A job interview over lunch can feel as nerve-wracking as a blind date. Not only must you demonstrate that you are intelligent, pleasant and capable, but you must also appear graceful while eating. You may even prefer to pass up the opportunity, rather than face an intimidating line-up of eating utensils.
But, as professional schedules become more hectic, lunchtime interviews are an increasingly common, time-efficient option. In a recent survey commissioned by our firm, nearly half the financial executives who responded said their most successful business meeting outside the office was conducted over a meal.
While etiquette is important, your dining prowess is only one of many factors that could lead to a job offer — so try not to obsess over the possibility that something may get stuck in your teeth. In the meantime, here are some tips to help you dazzle your interviewer with your sparkling manners:
Be punctual. People often have a limited amount of time for lunch — they also aren’t able to keep themselves busy with work while they wait — so tardiness can be particularly irritating. If you are going to be more than five minutes late, telephone the restaurant and ask the maitre’d to let the person you’re meeting know when you’ll arrive.
Mind your manners. The rules your mother taught you probably still apply. However, if you need to brush up on your etiquette, you may find it helpful to consult a manners expert online for your in-depth queries, particularly if the restaurant you will be attending is an upscale one.
Let your host guide the conversation. The general rule is to avoid business talk until your order has arrived. Ask thoughtful questions that are not overly personal, and listen carefully to the responses. While initial small talk can help smooth ensuing communication, in an interview situation your host may prefer to initiate a professional discussion earlier, so follow his or her lead.
Think about what you’re ordering. Select a moderately priced meal. If you are paying, you do not want to appear cheap by selecting the least expensive item. If your potential employer is paying, you do not want to cost him or her an exorbitant amount of money. Be decisive about what you’d like, and avoid dishes that are messy or difficult to eat, such as ribs or spaghetti. It is usually safest not to consume alcohol, even if your host orders a drink — you want to be alert.
Be polite to your server. Your treatment of wait staff reflects your level of professionalism and how well you work with others — so treat your waiter or waitress with respect. It’s okay to return a meal that is not what you ordered, as long as you do so courteously.
Give your host your undivided attention. Turn off your cell phone or pager and focus on the interview. Avoid leaving the table before the meal is concluded, and never accept a phone call while at the table.
Show candor. As with any interview, it’s generally not a good idea to volunteer any information that could call into question your ability to perform the job for which you are being interviewed. It’s still important to try not to respond too defensively to questions whose answers might bring to light certain “weaknesses” in your background. The challenge here is to be aware, ahead of time, of those areas that you’d like to improve so that you can admit to them, but at the same time, point to strengths that offset them.
Don’t over-answer. Because there is often more noise and distraction at a restaurant, the interviewer may be more blunt or direct with her questions than she would be if you were at an office. Try to keep your answers as focused and brief as possible. Don’t feel obliged to fill any silence that follows your answer with additional information. Let silence work in your favour, giving the interviewer time to absorb what you’ve said.
End the lunch on a positive note. Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules regarding responsibility for the bill. Often the company will pay for a lunch interview — but be sure to have cash on hand if this is not the case. Cash prevents the awkward happenstance that your credit card is not accepted. Be sure to shake hands with your host, and thank her for the meeting and the meal, if she paid.
Don’t forget to follow-up. Send a thank-you card within a day of your meeting. An e-mail thank you is acceptable as long as it is followed by a hand-written note. Coupled with a successful lunch interview, a formal thank you will show your potential employer that you excel in the arena of courtesy.
Despite your preparation, it is possible that you may drop a fork or spill your water. If this happens, remain calm. Pardon yourself, smile and continue the conversation. The ability to handle an embarrassing situation with grace is a valuable skill on the job as well, and will impress your interviewer.
And while manners alone will not win you a job offer, a lack of dining etiquette could prevent you from securing the position. Your ability to put your host at ease and navigate gracefully through the meal while enjoying a smooth conversation will win major points with your potential employer. Happy dining!