October 12, 2009

How to Say It: Informational (gag!) Interviews

Filed under: How to Say It, Interviewing

Informational interviews — gag me with a spoon. They call it an informational “interview” because… it’s a veiled job interview. The challenge is how to get the information you need in the right setting. And an interview ain’t it.

In the October 13, 2009 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader questions advice she was given by a career counselor about informational interviews. Lucky she asked.

I know that I’m supposed to call the people I know in decision-making positions in my field to set up appointments for “informational interviews.” A career counselor I’m working with suggests that I should say, “I was wondering what unmet needs you have now or anticipate down the road.” But it just doesn’t sound natural or productive to me. I bet you have a better idea.

Gimme a break and fire your career counselor, who is telling you to go embarrass yourself by asking for a job with a wink and a nod. Imagine asking that exact same question in an attempt to get a date with someone… Urrrrgh.

Why is every interaction between a job hunter and an employer assumed to be some kind of interview? Why can’t we just have a little talk? You know — talk shop. Discuss business. Share information and insight. Everything doesn’t have to be a dad-blasted interview.

This means you have to shake loose from talking about “the job,” “a job,” “an opening,” “an unmet need,” (Jeeze, I wouldn’t touch that one even with a lawyer in tow…) or anything having to do with getting hired.

And that means talking to the manager in a different setting. What industry associations does she belong to? Where does she take professional development courses? Does she volunteer somewhere? Find out where you can run into her, then do it. Assuming you really want to learn something new, here’s How to Say It:

“Hi, nice to meet you. I know you work for ABC Company. I’ve always admired ABC’s stature in its field. Could I ask you something? What’s your opinion of this industry and where it’s going? What do you think are the hurdles and opportunities coming down the pike?”

This can easily turn into a talk about her company and even about her department. And that’s the beginning of your “informational” discussion, if that’s what you really want.

If what you really want is an excuse for a job interview, I can’t help you. Don’t mix up job hunting with a peer-to-peer discussion with someone in your field. It’s rude.

Am I wrong? What’s the best way to say it, and in what setting?

I think it’s legit (and smart) to learn all you can about an industry, a company and a job. But is the “informational interview” a legit way to do it? I don’t think so. (I discussed this topic in another post, Informational (heh-heh) Interviews over a year ago. But don’t look at that til you’ve posted your comments here!)

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22 Comments on “How to Say It: Informational (gag!) Interviews”
By Roy Harvey
October 12, 2009 at 6:18 pm

I can tell you that if I was not already acquainted with the caller such a request would have gotten nowhere with me when I was working for a mega-corporation (Dow 30), or even when I was with one of the smaller fish before larger corporations swallowed them. Our competitors kept up a steady pressure of “research” on us by third-parties who gave a wide variety of plausible but fraudulent stories to justify their questions. Instead the call would have been reported to the appropriate group within the company.

By Jennifer McClure
October 12, 2009 at 6:28 pm

I agree with you on the “Informational Interview” approach but realize it’s tough for many who are in job search to make that call, so I try to be as helpful as possible and steer the conversation. I ask them how they’ve been doing in their job search and networking efforts and then make some suggestions for companies, professional organizations or networking groups that they should look into. My goal is to help and not be too critical of how they’re going about it, but also to make the best use of my time. Typically, I can provide enough info in a brief phone conversation and we don’t have to meet face to face for an “interview”. As an executive recruiter, it’s 99.9% likely that I’m not working on a job at the moment that is a fit for the person who reaches out to me.

By margo rose
October 12, 2009 at 6:42 pm

As an HRD Professional in transition, I believe informational interviewing and networking is critical to being effective in a job interview. Every job I’ve ever had has come through the informal network, not ads, websites, or recruitters (sorry). The point is not to abuse someone’s time, or be obnoxious by asking them for a job. I use informational interviewing to get advice about the search process, to learn more about a particular professional area, and to learn PERIOD. I find that most people genuinely want to be helpful to sincere seekers.

