Managing Interview Meals

September 10, 2014


Last week I met with more than 600 students at three different schools where I facilitated business etiquette lunches and dinners. When you head to an interview, I like to tell students, it’s not critical that you know all the rules of "fish-fork etiquette." However, showing bad manners can make all the difference when it comes to landing that all-important job offer.

10 Dining FAQs

Following are 10 of the most frequently asked questions from last week’s sessions:

1.  Where do I stash my handbag or computer bag?

To the extent possible, ladies should rest their handbag on their laps. If your handbag is too large, please place it near your feet. Do not hang it off the back of a dining room chair, where I’s too easy for a passerby to knock it off, or near the foot of your chair, where someone might trip over it.

Gentlemen should place a computer bag near their feet. Alternatively, they may check it in a cloakroom.

2.  Do jackets remain on or off?

To the extent that a meal follows an interview, consider it an extension of the interview. Dress and act just as formally as you have throughout the meetings you’ve had with a prospective employer. When you sit down at a dining room table, as long as your interviewer keeps his or her jacket on, job candidates should do the same. However, if an interviewer says, “Boy, it feels like a hundred degrees outside today. Let’s ditch our jackets,” then the job candidate can remove his or her jacket, too.

The shorthand rule: mimic your interviewer’s behavior.

3.  What to order?

Order the same number of courses as your host or hostess. In most cases that probably means an appetizer and an entrée. However, if your host orders an entrée only, you should do the same (mimic your host), even if it means that you need to ask the waitstaff to revise a meal request you’ve already made.

When making your menu selections, avoid the most and least expensive options. Also, skip any offerings that you don’t know how to eat, appear to be difficult or messy to eat, or include ingredients with which you are unfamiliar. An interview meal is just a bad time to experiment.

4.  How do I eat a roll?

Break off a chunk that’s equivalent to one or two bites, butter it if you would like, and then enjoy. Please do not use your butter knife to cut a roll. And please do not break a roll in half and then use your butter knife to slather butter over the entire half.

5.  How big should any bite of food be?

There’s nothing worse than lifting a forkful of food to your mouth only to have an employer ask an important interview question. Once the food is inside of your mouth, you really cannot respond until you have fully chewed and swallowed everything. As a result, at an interview meal, you probably want to focus on taking smaller bites of food than usual. This allows you to swallow and respond quickly.

6.  What happens if waitstaff delivers the item I ordered, but now that I see the dish, it doesn’t look appealing.

Avoid looking like a needy individual. Eat what you can and stay focused on the questions you receive. If you need to, tell your host that you have a small appetite and just couldn’t possibly eat everything on your plate. To the extent you leave the table hungry, you can always buy a burger or a burrito on the way home.

Caveat: Do not attempt to eat anything that you know will make you sick or that will cause an allergic reaction.

7.  What do I do if I drop or spill something?

Discretion is your goal. If a small leaf of lettuce falls off your plate, if you can discretely return it to the salad plate with your fingers do so. If an item of food or an eating utensil falls to the floor, especially if you are concerned that someone could slip on the item, make eye contact with waitstaff and ask for their assistance. As to bread crumbs that scatter over a tablecloth when you break a roll, leave them. At a nice restaurant, after they clear entrée plates, waitstaff will remove bread crumbs with a device called a “crumber.”

8.  How often do I thank waitstaff?

Employers tell me that the primary reason they take job candidates to lunch is to observe how they interact with waitstaff. When a job candidate treats waitstaff dismissively, employers assume the job candidate will act similarly with support staff in the office. At all times you should treat waitstaff with respect. You do not need to say “thank you” every time a member of the staffs fill your water glass or removes a plate. However, if you are going to err on the side of more or less thanking, say “thank you” often.

9.  Do I need to drink alcohol at an interview meal?

No, no and absolutely no. Do not allow anyone force you to consume a food or beverage that you don’t want. Do not hesitate to say "no" to offerings of beer, wine or alcoholic beverages. As to explaining your abstinence, you may offer an explanation (I have a major assignment that I still need to tackle tonight; I’m training for a marathon; etc.), however, one is not required.

10.  Who pays for an interview meal?

Whoever extends an invitation to a meal is responsible for its cost. So any employer who invites a job candidate to lunch should automatically pick-up the check.

Let’s address another situation. Let's say an employer appears on campus and a student invites him or her to a lunch to discuss opportunities within a particular industry. At that point, the student has become the host and is responsible for the cost of his or her meal as well as that of the employer. This is true even if the employer is a gazillionaire. Should the employer say, “Please, I remember what it’s like to be a student. Let me pick-up the tab,” the student should persist. However, if the employer insists, the student may turn the bill over to that very gracious person. In this case, the student has an absolute responsibility to follow-up with a handwritten thank-you note.


What You Need To Know

Take your best table manners to every meal scheduled as part of an interview.



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