Exactly What is an Informational Interview Anyway?!

I got a call the other day from an Agency Headhunter. He wanted to set up an “informational interview” for one of his candidates. I said, “Sure, but what is an informational interview?” You see, after twenty years in the business, I thought I had done interviewing every which way but underwater. Therefore, I was caught off guard when this “informational interview” stuff came up. I mean, what do I wear? Is there a special form? Can the candidate dress business casual? Should it go on the schedule? Do you offer coffee? (Being as how it is an informational interview, should I offer decaffeinated coffee? After-all, it only stands to reason if the interview isn’t full strength, why should the coffee be?) My friend on the phone assured me that informational interviews were very popular, tres chic, and fast becoming the best way to attract the elusive “passive candidate” in for an interview. In his opinion, the lack of “interview” pressure made it more attractive for uncommitted candidates, or clients, to be willing to at least give companies a quick “look see.” As he said to me in that call, “You know how the market is?” In my opinion, the number one excuse of ineffective people is “the market.” I know it is tough, but somebody is hiring out there! They are stuck in the same ?market? as the rest of us! My first issue is why go through all the effort of a “faux interview” if you are a candidate? You still have to leave your office, make excuses, drive, carry a resume copy, dress up (even in a casual dress environment, your casual gets dressier), tell your life’s story (Blah, blah, blah), list your greatest strengths, and tell how the drive was not too bad and the directions were wonderful! It seems to me that the only two reasons to leave your job on a beautiful day is to either go to a Red Sox home game, or interview for a better job. This hopefully contains either better career potential or more money, or both. (Season tickets as a sign-on bonus to Fenway Park would be a plus. Yes, Sox fans have a sickness. But seriously, this is the year!) But to go through all the time and effort of interviewing and getting nothing more than a dose of “informational” for all your trouble, to me, is a total waste of time. Not to mention all the time invested by the HR/Staffing representatives and any others involved in this informational “wool gathering” exercise. Not to mention the questionable use of dollar production time of a 100% commissioned headhunter. (What is the fee structure for arranging “informational interviews” anyway? What is 25% of an” informational”,” info”, or maybe “onal”) I could tell my friend on the phone was getting irritated with how dense I was acting, but being dense is one of the perks that comes with age. (That, and thin hair, memory loss and thin hair.) So I asked him to define an Informational Interview by giving me the steps involved. After some hesitation on his part, I offered to start with my list of mandatory elements of a “fully caffeinated? interview. To me, the following components are essential in a professional interview:

  1. A person or persons empowered to make employment offers.
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  3. A genuine need to staff.
  4. A defined position that enables a pre-screening process to insure all parties’ times, interviewers’ and applicants’, are respected and well utilized to a defined purpose.
  5. A defined process that acquires the knowledge necessary to determine if the applicant has the knowledge needed to satisfy the position requirements and company culture. An objective and subjective decision making process.
  6. A sincere effort to determine if the company has the elements needed to attract and retain the job applicant.
  7. A job applicant.
  8. An applicant’s resume, or background information in a format that develops a career and skill set picture.
  9. A schedule that determines who will see the candidate, in what order, and to what purpose. The schedule is distributed in sufficient time to allow those involved an opportunity to become familiar with the candidate’s background, the position, and their area of expected input.
  10. A decision to hire, or not hire, the applicant, can be made based on the data gathered.
  11. A conclusion which must include informing the candidate quickly and professional of the decision, good or bad.

