July 31, 2012
Informational interviewing: how, and what, to ask
For years, colleges and career counselors have suggested to job seekers (especially those changing careers and/or just entering the workforce) that a key step in their efforts should be to reach out to a handful of appropriate local professionals and ask for what's known as an informational interview.
And many hiring managers, when they hear this, have to stifle a gag reflex.
Informational interviews are a wonderful idea in theory. As opposed to interviewing for a specific job that's available, you approach somebody at an organization and ask if they'd be willing to share some insights about their company, in general, and what it's like to work there. It's all a very polite and pleasant notion. In some cases, a chorus of "Kumbaya" might even break out.
In today's business world, however, informational interviews aren't working very well or generating a very positive response -- at least in their traditional form.
What accounts for this? For starters, almost every employer (especially larger firms) has a website packed with volumes of information about what the organization does, the products or services it offers and the types of jobs available. As a result, the job seeker who requests a formal meeting to gather this information can be perceived as lazy, out-of-touch and/or unresourceful.
Second, given employees' workloads these days, most -- no matter how helpful they might be in spirit -- simply don't have the time to grab coffee or lunch to talk with random people about future potential needs that might arise within their organization. If you're a co-worker's nephew or a close friend of the family, that's one thing. But if you're a stranger off the street asking for such a meeting, your odds will be fairly low.
Finally, and far from the least significant factor in why informational interviewing has lost a bit of its luster, many job seekers simply don't know HOW to conduct such an interview properly -- and often shamelessly try to turn such meetings into job interviews. This bait-and-switch has caused many professionals to be leery of such requests. While most want to lend a helping hand, they don't want to be pressed uncomfortably into a situation where they're being hounded for employment by an aggressive or desperate job seeker.
Informational interviewing still makes sense in some situations, such as in a career-change scenario. In that case, you just need to modernize your efforts. Here are some tips for maximizing your chances of success:
1. Don't use the phrase "informational interview." Instead, when asking for such meetings, say you're conducting a research project and seeking to gain a knowledgeable person's verification of some interesting facts, trends and/or data points you've gathered on the career path or industry in question.
2. Do your homework. Don't ask any question that you could easily get answered via a tour of the company's website or by conducting some basic online research.
3. Don't demand a face-to-face meeting. While you might gently offer to buy coffee if your target employee has the time, many of the questions most people need answered can be handled via phone or email.
4. Be prepared to give back. Arrive at the meeting armed with interesting facts, figures, research articles and/or any other material pertinent to the person's industry or occupational field. Who knows? The other person might be fascinated by your research.
5. Stick to the time allotment promised. Also, be sure to take notes and thank the other person profusely once the information exchange is completed. This shouldn't have to be said, but you'd be surprised at how many individuals violate these simple rules of common courtesy.
Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.
Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.
Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.
Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.
Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.
Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."
- career profile (164)
- cool jobs (67)
- education and training (61)
- entry level (70)
- etiquette (106)
- events (71)
- featured (411)
- finding your passion (95)
- health care (73)
- interviewing (88)
- job fairs (60)
- management (88)
- market trends (91)
- networking (272)
- resumes (102)
- salary (85)
- social media (90)
- technology (113)
- unemployment (55)
- work/life balance (90)