By JB King
October 12, 2009 at 7:57 pm

“Unmet needs” almost has sexual overtones to me. While I haven’t done this kind of interview, there is something to be said for boundaries where due to my position, I’m limited in terms of helping someone. At the same time, I wouldn’t want to give someone an unfair advantage in the interview, but that’s me. I might suggest wanting to get someone to vent their frustrations and commiserate but that shouldn’t be viewed as a preamble to a job interview. I know I’ve used recruiters in the past to try to find work at times and some of them can be good at finding what I want. Separating out the useful from the useless while annoying does have a purpose usually.

By Debra Feldman, JobWhiz Executive Talent Agent
October 12, 2009 at 8:57 pm

If possible, personalize this encounter with an employer representative, aka employee, even further. How? Research the company and identify current news about initiatives, challenges, community participation, industry trends, etc so that when you do “run into” this contact, you can appear to be both knowledgeable and interested in them not just their company. You can ask how the big picture may be impacting their responsibilities or creating additional challenges for them and their colleagues. You can talk about non-work topics that will bring the conversation around to the employer, things like the employer’s policy regarding time off for volunteer projects (a Google search often turns up mention of sports affiliations and community events linked to a person or a company,) college recruitment practices, where the workforce lives- which local towns, etc. No one likes to be cornered and asked to think about “challenges” but discussing “stuff” that circles around 9-5 is usually a safe path that provokes more thoughtful insights.

By Apolinaras "Apollo" Sinkevicius | LeanStartups.com
October 12, 2009 at 9:31 pm

Informational interviews are BS! Period! Maybe in the 70’s it worked, but that is different century, which some of those “career advisors” don’t seem to want to leave.

Almost every opportunity I came across in my career, including meeting future business partners, employers, etc., came to me during informal conversations at networking, business, and social events. They were talking about things they are passionate about and so was I. Serendipity happens all the time. But you have to be out there, you have to actually do and talk about what you are passionate about. If you hide under your proverbial rock and only pop out to hit up on an employer or two, you will miss every good opportunity and will sit on unemployment for months and years (or bitch and moan for years how bad your job is).

I never granted anyone an informational interview, but sure as heck, have found more than a handful of people we later hired by meeting them at events.

By K-Cash
October 12, 2009 at 9:37 pm

Informational interviews are weird because there’s this giant elephant in the room: the job seeker who claims s/he is only getting “information” really just wants a job. Also, I don’t agree with borderline stalker behavior like finding out what professional development courses some peer in your field is taking.

In my early 20s I got two jobs by volunteering at a benefit/gala/fundraiser. Neither were for the organization throwing the gala, despite my best intentions. The point of my story is that volunteering puts you in the position to find out the info you need, and also gives you access to the potential employer without feeling completely awkward (which is how I’d feel sitting in an office across from someone asking forced questions).

I get where job counselors are coming from when it comes to informational interviews. But I think the best advice is to keep it natural. And for some reason, informational interviews just don’t feel like that.

By Nick Corcodilos
October 12, 2009 at 11:01 pm

@Apollo: **Serendipity happens all the time. But you have to be out there, you have to actually do and talk about what you are passionate about. If you hide under your proverbial rock and only pop out to hit up on an employer or two, you will miss every good opportunity**

Amen to that!

@K-Cash: The elephant in the room takes up a lot of space. But I don’t think finding a common ground where the person you’re interested in meeting is “stalking” at all. Consider dating. There’s someone you’re interested in but you don’t want to appear forward and create an awkward situation, so you find out from his/her friends what groups the person belongs to/participates in, and you join/attend. You create an opportunity to meet and talk that is comfortable rather than awkward. Stalking implies the contact is unwanted and kinda psycho.

By JaneA
October 13, 2009 at 2:54 am

Maybe I’m missing something here, but if you really have an interest in an industry, would you not be attending conferences, professional development events and meetings, anyway? Might you not want to join a professional association as an associate or affiliate member? Knowing that a person you want to meet will be there then becomes a perfectly normal thing – nothing sinister about it at all.

