Surviving and thriving at the job interview over lunch

If you’re interviewing for a job, there is a chance you could be invited to meet over a meal. Managers know that you can learn a lot about a candidate by how they conduct themselves when dining. People tend to let their hair down a bit when dining because it seems more social than business. But there’s the catch; there is a fine line between being more social and being too personal or inappropriate. If you find yourself being interviewed over a meal keep these points in mind.

Remember this is business
While there will be more opportunities to socialize during an interview over lunch, keep in mind this is still an interview. Avoid being too casual or too personal. Remain professional and don’t divulge your deepest darkest secrets, family history or why you were fired from your last job. And, don’t ask your interviewer these sorts of questions. Think pleasantries when pondering what to talk about. Keep it light, positive and friendly.

Follow your host’s lead
The person conducting the interview is the host and should take the lead on everything. Wait to start talking about the job until your host does. Typically you’ll engage in small talk until you place the order. Once the meals have been placed your interviewer will usually start asking interview questions.

Put your napkin on your lap after your host does. And, when the meal has been served, wait until the interviewer starts eating before you dig in.

Don’t order additional courses unless the host does. If you’re asked if you’d like an appetizer, salad or dessert it’s best to decline unless you suspect your host will order any of those courses. The guideline is to match the courses of your host so no one is eating alone.

Order carefully
If you know the restaurant you’ll be dining at take some time to look at the menu online before the interview date. That way you won’t have to spend a lot of time studying it at the restaurant. If you are able to review the menu in advance and know what you’d like to order before you arrive at the restaurant, you’ll still want to look at the menu when your host picks hers up so your host doesn’t feel rushed. If you aren’t able to peruse the menu before the big day try not to spend a lot of time studying it.

One way to help you chose what to order is to ask your host what she or he recommends. If your host isn’t helpful, select something that’s easy to eat such as a simple sandwich, ravioli or tortellini, soup that isn’t messy – never order French onion soup – or a simple salad. Avoid anything messy, saucy or difficult to eat such as burgers, long noodle pastas, shellfish that requires a lot of handling and manipulating, anything stringy or that requires a lot of attention. Also, avoid ordering anything that requires extra preparation time. You want your focus to be on the host not your food. Also, never order the most expensive item on the menu. Choose an item that’s about mid-price range.

Lastly, don’t make big changes to your order. You’ll come across as someone who is demanding and picky like Sally in the movie When Harry Met Sally (look it up if you have no clue what I’m talking about).

Match your hosts pace
Try to eat at about the same pace as your host. This may be challenging since you’ll likely be doing more of the talking. But plan some questions in advance that you can ask your interviewer so that you can eat while she talks. If you have a lot more food on your plate than your host increase your eating pace. Or if your host’s plate is more full than yours slow down. When your host is finished eating, it’s time for you to stop eating as well even if you really want to finish that delicious kale salad (hey, I love kale salad!)

Have a sense of humor with awkward situations
If you spill your drink, squirt the interviewer with cherry tomato seeds or accidentally spit food, try to make light of it. Mistakes happen and how you handle them can make or break your chances of being offered the job. Don’t pretend it didn’t happen, but don’t make a big deal about the incident either. Handle it and move on.

Use good table manners

  • Don’t season your food before tasting it. You’ll come across as someone who always does things the same way and doesn’t take risks. Besides, you might end up over seasoning your food.
  • Wipe your mouth with your napkin before taking a drink from your glass and throughout the meal. Keep your napkin on your lap. If you have to get up during the meal, put your napkin on the seat of your chair. Don’t put it on the table until the interview has ended. Never put it on your plate.
  • Don’t ask to eat anything from your host’s plate and don’t offer a bite of your food.
  • Even if you can’t finish your meal do not ask for a doggy bag.
  • Chew with your mouth closed. If you’re asked a question when you have a mouthful put a finger up to indicate you’ll answer when you’re finished chewing. Take small bites to help you chew and swallow quickly.
  • Don’t put a used utensil back on the table. Put it on a plate.
  • Never, ever berate the waiter. I know of an attorney who did this when dining with his client and he was fired by his client.
  • Silence your phone and put it away. Don’t look at it even if the interviewer looks at his.
  • Don’t order an alcoholic beverage unless the job is for a company that sells alcohol. If that’s the case, only order one drink. You’re being interviewed, not shooting the breeze with a buddy.
  • If you have a food restriction that might impact the restaurant choice, do let whomever is organizing the interview know of your restriction in advance.
  • Don’t complain about the food or talk about your diet or food restrictions. If you’re gluten free and end up in an Italian restaurant (because you weren’t able to let the recruiter know of your food restriction in advance), order a salad. You don’t need to mention you can’t eat wheat.
  • Don’t eat food with your fingers unless it is finger food such as a sandwich. I know of someone who was fired for eating her fish with her fingers. Use your utensils and for goodness sake don’t lick your fingers. Use your napkin.
  • Don’t blow your nose into your napkin or spit food into it. Excuse yourself to the bathroom if you need to blow your nose. If you need to take something out of your mouth such as a pit, gristle or a bone, take it out with cupped fingers and put it on your plate.

Interviews over meals can be nerve wracking affairs, but try to relax, be your professional, courteous and well-mannered self and you’ll be fine.

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Arden Clise is founder and president of Clise Etiquette. Her love for business etiquette began in previous jobs when she was frequently asked for etiquette, public speaking and business attire advice by executives and board members. The passion for etiquette took hold and compelled Arden to start a consulting business to help others. Read more >>

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