Managing the Job Interview Over a Meal


As if a job interview isn't difficult enough, but interviewing over a meal requires another skill set which is the knowledge of dining etiquette.  Many companies conduct the second or third interview over a meal.  You may be the only one present or you may have a group of candidates who are all competing for the same job as yourself.  The reason for the job interview over a meal is to get to know you better, to see if you have excellent table manners, can you carry on a conversation, would you have the ability and finesse to entertain clients.  

While you can prepare for an interview by memorizing and practising the likely questions, an interview over a meal is more spontaneous and less predictable.  For example, Charles Schwab CEO Walt Bettinger takes potential employees to breakfast and gets the serving staff to intentionally mess up the order.  He told the New York Times, "This is a test to see how they deal with adversity. Are they upset, are they frustrated, or are they understanding?  Life is like that, and business is like that," he explained.  How would you handle this situation if it happened to you?  Be prepared for the unexpected, as some interviewers purposely do things to see how you react and handle the situation.  Don't let your guard down, as this is not social, it's business. 

So how can you prepare yourself.  Here are my suggestions;

Do your research
Find out who is interviewing you and gather information online about the person, their career path, and special interests.  Think of 3-5 questions that you can ask about the company, the interviewers background and even their special interests.  

Check out the restaurant
Find out the location of the restaurant and know how to get there and where to park.  Allow ample time, as you never want to be late or hurried.  Arrive 15 minutes early. Look at the menu online and select items that you would like to order so that you look decisive the day of the interview.  If you have dietary restrictions contact the restaurant in advance to see what items on the menu would be suitable.

Select your attire
First impressions last, so make sure yours is stellar.  Decide what you are wearing and lay out all of the clothing items and then try on the entire outfit and take a picture.  Do you look professional and polished?    Do your clothes fit you correctly - pay attention to the sleeve length, correct trouser length, skirts that are too short when sitting down and collars that are too loose or tight.  Ensure that your shoes are polished and in good shape.  Avoid distractors  such as jewellery that jangles, excessive piercings and tattoos, unnatural hair colouring, seductive clothing, stains, lint and pet hair.

Pay attention to your personal grooming
Interviewers notice poor hygiene such as greasy hair.  Take the time to style your hair and use products to keep it in place.  Nails should be filed and clean.  Women should stay away from extreme nail colours.  If you wear a cologne or perfume keep it light and discreet.  

Select small talk topics
Go to the interview with 3-5 small talk topics that you can use to start a conversation.  Look in the paper or online for interesting current topics.  Avoid taboo topics such as politics, religion, and other highly controversial topics. Make sure you converse with all people at the table, not just your interviewer. If you have a difficult time making small talk take a course in communicating or networking.

Turn off your cell phone
Never use your cell phone at anytime during your interview meal.  Turn it off as you are walking up to the restaurant and leave it turned off.  Don't try to sneak a peek or text under the table as it implies that you are not interested in the interviewer or the job.

Learn how to hold your dining utensils
As simple as it may sound, most people do not know how to eat correctly.  They have not acquired the basic skills such as how to correctly hold their knife and fork and where to place them when resting or finished eating.

Practise dining etiquette
Dining etiquette is a skill set.  Once acquired you will have it for life.  Learn and practise this skill set well in advance of an interview.  Over time, table manners become second nature and it's one less thing you have to worry about whether you are being interviewed or out with colleagues and clients.  During a interview over a meal you will be observed as to how sophisticated and confident you are during the meal.  Some interviewers watch for slip ups such as salting food before tasting.  You don't want to eliminated for a job due to a simple dining faux pas.  If you need to brush up on your dining skills take an online dining etiquette course or have a private lesson.

No alcohol
Even if offered, the best policy is to refrain from alcohol during the interview meal.

Order food that is easy to eat
Select food that is easy to eat and not messy.  You don't want to order the loaded hamburger that drips all over or the spareribs that require you to eat with your fingers.  Beware, some interviewers have a preset menu and intentionally order food items that are difficult to manoeuvre.

Never be rude to the wait staff
Be polite to everyone during the meal and that includes the waitstaff.  People notice if you say please and thank you and your attitude towards others.

No doggy bags

The interviewer pays
The person who invites is the person who pays.  Do not pick up the bill or offer to pay even if it is placed next to you at the end of the meal 

Send a thank you note
Say thank you to your host when the meal has ended and send a thank you by mail or email immediately after the meal.