Informational Interview Faux Pas (And How to Avoid It)

Earlier this week I shared my one rule for better job search results. The gentleman who asked me to lunch today must have been reading GovLoop, because he followed the advice to the letter. Let’s hope that he avoids the approach used by Robert, a hypothetical character I created to show exactly how NOT to conduct an informational interview.

Imagine the scene…

You are a government professional with over 20 years of experience. You receive an email one day requesting an “informational interview.” Since you are a generally helpful person, you agree and the meeting is set.

When you meet this young person you are initially struck by the suit that he is wearing. You think to yourself, “That’s kinda strange. It is a Saturday morning after all.” Nonetheless, you get the meeting started by asking Robert to inform you about his career goals and aspirations. Then, Robert takes the stage.

“I’m so glad you asked, kind sir.” He states, somewhat formally. “Here is a copy of my resume which outlines my experience and education…”

You begin to think to yourself, “Hey! I thought this was an informational interview. Why are you giving me your resume?”

A few minutes pass with Robert blabbing about his experience, which you mostly tune out. When you mentally re-enter the conversation you hear Robert say, “…which is why I believe that I would make a great addition to your Agency.”

Now you are mad. Did this guy just pitch himself to me? You thought that he was just there for information, right?

Finally, Robert goes in for the close. “Sir, you now know my knowledge, skills, and abilities. You must acknowledge my passion for the policy area that your department deals with. Do you think that you will be able to find me a job in your unit?”

With your blood pressure escalating, you take a deep breath and deliver Robert generic news. “You should keep an eye out on the state jobs site. Whenever we have an opening we post it there. In the meantime, I better get going. Best of luck to you.”

As you leave the meeting you think to yourself, “Wow, that was a waste of time. Robert must have misunderstood what I agreed to. If anyone else calls me, I’ll probably decline if this is what happens.”

Informational interviews get a bad rap because many job seekers, often desperate to find meaningful work, use these opportunities as a way to pitch themselves. They may think that a potential hiring manager will be impressed with their gumption. Or, they may think that they can offer them a job on the spot if they are just persuasive enough. So they end up approaching an informational interview in the same way that Robert did in the story above.

Please avoid taking this tactic. Not only does it hurt yourself, you may even make things difficult for the next job seeker. Many baby boomers (age 50+) report that informational interviews are a manipulative way for job seekers to pitch themselves. As a result, they may decline (or ignore) your request because they do not want to be hassled.

Instead, you should seek to learn the following three things on your next informational interview:

1. Basic Information – It may be about the industry, department, or about the person’s career. Start here since it is easy to get people speaking about more general topics.

2. Challenges – You want to learn what challenges the manager/analyst faces in their daily work. The more that you understand their challenges, the better you will be able to tailor your application/interview materials when you apply for a similar position.

3. Advice – Any opportunity to obtain high quality advice is critical to your job search. If you follow that advice and politely keep in touch with the person, you may even be able to develop a long term, reciprocal relationship with them.

If we all followed these three tactics on informational interviews, then maybe we could collectively eliminate its bad reputation. After all, they can be the greatest networking tool a government professional can use to help advance their career.

Is your job search stuck in a rut? I often hear many people say, “I’ve applied to a dozen jobs but I never get a call back!” If this situation sounds familiar, I may be able to help. Please add me as a friend on GovLoop, mention this post, and let’s start a conversation.

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Lisa Roepe

Great advice. I don’t think many people really know what an “informational” interview is and how it differs from an actual interview.