Here in the Careers Service we are often told by students that they are feeling nervous because they have been invited for an “informal” interview. This type of interview seems to be a growing trend, even during lockdown and especially for SMEs/one off opportunities perhaps following a speculative letter or Linked In connection. So it got us thinking about why this might be…and what you can do to feel more confident about this style of interview.
Why do employers use informal interviews?
There are lots of good reasons for recruiters to use informal interviewing as part of the overall process:
• It’s more cost effective/easier to arrange than getting two or three interviewers together in a room
• It gives the ultimate manager of the post holder the opportunity to get a feel for the real you and how you might/not be good fit for their team culture
• There might be more than one role they are considering you for – this approach can help them clarify which one is most appropriate or you would be most keen on. Sometimes the informal interview can even help them design the role around what you have to offer (technically known as a RESULT! ..)
• They want you to have a relaxed and positive experience of their business and to have more time for a conversation around your questions to them, or..
• It might just be that’s the way they do business all the time -perhaps it’s a start up where the entrepreneur got used to setting up his business from scratch in Starbucks.
During this time of lockdown and social distancing sadly we can't expect to be invited to a lovely coffee shop, but virtual informal interviews are most definitely now "A Thing" and the majority of this advice is just applicable for these scenarios.
How should I get ready for one?
The dictionary definitions of “informal” include: without formality or ceremony, casual, relaxed, friendly, not serious and without planning. These last two can definitely lull you into a false sense of security. Whilst your informal interview after lockdown could well be held outside of the recruiter’s office, say in a coffee shop, this doesn’t mean that you can approach it as you would a brunch date with a friend. And of course currently you are more likely to be "meeting" the recruiter via a screen in your own kitchen.
Showcasing your enviable transferable skills and engaging personality is the order of the day – you’re there to make a good impression not a new friend. And that’s not easy while munching on a doughnut/your breakfast toast (cue jam on shirt incident) or slurping a frappuccino (ice cubes in your face trauma)or a pint of builders' tea in your favourite mug with a slightly dodgy slogan on the side.
Here are some do’s and don’ts when thinking about your prep for an informal interview….and yes you do have to prepare!
• Get 100% familiar with the job description and skills and experience they are looking for. It’s likely your CV/application and cover letter will have got you to this point – well done! Make sure you go through these carefully in advance to remind yourself of the reasons you said you wanted this job in this company. And take a couple of copies with you.
• Do your background research on the interviewer. Use LinkedIn, social media and the company “About Us” pages to get a feel for their career and current position. Are they in the news for anything? Do they like surfing – just like you - or did they do something amazing on the volunteering front during the lockdown which has caught your eye? It’s all useful intel…..but be careful how you use it so that you avoid them feeling stalked.
• Prepare to answer that “Tell me about yourself” question
https://unihub.bath.ac.uk/admin/Videos/Detail/67. These days you are extremely likely also to be asked about what you have been doing during the Covid 19 crisis.
• Prepare to answer that “ What are the strengths that you can offer us in this role?” question
• The “Why do you want to work for us?” question is similarly a very likely one. Be convincing and demonstrate your genuine interest in what they do and how they do it. Know anyone who already works there? Now’s the time to name drop (assuming you feel they are well respected!).
• In fact….prepare to answer any question that you might also be asked at a “formal” interview. Remember, one employer’s “informal chat” might be another’s in depth final assessment
• Go armed with a handful of thoughtful and intelligent questions that you have for them. It’s fine to have a paper based list to refer to. (And of course in lockdown you can have your notes and prompts open all over the table and they will be none the wiser). Don’t forget this is a two-way process and you have a great opportunity here to do your “due diligence” on the role, the company and your potential new boss. Here you can demonstrate that you have done your homework and that you are a serious contender. Listen carefully to their responses and don’t be afraid to ask for clarification or examples of what they have laid out in their answer. This shows confidence and an ability to think on your feet.
• Dress too casually….but don’t go suited and booted either. Tricky one this but it will really hit your confidence if you are “underdressed” compared with the interviewer. Always better to be “one notch up” on the sartorial elegance scale! What are people wearing in the company’s “casual” website photos? Plain, clean and ironed are the general rules when it comes to the dreaded “smart casual”. Oh, and real shoes not trainers. Basically, not your lockdown wardrobe. Obviously if you are having a virtual interview it's the top half of your body only which will be visible!
• Forget to double check the venue – are there more than one Costa’s in that town? And if you are on a Zoom call from home make sure that you won't be disturbed by a flatmate seeking out cornflakes and that they aren't hijacking the wifi. That said, everyone is having to juggle domestic life with work these days so it's not a disaster if something goes slightly awry on the home front.
• Cut it fine on your arrival time/tech set-up time. Running from the station or struggling to find a parking space will not help your confidence or professional vibe. If you arrive way too early you can always wait at the café up the road and revise your prep., thus being able to saunter coolly into the meeting place a minute before the allotted time. (But see doughnut warning above). And finally managing to open the link into the Zoom meeting five minutes late won't be a great start either. Better to "arrive" a little early into the "waiting room".
• Order something complicated if you're actually in the Real World. Your usual skinny soy latte double decaf with cinnamon can wait until you are back at the station café…Water? Tea?
• Be over-formal with your body language. Sitting bolt upright will make you look wooden and odd. Hopefully you will soon relax into the conversation and be able to adopt a more natural..and yes informal…stance. Oh, and smile!
• Accept the job offer on the spot! It might sound unlikely…but it does happen. Much more professional to look pleased and say thanks ; you will consider the exciting opportunity and when can you contact them tomorrow?
Virtual informal interviews - a few other things
In terms of venue, play it as if it was a formal interview, so no lounging on your sofa or allowing the dog on your lap. Test in advance that your wifi and laptop are up to the job and that you have a meeting invite in your calendar so that you can just click on the link and get in to the meeting. Check out this lighthearted but useful video for more things to consider:https://unihub.bath.ac.uk/admin/Videos/Detail/34
Occasionally the person interviewing you might not be the key decision maker – they might not even be a very experienced interviewer and really are just having a friendly chat to see if you get along. The danger of this is that whilst it will have been a pleasant experience you haven’t had the chance to showcase all of those relevant transferable skills and impressive experience. This is your chance to take control of the encounter - subtly - by weaving into the conversation some specific examples of your skills and attributes which are impressive and memorable. Rehearse this beforehand by drafting it out as a story you are telling a long lost friend who has asked you what you’ve been up to. Then practice it into your phone recorder. That way if you get the opportunity on the day it will easily trip off the tongue.
By the end of the interview you should be feeling that you have had a really positive and informative conversation and hopefully also a sense of whether you are still interested in the role. Oh, and no jam on your shirt.