advice

Ask a Boss: How Do I Deal With Useless Informational Interviews?

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Dear Boss,

I work in a high-profile field that’s extremely hard to break into. As I’ve become more successful, I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me and ask if they can have some of my time to ask some questions. I’m usually happy to say yes to these requests, and either answer questions via email or through a short phone call.

However, the past few times I’ve become dismayed with some parts of the conversations, and I’m wondering if I should be giving feedback, especially to the recent grads, on what works and doesn’t work with this kind of networking.

For example, I always ask people to email a list of questions to me in advance. I say it’s so I can prepare, but it’s also because I want to make sure they’ve put some thought into what they want to ask. Unfortunately, all too often the questions are impossibly broad (“How do you break into this field?”) or asking basic information (“What are the biggest companies in the industry?”). It feels like a waste of time for me to answer questions they could easily google.

Second, while I love my work and I’m very enthusiastic about what I do, I try to share some of the negatives of this business. For one, most people starting out don’t make very much money. In fact, many people, myself included, do this work part-time at first while working another job. Obviously, that’s not fun to hear, but I feel like that’s the sort of info people want from this kind of informational interview. However, some of these networkers really push back hard when I tell them this — they mention a friend of a friend who was very successful right away, or they express skepticism that I’m telling the truth. Now, nobody has to believe what I say (and I usually respond by saying, “Well, I hope you’re the exception!”) but it feels rude when someone discounts what I’m telling them right off the bat.

Third, I often find that these networkers put too much emphasis on the idea that I’m going to connect them with other people in the industry and create some kind of shortcut to success. I can sometimes make referrals, but I only do that if I think it’s mutually beneficial — not just because someone asks. Recently I had a networker who barely kept up the pretense of wanting to talk to me, but instead seemed way more interested in me as a conduit to other, more important people. Which is naturally insulting.

Finally, while I’m happy to spend 20 minutes on the phone, I can’t do more. And yet half the time people ask me to look over their work and give detailed feedback — something that can take several hours. One college student just assumed that I was going to do that, and acted as though the phone call was a formality. He was very discouraged when I said no, and I was too, because I thought I was helping him by answering questions and clearly he didn’t really care.

I’ve had a string of these experiences lately and it’s making me want to start saying no to people who ask for my time because it’s too frustrating. But I also wonder if there’s an opportunity here for me to circle back and say something like “I really enjoyed speaking with you, but I have some pointers if you do another one of these informational interviews in the future.”

What do you think?

Yeah, there’s a huge epidemic of bad networking out there.

One thing that’s especially common is people asking for informational calls and meetings when what they really mean is, “I’m hoping you will hire me or connect me to someone who will hire me, but since I don’t want to say that outright, I’m pretending I’m seeking more general advice.” Or sometimes, especially with people right out of school, it means, “I heard I should set up these meetings but I don’t really know what I should ask you” — and even then it still usually comes with a side of, “… and I’m hoping this will somehow lead to a job.”

It’s annoying to be on the receiving end of this because it’s a bait-and-switch: You were asked to set aside time to give advice and insight, and that’s what you agreed to, but the person has a different agenda entirely and in many cases isn’t being particularly thoughtful about your time. Part of the blame for this lies with the career-advice industry, which tends to encourage people to do really aggressive networking, and even outright encourages them to frame these requests as “informational interviews.”

For the record, an actual informational interview is for learning about a field you’re new to or otherwise want an insider’s point of view on. They’re for getting information that’s more nuanced than you can find in other places — things like which companies in the field are the best and worst to work for, what the job is really like day-to-day, what kind of salary progression is typical, what a realistic career path might look like, and so forth. There’s huge value to these kinds of conversations, and it’s a shame that more people don’t do them for real.

The other parts of your experience with bad networkers aren’t uncommon either — the pushback when you’re telling people something they don’t want to hear, and the presumptuousness about how much they can ask you for. Those two things seem to be most common with students and recent grads, and I suspect it’s an effect of them not yet having had a chance to calibrate their norms about how the work world operates. That said, there’s definitely some plain old selfishness in there too, especially when you consider that there are plenty of people in that stage of life who don’t conduct themselves that way.

So, what can you do? First, it’s great that you’re asking people to send you their questions ahead of time. (When I do that, I actually find that about a third of the requesters are never heard from again, presumably because they didn’t want to take the time to do it, despite being okay with asking me for my time.) But if people send back questions that are overly broad or that they could answer for themselves with five minutes of googling, it’s fine to say something like, “You know, these are pretty fundamental things about the field that you’ll be able to easily find online. Because my schedule tends to be so tight, I’m going to suggest you do that first. Once you do, if you have more nuanced questions that you can’t find answers to online, I’d be glad to set up some time to talk.”

And then with people who you do talk to and who end up committing other faux pas, yes, say something about it! After all, they’re asking you for advice on breaking into your field, and this is relevant advice. You could frame it this way: “Can I give you some advice on something you haven’t asked about but that I think will be useful to know? I was glad to talk to you, but you had asked me for an informational interview when I think you were looking more for a foot in the door. It’s generally not a good idea to ask for one when you’re hoping for the other, so I’d recommend just being really up front with people about what you’re hoping for from them.” Or, “You pushed back pretty hard on some of what I told you. I know it’s tough to hear X when you’re hoping for Y, but I’d really go into these conversations with an open mind since you’re asking people for the benefit of their experience and advice.”

With people who ask you for something more than you’re willing to do, like giving feedback on their work or rewriting their résumé, just be direct about it: “I’m happy to answer a few questions about the field, but my schedule is pretty busy and I can’t do more.” Or even, “What you’re asking for would take several hours to do well, so I have to say no to that.” If you’d feel more comfortable adding more of an explanation, you can say, “My schedule is in triage mode right now” (I get a ton of use out of that phrase) — but you don’t need to do that.

And really, these are people who are looking for connections and help finding work — and yet they’re inadvertently turning off their targets! It’s a kindness to let them know.

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Ask a Boss: How Do I Stop Useless Informational Interviews?