I once sat down to have a casual coffee chat with a company. I was told that it would be a more informational conversation and not in an interview format, and “just go get to know each other.”

I felt good and less-pressured going to the meeting. But just in case, I sent my LinkedIn profile ahead of time so they’d have a sense of what I had done.

As soon as I sat down, the hiring manager finished reading an email and — with the most serious face — looked up at me and said,

“I saw your LinkedIn profile and see that you went to the University of Texas. I went to Oklahoma University…So we’re basically enemies.”

The previous year our football team (Longhorns) totally creamed OU. All I could think in my mind was OU sucks…the common mantra of the day.

I gave a nervous chuckle, “Haha, yeh…you win some you lose some.”

The “casual chat” went downhill from there (not that we really started in a good place…) and lasted approximately 15 minutes. I was in and out faster than I could comprehend.

I don’t even watch sports (nor do I care about it), so to be eliminated based on association with a football team and the heightened ego of a sore loser was…eh, very frustrating at the time.

Looking back at the situation, I also could have prepared better for the meeting and probably saved myself at some point by feigning ignorance about OU’s suckiness.

But I learned a valuable lesson that day: there is no such thing as a casual meeting. 

Later when I joined a tech recruitment firm for 4 years, I totally realized what was going on. Recruiters just want to put people in front of companies and use the phrase “hey, just have a casual meeting with them” as a strategy to calm down job seekers and put them at ease. They’ll feel more relaxed and likely to go to the meeting. After all, it’s just a casual chat.

Hiring managers also do this to get candidates they really want to hire by inviting them for coffee or lunch. Especially for people who already have a job and thus not actively looking for one, this is a good way to keep things informal.

Actually, it’s an interview.

This is a good thing, though. It just means that you have to prepare like you normally would for an interview.You have a great opportunity to tell your story and share your ideas without the pressure of trying to fit your examples to a specific job description. You should ask the company what their pain point is — what big challenges they have now. Once you know that, you can explain what you have done that would be relevant and speak openly about your career goals.

The key point is never to let your guard down and realize that you’re still being judged on whether or not you could work together.

In the worst case, you get a free lunch out of it.

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