Is your informal “coffee shop” interview process unethical?

TL;DR — I feel that informal job interviews (in a cafe, pub, coffee shop, park, …) can increase the chances that the personal biases of the interviewer(s) will impact the outcome and introduce unethical and irrelevant selection criteria. This may lead to discrimination based on gender, race, personality, cognitive features, background and a whole host of other factors not important to the candidates ability to perform a role sufficiently.

Regardless of what industry you work in and the dynamics of the jobs market, the assessment from an interview, even an introductory phone call, can have real-world and very personal consequences. Getting the assessment wrong may negatively impact a human being or an organization.

The task ahead of the job interviewer is to judge another human’s worth, appeal, value or suitability for a certain function (usually a job role). Being a human themselves (hopefully!) the interviewer is then one person judging another person’s worth.

It is impossible to undertake an interview in the role of interviewer without considering the ethics and to set some suitable boundaries to operate in. If we do not, we risk falling foul of the law, and potentially hurting people.

Hopefully by the end of this post I have justified the assertion in the title that informal “coffee shop” style job interviews can be unethical.

Defining “Ethical”

The law (in the UK where I am) prescribes the acceptable discrimination for appraisal of a candidate for a job. We also want to ensure an interview:

  • Is conducted fairly
  • Is conducted with respect and compassion for all parties
  • Doesn’t disadvantage anyone for qualities not strictly required to perform the job

To me, if an interview meets this criteria then it is operating within the law and the accepted ethics we wish to promote and see practiced.

The ingredients of a job interview

A job interview is composed of the following things:

  • The “environment” of the interview (a building, a room, a coffee shop, a pub) and also the wider cultural, financial or political environment.
  • The purpose of the interview
  • The interviewer(s)
  • The interviewee
  • Information sought by the interviewer and interviewee to fulfill the purpose
  • The method of information exchange

What we are primarily concerned with is the “environment”, “interviewer” and “interviewee” or candidate.

A job interview (or any other interview type) is a complex matrix of intersecting concerns. Different interview types (a police interview of a witness, questioning a friend about an event, an intelligence officer gathering information) have drastically different mixes of concerns.

In order to be an effective interviewer, you need to be aware of the entire landscape of the interview and the techniques required to ensure it is fit for purpose.

The Purpose

The purpose of the interview is usually well understood by all parties. I’ve had a go at writing a description of the purpose as I understand it.

The purpose of the job interview is for the interviewer to exchange information with, observe and evaluate a candidate for suitability for a given job’s requirements.

This usually happens in the form of questions/answers or conversation that leads to information being exchanged bidirectionally between the interviewer and interviewee … in other words … a job interview.

I want to stress that a candidate is being considered within the bounds of the job requirement only and nothing else. That’s the aim. In the UK there are various acts including, but not limited to The Sex Discrimination Act 1975, Gender Recognition Act 2004, Race Relations Act 1976, Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and Equality Act 2010 set out what may be a considered requirement for a job.

To keep things simple, we will assume the job doesn’t fall under any of the discrimination exceptions outlined in the above Acts and other laws.

The Interviewer & Interviewee

The interviewer and interviewee, for the purposes of the job interview are two human beings engaging in information exchange to fulfill the purpose of the interview.

All aspects of the interview should seek to minimize the importance, effect, bias, prejudice or interference of human characteristics not relevant to the job requirement.

This means that the purpose, environment and information requested should be kept within the bounds of the job requirement. Here’s some human characteristics that should not be taken into account (outside those prescribed by law) unless central to the job and excluded from protections:

  • How well they shake hands (unless shaking hands is a requirement of the job, perhaps)
  • How much they smile
  • Their height, weight, shape or conformity to conventional beauty standards
  • Their regional dialect, accent or cultural inferences made from the sound of their voice
  • How sociable, friendly or likeable the person is
  • The brand, price or perceived expense of their clothing
  • If the candidate likes the same music or film

Honestly the list is infinite. If it doesn’t relate to the job requirements, you have to make a conscious effort to exclude those characteristics from your assessment. This means not engaging in conversation and questions unrelated to the job requirements.

We’re all human and we all have biases, conscious and unconscious. We are all vulnerable to charm, flattery and a whole host of other manipulations. We like people more who like the same things we do. We want to be around people we identify as being part of our “tribe” or sharing the same mindset. It is good to remember that first and foremost, a job interview is not a place to make friends. It is a place to observe and assess potential performance of job requirements.

It would be naive to assume that “getting on” with someone doesn’t impact the workplace. It is even more naive to assume that a short job interview can give the interviewer enough information to make this judgement. A job interview environment is alien and candidates in particular are not in their natural frame of mind.

As accurate as an interviewer may feel their “gut” judgement is on how well they’d get on with someone, more often than not this is an ego concern for the interviewer and the interviewer is often not the person spending most workplace time with the successful candidate. “I like them so they’ll be good” is an assertion of ego and inappropriate in a job interview setting.

The aim of a good job interview is to make a conscious and effective effort to minimize that interference. We are who we are because of, in part, our experiences. A job interview zooms in on the relevant experience making a person who they are and seeks to exclude all else.

The Environment

The environment that a job interview takes place in is very important. We have to create an environment that is suitable for determining if a candidate meets the requirements for the job. This means that the environment must not distort the conversation in any ways which detract at all from the purpose of the interview. If it isn’t related to the requirements of the job, it shouldn’t be in the environment.

I’m going to say this in bold: The environment must only contain things which are relevant to the requirements of the job.

Examples of things that are OK:

  • Chairs, table and necessary furniture to conduct an interview
  • A room that is a suitable temperature
  • A projector, computer screen or whiteboard (if required and relevant to the job)
  • Paper, pens and other note taking materials

When an environment contains things which are not required for an interview, we have to ask ourselves why. Let’s look at a few things that are not OK and may prejudice or discriminate against a candidate in ways that are outside the bounds of the requirement.

  • A dog
    I’ve seen this a few times. An office dog is in the interview room. If the candidate has an allergy or is frightened of dogs then the interviewer may (consciously or unconsciously) think less of the candidate and prejudice the outcome in ways immaterial to the job requirements.
  • The Interview environment is a pub
    Inviting a candidate to the pub for a pint might sound great, but if your candidate doesn’t drink (for whatever reason) you may have an environmental element that impacts the candidate’s prospects. They may feel awkward in that setting and come across as awkward. Unless their job involves being in a pub, there’s no reason a pub should be an element of the job interview environment.
  • The interview environment is a coffee shop
    Not as clear-cut as the pub, but just as important. In an effort to help people feel relaxed, managers often choose a coffee shop for a job interview. Informal settings, designed to create relaxed conversations strongly favor candidates who can build rapport with their interviewer. This is often unimportant to the job requirement and can negatively impact based on gender, inclusion in minority groups and those who are not suited to informal conversational interviewing. Candidates with autism, ADHD, depression, social anxiety and a whole host of a-typical neurological characteristics will perform poorly in these settings … even when their day-to-day job doesn’t require performing in a coffee shop.


The environment you select to hold a job interview may put pressures on a candidate that are not relevant to the job requirements. You may introduce or amplify the interviewer’s biases, prejudices and accentuate irrelevant observations about a candidate. This can lead to discrimination against factors not relevant to job performance.

When we do this, I feel it is unethical.

It’s common sense. It is why we have neutral offices, professional behavior standards and controlled processes for interviewing people. It isn’t “friendly” or “easy going” to choose inappropriate interview locations … it just shows you’re introducing a selection bias for someone typical, alike or who matches criteria not relevant to the job.