My friend is about to enter the final semester of her senior year of college, and internships and job searching are on her mind.
She wants to relocate to Chicago—where I live and work—and she asked me for tips on how to approach informational interviews with companies and agencies.
The purpose of these interviews is to learn about the company, meet employees, and introduce yourself to the company. They aren’t necessarily tied to a job opening.
My friend was curious about how to ask for such a meeting and which questions to bring to the interview.
I went through this process about a year ago when I was considering a move to Chicago for a job change. I found the following practices to be most helpful and successful.
Avoid the ‘cold call’
If at all possible, find an “in” with the company through a mutual connection. Start with your immediate network to see whether someone can introduce you to a current or former employee.
If you’re having trouble, you can also try your school’s alumni association or a referral through a professional organization or social club. It’s easier to get off on the right foot if you can be more than a random job-seeker contacting HR.
The person with whom you’re meeting is probably taking time out of a busy day, so try to be flexible. If you are employed, be tactful about when and where you meet. Suggest a neutral meeting place where you’re not likely to run into colleagues.
Care about more than just job openings
Informational interviews are great opportunities to learn about a person’s role in a company, the organization’s culture, what sorts of things are important to management, and how long people tend to stay.
These are just as important—arguably more so—than the qualifications needed to interview for a specific position. There may not be a job open at the moment, but there could be one (or several) in the future. Don’t avoid these meetings just because they may not end in formal interviews right now.
Ask a lot of questions about culture
If you have a certain set of skills and experience, the types of positions you seek at different companies are going to be similar. What will separate one job from another will not be the performance requirements but, instead, your colleagues.
Spend as much time as possible during informational interviews learning about company culture:
How long is a normal work day?
Do most people only communicate by email?
Do clients get your personal cell phone number?
Do people “feel bad” about taking vacation time?
How long do most people stay with the company?
Ask questions like these to get a sense of what work/life balance looks like to your potential new boss and to see whether it aligns with how you like to live and work.
Determine next steps
Like what you hear? Ask if the person you meet with would be willing to give you a tour of the office, introduce you to other colleagues, or refer you to HR.
If there’s a specific position open, ask how you should go about applying for it. If not, see whether there might be an opportunity to interview formally down the road.
Don’t like what you hear? Politely thank the person for his or her time and honesty, and be honest if the opportunity isn’t what you’re looking for.
If you promised to send a résumé, email a colleague, or perform any other follow-up, do so quickly. Show that you’re reliable and that you respect the willingness of the person to meet with you and refer you. Assume that anything you email might be forwarded, and write appropriately.
Don’t cast aside an informational interview just because it’s not tied directly to a job opening. First impressions can make or break your chance at future employment; you want to make a strong one.
What has worked for you in the past? What hasn’t?