Maybe the impression of stalking arises when people don’t do the groundwork first and hope to take shortcuts.

By Nick Corcodilos
October 13, 2009 at 9:34 am

@JaneA: As Apollo points out, many people go “networking” only when they need a job. They don’t circulate or bother with professional events. That’s when it becomes “mercenary” and they feel like stalkers. They feel awkward doing those things at that point, and they’re right: They know they’re doing it only to get what they want.

So the problem isn’t with meeting people and talking honestly and genuinely. The problem is doing it ONLY when you need something. People get that. That’s why networking seems so awkward to them. Those who do it all the time because they want to meet people and learn don’t feel uncomfortable. There’s nothing wrong with taking smart steps to meet the person you want to know.

By Neva
October 13, 2009 at 9:42 am

Roy Harvey, your comment is so interesting — a perspective I hadn’t thought about; however, having personally witnessed corporate espionage, it rings so true.

Apollo, I agree with your comment. Informational interviews are BS. I would say, “utter BS.”

The questioner’s career counselor advised him/her to say, “I was wondering what unmet needs you have now or anticipate down the road.”

Talk about a neon sign, shouting out, “I don’t have a clue where I am going. I have no goals, no passions, and I think research is a waste of time.”

I previously made similar comments on Nick’s boards. Imagine phoning the following in an attempt to set up an informational interview (no HR included as they wouldn’t have the information, if it were a viable thing to do):

A busy investment banker running late for his next international flight.

An investment advisor whose revenue quota rests on closing his next transaction.

A portfolio manager before a volatile market closes.

A lawyer who is accountable for his/her number of billing hours.

An accountant making last-minute changes to an annual report to meet the regulatory filing deadline.

See….absolute BS!

The advice illustrates one of the broken pieces in today’s job market. Headhunters, recruiters and HR are procurers without sufficient knowledge about the activities of the hiring managers (and departments) for whom they are recruiting.

By Sara
October 13, 2009 at 11:39 am

As a recruiter I probably get requests for informational interviews at least 5 times a week. They can be valuable but you really have to sift through the sand to get the legitimate valuable candidate.

The first thing I do is look in my applicant tracking system and see if you have applied for any positions within my company and, if so, where you fall skill wise. If the person has one of those “in-demand” charateristics like bilingual abilities, I will email some of my internal contacts and see if they have time.

If they do not have an “in-demand” skill set I call them back and do a little investigative work to see if the reason they are interested is to get connected with our company or if they are just looking for a job. If they cannot tell me why they are interested in us and what we do… I get mad at them for wasting my time and note their irritating behavior on thier file.

If they are truely interested and have a passion for our nonprofit… I try and figure out if i can provide the information and give them some ideas on how to navigate our employment system and give them a bit of advice on how to stand out. If I really liked them, I also email the hiring manager to let them know my initial impression of them. I rarely set up that informational interview with our hiring managers for this level of seeker because they really don’t want information about the profession they want to know how to better navigate our system and there aren’t that many resources that I feel really let the applicants know what happens with their resumes/applications. I take care of that myself.

The other category of informational interviews requests we recieve are from students. We spend about 40% of our recruiting efforts not on recruiting in the market but on educating soon-to-be graduates in the field on the different levels of positions and what type of education is needed within our field for each type of position. If a student is trying to figure out which path to take I will send an email to about 5 managers that focus in their area of interest and ask one to volunteer for the info interview. 9 times out of 10 we are able to accomodate the request. This has really paid off for us as we become the employer of choice right out of school and we get our choice of applicants which is really what we want. We also have developed the talent we need and provide over 120 internships a year from the best schools in the state (on average they provide about 16 hours of service a week for us which is fantastic when they have the needed skill set) they also generally stay with us for a few years after graduation as employees.

