A ‘low-risk recruiting tool’

Informational interviews have their advantages in a recovering economy
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/14/2011

As a marketing manager at Clevest Solutions in Richmond, B.C., Aaron Cruikshank has done many informational interviews over the years through his university alumni association. He enjoys the opportunity to talk about management consulting or communications, his two areas of expertise.

“These are fuzzy fields, so people are interested in getting into them without having a firm understanding of what the day-to-day job looks like,” he says. “Arguably, that can be said about any employer.”

In many cases, these types of interviews — in which a jobseeker gathers information on a chosen field, asks about employment leads and expands her professional network — are used by students who don’t have that much experience with the world of work, so it’s a chance to better understand that world, the commitments and the culture, says Paul Smith, executive director at the Canadian Association of Career Educators and Employers.

“It’s really, really helpful in helping students transition into the workforce.”

And with the economy slowly recovering, these interviews make even more sense, says Smith.

“As we begin to see a return to a more robust hiring environment, (informational interviews offer) the capacity to meet recruits in a non-committal way, to sort of have a chat with people who are clearly motivated... It’s a low-risk recruiting tool. As we emerge into a more competitive skills market, they are a great resource, low-risk, so it’s better to be involved with them than not, if it’s comfortable for you.”

With demographic shifts and marketplace development putting jobseekers back in the driver’s seat, it’s up to employers to have some kind of ongoing campaign that’s going to entice this talent over a period of time, says Andrea Garson, vice-president of human resources at Workopolis. With more than one-half of Canadians employed but open to opportunities — “window-shoppers” — they’re keen to gather information.

“They’re screening potential employers, through informational interviews, to make sure the opportunity is right for them and they have the luxury of time to do so,” she says. “Employers are going to need to respond to that... so that when it’s an employer’s time to go shopping for candidates, they may meet a great pool of candidates they can tap into. As well, it gives (employers) an opportunity to shine to window-shoppers.”

Nobody is put on the spot with informational interviews, says Tony Wanless, a certified management consultant who heads Knowpreneur Consultants in Vancouver and has done thse types of interviews. They can be obvious or very subtle conversations, formally arranged or struck up at a conference. Informational interviews and networking are very similar, he says.

“It’s a way of talking to someone without getting into the dance, so to speak. If you just go in asking for information, and sometimes that is all you’re asking for, it’s a way of pre-judging whether you’d make a fit. In that sense, it’s good for both people, for the employer and the potential employee or interviewee,” he says. “A potential employer can get a measure of this person, how they will fit, where their knowledge lies, their skills — you get a glimpse.”

When it comes to the questions, most commonly Cruikshank is asked about his career path, education and experience. Some ask if he knows of anyone who might be hiring and, sometimes, he’ll provide a contact.

“They’ve got to make a good impression on me for me to help them out,” he says.

But very few of them are well-prepared for the interview, says Cruikshank, as many times the jobseekers don’t know the industry well or make false assumptions.

“Sometimes they come in with some pretty wild, pre-conceived notions and that makes it hard because they’re asking questions that have nothing to do with what the job is. Having some base-level understanding of the industry in general is important going in.”

For that reason, Cruikshank has declined requests for information interviews if, for example, they have clearly not done their research, use his name incorrectly or make ridiculous demands.

“I’m pretty upfront about people cold-calling me, looking for work — I don’t like that. I’m happy to give people advice on how to find a job or help them network and things like that but, unless I’m actively looking to hire and I’ve made it clear in a posting, I’m not big on the fishing for work by cold-calling. I think that’s a waste of time.”

There are people who do these interviews because they see it as part of a job search, as opposed to having a sit-down with questions, says Smith.

“That’s a little frustrating for the employer when that happens because that’s a case of somebody not really using the tool for what it’s designed.”

Employers need to be patient and tolerant but also turn the candidate back, if necessary, until they have better questions, he says.

“Most people stick to the plan and employers they’re talking to are sufficiently adept to steer them back on path.”

But it’s also not a good idea to shy away from the question, says Garson. The person could be an excellent job candidate so it’s important to seize the opportunity and direct them appropriately to any openings, she says.

If the topic of pay arises, Cruikshank usually gives a range. It’s often best to stay away from firm numbers and refer the person to HR to answer those questions, says Smith, as there are so many factors that go into setting a salary. Otherwise, be vague, unless you’re the actual person negotiating compensation.

“Don’t dig any holes for yourself,” he says.

More graduating students are also interested in work-life balance, so the employer might want to be prepared to talk about how her organization deals with issues around quality of life, says Smith. Also a more popular topic is corporate social responsibility, whether ethical or environmental, he says.

But the truth is important in informational interviews, says Cruikshank, who tries to tell the candidates a few horror stories to prepare them.

“I always try to completely dispel anyone of any myths. I like to try to take the shine off of it,” he says. “I generally try to give people a very realistic world view of what the job actually is. I don’t want to mislead anybody.”

But employers should also be careful about how much is said, says Cruikshank, who generally doesn’t talk about his current employer. Some people use informational interviews to sniff around for intelligence about a company, he says.

“Anything that’s commercially sensitive, you definitely want to steer clear of that stuff.”

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