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Making the Most of Informational Interviews

by Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR  2/22/2012
 
Informational interviews -- a conversation scheduled not for the specific purpose of applying for an open position, but for learning more about a company or one of its key players -- can be a great way to not only make important business connections, but in some cases to actually land a job! However, point out recruiters and employment experts, it’s important to understand that informational interviews are just that: informational. They should not be used as a pretext to pitch your skills as a potential employee.

“It is crucial to view the informational interview as a way to build a relationship and to learn,” said Rachel Karu, the founder of RAE Development, a personal and professional development company based in the Los Angeles area. Do not expect to get a job or even mention that you are looking for a job, she stressed.

Heather Huhman, a career expert and the founder and president of Come Recommended, based in Washington, D.C., agreed. “They are aware you are already interested – don’t talk about your knowledge and experience unless they ask.”

“The purpose is for you to find out what it’s like at the organization or in that occupation,” said Linda Duffy, with Ethos Human Capital Solutions in Orange County, Calif. “If you start selling yourself, you’ve abused the person’s time.” Getting the Interview

Because HR professionals are inundated with requests for informational interviews, Huhman recommended starting first with personal connections. “See if you have any mutual contacts and ask for an introduction. If you aren’t in their network at all, make a connection yourself by sending them a relevant article or news about an upcoming industry event. Your goal is to establish a mutually beneficial connection.”

It is very difficult to land an interview with a stranger, noted Pamela Skillings, an interview and career coach and president of Skillful Communications in the New York City area. “You can go a long way with an introduction from a friend, family member or business contact. Even busy HR reps and managers are generally happy to take time to meet with a friend of a friend.”

“The ideal candidate to interview would be someone who has been in the occupation for several years and is still enthusiastic about what they do,” said Carolyn Yencharis Corcoran, assistant director of the Insalaco Center for Career Development at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa. Make your questions specific to that individual, she recommended. “How would you describe your job responsibilities? What does a day in your work life look like? How did you decide to enter the field? What do you like about it? What are your biggest challenges? What advice do you have for someone who is interested in getting into this field?”

Best-Practice Tips

Informational interviews done well can be extremely powerful, but done poorly do more harm than good, said Caroline Ceniza-Levine, a career expert and co-founder of SixFigureStart based in the New York City area. Don’t, she cautioned, use the informational interview as a substitute for your own research. “Don’t waste your golden opportunity asking questions that can be found on a quick Internet search, or worse, on the company’s website. Instead, do research and ask your interviewee about nuances, about things you can’t see in the general literature. Have a hypothesis about what it’s like to work in that company and where the industry is going and use the interview to test and refine this hypothesis.”

And, added Toni McLawhorn, director of career services at Roanoke College in Salem, Va., even though informational interviews are different from actual job interviews, you should still treat them similarly from a preparation standpoint. “Research the company and/or job position, take a resume and be sure to wear business attire appropriate for the setting.”

Finally, make sure you are appropriately gracious and thankful for the time and insights provided you.

“My best, and most often overlooked, tip is to make sure you ask the person you speak with how you can return their kindness,” said Duffy. “I give a lot of ‘free advice’ to job seekers and the ones I remember are the ones who take the time to say ‘thank you’ and to ask if there is a way to return the favor.” Duffy said that while she doesn’t have any expectation of anything in return, and tells people that, the simple step of asking makes her remember them. “So few people even say thank you,” she said.

Lynda Zugec, managing director of The Workforce Consultants in the Toronto area, agreed. “Given that time is highly valued and scarce, providing a benefit to the interviewer in exchange for their time in any form -- be it an idea, an article, information, etc. -- is sure to provide useful.” And, she added: “It will bring you a step closer to demonstrating your worth to an organization. People are more likely to remember, hire and value you if you have provided value to them.”

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.

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