contacting the person who used to have the job you’re applying for

A reader writes:

On Monday, I’m going into a first face-to-face interview (after a phone interview) for a job for which I am well qualified and would be thrilled to have. I’d like to tap into your wisdom about a strategy I want to employ to prepare for the interview.

In my research on the position and the organization, I discovered the name and current employer of my would-be predecessor and I’d like to email her to ask a few questions about the position, office culture and expectations placed on her while she worked there. According to her LinkedIn profile, she just left the position for her new job this month.

Am I overstepping my bounds? Would this be too big an imposition on this person? If she were to inform the potential employer of my inquiry, would it be seen as nosy snooping or would it be a testament to my interest and enthusiasm for the position as well as my research skills?

Can I guarantee that no employer will find this nosy or overstepping? No. But I think the majority would see it as evidence of your genuine interest in the job.

The key, however, is in how you do it. What you don’t want to do is contact this woman and ask generic, stilted-sounding questions that sound like you’re pulling them from some list you found of “questions to ask your predecessor.” That comes across as “I was told this would be a good idea and now I’m imposing on your time so that I can check an item off my job-search list.

So you want to ask real questions that you honestly are curious to hear her answer to.  And you should also confine yourself to questions that you specifically want to hear her take on, not questions that you’ll get answered at the interview anyway.

At the same time, of course, you shouldn’t get too candid. You don’t want to ask anything with a negative bent at this stage; make sure you really pay attention to what the questions might signal about you.

Let us know how this goes!

{ 8 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    Thanks so much for getting back to me so soon! I'll take your advice. I'm genuinely interested in finding out what strengths of hers she found served her the best in the position. She and I have very similar professional backgrounds (we even worked at the same place, at different times) and I'd like to know if the employer values one type of skill over another so I can 1) think about how confident I feel in regards to those skills and 2) give a little extra oomph during the interview in that area.

  2. kristinyc*

    Ne careful though! This person could be good friends with your future boss, and could tell your future boss your entire conversation. It can make you look like you're the type of person who will go behind your boss's back.

    I had a co-worker who found and contacted the previous person in her position to "get the dirt" (this person had left on not-so-great terms). She got the information she wanted, but her entire "friendship"she developed with this person was relayed to our boss, who was still close friends with her (they had been peers before, but my boss was promoted when this girl left). That co-worker was at our company less than 7 months.

  3. Anonymous*

    A friend just did the same thing. She is so good at talking to people. That's why she is a great manager at Target. She just got the promotion to store manager. When they offered it to her, she was reluctant, because it was a "bad store" — this store is in a well-to-do area, and the kids working there don't need to and come in with that attitude. She contacted the previous manager and asked "can I succeed there?". I love how she asked that! I'm going to use that someday!

  4. Anonymous*

    Well, it's perfectly legitimate to ask someone about their perspective on either the company or the position. Whether the person you are asking was in the same role or not.

    But I think its important to remember that all you are getting is their OPINION. Other people's experiences will always be different than yours. They have different histories and different personalities that form their perspective on every situation. Frankly I'm more inclined to listen to my gut than what someone else has to say about a company or a position.

    If I listened to other people I wouldn't have the job I have now, and I love my job and the people I work with.

  5. Celine*

    I’m curious about employing this strategy at a different stage in the interview process. I just had an in-person interview today, after a phone interview and sample assignment that I turned in last week. They said they would let me know by the end of this week about filling the position, but I want to talk with the person who just left in the mean time because she fulfilled a 6 month contract, was highly spoken of by the manager, but did not renew and recently left. I also noticed a few red flags in the interview that I’m hoping to subtly address with her in a way that will better prepare me to negotiate/consider any offer I might receive. Assuming I’m able to do this diplomatically, should I let the employer know I’m going to contact her or even ask their permission?

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