columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

What is your opinion on "courtesy interviews"? Specifically, interviews for the sake of appeasing other stakeholders when you have no interest in the candidate?

Several of my colleagues have been emailing me about applicants they are referring and encouraging me to interview them. After looking at their applications (and comparing them to other applicants), I did not feel they were a fit for the position, but am feeling pressured to interview them anyway. I feel guilty, as this is a waste of our time and theirs, but I want people to feel their recommendations are taken seriously. 

Green responds:

Courtesy interviews are an interesting thing.

Often the term is used to mean a courtesy to the candidate, rather than to pushy colleagues. The idea is that you know the candidate isn't going to be right for the job, but they're a friend of the organization in some way (like a client, or a colleague at an another organization you work closely with), a personal referral from someone in that category, or enough of a bigwig in your field that it would come across as a slight not to talk to them at all. The idea is that the context around the relationship means that rejecting them without an interview would leave them feeling like they didn't get real consideration, despite the relationship.

I used to feel pretty strongly opposed to this, since if you know the person isn't right for the job, it's rude to waste their time on an interview. But I've come to appreciate that it can sometimes hurt you not to do it--because you end up with people feeling stung and (sometimes) bitter toward your organization, in ways that truly can be problems. I still think it's not especially courteous, but that can be trumped by your business's interest in preserving its relationships with people.

But what's happening in your case is a bit different. It's possible that some of the referrals your colleagues are pushing are courtesy interviews by the definition above, but it sounds like at least some of it is just your colleagues being pushy.

The thing to do here is to get more information (about why they want you to interview a given candidate), and to share more information yourself (about why you don't want to). Say something like this to them: "Jane isn't the right match for what we're looking for because of XYZ. We have a limited period of time to get interviews done and we've filled all our available interview slots. Is she someone we need to talk to for courtesy reasons, even knowing she won't be a competitive candidate? And if so, how urgent is it that we do that, given that we're in triage mode with our interview time?"

If you get the sense that this isn't really about preserving relationships for the organization but rather is just about the referrer being sure their candidate could do the job, then you can say something like this, instead: "We had a lot of great candidates for this position and so we decided not to schedule an interview with Jane because she wasn't competitive with other candidates in areas X and Y. But thank you for referring her!" Or, depending on the details, "We're determined to hire someone with strong experience in X, which Jane doesn't have, so we're not advancing her to an interview. But thank you for sending her our way!"

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