How to Handle an Informal Interview

Tips for Making the Most Out of a Casual Interview

Man conducting informal interview in a coffee shop
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 Eva Katalin Kondoros / E+ / Getty Images

For years, interviews were a strictly formal affair—they were an occasion to don your interview suit. And in some industries, interviews are still like that. But just as many workplaces have transitioned to a more casual feel, so too has interviewing. 

What Is an Informal Interview? 

Many hiring managers now begin the interview process with a low-key, informal conversation, rather than a more structured interview in a conference room. 

Hiring managers or recruiters may invite candidates for a cup of coffee, for instance. Instead of calling it an interview, the conversation may be framed as an exploratory or informational session

Due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, informal interviews are often held on the phone or over video chat.

Informal interviews are particularly common when hiring managers are actively recruiting a candidate. 

During an informal interview, you may hear some of the usual interview questions (e.g., "Tell me about yourself" and "What do you know about our company?"). However, the overall tone will generally feel more casual, and rather than a question-and-answer session, the interview will be more likely to feel like a conversation. 

As a general rule, if a recruiter reaches out to you for an informal interview, it's a good idea to accept. Some of the benefits of going to an informal interview are: 

  • It's a relatively low-key way to sharpen your interview skills. 
  • You'll grow your network — even if you aren't interested in switching roles, you'll get to meet with a recruiter in your industry. 
  • You may find the opportunity more intriguing than you expected. 
  • It could potentially lead to an offer. 
  • Even if the role isn't right for you, it's possible that you'll be able to connect someone else in your network to the opportunity.

Although the interview process may be less formal, you still want to prepare beforehand and ace the experience — here's what you need to know. 

Why Do Employers Opt for Informal Interviews? 

Employers often choose this option when the company is still formulating the exact specifics of a job. By meeting with a wide variety of candidates, without a specific job description, employers can use what they learn from informal interviews to flesh out the exact responsibilities and expectations for the role.

Alternatively, employers may go this route because funding is too tentative to begin formal interviewing. The company may even be considering another role for the current job holder and therefore want to explore alternative talent before moving forward with reassignment or firing.

In the case of executive recruiters, they may simply be trying to source talent for future clients. 

And, at some companies, informal interviews may be a better fit in terms of the company culture. At start-up companies, there may not even be office space available.

Preparing for a Casual Interview

For candidates, this more casual interview style can present a new set of challenges:

  • What should you wear?
  • What should you bring?
  • How should you behave?

Get ready for a "conversation," "coffee date," or any other casual interview in the same thorough way you'd prepare for a more formal, traditional job interview.

  • Conduct research on the organization and its products and/or services, challenges, achievements, and competition.
  • Be ready to discuss your career path and long-term goals and to itemize assets and strengths that have helped you add value to various projects and roles.
  • Be prepared to cite specific examples and to tell stories that demonstrate the actions you've taken and the results you've generated.
  • Just as you would at a formal interview, you should have ideas for how you'd fit into the company and what positive role you could play there. 

Finally, you'll also want to make sure you have logistical matters in hand. 

For instance, if you're meeting in person, you'll want to know where to go, and how you'll recognize your interviewer. For virtual informal interviews, it'll also be important to arrive to the chat on time, dressed appropriately (more on that below), and without any technical glitches. 

What to Wear to an Informal Interview

Because this is an informational meeting, you don't need to dress in professional interview attire unless that's what you usually wear to work. Otherwise, business casual or start-up casual attire, depending on your industry, is appropriate. 

Of course, even if your clothing is a bit more casual, you should still wear an outfit that is clean and unwrinkled, and that would be appropriate in the office of the company. That way, your appearance won't distract your interviewer from your qualifications. 

If you're meeting over video chat, make sure that the video background isn't distracting and, if possible, meet in a quiet area of your home that's free from kids and pets. But since this is a more casual interview, don't be overly stressed if a dog starts barking or your child wanders in. 

What to Bring

If you're meeting in person, bring some extra copies of your resume, your business card, if you have one, and a portfolio with a pad and pen so that you can take notes. 

For video meetings and phone calls, it's helpful to have a copy of your resume printed out (you can use it as a reminder) and to have a pen and paper for taking notes. 

Who Pays

When you're invited to meet with a recruiter for a cup of coffee or a meal, they will pick up the tab. There's no need to offer to pay. Do say thank you to the recruiter or hiring manager, though. 

What to Ask the Recruiter

One advantage of a less formal interview is that you can ask some questions early on to learn more about prospective opportunities since you may not have been given a formal job description.

Asking questions like, "Can you tell me a bit more about why you've reached out to me?" or "You've mentioned some potential changes in your operations; can you tell me more about how someone like me might fit into that picture?" will help you to develop a clearer idea of which of your assets might best meet the employer's needs.

It will also help clarify for you whether you are interested in the job.

On-the-Spot Offers

In some cases, you may end up being offered a job on the spot or very shortly after your meeting. One job seeker, for example, progressed from getting a LinkedIn message about opportunities at a company to having a cup of coffee with a hiring manager to getting a job offer from the CEO three days later. When the fit is right, interviewers are often eager to lock in a candidate. 

If the recruiter surprises you with a specific opportunity, be prepared to express your excitement and appreciation, but know that you can reserve the right to process that new information and get back to them in the near future. Don't feel compelled to make a decision about whether to pursue the job on the spot.

Watch What You Say

One danger of an informal meeting is the tendency to speak too freely. Even if recruiters seem down to earth or like they are trying to sell you on a company, please note that they will still take note of what you say or do and factor it into their assessment.

With this in mind, never say anything negative about a colleague, former supervisor, or former employer. Keep things on a professional level even if the recruiter seems to have let his or her hair down.

It's also a good idea to ask the recruiter to keep the meeting confidential so that you don't jeopardize your current job. That should be understood, but it's better to be sure that word of your meeting doesn't get back to your present employer.

Be Careful What You Share

Some recruiters will use informal meetings to pick your brain about other potential candidates, especially if they sense that their opening is not appropriate for you.

Gather as much information about the job as possible, but refrain from sharing any of your contacts' names until you clear it with them. Your contacts may have a reason that they don't want to affiliate with a particular recruiter or appear to be in job-hunt mode.

Follow Up After the Meeting

Ask the person you met for his or her business card so that you have the information you need to follow up. 

It's important to follow up after the meeting, especially if you sense that there will be viable opportunities available through the recruiter. Since a primary goal for their meeting may have been to feel you out in terms of your interest level, make sure that your follow-up email or letter clearly affirms your interest in exploring things further, if that is the case.

If you have learned about a specific job or role that appeals to you, mention a few discrete strengths that might allow you to add value to the company.

If the recruiter has hinted at any reservations or any areas of your background that didn't quite fit, try to supply them with information that would counter those concerns.

Even if you aren't interested in the company, send a brief thank-you note. Also, invite the recruiter to connect with you on LinkedIn if you aren't already connected. A quick cup of coffee could turn into a future employment opportunity, even if the timing and job aren't a good fit right now.

Key Takeaways

INFORMAL INTERVIEWS ARE INCREASINGLY POPULAR: Even if it's referred to as a casual coffee date, it's wise to prepare beforehand just as you would for an interview. 

NO NEED TO WEAR A SUIT: More casual attire is acceptable, but make sure your outfit is clean and office appropriate. 

FOLLOW UP AFTERWARD: Even if the conversation is not going to lead to a more formal interview, it's good networking practice to connect on LinkedIn and to send a follow-up email after the meeting.