When you’ve found a job you like and a role you fit into, putting together a strong application and following up with a hiring manager or recruiter are the logical next steps. But if it’s a job you really want, don’t just leave it at that. To truly get a head start on the role, find and reach out to a recently departed employee. It’s the best, most underrated way to get first-hand intel on the team you’re trying to join.

Here’s how these conversations can be critical for your chances at landing the gig:

How to reach out

Before considering the benefits of reaching out to a former employee, it’s important to understand how to reach out in the first place. Doing it the wrong way can have some unintended negative consequences. First, find the right person to approach on LinkedIn. It’s important to understand your goal in this outreach. Talking to someone who left a long time ago might give you insight into the executive team but not much information on the team you’ll be working with tomorrow. On the other hand, reaching out to someone who just left and looks like they might have been fired might not give you a fair and unbiased look at the company. Dig into their work history and social profiles to make your best guess as to whether this person will be a source of the type of information you’re looking to gain.

Only reach out through personal email addresses or via InMail. In your message, say a bit about yourself, that you recently applied to a job at their former team, and that you want to learn a bit more about them from someone who’s been there. Talk about how it will help you understand the opportunity and company better and cap it off with an ask for a chat over coffee or phone. Don’t ask for a recommendation or anything that they can’t deliver on. Keep your ask small and use this as a fact-finding mission rather than anything more opportunistic.

Also understand that you’re risking the hiring manager learning about your conversation, so make sure you don’t do or say anything that will land you in hot water. Be respectful of the person’s time and thankful of the information they give you.

information about an employer

Gain insider information about hiring process

A former employee can be a goldmine of information on the hiring process. A quick conversation over coffee or on the phone can tell you all you need to know about the hiring manager and recruitment process. Are they diligent enough to reply to every application? If not, do they respond well to follow-up emails? What types of candidates were most successful in prior interviews? What negative triggers should you avoid in an interview? Will there be tricky or logic puzzle style questions? This type of information will give you a leg up on your preparation process should you land an interview.

You’ll be able to better cater your interview tactics based on what you learned about the hiring process. Always bring your own style and personality to the interview so that you sound genuine, but use what you learn from the conversation to angle the conversation in your favor. For example, you may learn that the hiring manager loves to talk a lot during an interview. You’ll know to adjust your own approach with smart questions and follow-up conversation pieces to keep them talking. On the other hand, you might learn that you’ll be expected to do more of the talking. If you don’t already have enough to bring to the table, think of more ideas and questions to keep the conversation lively.

Find red flags immediately

As you’re moving through the hiring process, it’s important to look out for red flags that might show the role or company isn’t what you thought. This is especially true when you apply for a dream job. You’ll be looking at it with rose-tinted glasses and possibly ignoring warning signs. A conversation with a former employee can let you find and evaluate those red flags quickly. Remember that it’s not just you being evaluated by the company in the hiring process. You’re also supposed to vet them as high or low quality employers to decide if the opportunity is right for you.

Understanding why the former employee left, whether they’re on good terms with their team, whether the company is growing and making money, and how their time with the company went will tell you whether you should stay excited or temper your expectations. It’ll show you which concerns to bring up in the hiring process and how to evaluate the answers you get from the hiring manager. Unhappy former employees don’t necessarily signal that all is bad at a company. They do, however, have some valid concerns that need your attention. Ignoring them can lead to a big mistake for your career, especially when the job you’re applying to looks amazing on the surface.

Learn about team dynamics

A conversation with a former employee will help you understand the role in depth by letting you in on the dynamics of the team you’re trying to join. This information will help you better understand the individuals you’ll be working with should you land the job. From how they behave day to day to how they evaluate each other’s work, the conversation will tell you what to expect on day one and beyond. And who better to give you this insider information about the team than someone who’s already been there and is familiar with the personalities of your potential colleagues?

In your conversation, ask questions about the manager and the team. Understand what expectations they’ll place on you from day one. Figure out what level of support and training you’ll be provided early on to understand the learning curve you’ll face. Get a strong idea of how the team communicates and shares feedback. And most importantly, understand what challenges you’ll face with personality clashes or miscommunication so that you’re ready to face them.

A positive side effect of understanding the team you’re trying to join is that you’ll be able to better relate to them during interviews. You’ll know the expectations the hiring manager has of new hires and will be able to address them in the way you answer their questions. If proper communication is key, you can highlight times when you’ve built consensus with former colleagues. If hand holding is discouraged, you can focus on showing that you don’t need much training to immediately have an impact.

Show initiative

Most candidates don’t think reaching out to former employees is a good idea because word might get back to the hiring manager. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing and can in fact help you land the job. If the former employee does tell the hiring manager you reached out, it actually signals your proactiveness and eagerness to learn more about the opportunity. It paints you as a smart job seeker who is looking to make a stable and long-term career move. This attitude is attractive to hiring managers who understand potential and know what they want out of potential additions to their team.

In reality, reaching out to a recently departed employee can be a win-win situation for you. If the employee gives you great information about the company and proceeds to tell the hiring manager about an ambitious and proactive candidate who reached out to them, you immediately stand out. If you learn bad things about the company and the hiring manager isn’t thrilled that you reached out to get more information, you’ve learned that the role isn’t all it was made out to be and the company isn’t all that great. Either way you gain critical information that will help you make a smart choice for your career.

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