Once or twice a year, I get an email from a young person, usually a college student or recent graduate, inviting me to get coffee to talk about my experiences in journalism. Sometimes they even put the words “informational interview” in the subject line. As far as I can remember, I’ve always said yes. I’m less than a decade out of college, and I still remember the terror of not knowing whether you’ll get a job in your chosen field—or, indeed, any field. So I meet these strangers at a coffee shop near my office, ask them questions about their interests and experiences, and answer their questions about my interests and experiences. (“I’d love to hear how you got to where you are,” they say. “Honestly, I just got really lucky,” I sheepishly reply.) I try to wrap things up on a hopeful note—“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine!”—and offer to help with their job search if I can.
Sometimes they follow up with a thank-you note, and I never hear from them again. Other times, they take me up on my offer and pitch me stories for Slate. And it’s what happens next that troubles me: I evaluate these pitches differently. Once I’ve met someone, she’s no longer an abstraction—she’s a real, friendly, sweet, awkward person, and I now have an emotional investment in her success or failure. So I give her pitch the benefit of the doubt. I’ve accepted pitches that I probably would have passed on had I not met the person face to face.
I know why I do this: I hate disappointing people, and I especially hate disappointing people I know. And that is exactly how “informational interviews” are supposed to work.
In theory, informational interviews are a way for job-hunters to get more information about a field, a company, or a position. As the New York Times’ erstwhile career columnist Marci Alboher wrote several years ago, “These meetings are not about asking for job leads; the point is to learn something.” Who could argue with learning something? In exchange for providing information, the interviewee gets an ego boost. It all sounds perfectly innocent.
In practice, however, people who request informational interviews are hoping to glean not information but influence. If you’re looking for information about a job or profession, you can find plenty using Google or the public library. What you won’t find is a personal connection to someone who might be able to help you.
Many career gurus are open about the fact that informational interviews allow savvy job-hunters to cut to the front of the line. “You can make much more of an impression on a hiring manager when you’re sitting in front of them which [increases] the chances of having them remember you when a position you’re suited for comes up in the future,” one career advice–monger told Forbes for an article on informational interviews. Informational interviews aren’t a neutral exchange of information—they’re a manifestation of the Ben Franklin effect, in which someone who has done you one favor is more inclined to do you another.
What’s so bad about that? It’s anti-meritocratic. It’s impossible for everyone who’s searching for a job to land an informational interview with a helpful candidate—if it were possible, we’d all spend our days rushing from one coffee date to the next. The people who get informational interviews—and the benefits they confer—tend to be people who have something in common with their target: a mutual friend, a family connection, an alma mater in common. Informational interviews are like unpaid internships and hiring for “cultural fit”—they encourage bosses to hire and promote people from the same background as their own, which effectively cuts off job opportunities for minorities. Put another way, informational interviews give a leg up to people who don’t need a leg up.
This might not be so bad if informational interviews gave the more powerful party useful information about the supplicant, but they usually don’t. Informational interviews cloud managers’ judgment about the things that matter—skills and expertise—in favor of the things that don’t: graciousness, humor, conversational ease, things the interviewer and interviewee have in common. Unlike job interviews, which typically focus on evaluating an applicant’s experience and competence, informational interviews consist of friendly chat. People who request them may be eager to show off their knowledge, but they’re unlikely to face tough questioning that might lay bare their weaknesses. (Technically, they’re the ones conducting the interview, after all.) Unless you work in a field where charm matters a great deal, like sales, an informational interview is unlikely to give the interviewee a good sense of the interviewer’s competence.
I’m not criticizing people who ask for informational interviews, who are just using an effective and socially acceptable strategy to advance in their careers. (I’m especially not criticizing the people who’ve come to me for informational interviews, who have all been lovely.) I’ve asked experienced journalists to tell me about the field over a cup of coffee myself—and I’ve done it with the sole hope of getting a leg up in my job search.
So what’s the solution? I don’t expect young people (or older people looking to change careers) to stop asking for informational interviews. But managers and others who are asked for informational interviews should be honest with themselves about how the process might affect their judgment. Simply being aware of the possibility of unconscious bias can help you override it. So think twice the next time someone who took you out for coffee asks for a professional favor: Are you treating them differently because you met them in person? If so, cut out the preferential treatment, or stop saying yes when people ask to pick your brain over coffee.
It might seem harsh to turn down a human connection—but human connections can interfere with good decision-making. And there are ways to help people without becoming irrationally attached to them. I plan to start offering to answer questions via email, like Ask a Manager columnist Alison Green does, when people ask me for informational interviews. It’s not as gratifying to my ego as schmoozing over coffee—but it’s less likely to lead to unearned favoritism.
Need career advice? Got a problem at work? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.