how to interview with people you already know

A reader writes:

I have an interview for a new job (in a new company) next week. The difficult part is that I know several of the people interviewing me, I work with them on a regular basis in my current role. How do you suggest approaching the interview? Do I pretend that they don’t know anything about my work?

Additionally, I’ll probably have to meet with some of the interviewers and my current team for my current role while the interview process is going on. And, based on the nature of our meeting, I’m sure someone will ask how their search for the position is going! I’m already feeling awkward thinking about it. Do you suggest bringing it up at the interview? My current employer doesn’t know I’m interviewing.

To add to the awkwardness, if I don’t get the job, I will have to work closely with the person who does. Having read your blog a lot, I absolutely understand if they don’t choose me. I might not be the best fit, and I want them to know I won’t harbor any ill will if I don’t get the job. What’s your advice for navigating this?

This will actually be much less awkward than you’re fearing!

When you’re interviewing with people you already know, the best way to approach it as if you were having a professional conversation with colleagues — which in some ways you are. You work with them on a regular basis, so you’re used to having work conversations with them. You don’t need to become more stiff and formal just because it’s an interview; you can stay conversational and talk to them the same way you always do. Imagine the tone you’d use if you were all discussing a possible new project to collaborate on —that’s the tone you want here too.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t prepare for the interview just as rigorously as you’d (hopefully) do if you didn’t know them. You should! You should do all the normal interview prep of going through the job posting line by line and thinking about how your experience and skills equip you to excel at the job — and don’t assume they know those details, even though they’ve worked with you / coming up with concrete examples from your past that you can point to as supporting evidence that you’d be great at the job (times you’ve faced similar challenges and how you tackled them, particular successes you’ve had that connect what it will take to succeed in this role, etc.) / coming up with concrete examples from your past that show how you operate and what you’ve achieved / practicing answers to the questions you expect to be asked / and coming up with your own questions for them.

All that prep is just as important as it always is in order to organize your thoughts and get concrete examples of your work into the forefront of your mind. But once you arrive, you’ll just be talking to them the way you always talk to them. (Probably. If you get there and they’re being weirdly stiff and formal, you don’t want to be totally out of sync with their tone. But they probably won’t. And frankly, talking to your interviewers like they’re already colleagues usually makes for a better interview anyway, even when they’re strangers.)

As for navigating the potential weirdness of them knowing your current employer: It’s okay to say something during the interview like, “I want to mention that I haven’t told CurrentEmployer that I’m interviewing, so I want to ask you to treat it confidentially for now.” You could add, “I understand you may want to talk to them at some point if we get further down the road. I’d just ask that you coordinate the timing with me, so I can talk with them first.” This kind of request is very normal and people in your shoes make it all the time.

Sometimes in this situation, the hiring organization will worry that your employer will perceive them as “stealing” you. Obviously your current employer doesn’t own you and people can’t be stolen, but the reality is that this kind of thing does sometimes cause hard feelings between organizations that work closely together, and it’s understandable for them to worry about damaging relationships that they need to do their work successfully. You might not run into this, but you also might — so be prepared in case it does come up. If it does, sometimes they’ll want you to disclose to your current employer that you’re talking with them before things are finalized so that it’s out in the open … which might not be in your best interests to do. It’s useful to figure out beforehand how you’ll handle that if they do raise it, so you’re not blindsided if it comes up. (One option is to say you’re not comfortable putting your standing with your current job at risk before the other org has offered you a job, but that you’d be glad to discuss how to best message it if things do proceed to that stage.)

Last, I wouldn’t worry about needing to signal that you won’t resent them if you don’t get the job. You signal that just by being a normal, professional, pleasant person who they haven’t seen cause drama. Unless you indicate otherwise, they’ll assume you know nothing is being promised. They might worry about it being awkward to reject someone they work with — that’s a normal worry to have on their side — but it’s not a big enough deal that you need to address it directly. (Do make sure, of course, that you’re not talking like you already have the job — “my office will be right next to yours!” or so forth — but you don’t sound likely to do that anyway.)

Good luck!

