Brief thought exercise: where’s the line in a job interview between being casual/funny/personable and the definition of professionalism?

Feel like this has happened to me a couple of times in the last six-seven months: I’m at a job interview, and it’s one of those situations where you meet with 3-5 people in a given day, for about 30 mins-1 hour per. I actually somewhat like this format, although by the end you’re tired of talking about yourself, mostly because you get a good idea of some of the different types of mid-level-and-up personalities at the place. That can be helpful. But this situation that happens a lot is that 1-2 of these people will come up and instantly try to take it to a more casual place — kinda like two people grabbing a beer or a coffee, and not necessarily being on a job interview. This is more natural for me than a job interview (I’d assume that statement applies to close to 100 percent of the population, since I don’t think anyone regularly goes on job interviews to the point of utter comfort or loves them), so I’ll fall into the natural rhythms of that type of discussion. I may even lob a joke here or there. I feel like this makes sense — companies/organizations often say, on the record, that they don’t want robots, but rather want people with actual personality who will benefit the different teams intangibly as well. So I’ll do that — which is to say, be casual but keep it within the navigational beacons of professionalism — and then I won’t get the job. If I get feedback (let’s say 1/5 times), I’ll hear something like, “Well, so-and-so interviewer thought you were a little casual…” Hmmmm.

So if an interviewer goes down the casual road, is the best approach to not respond in kind? He/she goes casual; you stay professional and driven and accomplishments-reeling-off the whole time. Alright … that does seem like the safer plan. But then, if you didn’t get the job and got feedback, would the feedback be about being too robotic, or “not being the right fit?” (That’s a dreaded way to be evaluated, because it means everything and nothing all at once — and anything that means everything and nothing just sends your brain into hyper-drive about what it means. Brutal irony of life right there.)

To summarize: organizations often say they want “real” people — people with senses of humor, the ability to converse in different styles (again, logical; organizations often have many different types of clients/customers that an employee may interact with), and the ability to feel “real” or “organic.” Of course, organizations also want — and most have — professionalism in all aspects. So where’s the line when you attempt to enter an org? Do you play it all the way to one side? Do you try to figure out in five seconds if the specific interviewer would be good with a more casual approach? Do you just go off the stated culture and hoped the stated culture is what the interviewers actually care about?

Any thoughts, leave ’em in the comments. I actually am curious.

Ted Bauer

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