of the American public.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today! The purpose of this call is to make sure we’re on the same page about what 18F is and what the Consulting Software Engineer role entails, to ask a few questions to get to know you and your experience better, and to answer any questions that you may have.

I’ll lead the conversation for about 45 minutes, and then hand the conversation off to you to answer any questions that you might have for the remaining 15 minutes.

I’m excited that you’re here — are you ready to get started?

Discuss the candidate’s career history and path

Give the candidate space to tell their story, so we can hear how they view themselves and where they are heading in their career.

  • “Tell me your professional story.”
    • “Tell me about a few of your recent projects.”
  • “What got you interested in 18F?”
  • “What are you looking for in your next ideal role, and what things are most important for you?”

Describe the role and ask for their experience

Reinforce information from the job post and gauge the candidate’s level of comfort, while learning how their experience applies to these areas.

Open source and technical experience

We are an open source organization that prefers working with languages and tools which help avoid locking in to specific vendors or organizations.

  • “Can you tell me a bit more about [a project or projects you’ve worked on]? I’m looking to get a sense of the kinds of technology, tools, platforms, and frameworks you used.”
  • “If we were to go on to a technical interview, what would be your preferred programming language?”
  • “Have you ever worked with open source or in public before?”

Consulting and coaching

We are a consulting organization, and this role is focused on consulting; that is:

  • creating clarity around problems both technical and people-oriented,
  • understanding and processing resistance to change,
  • and applying your technical expertise to advise how a project will be most successful.

  • “Technical problems aren’t always the hardest problems we face. Can you tell me about a time when you’ve needed to solve a problem that had a non-technical dimension? How did you approach it?”
  • “Can you tell me about a time when you’ve been on a project with multiple competing stakeholders and how you navigated it?”
  • “Can you tell me about a time when you’ve taught or coached others and how you went about it?”

Cross-functional teams

We work on cross-functional teams. To us, that means teams which are made up of people with talents in product, design, content, strategy, engineering, and management who work as peers with each other and with the subject matter experts — those who we are assisting in our projects.

  • “Can you tell me about a time when you worked on a cross-functional team, especially one with user researchers or visual designers?”
  • “Can you describe a time or situation in which you saw or noted something that wasn’t working well and advocated for an improvement?”
    • “Did your efforts succeed or fail, and can you explain why?”

Values and team contributions

We are a team that values diversity, equity, and inclusion. 18F is committed to building a safe, welcoming, harassment-free culture for everyone where we as individuals are free to take risks and challenge each other. We do not merely want a work environment that is free from hostility; we want one that is actively welcoming, inclusive, and fosters an environment of belonging. We want our team and our workplace culture to reflect and celebrate the diversity of the public we serve, and we work hard to ensure that everyone is treated fairly and respectfully.

  • “In inclusive work environments, employees feel a sense of belonging within the organization and feel that their voices are heard. How do you foster a culture of belonging? What organizational cultures in workplaces do you admire, and why?”
  • “Can you tell me about a time you’ve worked with or for communities different than your own, and what did you learn?”

Agility and agile methods

We are an agile organization. We start our projects by exploring the problem space and performing research to see if we’re solving the right problem. As projects advance, we repeatedly check-in with experts — the end-users — to see if our understanding of the problem and our current proposed solution are correct, and be able to adjust or pivot if we need to change course.

  • ”- “Can you tell me about a time when a project changed and you had to reset expectations for your work?”
  • “Can you tell me about your experience with agile methods and practices and how they affected your work?”

Remote and distributed work

We are a remote-first organization. Even if you plan to work in one of our offices when they re-open, you will be working with project teams which are geographically distributed. Under normal circumstances, you will be asked to travel occasionally (a few times a year) for 2-3 day periods to hold in-person workshops with project teams.

  • “Have you ever worked with a remote/distributed team before? If so, how did you overcome any communication challenges and barriers? If not, how would you approach it?”
  • “What do you think are the crucial skills, tools, and resources needed to make a remote-first team collaborative?”

Give the candidate space to interview us

  • I’ve asked all of the questions on my list, and the rest of the time is yours. What questions can I answer for you?

After the call

Thank you for your focus! Use your notes to fill out the feedback form linked in the calendar invitation, which will help prepare for interviews.

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18F Engineering Hiring Guide is a product of GSA’s Technology Transformation Services, and is managed by 18F.

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