{ 45 comments… read them below }

  1. Sleepytime Tea*

    I had to do a panel interview comprised largely of own team for a promotion at work once. I was worried about awkwardness, but really, I approached it like a normal interview. I might work with the interviewers, but they didn’t know every challenge I’d faced and how I resolved it, or exactly every single thing I did, (not to mention things I had done in past positions that they didn’t know about) so I answered questions based on that valid assumption.

    And it ended up being less awkward in a lot of ways! I knew these people and the types of things they would be looking for, the things they put the most value on, and it made it much easier when answering “tell me about a time” questions because it was easier to select scenarios that I knew would be most relevant to them.

    We had a good laugh at the last question as well, which was basically “tell me about a time you went above and beyond” and I looked the senior person asking me this question in the eye and said “in my current position when 2 people (out of the 3 person team) resigned and I worked 70 hour weeks for 8 months to support pricing analytics for the US, Latin America, and Europe on my own.” He said “yep, that sounds right” and we all gave a little chuckle because everyone in the room knew how hard I had worked to basically keep the department running alone. (No follow up questions on that answer.)

  2. Not A Girl Boss*

    I was so nervous about this when I re-applied to work for a company I’d worked at previously, but it ended up being no big deal.
    I was worried I’d have an awkward overly-formal interview, but in reality we slipped into a very natural communication style of just catching up on how we’d been since I last worked there (me talking about the roles I’d held since then, them talking about how the company has grown). It would have been weird if I’d tried to force a more formal style.
    So I guess my advice is, take your lead from the interviewers. And still treat the interview with respect – dressing accordingly, not acting as if you already have the job (I’m sure you already know to do all that).

    1. SometimesALurker*

      I’ve also had the experience of re-applying to a place where I’d worked previously, and had a similar experience!

      1. SometimesALurker*

        Let me say the word experience a few more times, I think twice wasn’t enough for the length of that sentence experience.

        1. Not A Girl Boss*

          In my experience, we often cite experience gained experientially too frequently for the true level of experience experienced.

    2. tamarack and fireweed*

      I think if you’re in a relatively small hiring pool, interviewing with people you know is extremely common. And not hard to navigate! Extremes are to be avoided – both being too casual about it (“they’re behaving as if they have the job already in the pocket”) and too formal (“huh, why are they so stuck-up?”) can tank your candidacy. I usually go for natural, with just dialling up the thoughtfulness a notch or two. For example, you know already how your interviewers regard the department you’re from, so you can reinforce their conception and just add one thing that is a) obviously a good idea and b) not really being discussed right now. (“I am very proud of what we have accomplished in the sales engineering team over the last year. [Add a specific point of pride.] The one thing I wish we would be taking time to do more is to develop closer relations with product management. It would take a good amount of friction out of [some process] and could prevented difficulties such as [example that’s evocative but not traumatic to any interviewer]”.

  3. Guacamole Bob*

    I agree with Allison here – I’ve had to interview with people I worked closely with for two internal moves/promotions, and it was much less awkward than I feared. I made sure to give full answers even if I was talking about a project that we’d worked on together – partly because the panel was multiple people and not everyone knew every bit of every project, and partly because it was government with scripted questions and I knew they had to take notes and score my answers for HR.

    I think most of the time in these kinds of circumstances you can talk normally and refer to things in the way you would in normal conversation with these specific individuals – I wanted to mention a project I’d contributed to, and one of the interviewers had been the project manager. I just used the name of the project, rather than what I’d say in an external interview which would be more like “I once worked on a project where the goal was…”. Defining the project to the project manager would have been weird and awkward.

    I found the follow-up note much more awkward to write, since I emailed back and forth with my interviewers all the time in much less formal ways. The first time I ended up sending them a link to something I’d mentioned in an interview from before they knew me. The second time I just didn’t send a thank you because I couldn’t think of a way to make it anything less than super awkward.

    1. OP*

      Great points, thank you! This is government (I think, maybe quasi-government?) So they’ll need to adhere to similar rules you outlined and I didn’t think about the scoring and reporting to HR part.

