A reader writes:

Why do interviewers put so much emphasis on your knowledge not of the role, but of them as a business? Most companies have quite generic web sites that don’t really tell you much that distinguishes them from their competitors, so it’s actually very difficult to learn much that is meaningful online. But I had feedback when job hunting recently that I had not been “prepared” in this way. It feels like this gives a very unfair advantage to people who are no more qualified but are internal applicants or have friends who work there.

This is particularly true when it comes to company values. Some HR professionals put a big emphasis on anodyne company values that are interchangeable with their competitors’ values. It feels like a pointless dance where the company acts like it has discovered the holy grail and the applicant memorizes and fakes enthusiasm for platitudes no sane person could possibly disagree with — and after the job interview those supposedly integral values never come up again on the job.

I have found a great role now so I would like to think I am just curious, rather than bitter about the roles I wasn’t offered. Why does this kind of “preparation” matter so much to many interviewers?

No reasonable company will expect candidates to have done hours of in-depth research on them, but most interviewers do indeed expect you to have looked through their website and gotten a general idea of what they’re all about, as well as (for some positions at least) done a quick search to see any news on them recently. If you don’t do those basics, it’ll come across as not particularly interested/invested in the role, especially when your competition all shows up sounding more prepared.

That doesn’t mean you need special inside information that you can only get from knowing people who work there. It means spending maybe 20 minutes on their website, reading the “about us” page, some recent press releases, and any available overview about their work or their clients, and generally trying to get a sense of how they see themselves. As you point out, you might not really learn anything that distinguishes them that much from their competitors, but you’ll at least learn the basics — and you’ll probably learn how they see themselves. (There are some jobs where there are additional things you should look at too, especially for more senior roles. For example, if you’re applying to lead a nonprofit, you should look at the organization’s publicly filed 990 forms to learn about its inner workings. But for most jobs, the basics are enough.)

As for company values, that’s part of learning how the company sees itself. You’re right that it’s common for corporate values statements to be mostly lip service, but they do tell you a lot about what image the company wants to project, and they give some useful hints about what they might like to see in candidates. (In fact, seen in that light, they can be an interview cheat sheet in some cases. Why wouldn’t you take a look at that?)

I think you’re ultimately asking why employers aren’t just focused on your ability to do the job they’re hiring for, and why the rest of this stuff should matter so much. The answer is that a lot of interviewers see this kind of preparation as a proxy for how thorough/prepared/engaged you’ll be once on the job. And when you’ve got other candidates showing up having done this kind of prep, you suffer by comparison if you don’t.

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