How to Handle an Informal Interview

Tips for Making the Most Out of a Casual Interview

Somebody came more prepared than the others...
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Just like many workplaces, job interviews are going casual. Instead of a structured, formal interview in a conference room, a lot of hiring managers now begin with a low-key, informal conversation.

Hiring managers or recruiters may invite candidates out for a cup of coffee, for instance, and instead of calling it an interview, the conversation may be framed as an exploratory or informational session. These informal interviews are particularly common when hiring managers are actively recruiting a candidate. 

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

  • What should you wear?
  • What should you bring?
  • And how should you behave?

Learn why informal interviews are growing in popularity and how to ace the experience. 

Why Are Informal Interviews a Trend? 

One common reason an employer will opt for an informal interview is that they're still formulating the exact structure of the job. By meeting with a wide variety of candidates, without a specific job description, employers can flesh out the exact responsibilities and expectations for the role.

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

Executive recruiters may just be trying to source some talent for future clients. 

Preparing for a Casual Interview

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. It means conducting extensive research on the organization and its products/services, challenges, achievements, and competition.

You should be ready to discuss your career path and long-term goals and to itemize assets and strengths that have enabled you to add value to various projects and roles. Be prepared to cite specific examples or tell stories that demonstrate actions taken and results generated. And, just as you would at a formal interview, you should have ideas for how you'd fit in at the company and what positive role you could play. 

What to Wear

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

What to Bring

Bring some extra copies of your resume, your business card, if you have one, and a portfolio with a pad and pen so you can take notes.

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 to schedule this meeting?" or "You've mentioned some potential changes in your operation, can you tell me a bit more how someone like me might fit into that picture?" will help you to develop a clearer idea about which of your assets might best meet the employer's needs.

It will also help clarify 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 that. One job seeker I know 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 seems down to earth or primarily to be trying to sell you on a company, they will take note of anything you say or do and factor it into their assessment. So 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 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.

Information Gathering

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 names of your contacts 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.

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, however. 

Follow Up After the Meeting

Ask the person you met with for his or her business card, so 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 some viable opportunities available through the recruiter. Since a primary goal for their meeting with you may have been to feel you out in terms of your interest level, make sure that your 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 which appeals to you, mention a few discrete strengths that might allow you to add value in that capacity. If the recruiter has hinted at any reservations or areas of your background that didn't quite fit try to supply any 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 right now.

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