Are informational interviews worth my time and effort? Are there any benefits to them?

Elaine Varelas advises on best practices for informational interviews and how they can lead to mutually beneficial relationships.

Q. Why should I do informational interviews and what’s the best way to conduct them? Aren’t they just real interviews in disguise?

A. Some informational interviews can turn into real interviews, but a good informational interview is like a scavenger hunt. Your job is to gather the best possible clues that you can and the gifts of information and introductions that people are willing to provide for you. They're like interviews, in the sense that the people you are meeting with are assessing you and making decisions about who you are. They will judge you to see if they will make introductions for you, spend more time with you, or help you with your job search. So, you do need to impress them. They need to feel confident in your abilities to be successful and your ability to make them look good if they refer you to other people in their circle.

You need to think about and develop a targeted list of how the people you are having these informational interviews can help you. Do they have contacts at companies in which you are interested? Are they knowledgeable about the most highly sought-after job skills or qualifications you need to succeed? Do headhunters send them jobs and if so, do they have relationships with these headhunters? So be respectful and have a list of thoughtful questions prepared. If they start the meeting with, "How can I help you?", be prepared with the information and a list of ways that that person can help you. It’s not their job to run the meeting.

These are the gems in that scavenger hunt. You need to let them see the highest caliber professional who is prepared, knowledgeable about them and their company, and the global economy. And just as important, be sure to communicate how much you value their time, guidance, and expertise. If there is an opening at the company, they may know of it or they may not. If they don’t bring it up, at the end of the interview you can say, “There is an opening here I’m quite interested in. From all you’ve learned about me do you think I’d be qualified?” Share the job description and see if they can refer you to the hiring manager or offer to introduce you. If they need to think about it, you haven’t made the impact you hoped for. Don’t push it. Continue to be positive and appreciative.

An ideal scenario would be that an informational interview turns into an interview and they recognize that their organization could actually use someone like you, but don't anticipate that happening and don't make assumptions that that will happen. An informational interview could also potentially end up with the person referring you to their company. If you get hired, many organizations offer a referral bonus, so it would be beneficial for you both. Referral bonuses incentivize people to meet with people and share insights about their company. Informational interviews can certainly provide you with opportunities to tap into a hidden job market.

Don’t invite anyone to lunch for an informational interview. If they say, "Let's meet over coffee" or a meal, make sure that you pay. If they pick up the check, make sure you offer multiple times. Do not offer to split it. Recognize that this person is giving you an enormous gift of their time. They're not being paid by their company to meet with you. Every informational interview needs to end with a reciprocal offer of, "how can I help you?" or with any information that you may have. And remember that all informational interviews need an appropriate thank you letter to show your appreciation. Hopefully, this person will become part of your active network as you move your way to finding a good job.