Handle that pseudo-interview situation once and for all.

Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve connected with someone at one of your target companies and been asked to meet, but they never explicitly stated that the meeting is an interview? I have, and I’ll tell you from experience, if you’re wrong about it being an interview, it can be a bit awkward.

One time, for example, I reached out to someone at a company where I was interested in working. We started a conversation about the company, and that led to a meeting at a local coffee shop.

I was excited. This was my opportunity. I’d arranged an interview with one of my preferred employers. But wait, no one ever said it was an interview. Oh no! What do I do?

I felt a bit odd reaching back out to the person and asking if the meeting was indeed an interview, so I just prepared as though it was, utilizing informal interview tips and tricks. Turns out, I was wrong.

It was actually the opposite. The individual with whom I met wanted to work for my employer. Apparently, he was looking to leave his company. We ended up joking about swapping positions and companies, but in the end, the meeting wasn’t productive for either party.

So, how do you prepare for a situation like this? You could always ask, but then you risk the chance of looking like a fool. In the case that asking isn’t an option, here are a few steadfast rules to follow.

Be prepared.

Whether the meeting turns out to be an interview or not, it’s best to be prepared with answers to any questions that might arise in the case that it actually is an interview. Prepare in the same way you’d prepare for an actual interview, even if it's just brushing up on informal interview tips.

Bring your resume (but don’t make it obvious).

You don’t want to be holding your resume in your hands when you find out the meeting isn’t actually an interview. But you also don’t want to be caught without a copy of your resume if the meeting actually turns out to be an interview.

Even if an employer has your resume already, experts advise that you bring a copy with you to your interview as well. In the case of an ambiguous possibly-interview-meeting, tuck your resume away in your laptop bag and only bring it out in the case that you find out you’re actually involved in an interview. If you’re not, proper coffee meeting etiquette means keeping it stashed in its hiding spot.

Go business casual.

Not sure if you should go with a professional outfit or more informal interview attire? Business casual is the best bet. Let’s say the ambiguous meeting is taking place at a coffee shop. Even if it turns out to be an interview, you’d be a bit overdressed for a coffee shop if you’re wearing a full out suit. Try wearing something business casual, like a jacket and jeans, for example. Or go with a button down shirt or blouse with business slacks or skirt. Either way, you won’t risk being too overdressed, but you also won’t appear to under-dressed.

Arrive early - but not too early.

Just like with a regular interview, it’s good to arrive ahead of time. However, in this case it could be best to arrive only about five minutes early, rather than the recommended 10. That way, it’s more likely that the person with whom you’re meeting will already be there when you arrive.

This gives you the opportunity to scope out the scene a bit and get comfortable. Based on what you see, you’ll be able to change up your introduction to fit the scenario.

Take a professional approach.

Interview or not, it’s best to kick things off in a professional manner. In the first few minutes of the meeting, don’t follow informal interview tips and go with all the traditional interview advice. Handshake, look the person in the eyes, smile and all the other details.

Be approachable, but represent yourself in the same manner you would if you were around your colleagues at work, not hanging out with friends or family.

Watch what you order.

Going back to the coffee shop reference. You sit down at the table and the conversation is going well. You still don’t know, however, know whether you’re wrapped up in an interview or just making a professional connection.

You’re really craving some lunch and a latte, but you aren’t sure what to do. Your best bet is actually to skip the lunch. If it is an interview, the person interviewing you will likely be all about sipping on a caffeinated beverage while you chat, but they probably aren’t going to eat. Coffee meeting etiquette is clear in this situation: don’t order food. The last thing you need is to wind up with a mouthful of food when the interviewer asks the dreaded, “What’s your biggest weakness?” question.

Become the interviewer.

If the conversation is rolling along smoothly, but 15 minutes in there’s still no clear answer as to whether you’re involved in an interview, it’s time for you to turn the tide. There are a few questions you can ask that can help you determine the truth about the interview status. Try asking these questions:

  • What’s the company culture like at ____?

  • What plans for expansion do you have for the team?

  • For ow many positions are you currently hiring?

  • Can you describe your ideal candidate when filling a role in the ___ department?

Again, it’s best to approach this with the thinking that it certainly could be an interview. Avoid the typically taboo interview topics like: Salary, politics, religion or personal information. If it is indeed an interview, these things can become disqualifiers.

Ask about the next steps.

So you made it the entire way through the conversation, and you still aren’t sure what to think. There’s one more thing you can do.

Ask what the next steps will be. Inquire into how you proceed from that point on. At that point, the ambiguous interviewer will likely reveal all with their answer.

If they say something like, “let’s keep in touch and exchange ideas”, you weren’t involved in an interview and can approach things from the professional networking angle.

On the opposite side, if they say, “we’re reviewing a number of other candidates and will get back to you” or “I think you’d be a great fit for our company”, you may just have been involved in an interview.

Follow up.

Either way, interview or not, it’s best to follow up. A follow up email or note is one of our best formal or informal interview tips. It’s best to show your appreciation for the meeting. If it was an interview, it’s 100 percent expected of you. And if it wasn’t an interview, consider things like future employment potential or possible collaboration.

An interview you aren’t sure is an interview can be an awkward situation, but if you prepare yourself properly and follow these informal interview tips, you can turn it into a positive thing. Whatever the result may be, it’s good to be ready for anything. Get yourself in the mindset to be successful no matter what, and you’ll leave the experience in a positive way.

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