      1. Elise*

        I work for local government, and we are always coaching people to pretend we don’t know what they’ve done even if we know them. That’s not to say it needs to be stiff and formal, but we have to take notes about what they say in the interview, not things they may know about a project. Also, they may not be as familiar as you think anyway depending on the project. One thing that helped me in my last (successful) interview was that we now include staff from other agencies on our panels, which makes it a lot easier to naturally explain something since they legitimately don’t know what I’m talking about.

        All of this to say, be congenial and match your formality to theirs but don’t completely rely on their familiarity with your work especially if this is a government job.

        1. Elise*

          Just for clarity of meaning, this should read “That’s not to say it needs to be stiff and formal, but we have to take notes about what they say in the interview, not things WE may know about a project.” Meaning the interviewers kind of have to pretend they know nothing about your work. Silly but still a fact unfortunately.

  4. Sad teapot counter*

    Don’t forget to be specific about your own skills that may seem the most obvious to you. I just failed (at least, it sure feels like a failure) at an internal interview. They told me I was the runner-up because, while they were impressed with my ideas about teapot design and teapot manufacturing processes, they weren’t as confident about my teapot counting skills–when I’m currently a teapot counter!! I made the mistake of assuming they knew all the great things I do day to day in my current position because well, I work for them! But it wasn’t enough and I’m kicking myself for it. Good luck.

    1. The New Wanderer*

      I botched this too at an interview a few years ago and ended up the second choice. I had interviewed with the hiring manager by phone before the in person interview circuit, so we had already covered quite a bit of my background and fit. During the circuit, I ended the day speaking with her again and at the very end, she asked me what differentiated me from any other candidates for this position. I blanked because we’d already talked about my unique qualifications directly on the phone and I had expanded on them throughout the day in the other interviews (where everyone took notes, it was that kind of interview process), and I wasn’t sure if I should repeat them yet again or if she was looking for something else?

      Yeah, turns out she just meant I should recap my specific unique quals so that it was on the record for the in-person interviews. I don’t think that sunk me outright, but I kicked myself for it too. :-/

      Moral of the story: have a good solid elevator pitch on your skills, projects, successes, or whatever is applicable ready to go and don’t be afraid to repeat yourself or tell people things you think they might already know, and answer what they ask.

    2. Birdie*

      Yes, and I definitely agree with Alison about preparing as you would for any other interview. I was once on a panel interviewing an internal candidate who seemed to have taken the mentality that we already knew her and her work; therefore, we already knew if she would be a good fit for the job and there was no point in going out of her way to convince us. She just gave very basic answers about her current work – no context, no extrapolation to the work she’d be doing in the higher level position she was interviewing for, etc. She’d only give you something deeper if you prodded.

      It was very frustrating because I KNEW she would be great at the job and considered her and the other finalist equally (but differently) qualified going into the interviews. But since one assumed all the interviewers knew her and her work intimately and could draw their own conclusions, while the other clearly prepared and organized her thoughts ahead of time, TPTB had no trouble making a decision.

  5. Madeleine Matilda*

    I have interviewed several people I have worked with for positions. The ones that didn’t succeed approached the interview too casually and weren’t ready to discuss their work and accomplishments. Their answers were brief and didn’t fully show our interview panel how they could succeed in this position, even when I asked follow up questions designed to help them expand their answers. It’s a shame because all of them were very talented and excelled in their work, but because they flubbed the interview we didn’t select them.

    1. Lily Rowan*

      Yes — and on the flip side, I have interviewed some people I already worked with, but was on the fence about, who really knocked the interview out of the park. (And then did a great job in the role!)

  6. SansaStark*

    I had a similar situation interviewing for an open position in my division interviewing with my then-boss’s boss. We had a warm relationship, but I was nervous about the tone of our one-on-one conversation/interview and was happy that it progressed almost exactly like Alison said here. He was familiar with my work but not some of the nuances and achievements and I was able to use my insight on the team to highlight some previous experience that would be helpful in some upcoming projects. Since he’s the head of our division, I started some of my ‘tell me about a time’ stories with things like ‘as you probably know, XYZ happened’ and then filling the rest in with my piece/contribution of it since he might not have known all of the details. Our culture is business casual and the idea of wearing a suit felt really out of sync, so I opted for a casual cotton blazer with simple shell and coordinated pants which I think helped convey that I was serious about the position but also nodded to our existing relationship.

