Why You Should Think Twice Before Agreeing To An Informational Interview

You get an email from someone asking for an informational interview. You don’t know this person, but the email is polite, courteous, and non-demanding. The person simply wants to buy you a cup of coffee and ask questions about your job, because he is also interested in a career in your particular field.

Sounds harmless. You fire off an email consenting to the meeting and name your favorite coffee shop as well as a time and day.

That’s all fine, if you understand the ulterior motive behind this so-called “informational interview.”

Ulterior motive?

It doesn’t take a super-sleuth to understand that today’s job market involves hordes of eager employee-wannabes looking for a way to one-up their competition. The savvy job seeker who requested the interview with you understands the Ben Franklin effect and wants to use it to his complete advantage.

What’s that now? You thought Benjamin Franklin was just the inventor of bifocals and lightning rods, a drafter of the Declaration of Independence, and the face on our $100 bills?

He also proposed the social psychological notion that you’re more likely to do a favor for someone if you’ve already done a favor for them before. How does this apply to an innocent informational interview?

Because the minute you sit down for the “interview,” you’ve done this complete stranger your first favor. The second, almost subconscious favor comes when this now-acquaintance applies for a job at your company and lists you as a reference. When the hiring manager sees your name and calls you up to chat, psychologically you’re much more inclined to vouch for this applicant than you otherwise normally would… even though you really know very little about him.

That’s the Ben Franklin effect.

What’s bad about it? Relying on personal connections with someone regarding a job search negates qualifications, skills, and experiences necessary to perform the job. The meritocracy of the job market hinges on companies selecting the most qualified candidate for a position, not the person with whom a hiring manager has the best conversation.

According to a 2013 Forbes article, the average number of people who apply for a job is 118. What if every one of those job-seekers asked you for an informational interview? Granting each person an interview would be insane. So you have to whittle the list down to those people with whom you have something in common—a friend or family member, an alma mater, a volunteer experience.

Requesting an informational interview is just a fancy way of networking, and many job-seekers are hoping you won’t realize that. Job-seekers have likely been coached on the importance of asking for additional people to talk with about your career field, which means they are hoping to glean even more influence by expanding their network of like-minded professionals.

Requests for informational interviews aren’t going to cease any time soon. You and any other hiring managers simply need to be aware of the possibility of an unconscious bias that could affect your judgment. Once Slate associate editor L.V. Anderson realized this, she came up with a new way to help potential job-seekers:

“It might seem harsh to turn down a human connection—but human connections can interfere with good decision-making,” she wrote in a Feb. 17 article. “And there are ways to help people without becoming irrationally attached to them. I plan to start offering to answer questions via email…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.”

If you’ve granted informational interviews in the past, that’s okay. Perhaps you didn’t understand how powerful the Ben Franklin effect could be. But it is powerful. Having a friendly conversation with someone over coffee is not a job interview. Your judgment gets clouded. Understandably, you start evaluating the person on aspects that won’t matter during an actual job interview rather than those that will, like experience, industry knowledge, and applicable skills. Instead, you notice good manners, a sense of humor, an easy smile. Those are all great characteristics for someone to have, but they don’t necessarily guarantee professional success.

So keep your guard up. The next time you get an email from a stranger asking to buy you coffee, think twice before saying yes. You may be able to come up with a different way to help the person…one that won’t require such a powerful personal connection that could sway your otherwise sound judgment.