Three Techniques to Gain Insider Employer Information
Use these techniques to find out information not generally available to other job seekers:
The Shadowing Technique
Even if you have not been able to gain specific, referenceable experience in your field, you can still access information to help you make decisions about post-graduation job planning and gain some valuable network contacts in the process. The most efficient way to do so is by the Shadowing Technique. Locate a person in your chosen field or occupation (friends, relatives, or friends of friends are best, or anyone within your personal network; or work with the Career Center or Alumni Office for additional connections) who can then connect you with someone at their company who works in your area of interest. This person will serve as your company sponsor. Please note that your sponsor does not have to be a Hiring Manager—in fact, it is usually better to work with someone at or just above the job level you are seeking.
When you have found a sponsor, ask that person to designate a day or half day that would be a good example of work in that field. It's important to communicate that it will require no extra time from the sponsor—just the opportunity for you to "shadow" them while they are working. Then show up at the company dressed as you would if you were in the position. Bring a writing portfolio with you and take plenty of notes. If your sponsor is open to talking about the work they are doing, feel free to ask questions. If you are spending a full day, treat your sponsor to lunch—ideally in the company cafeteria, where you can get even more "touch and feel" information on the company and its people. Lunch is also an excellent time to ask the questions you have been noting throughout the morning. When the day is over, make sure you send a very personal "thank you" note to your sponsor. Also note that, depending on the company, you may be required to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). NDA or not, there should be no disclosing what you have learned to others—it is a private and confidential disclosure to you only, so treat it that way.
By using the Shadowing Technique, you will be able to gain information first-hand from someone who is actively working in the field. By seeing the inside of the company you will get a true feel for what it is like to work there. You will learn more about the job, the company, the industry, and also will develop new network contacts.
The Shadowing Technique is greatly preferred over the acclaimed informational interviewing technique (which I usually do not recommend, unless early in your college career, for reasons that follow). Shadowing gives you a hands-on feel for the position and company, but it also requires little additional time on the part of the sponsor. The sponsor does not feel used because his or her business day is not interrupted artificially.
P.S. "Take Your Daughter/Son/Kid to Work Day" (TYKTWD) is based upon this same type of shadowing. You may have done some shadowing already in your earlier years. Unfortunately, most parents take their children to work for this day only through grade school and stop at the time when it would be the most meaningful. Now it is time to extend this technique to your chosen career. If you have a day available with no scheduled classes, use it productively to shadow someone in your field.
While we are on the subject of getting on the inside of potential employers, let's clear the air on a very common misperception among college students. There has been a plethora of books written on the subject of informational interviewing and on using it as a technique to get an interview.
However, if you use informational interviewing as a ruse (i.e., lie, deception) for getting an interview, it may end up hurting you and your chances of employment rather than helping. I have seen the scores of abuses in this area.
Some career authors (often with little or no personal real-world work experience) are unknowingly setting up college students for the wrong use of informational interviewing. There is a right use of informational interviewing, namely, to speak with someone in a career you are considering to help you decide whether to pursue that career path. The wrong use of informational interviewing is when you already know what career path you intend to pursue and use informational interviewing as a technique for talking to someone on the inside of a company in order to try to get an interview. Let's call it what it is—dishonest and unethical.
My advice: don't use informational interviewing as a method to get an interview. If you are an underclassman sincerely seeking information on which career to pursue, informational interviewing is extremely valid. But there should be no interview strings attached. On the other hand, if your true motivation is to get an interview with the company, do not lie about it. Be up front. And use the following technique as an honest and ethical way to get on the inside.
The Company Interviewing Technique
Instead of lying your way into a company by saying you are "informational interviewing," be honest and let them know you are interested in potentially working for them. Then seek out a person who is willing to be interviewed in a "company interview," that is, an interview where you interview that person about their company. This does not have to be a formal interview setting; in fact, it does not even have to be face to face—over the phone is usually sufficient. The key is to choose your potential interviewee wisely. The person should not be a potential Hiring Manager, and not someone in Human Resources. Ideally, they should be a contact you have generated through your personal network, someone who has a personal desire to help you. Your "network" is your personal connection with others who can help you in your job search. And also those whom you can help with their job search. Networking is all about helping others. The subject of networking is covered in depth in the Network Intelligence Gathering section. Next best option is a member of a professional association of which you are a student member.
The key questions you should be asking are:
"Why do people like working here?"
"What are some of the best attributes about working here?"
"What are some of the negatives about working here?
"What type of person does your company typically hire?"
"What is the hiring process and who is involved?"
In addition, you may want to ask your contact questions about why they joined the company and what the work culture is like. You need to be careful with your questions so that you are not asking the person to give out confidential or "Internal Use Only" information. For example, it would be inappropriate to ask for a company phone directory or a copy of internal correspondence. But if you build a rapport with this person, you can usually get not only the broad overview of the company, but also the basic information identifying the specific steps taken in the internal interview process. Then you will be prepared to proceed through those steps with advance information already in hand.