The informational interview that annoys me the most is the applicant who shows up on-site unannounced and asks for an informational interview but comes armed with thier resume. When they do not show respect for MY time and have not called (because we are pretty receptive) I act as the gatekeeper and erect barriers and they get a mark against them. If they are this high maintenece and disrespectful of my time as a job seeker, I am not going to like them as an employee. Just my opinion.

By Larry Kaplan
October 13, 2009 at 11:39 am

It’s all about semantics, and positioning the meeting as an opportunity to exchange ideas. Here is the rap I do when asking for these kinds of meetings:

“After X years leading Y Organization, I am moving on to explore new directions, challenges and opportunities. I’m hoping we might catch up and schedule some time together. I have uncovered some interesting things I’d like to tell you about, and at the same time would like your feedback on how you feel I might best continue my contributions in the non-profit, government and public affairs sectors. So, I’d like to sit down with you one of these days to chat and get some ideas—pick your brain and garner some advice. Can I buy you a cuppa coffee? I will be in touch soon to see when we can set something up.”

About half the people I send this email to respond almost immediately without a follow-up phone call to schedule something. I have met with 90% of the people I outreached to. This is how I have been doing it.

By Liz
October 13, 2009 at 12:17 pm

I think the concern may lie w/ the language – ‘informational interview’. In calling the right person at the right organization, after having done the right research (marketing 101 – know your target audience) – the job seeker can indicate why they’re calling – company has an excellent reputation, innovators in their field, latest and greatest product/service, etc. – then indicate what applicable education/experience the job seeker has to offer – done intelligently, your target will me interested in meeting with you.

By Nick Corcodilos
October 13, 2009 at 12:39 pm

Great comments on this thread… there’s a fine line between making contact and prying for a job. Here’s one thing that tips me off (though it seems to work for Larry Kaplan anyway!):

**I am moving on to explore new directions, challenges and opportunities.**

That tells me you want to meet because you’re looking for a job. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that – but come out and tell me. Or leave it off the table entirely and don’t put me on the spot.

By Larry Kaplan
October 13, 2009 at 12:49 pm

Yes, it works with me, but here is my unique situation: I am a professional past mid-career with a very fat rolodex of relationships I have developed over 30 years.

I am calling people who have had previous interactions with me (all positive, I am hoping and assuming), and their willingness to talk to me is based as much on personal loyalty, and the knowledge that I probably have some good inside information on the local civic environment they can use, as much as anything else.

But, yes, everybody I meet with knows I am looking for job and/or consulting leads, although not with them (so that takes the pressure off). I think I would probably approach it differently if these were cold calls to people who did not know me.

By Pete Schult
October 13, 2009 at 3:39 pm

As part of my career change, I have asked for informational interviews as part of my research into various careers in order to get fine detail information that doesn’t get into the more generalized job descriptions on O*Net and other such places. In these cases, I have talked to people who were friends of friends as well as people I met online who had credentials and experience that matched my interests. However, this was comfortable only because I could keep it clear that I was only looking for information and not for a job.

I have always hated the term “informational interview” and the way it is presented as a way of getting your foot in the door with an organization, though. Part of the problem I have with networking in general as it’s described by many job hunting books is that it seems all about taking and not at all about giving. As a job hunter, I realize that I will be on the receiving end mostly, and that my turn to give will be when I’m working in the field, but I prefer that such transactions happen with people I know or who are close friends of close friends rather than people whose names I’ve been able to pry out of mere acquaintances.

When I begin an active job hunt, I will need to get information from my network about specific organizations. That will make the standard informational interview even less attractive because I will be in the position of looking for work rather than just information. Then I will only be comfortable talking to people who are known well by people I know well.

By Debra Feldman, JobWhiz Executive Talent Agent
October 13, 2009 at 7:09 pm

One piece of advice that I think is always good to remember was referred to in Nick’s comment,” Don’t put me on the spot.” Never ask anyone if they can offer or give you a job. That is imposing on the employer and it may make them feel responsible for your livelihood and family’s welfare.