Now that’s interviewing! To me, that is the beginning, middle, and end of an interview. It just isn’t two people meeting to kill an hour of each other’s time talking about “information.” Maybe in a “Martha Stewart” sort of way, informational interviews are a “good thing.” But until I go public and incorporate into a multi-billion dollar cooking and flower-arranging corporation, I got to make a living through staffing, and that means serious interviewing. An interview without the intent to hire, or the capability to hire, is just a waste of my, and the candidate’s, precious time. So I asked my innovative friend to point out the elements of the ?Informational Interview? not common with a traditional interview. In addition, to then explain the point or purpose of the event, if any of the above elements were eliminated. The silence continued. Hold it! Before you hit the “Reply Button,” I know we all have had numerous instances in our careers where we saw a 3rd year college student. The nephew of the CFO. A hard luck brother-in-law of a co-worker. Or, we were “guilted” into seeing that sweet – but hopeless person – the receptionist felt sorry for who came by looking for an application. But was there ever the slightest belief that these situations would result in hires? No! We were being accommodating, politically astute, compassionate, or we hoped we could give the person career advice and counseling. That is not an interview. If you remove the chance that a job offer was the intent, or may be forthcoming, “it isn’t an interview.” If there was the faintest hope, the least glimmer, that the meeting may have had an outcome of an offer, then it was an interview. If it is, shouldn’t the candidate know so they “perform? at their best? Isn?t interviewing in many ways a performance, one in which all participants have had the chance to rehearse and prepare? (Act 1, Scene 1 of the newest Broadway sensation, “I Want a Better Job!” The Critics say – see it with someone you would hire.) Maybe you are confusing “Informational Interviewing” with long term strategic sourcing. Well, that already has a name, “Networking” and “Relationship Building.” Maybe it is a Sales and Marketing Program to build ?brand name awareness? of your company. Or, maybe you wasted an hour of your time, and called it an interview for lack of anything better. At this point my frustrated friend was starting to lose it a little. ?Why are you splitting hairs, what is the big deal? What’s in a name? Why make such big fusses over semantics?? Because in agency recruiting and HR staffing, we are essentially salespeople. We make a living convincing people to see our point of view. But there is nobody we can convince better than ourselves. We will fall for anything we tell ourselves. We can be our own worst enemies. We can even convince ourselves that if candidates are reluctant to ?interview,? call it something else and that is just as good as setting up a ?committed? candidate for a ?real? interview. In this crazy market we are always looking for the “quick fix” to tough problems. If “low-fat” interviews are easier to arrange, then we will arrange them. There is the likelihood that more of your time will be wasted in cycles that produce a far lower percentage of results (Hires) despite the increase in activity. There is the chance that you and your staff will start fooling yourselves into believe that by making the interview harmless in the mind of a candidate you are somehow doing your job. You may start investing dollar-making time into informational- time. Every crisis or emergency in business creates an environment of creativity and innovation to try and resolve the issue. Some of them are real good ideas, others (99%), are real bad. We are currently in an employment crisis. There are not enough qualified candidates for the jobs out there. If you get a good candidate, thirty other recruiters have already contacted them. Candidates are getting shell shocked and getting sick of “Interviewing.” So what do WE do? We create the “un-interview,” the “Informational Interview,” the perfect solution for that hard to commit passive candidate. There is a problem. Do not confuse uncommitted with uninterested, do not confuse searching with shopping. This isn’t the “Interviewing Industry,” this is the “Hiring Industry.” If the candidate will not commit to an interview, a real interview, how are you going to get them to commit to an offer, a real offer? (“Oh, you know that Informational Interview you were on the other day? Boy am I embarrassed. This will make you laugh. Turns out it was real! They want to hire you! Boy, do I feel foolish.”) We have all have made “accidental hires.” As a matter of fact, those of us who have really been around have “arranged” a few accidental hires. But, given that if an infinite number of monkeys are given an infinite number of typewriters, one of them will type King Lear, word for word. But I would not want to wait for it. (Or clean up after it for that matter.) Nor would I want to plan a life of prosperity and wealth based on accidental fees, and accidental billable hours from ?kind-of? interviews. So save the Informational Interviews for the boss’ kid, and the “in-law” that will not leave you alone. Stay in the business of finding, engaging, and exciting qualified candidates for real jobs, with real employers. But the only way to make that happen is with a real interview. If you are dealing with a reluctant candidate that you cannot make interested in your company or your client, move on. They are not candidates, they are uncommitted prospects. You see, the shortage is not in prospects, we have 250 million prospects. It is qualified, committed candidates the market is lacking. If you are providing your company and clients with uncommitted prospects, you have not accomplished your job. Pre-qualifying and exciting your prospects into eager candidates. That is what all the fuss is about. Up above, I gave you the ten essential steps that constitute a real interview with any hope of developing into a real hire. You don’t really think I would go to all that work arranging an “Informational” do you? Heck, you would be lucky if I even showed up. Have a great day recruiting!

Ken Gaffey (kengaffey@comcast.net) is currently an employee of CPS Personal Services (www.cps.ca.gov) and has been involved in the Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration project since its inception. Prior to this National Security project Ken was an independent human resources and staffing consultant with an extensive career of diversified human resources and staffing experience in the high-tech, financial services, manufacturing, and pharmaceutical industries. His past clients include Hewlett Packard, First Data Corporation, Fidelity Investments, Fleet Bank, Rational Software, Ericsson, Astra Pharmaceutical, G&D Engineering, and other national and international industry leaders. In addition to contributing articles and book reviews to publications like ERE, Monster.com, AIRS, HR Today, and the International Recruiters Newsletter, Ken is a speaker at national and international conferences, training seminars, and other staffing industry events. Ken is a Boston native and has lived in the greater Boston area most of his life. Ken attended the University of South Carolina and was an officer in the United States Marine Corps.

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