  7. Phil*

    I interviewed with people I already know and found it took the edge off. I was prepared and answered the questions well, but because I knew the people already and shared a similar sense of humour I was able to make jokes and the whole thing was just a pleasant easy conversation (and I got the job).

  8. Me*

    In my experience absolutely act as if they don’t know your work. We’ve had internal candidates lose out on opportunities because they acted as if we already knew all about them. That may be but I have to assess your answers just like I do other candidates. If another candidate is telling me about their accomplishments and you assume you dont’ have to because I already know them you will lose out on the position every time.

  9. Keener*

    When I was interviewing for an internal promotion (would have been a big step up for me) I wasnt sure how to prepare since my interview was with two people who knew my work amd experience intimately. It was relaxed but probably the most challenging interview ive ever completed. In many regards it was a test of my self and team awareness. Reflections on past situations and how I’d approach them in the future; questions about strengths and weaknesses of my peers (who I’d now be managing) and how I’d support them, etc.

  10. EnfysNest*

    I was on a hiring panel once where one of the people interviewing had actually just been fired from the same position. I think based on the timing that since he had known the firing was coming, he applied for the open position on his team before the firing had been formalized and it didn’t get caught? I don’t know – it was a government position, so who even knows.

    Anyway, he showed up to the interview, just a couple weeks after his last day and proceeded to go through the interview as if we were complete strangers and that his work experience with us had been somewhere else. We would ask for an example of a time when he faced a challenging situation with a customer and his response started along the lines of “I used to work at a government facility where I did XYZ” with XYZ being his daily tasks at our facility. He answered every question like that – he didn’t even use examples from any other previous job. I had been his acting supervisor for his last couple months there and then the department head was also on the panel and this guy knew the third person as well, but he introduced himself and acted the whole time like he’d never met any of us. It was super unnerving and bizarre.

    And, of course, we all knew we weren’t going to hire him to the position he’d *just* been fired from, but being the government, we were told we had to ask everyone all the exact same questions, so we couldn’t just cut the interview off early.

  11. JobHunter*

    My most recent interview was with a private company, but I knew two people on the panel from working with them in the same department at my alma mater. One was on my graduate committee! This person asked me a few questions about my education and professional experiences (I had worked directly for them for a short while, too), which made me a little worried that maybe my work wasn’t memorable enough. Otherwise, I treated the interview as a graduate defense with some behavioral/STAR questions thrown in. It went better than I thought.

  12. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd (ENTP)*

    So it seems like the potential hiring organization is either a client, or a supplier, of OPs current company.

    I would tread carefully — it may well be that you have signed some kind of “anti-poaching” agreement, or if not, would at least be burning a long bridge.

    Is there an informal agreement in place between the two companies? if not, it may be that you get ruled out as “too close” in favour of an outsider – unjust as that may be, it happened to me!

      1. BradC*

        I’m not an attorney, but I believe that both anti-poaching clauses (company to company) and non-compete agreements (company to employee) have been upheld as valid in many US states.

        1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

          I’m not an attorney, either but here in the U.S., anti-poaching deals between companies USUALLY aren’t enforceable – first of all, I detest the term “poaching” when it’s applied to a free labor market situation.
          A company that can afford to pay a higher salary to a good employee from another company is not “poaching” – it is taking advantage of a free market. “Poaching”, when applied to hunting or fishing IS illegal – it’s ILLEGAL hunting or fishing. “Poaching” , as applied by managers to underlings, IS NOT UNETHICAL NOR CRIMINAL. To apply a smear term is, well , not cool.

          Oh, and if competition for people’s services leads to a hot labor market, and a company can’t keep its people because they can’t pay market wages, so be it, and economic Darwinism will take them out. God bless the free labor market.

