The modern workplace has relaxed a bit from the "strictly business" environment of decades past. Instead of suits and dresses, today's workers are often allowed to wear jeans to the office, at least in some industries. The lines between work and play have blurred as the standard 9-to-5 workday becomes less common. As such, it makes sense that the interview process has become a little less formal, too.
While it's still ill-advised to show up to a job interview disheveled and unprepared, many hiring managers enjoy when candidates take a more conversational, personal approach to their answers. For example, discussing nonprofessional hobbies and activities that tie into your career skills can give the interviewer a better idea of who you are as a person and whether you will fit into the company culture.
Why getting personal can get you the job
Companies are hiring well-rounded people who will represent their brand to the outside world, said Leela Srinivasan, chief marketing officer of applicant tracking system Lever. Small, tasteful personal anecdotes can help a hiring manager remember and connect with you, which gives you a better chance of getting hired if the interview goes well, she said.
"Employers are looking to find someone who will fit in well with the team dynamic and company culture," added Brigette McInnis-Day, executive vice president of human resources at SAP, a software solutions company. "Finding a balance between professionalism and personality during an interview will help show yourself in the best light."
McInnis-Day reminded job seekers that, if an employer calls them in for an interview, the hiring manager is already interested. So when you're asked to share something about yourself, it helps to make it unique. [See Related Story: The Best Answers to 6 Common Job Interview Questions]
"Be sure to share something that is memorable," McInnis-Day said. "You may not have the most unique hobbies or interests, but if you can convey enthusiasm and passion while relating it as a story that exemplifies your potential, the interviewer will be sure to take note."
Researching the company on its website and social media accounts can also give you some fodder for conversation if you research the people you'll be working with, said Stacey Engle, EVP of marketing at leadership and development company Fierce Inc. Try to find some common ground and make a connection based on the person's professional career.
"Use social media as a sneak peek into the [company]," Engle said. "Asking questions targeted to what you have seen and heard will help uncover their vision and persona."
"The more enterprising interviewees I've met take the time to research me, the interviewer, to find a common point of connection," Srinivasan added. "For instance, one person I interviewed actually listened to a podcast I was on, and mentioned that he also loved the restaurant I called out at the end as my favorite. We had a conversation about food that left us both in a positive mood."
Avoiding the line of "TMI"
As with anything else, overstepping your boundaries during a job interview will backfire on you. You'll want to be careful not to cross over into "TMI" territory, and to keep yourself from giving away too much information about your personal life and habits.
First and foremost, Srinivasan cautioned job candidates against discussing protected EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) classes, such as age, ethnicity, religion or family status. It is illegal for employers to discriminate against a candidate on the basis of these categories, and therefore, they are not allowed to ask about them during an interview. Bringing it up, even casually, could land the hiring manager in hot water, even if you volunteered the information on your own.
"Discussions around age, relationship status, how many children, medical history and other personal information that is sensitive should not be shared," McInnis-Day noted.
Aside from the illegality of certain questions about your personal life, offering such information could give the hiring manager the wrong impression of you, if he or she makes assumptions based on your answers, McInnis-Day said.
"Everyone has biases," she told Business News Daily. "Some interviewers [assume if] the candidate has young children, they can't travel. Sometimes, interviewees do the same — candidates say to themselves, 'I won't dare ask about how much I'll be traveling; they'll think I'm not up to the role.'"
Personal beliefs and political views can also fall into a tricky gray area if you bring it up in an interview. Mike Le, COO of CBI Digital, a digital marketing agency, noted that he doesn't mind discussing such topics with candidates if they're relevant to the question at hand, but he discouraged job seekers from bringing them up unprovoked.
"If you share personal details, make sure they are relevant to the question," Le said. "Say just enough to make the answer concise and solid. The risk of 'personal' conversation is that you may lose focus and start sharing too [many] irrelevant details. Most of the time, that will do more harm than good."
Balancing personal conversation with professional expectations
Interviews can be more comfortable and less nerve-wracking when they feel like regular conversations, McInnis-Day said. It's fine to approach your interview this way, as long as everything relates back to the job.
"If personal information is a motivating factor behind why you applied for the job, feel free to share a story, but keep it focused," McInnis-Day said. "If personal experiences have given you the opportunity to practice skills that are necessary for the job at hand, it can give [the interviewer] insight into your passion for the work you will be doing. But get those stories ready as you prep for the interview."
Ultimately, you should use your best judgment when it comes to the personal details you share during an interview. You can make the interview conversation intimate and friendly, but keep it professional and respectful, Le said. "Personal talk can be a good catalyst, but keep in mind this is still a job interview," he noted.
However, Engle warned not to fake your personality to make yourself seem like a good fit.
"Faking a persona or a skill to fit in with the culture that has been emulated via social media or the news will not result in a [positive] employee/company relationship," Engle said. "When meeting potential employers, if their values and purpose do not align with yours, don't be afraid to say no."