my interviewer was drinking a beer while sitting in a beanbag chair — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I have been on the job hunt for a while and have had numerous phone/in-person interviews for administrative assistant positions. I seem to struggle a little bit with my general overall presence during an interview (which has gotten better thanks to your tips!) but I am still having a hard time gauging how I should behave in an interview.

By that I mean — today, at the small indie gaming company I interviewed with, the interviewer cracked open a beer and hung out on a bean bag chair during the entire interview. None of that is an issue for me, but it threw me through a loop because it made me feel like I had to be a bro gamer whose only goal in life was to play video games for a living and not a professional looking for a well-paying, high-responsibility job. I have noticed this is actually fairly common with modern young companies I’ve interviewed with that have a lax atmosphere, and it really makes me wonder if I’m to “uptight” for these companies or if I am just being paranoid.

Should I maintain the upmost professionalism during an interview, that I’ve been taught to have my entire life, even it makes me look like a stiff or should I conform to these lax office atmospheres and be “chill” during the interview? I want to show them I care about the job I’m applying for and that I am qualified professional, but I don’t want to look like a boring person that can’t have fun.

It depends on what you mean by the “utmost professionalism.”

Some job candidates interpret “professionalism” as meaning “I must be very formal and not show warmth or personality.”

That’s not professional; that’s just stiff.

It’s good to show warmth and (some) personality in an interview, and you’ll actually interview better if you do, because good interviewers want to get a sense of what you’re like to work with day-to-day. They don’t care that much what your interview persona is; they care about who’s going to be showing up once they hire you. And on your end, you should care about making sure this is a workplace where the person you’ll show up as will be comfortable. So if you’re naturally bubbly and they’re very buttoned-up and sedate, that might not be a super comfortable fit for you — and it’s better to find that out now. Similarly, if your natural personal is very stiff, don’t try to fake gregariousness for the interview — because you’re unlikely to be able to fake that every day once you’re hired, and you want to find out now if who you are, or at least who you’re willing to be at work, won’t work for this job. (More on this here.)

So, bringing it back to your beer-drinking, beanbag-lounging interviewer: How to respond to that depends on what kind of culture you’re looking for and who you are. Would you be happy in a company where people interview candidates in beanbag chairs while drinking beer? Some people would love that! Other people wouldn’t. If you know that’s not for you, that’s fine, and you don’t need to mirror his informality just because he’s the interviewer. But if you’re open to it, or not sure and want more info/time to consider, you want to adapt accordingly. That doesn’t mean that you should pop a beer yourself or go sledding down the hallway or whatever, but it does mean it’s okay to be a bit less formal than you would if he were sitting across from you at a conference room table in a suit. (Of course, you want to pay attention to all the cues — someone could still do a rigorous, thorough interview from a beanbag, so make sure you’re not extrapolating too much much from chairs and beverages. Informal manner doesn’t necessarily mean less rigor or lower standards … just different standards. And other times it does mean lower standards! The point is just not watch for more data and not assume.)

The reality though is that “if your interviewer is informal, be a bit less formal yourself” can tough to calibrate. Your interviewer was deviating from a normal interview framework in a way that makes it harder for candidates to know what to do. Is he looking for someone comfortable enough to pop open a beer along with him? (Which might lead us to: Are you looking for a boss who would be looking for that?) Or what if you let down your guard, figure you can speak more freely than you normally might in an interview, and then get rejected for something you say because of that? There’s no way to know. It puts candidates in a tough position because you don’t know what the rules are.

Your interviewer might say that’s fine with him, because it helps him screen for people who are “the right fit.” But in this context, that typically means “people who are like me” … which is of course how these companies often end up with awfully homogenous staffs.

So if I were advising him, I’d say to reconsider how he interviews. But my advice on your side of things is: Know what you want in a workplace culture, know who you’ll show up as once you’re hired, and show that in every interview. Give yourself a little room to adjust your level of formality based on the cues you’re getting, but generally stay in the basic range you’d be happy to stay in once you’re working there (or maybe half a notch up from that as a nod to the inherent formality of interviewing).

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