          Non-competes are a different story – depending on the industry they are likely legal. To a point. For instance, here in Massachusetts, if you work in radio or TV, the traditional non-comps are illegal because a radio/TV outlet could fire you and keep you from working in the business. And there are time limits on them, some states restrict them to five or seven years. You can’t impose a life sentence on someone.

          Non-disclosures are almost ALWAYS legal, in regard to trade secrets.

    1. Attack Cat*

      There are no restrictions on changing employers unless you signed a non-compete. In my state with lax labor laws: “In Kansas, Non-Competes are generally enforceable as long as the employer is protecting a legitimate business interest and the Non-Compete does not place a hardship on the employee. As in other states, the restrictions need to be reasonable as to time and geographic reach and not against the public interest.” (https://www.wonder.legal/us/guide/what-is-the-enforceability-of-non-competes-in-my-state)
      Some states require them to fall into very specific categories (like Colorado), or require a minimum income level (like Maine). Oklahoma bans them altogether.

    2. OP*

      OP here. No, we’re partners, like in collective impact. Just part of a group of community organizations working toward a common goal.

  13. Hey Nonny Nonny*

    We actually just hired someone we worked with on a previous project. I did a double take when I saw their name because obviously to preserve the relationship between companies working together you can’t poach people from the other company. In this case they decided to leave their position and applied to our company. They did go through the normal process (I think people who weren’t involved in the project were chosen to interview) so I certainly don’t think it was a given or anything, but we did end up hiring them. I think Alison’s advice is great here. You don’t have to act like you don’t know them, but don’t take things for granted either. It may feel a bit more awkward but don’t overthink it – you’ll get through it and things will normalize.

  14. Manic Pixie HR Girl*

    Been here multiple times, both having been the candidate and also not getting it. I used the interview questions as an opportunity to both discuss more in detail experience I had prior to joining their organization and how it has helped shape me as an employee/manager, and also a chance to elaborate on my experiences and feelings about different projects I had worked on more recently and why I felt they were important reflections of my work.

  15. Spicy Tuna*

    This happened to me once! I was working at a company in one capacity and someone in a different department left. My boss (who also oversaw the different department) decided to take the opportunity to expand the role. While looking for someone with relevant experience, she asked me to hold down the fort (I did not have relevant experience). Well, it turned into a LONG search and over the five months it took them to interview outside candidates, I developed an interest in the work. I pro-actively instituted a lot of the changes my boss wanted to make and I re-wrote all of the policies and procedures, all while doing my “real” job. There were a LOT of long days!

    I expressed interest in the role to my boss and she set up an interview for me with her boss. I dressed in a suit that day (office was business casual) and had a copy of my resume, just as if I were an outside candidate. My grandboss completely forgot about the interview and when I appeared at his office, resume in hand, he was all, “why are you here?”. Once he realized, he was MORTIFIED.

    At one point during the process, I went to a conference with my boss and when I tried to make breakfast plans with her, she told me she was interviewing someone for my job over breakfast. Awkward again! I can’t lie, that was very upsetting to me as I was really busting my rear.

    I talked the situation over with friends and family and decided that if I didn’t get the job, I would likely look for something outside of the company, but fortunately, I did get the role! Of course, YMMV.

  16. Hydrangea McDuff*

    I work every day with two people who interviewed for my job and didn’t get it. I came in from a different sector of our organization. There were definitely awkwardnesses but my boss did two awesome things: she gave me a confidential heads up about their candidacy (so I didn’t put my foot in my mouth) and she assured me that I was the clear choice and I should be confident in my place on the team. As I onboarded, I was very careful to build relationships and learn from them, and luckily in both cases they have been very professional, never bitter (to my face anyway), and we have a really great team together. Two years in I have proven my worth :)

  17. Successful boomeranger*

    Along with all the good advice here on how to represent yourself, please don’t forget to use your history to ask deep questions of your interviewers, as well! It can show the hiring team that you may be more ready to take on the role than someone that’s starting at a complete square one, and if you get them talking, win really valuable insight for you. Example mad libs, just for inspiration: “In a few of my recent experiences with [company/department], I’ve found that [aspect of culture/work/etc.] has been [fantastic/slightly challenging/particularly interesting/etc.] because [reason]. Is that something that you think the person in this role would [experience/have a part in building/agree with/etc.] in their day-to-day work?”

