Finding Success in an Informal Interview

by Ashley Horne | June 25, 2017

Informal Interview Coffee

An informal interview, which often takes place in a casual setting, can be a confusing twist for a candidate when it’s used as part of the interview process. After all, most of us have been conditioned to the expectations of attending formal, stiff, seemingly one-sided interviews; how are we supposed to act in an informal setting? Let’s take a deeper look at informal interviewing to ensure you are prepared for success!

What Should I Wear?

Have you ever heard the phrase, “It’s better to be overdressed than underdressed”? This rings true for informal interviews as well. Don’t let the location (i.e. local coffee shop, bakery, park, or restaurant) sway you from dressing professionally. Instead, consider the position for which you are applying and dress for the role. As a rule of thumb, unless the culture of the organization is suit and tie all the time, business casual dress is likely appropriate. This means ladies should wear slacks or skirts, dress shirt or blouses, and cardigans. Men should wear khakis or dress slacks and a polo or dress shirt with no tie. Be sure to wear something that you are comfortable in, but remember that you are creating an image for a potential employer no matter where the interview is being held.

Please note that one exception to this general rule of thumb would be an informal interview that may require you to perform job duties or demonstrations of your abilities. For instance, if you are a heavy equipment operator, it may be better to wear clean jeans, a plain t-shirt or polo, and work boots if you are likely to be onsite and getting dirty.

How Should I Behave?

As you can imagine, when you are in a casual setting, you may find that you may want to relax and enjoy the environment. It’s probably best to save this for when the interview has concluded and you and your interviewer have parted ways.

Treat an informal interview as you would a formal interview, with professionalism at all times.

Your potential employer is taking the interview as an opportunity to gauge your social skills and ability to communicate. You’ll want to do everything you can to stay focused on the conversation, show your enthusiasm, and remain confident.

What Should I Eat or Drink?

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Brush up on dining etiquette so that you are confident in your table manners.
  2. Though food will be present, eating shouldn’t be your first priority. Instead, make sure it is clear that the meal is secondary to your priority…interviewing well.
  3. If you are concerned about ordering something that is too expensive, ask your interviewer if they’ve been to the restaurant before and what they’d recommend. Their answer should indicate what items and price ranges they are gravitating toward.
  4. Choose items that are easy to eat and won’t be too messy. You don’t want to find yourself with a mouth full of food during the entire conversation, and you certainly don’t want to be distracted with concern that you’ll make a mess and embarrass yourself.
  5. Refrain from ordering alcohol. Some schools of thought indicate that it’s okay to order alcohol if your interviewer does. If you choose to do so, limit yourself to one beverage only. You want to remain in control at all times.

What Questions Should I Expect?

An informal interview is not so dissimilar to a formal interview that the questions will be radically different.

In fact, you are likely to be asked questions about your background, work history, interests, and career goals, just as you would in a formal setting. What often happens, though, is that the relaxed setting is used to draw out responses that have not been rehearsed. You’ll also have time to have an in depth conversation on a variety of topics, so be prepared to contribute equally to the conversation. Interviewers will be looking to see if your ideas and experiences are in line with that of the organization. Below are some questions (and focus areas for your answers) that you may experience during an informal interview.

  • Q: Tell me about yourself.
  • A: Focus on your past work history, experience, and skills. You should not feel obligated to offer any personal information in your response.
  • Q: What experience have you found most rewarding?
  • A: Again, focus on a memorable moment at work or school that you can describe in detail. This should be an accomplishment that you are proud of.
  • Q: What are your career aspirations?
  • A: This question can be challenging. You may want to give a long-term goal, but if you prefer, you can turn this question around and ask the interviewer for more information on career pathing in the department or with the organization as a whole. Having a better understanding of what opportunities are available will help you to provide a complete answer to this question. Showing a natural interest in the topic will reflect positively as well.

Employers should keep in mind that despite the casual setting, they must maintain legal interviewing standards. When you are having a conversation instead of a scripted interview, it’s easy to get off track and the conversation can turn toward off-limit topics.

What Questions Should I Ask My Potential Employer?

If you don’t already, you should make it a practice to go to an interview prepared with a list of questions to ask about the organization, the job, and any topics that have been unclear to you. Bringing a list to an informal interview is also important. An informal interview is a unique opportunity because your interviewer, just like you, will likely be less guarded and will me more willing to provide open and honest answers to your questions. It’s a great time to ask some of the following questions:

  • Why is this company a great place to work? How could it be improved?
  • What is your management style?
  • What characteristics or qualities do you think the person who is hired for this role must possess to be successful?
  • What career growth opportunities will be available?
  • Do you see any areas of concern when you match my skill set to the requirements of the position?

Should I Follow Up?

As with any interview, thank your interviewer for their time. Follow up with a written thank you as quickly as possible. Though a handwritten note is preferred, an email is acceptable.

Informal interviews shouldn’t be seen as intimidating. In actuality, they provide a great way for you to demonstrate aspects of your character and personality, while having a relaxed, open conversation. Just keep in mind, an interview (informal or not) is an interview and should be treated as such. You want to take the time to prepare, demonstrate knowledge, ask and answer questions thoroughly, and impress your interviewer to the best of your ability.

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