I recently sat down with an old friend who told me about his situation at work. He feels guilty for wanting to take job interviews at other companies because he likes his current job. But he also thinks other jobs look interesting. He's working a job he enjoys right now but he feels like the husband who notices that other women are pretty despite being happily married. Is he cheating on his current employer if he goes an interviews at another company?
In fact, if he values his current job and relationship with his employer, he'd be smart to take job interviews at other companies.
To be honest, I feel for him and his situation. I felt that way myself a few years ago working a job I generally enjoyed. I felt tempted to interview elsewhere -- especially at our business partners, who had plenty of open positions that I could fill and enjoy. I felt conflicted. What if my current employer finds out? What if I get the offer and then I have to decide between my current employer and this company making the offer? What would I do?
Now I understand that interviewing at other jobs plays a few important roles that you should be aware of while working any job.
1. Job Interviews Are How You Develop the Skill of Interviewing
Interviewing is a skill.
You can read about it all you want. You can take courses in it. You can run mock interviews.
At the end of the day, the best way to practice the skill is to actually go practice it.
You'll get more out of getting out into the real world and seeing what questions people ask for jobs you want than just sitting on r/careeradvice or Facebook.
This is a particularly strong reason to take new job interviews if you're somebody who gets caught up in your head during an interview. You get caught in your head because you're actively thinking through the interview process. You're actively thinking through the interview process because you haven't practiced the skill enough.
Compare this to playing a sport, like tennis. When you start learning tennis, you think about every motion of your hand, your arm, the racket, and your feet. Once experienced, all of these motions flow together as one that you barely think about.
Or compare it to writing. To sit down and write an article like this would have taken me weeks when I got started writing. Because I actively practice writing and put the skill to good use, several processes and mechanisms that I used to walk through one-at-a-time blend together into the single act of "writing."
The same is true of interviewing. If you want to be confident about your ability to interview at a new job when the day comes that you do want to quit your current job, start practicing now.
2. You Don't Know What You Don't Know
Different companies do things differently.
"Sales" at one company might not look like "sales" at another company.
"Engineering" at one firm might not follow the same processes as "engineering" at another firm.
Even if you're the most skilled person at your current company, you might be middle-of-the-pack at a competitor across the street.
Job interviews give you a chance to figure out where your current skill and knowledge gaps are.
This is particularly true for technical interviews.
I recently worked with a mentee interviewing for a software developer position at a new company. I encouraged him to go through the application process even though he's relatively happy with his current job. He impressed the hiring manager at the beginning of the process and was thrown into a technical interview. The technical interview was challenging and exposed several gaps in his knowledge that he didn't know were there.
This was huge for him. It helped him know what exactly he should go learn and how he should learn it to get new job opportunities.
Freelancers should seriously consider taking 9-5 job interviews for this reason, too. If you work alone in your field, you don't have the mirror of more experienced managers or supervisors to give you direct feedback on what can be better.
3. Job Interviews Can Grow Your Network
Interviewing is one of the fastest ways to grow your network inside a community or a company.
(NOTE: Do not interview just to network. If that comes forward while interviewing, you'll piss off the people you're interviewing for wasting their time. This is a secondary benefit of interviewing.)
I reached out to an investor I met a few years ago and volunteered to interview for a Chief of Staff role he was thinking of filling. The investor ended up leaving the firm, so the role didn't pan out, but I successfully interviewed with most every partner at the firm. Many of these people were investors that you may have heard of and are notoriously difficult to get time with. Just going through the interview process gave me a better idea of who knows them and who I can reach out to if I needed to grow my network in their world.
(The firm's office was near the Lucasfilm office...so I got to swing by and meet a full-sized Darth Vader, too.)
Interview well and impress the right people and you've added new Very Busy People to your network.
4. Options Give You Confidence at Work & Negotiating Power
Having options makes people feel confident.
Confidence makes people more effective at their jobs.
Being more effective at your job (and having back-up options) gives you negotiating power at work.
In negotiation terms, having an alternative to any negotiated outcome is called a BATNA - Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement (BATNA).
(I recommend William Ury's book Getting Past No to better understand negotiating in difficult situations.)
A BATNA is your ability to confidently and realistically say, "no thanks," and leave. Having a BATNA is the reason why you never want to be negotiating from a position of weakness and without options. If your employer knows you don't have options (or can tell that you're bluffing), you have less upward-room to negotiate perks like a raise, the ability to work remotely, or new supplies covered by the company.
The best BATNA is being really damn good at your job. Employers know good employees when they see them. They understand that if they want your skills, somebody else wants them, too. But having a real option that you can go to if things get hairy at work or if you can't negotiate an outcome you want gives you that much more upward power in the negotiation.
When You Shouldn't Take the Interview
There are a few times when you shouldn't take a job interview. That's when the opportunity cost of taking the interview is higher than the value of the benefits, like learning more, getting better at interviewing, growing your network, and getting a BATNA at work.
Some jobs have work-intensive interview processes and taking the time to interview at them will detract from your ability to perform at work. The difficulty is in knowing whether or not a job interview will be so time-intensive that it isn't worth it. When you send in the email, cover letter, or application and get an initial response, be sure to ask what the interview process looks like for the company. This is something I personally learned when interviewing for the Chief of Staff role I mentioned above.
The job required me to spend weeks in San Francisco when I was still working for a company on the east coast. The time difference made it hard to stay on top of my work on the east cost (I don't think the reverse would have been true). And the interview process required me to spend a lot of time away from my computer, making it even harder to stay on top of work.
I still would have taken the interview had I known then what I know now. But I would have made a bigger point to get clear on what the time commitment would look like to go through that interview process and planned accordingly around that.
Always Be Signaling
There's a single concept that you should understand to master interviews and job applications - signaling.
You're always signaling, whether you like it or not.
The job you currently work is a signal.
Your education history is a signal.
How you dress is a signal.
Your personal reputation is a signal.
A signal is any information that somebody else gains about you. Obvious signals are credentials, testimonials/references, and work history.
When you head into a job interview, you want to signal for the traits, skills, and characteristics that the company you're interviewing for finds desirable in a hire.
One way you can do this and maintain control over what you signal is by actively developing a personal brand.
That can make all the difference between having options and being stuck in a job you don't like.