Rather you want to approach each business interaction as an equal player in a fruitful discussion. If you enter as a job seeker, you are putting yourself at a disadvantage as a subordinate or worse, a beggar. As the one asking for the appointment, you want to be prepared with topics of mutual interest and you want to be sure to give the employer something that will be valuable to them, both because it politely reciprocates their time and it may be a way to etch you into their memory so that the good impression you make stays on their radar screen as suitable opportunities surface in the future.

You are far more apt to benefit from exploratory meetings if the target contact is given a reason to find you remarkable. If you are memorable then you’ll get a lot more mileage than if you merely transact business a single time.

How is informational interviewing different than networking? To me, there are striking similarities. Each requires that the person initiating the connection should not just be taking or asking, but also giving to the other party. The emphasis should be on developing a relationship, not focused on a one time only transaction ( no job for me, ta ta to you!) So as Nick said so perfectly, do not put your contact on the spot asking for a job lead, rather approach the meeting as a chance to exchange information. Believe me everyone can see through attempts to camouflage a job searching expedition. Avoid awkwardness and rejection by making certain all your dialogues are meaningful and valuable to both parties.

Debra Feldman, JobWhiz, Executive Talent Agent

By Chris Walker
October 14, 2009 at 8:37 am

One of my favorite ATH articles that I share with my clients reads:

48. Who does the work you want to do?
All the corn pone “wisdom” about job change and career development comes up short of this simple truth: The best help you’ll get in your search for a new job will come from people who do the work you want to do. They will teach you:

What the work is all about
What it takes to be successful at it
How to apply your existing skills to that work
How to develop additional skills you will need
How to avoid wasting your time in your search for the right job
Who can hire you
How to meet the people who can hire you
How to prepare a demonstration of your relevant abilities
What to expect in an interview
What to expect from the job
How to win the job

All you need do to get this wonderful advice is find someone who does the work you want to do, and ask for it. Why waste time doing anything else? With all this help available from real experts, who needs career counselors, want ads, resumes or headhunters?

Any new job should start with this question: Who does the work you want to do?

Call this interaction anything you like, but don’t get hung up on the name. Make the connections, and leave your resume in the car.

‘Unmet needs… you anticipate’? Reminds me of the memo to all project managers to ‘submit a list of all unforeseen problems at the outset of every project’!

By Glenn
October 15, 2009 at 2:13 am

I recently saw this book named _The Lonely American_ in another discussion. I’m planning on reading it because it touches on one aspect that contributes to the ever-growing problem of loneliness throughout society. The author summarizes it as “the cult of busyness.”

Linking up with people in the aforementioned 70’s used to be fairly easy. People had time for one another. The networking was done without knowing it by that name nor “informational interviews.”

It has become fashionable to say that one does not have time for one’s spouse, one’s kids, etc. especially now with rising unemployment. I do not fault those people who never bothered networking until they lost their jobs. It’s understandable, especially in climates and cultures that celebrate the person who works 70 hours a week.

Strategically speaking, I’ve seen some who do get ahead and make networking contacts specifically take on assignments where they are seen by multiple persons in their industry and related industries too during those 70+ hours.

Meanwhile, I do find it interesting how studies say in 1985, the average person could name at least 2 to 5 extremely close friends to call for an emergency, e.g., to help them change a tire. Nowadays, the same person may have 500+ friends on Facebook yet no one to assist with a flat. This definitely has repercussions in the “catastrophic event” of suddenly needing a job, particularly if you were the kind who worked, worked, worked and neglected your network trying to maintain your job.

Since some time management courses have become popular as people try to do more with less, I’d love to see the entry “Build job network” as an entry in those seminars.

By Glenn
October 15, 2009 at 3:15 am

RE: elephant in the room

Ironically, that’s the name of the first chapter to _The Lonely American_.

By Sara
October 15, 2009 at 11:31 am

I am just curious, what is your opinion and how do your organizations react when someone internal to your organization asks for an informational interview in a different area without knowing anyone in those departments?

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