    Good luck!

  18. B.*

    I’ve done this several times, both as a candidate and an interviewer. You definitely don’t need to pretend they don’t know anything about you, but you also shouldn’t assume you don’t need to mention things in the interview because they already know. If they know your work, you need to make even more sure you’re mentioning and discussing relevant projects and achievements. I’ve been in interviews thinking, “why didn’t they talk about this project? I know they did a great job and they didn’t even mention it!” and had that feedback given to me as a candidate.

    I know this will vary by your personality, but I’ve found interviewing in situations where I know the people less stressful, and the interview goes more like a professional conversation. But you can’t rest on the fact that they know you – you have to bring your A-game to the interview even more. If they know you and like you, they want you to succeed, and they don’t want to see you just assume you’ll get the job so you don’t prepare properly. Make the reasons why they have a good opinion of you front and center in your interview.

  19. Alexis Rose*

    I’ve done this before, but for a role within the same organization. One piece of advice I’ll give is don’t assume they know the history or background of what you’ve done, even if they do! So, for example, if they ask you to describe a time you managed a project from start to finish, give as much detail as you would if the people sitting across from you didn’t know you at all! Don’t just say “well as you know I worked on Project X and so that’s my example of managing a project from start to finish”. Give all the same details as you would to total strangers interviewing you. “I was tasked to work on project x and I immediately asked about the resources and team members available to me, and deadlines, put together my project plan, including costing and timeline, following it through by doing x, y, z…… etc. etc. etc.”

    This is partly to demonstrate that you can answer the question and communicate well, but also because sometimes for hiring practices the interviewers have to be able to back up a recommendation or hiring decision based on their notes. Something can’t be in their notes unless you say it out loud. Depends on hiring practices and probably more relevant for things like government/academia/non-profits where hiring practices might be under more scrutiny than a private company, but good to keep in mind!

  20. Checkert*

    I recently went through this! I’m going from contractor to govt employee so it took it to another level of what I could and shouldn’t say. I will say….it WAS as awkward as OP fears. I did get the job offer, so it all worked out, but I felt like I was walking a minefield because 3 out of 4 of the panel I had worked with over the years. Good Luck! Try to pretend they don’t know you or the work you’ve done and treat it like any other interview as much as possible!

  21. Overprepared applicant*

    I did an interview for an internal transfer recently to a team I already collaborated quite closely with. I was quite nervous, rather well prepared and it actually did not go at all how I envisioned it:

    They tried to sell me the job for about half an hour. Then said “Think about it and let us know.” I said “Do you not want to ask me any questions?” Them: “No, we already know you. We will hire you if you say yes.”

    It would have been nice to have known this before and saved all the work I put into the preparation. I was in fact a bit disappointed! I guess, I still will prepare for the next one. But interviewers: Please let people know if you do not plan to actually interview them!

  22. lonestarbrooklyn*

    The first time I interviewed with someone I knew, it was for a permanent position at a place where I had done a long-term temp a few months before, and interned before that. I didn’t have much experience in the specific area of the role, so I made my case as “with another candidate you might get a better background in the x department but they would need to learn the organization and its culture and history, and with me, it would be essentially the opposite. I’m relatively new to this field so I’m not long out of school and my fantastic teachers [one of whom had just rotated off their board], but I know this organization well. The first time I ever came to [Art Organization] was as a visitor during the first round of the [newish cornerstone exhibition program] shows, etc.” It was basically the best interview I ever had because I *knew* what they were doing and we talked about trajectory of the organizations and hopes and improvements, and while I was temping, I had reported directly to the person interviewing me then. I got the job and was there for 3 years before being laid off.
    The second time was more recently and it was a friend through other projects that I was interviewing with. I wasn’t the best fit for the job, and I was maybe a little too comfortable in the interview and very candid about my reasons for leaving my previous role. I didn’t get the job.

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