Just like many workplaces, job interviews are going casual. There is a trend on the part of hiring managers, especially when they are actively recruiting a candidate, to start out with a low-key informal conversation, rather than a structured job interview.
Many recruiters are following a less formal approach as they begin to consider candidates for vacancies. For example, they may invite a prospect for a cup of coffee and frame the meeting as an exploratory or informational session.
This may occur because the employer is still formulating the exact structure of a job or because funding is too tentative to begin formal interviewing or because the firm is considering another role for the current job holder and wants to explore alternative talent before moving forward with a reassignment or firing.
Executive recruiters may just be trying to source some talent for future clients. Regardless of the reasoning for such an interview, candidates are often unsure about how they should handle such a meeting.
Preparing for a Casual Interview
The best approach is to prepare for the meeting in the same thorough way that you should prepare for any job interview. This means conducting extensive research of the organization and its products/services, challenges, achievements and competition.
You should be ready to discuss your career path and, ideally, where you would like to head from this point forward. You should also be ready to itemize assets and strengths that have enabled you to add value in various projects and roles. Be prepared to cite specific examples or tell stories that demonstrate actions taken and results generated.
One advantage of a less formal interview is that you can ask some questions early on to learn more about prospective opportunities since you may not have been given a formal job description. Asking questions like "Can you tell me a bit more about why you've reached out to me to schedule this meeting?" or "You've mentioned some potential changes in your operation, can you tell me a bit more how someone like me might fit into that picture?" early on will help you to develop a clearer idea about which of your assets might best meet the employer's needs. It will also help clarify whether you are interested in the job.
What to Wear
Because this is an information meeting, you don't need to dress in professional interview attire unless that's what you usually wear to work. Otherwise, business casual or start-up casual attire, depending on your career field and industry, is appropriate.
What to Bring
Bring some extra copies of your resume, your business card, if you have one, and a portfolio with a pad and pen so you can take notes.
On the Spot Offers
In some cases, you may end up being offered a job on the spot or shortly thereafter. One job seeker I know progressed from getting a LinkedIn message about opportunities at a company to having a cup of coffee with a hiring manager to getting a job offer from the CEO three days later. It can happen fast, especially when you are being recruited.
If the recruiter surprises you with a specific opportunity, be prepared to express your excitement and appreciation but know that you can reserve the right to process that new information and get back to them in the near future. Don't feel compelled to make a decision about whether to pursue the job on the spot.
Watch What You Say
One danger of an informal meeting is the tendency to speak too freely. Even if a recruiter seems very down to earth or seems primarily to be trying to sell you on their firm, they will take note of anything you say or do and factor it into their assessment.
So never say anything negative about a colleague, former supervisor or former employer. Keep things on a professional level even if the recruiter seems to have let his or her hair down.
It's also a good idea to ask the recruiter to keep the meeting confidential so you don't jeopardize your current job. That should be understood, but it's better to be sure that word of your meeting doesn't get back to your present employer.
Some recruiters will use informal meetings to pick your brain about other potential candidates especially if they sense that their opening is not appropriate for you. Gather as much information about the job as possible, but refrain from sharing any names of your contacts until you clear it with them. Your contacts may have a reason that they don't want to affiliate with a particular recruiter or appear to be in job hunt mode.
When you're invited to meet with a recruiter for a cup of coffee or a meal, they will pick up the tab. There's no need to offer to pay.
Follow Up After the Meeting
Ask the person you met with for their business card so you have the information you need to follow up. It's important to follow up after the meeting, especially if you sense that there will be some viable opportunities available through the recruiter. Since a primary goal for their meeting with you may have been to feel you out in terms of your interest level, make sure that your email or letter clearly affirms your interest in exploring things further, if that is the case.
If you have learned about a specific job or role which appeals to you, mention a few discrete strengths that might allow you to add value in that capacity. If the recruiter has hinted at any reservations or areas of your background that didn't quite fit try to supply any information that would counter those concerns.
Even if you aren't interested in the company, send a brief thank you note. Also invite the recruiter to connect with you on LinkedIn if you aren't already connected. A quick cup of coffee could turn into a future employment opportunity, even if the timing and job aren't right now.