L. V. Anderson, associate editor of Slate, describes her own experiences with giving informational interviews and makes the case for why people in positions to make hiring decisions should NOT agree to take part in them. Her bottom line?
It’s anti-meritocratic. It’s impossible for everyone who’s searching for a job to land an informational interview with a helpful candidate…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.
Anderson’s advice is disconcerting for anyone entering a daunting job market and, quite reasonably, seeking any “leg up” they can find (however much one wants to see the 21st century workplace become more genuinely meritocratic, less shaped by implicit bias). Still, the article is worth reading in full for its insight into how “informational interviews” look from the other side of the desk or cafe table.
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.
Exactly. The membrane between “informational interviewing” and “networking” can be so permeable as to be nonexistent. What’s the difference? “Informational interviewing” is the term we use for getting information; “networking” tends to be about forming relationships. The difference can also be one of professional maturity: people who don’t yet feel sufficiently confident in their career path to form relationships can start by merely seeking information, which is easier. People who already find themselves on a career path prefer to go directly to making connections with people who can help them in specific ways.
What Anderson fails to take into account however, is that networking happens all the time, whether we want it to or not. We all know people who work. We all seek advice and take our professional bearings from those who surround us. The more elite our pre-existing networks–the more plugged in they are to the worlds we want to inhabit–the more successful we will be. Seeking out networking opportunities is how those who don’t already have professionally relevant connections can acquire them. Does networking (in the form of informational interviewing) play to the biases of hiring managers? No doubt. But that’s their problem. In the meantime, people entering the professional job market for the first time have a lot to gain by seeking out both information and relationships.