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Careers Café

The secret job interview: three times when you might not even know it is happening

Some secret interviews are built into the formal interview process, some happen during informational interviews and some happen purely by chance.


While the days are still short and the nights long, I’ll stick with the theme of secrets. Last month’s post explored the secret CV, through which you give voice and space to endeavours that have mattered deeply to you, no matter how you phrase those experiences on your work search resumés.

This month, I want to look at secret job interviews – not the kind that you secretly schedule, but the kind you might participate in without knowing that an interview is actually taking place.

Some secret interviews are built into the formal interview process, and are secret only from candidates who assume that decisions start and end with the official interviewers. When you go to an interview, though, you’ll likely encounter people who influence the decision makers. These people might include the administrative assistant you introduce yourself to before your interview, the person you hold the door open for on the way out, or just someone who observes you before or after the interview and whose opinion matters to the interviewers. This kind of secret interview is also the easiest to navigate: be polite, and you’re pretty much good to go.

Slightly trickier is the secret interview you might end up creating through your job search. An informational interview you’ve set up might start to feel, at some point, like a job interview. You, however, may still want to gather information.

On the plus side, you’re likely to have gone into the situation prepared, because you’ve asked for the meeting. It’s perfectly okay to keep asking the questions you came to ask. If the person is open about wanting to refer you for a job, share your gratitude and eagerness – and let them know that you want to make sure you’re making the right decision, and wonder if they still have time for a few questions.

If the conversation becomes an interview for a role you’re definitely interested in, it may still be worthwhile to buy yourself some time to apply what you’ve learned from the meeting. So, if you’re asked for your resumé, agree to send it later that day, because you value the advice they’ve shared and want to update your resumé to incorporate what you’ve already learned from your conversation.

In any case, unless the other person explicitly says that they’re considering you for a job, don’t assume that you’re being offered one. Keep presenting your best self and finding out the information you need, in order to make an informed decision about where you want to take your career, whether or not a job offer materializes from this particular discussion.

The trickiest secret interview is the one that happens by chance. You might meet someone at a training session, conference, or even somewhere unrelated to your desired field of work, and notice that they’re asking more questions about your professional background than feels natural. There’s no need to panic, even if you feel underprepared. The interviewer already likes you; they’re turning what could have remained a casual conversation into a chance to learn more about your professional potential. If they didn’t like you, they would have stuck with complaining about the weather.

This situation doesn’t require much that’s different from a formal interview, but it does present a couple of pitfalls. One is that you might lose your conversational tone. This is still, after all, a conversation. While you present your best self, keep the tone warm and relaxed. The other pitfall, though, is taking the “relaxed” part too far. No matter how honest the conversation, or how much of a connection you feel with your potential interviewer, this isn’t the time to speak poorly of colleagues, supervisors, or work environments. Your professionalism will reassure your interviewer that, should someone else approach you for a secret interview, you’ll speak well of them, too.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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  1. Adrian Schuurmans / January 23, 2020 at 07:22

    I teach interview skills and one of the questions I ask is, when does the “1st” impression happen when heading to an interview.
    I get
    “at the introduction”
    “at the handshake”
    “at the front desk”

    I say it begins the second you leave home, you never know who you might meet on the way. That guy at the donut shop, your interviewer in one hour.

    Job searching, same idea….you leave home and every meeting of any person is a potential interview.

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