How to mind your manners during interview lunch or dinner

As workplace conventions become more relaxed, with T-shirts and Converse replacing suits, it may be tempting to consider judging someone’s table manners a relic of the past.

But, etiquette isn’t completely going the way of the office cubicle, according to experts. Though times have changed, and you might not lose a job offer for not knowing where the salad fork is, manners still matter.

According to Diane Gottsman, founder of the Protocol School of Texas, while it’s important to be on your best behavior, avoiding a faux pas shouldn’t be your sole focus when a hiring manager for a promising position invites you out for a meal or coffee.

“What they are noticing is your ability to put them at ease,” Gottsman said.  “They can see how you handle an awkward moment. That’s what they’re looking for.”

According to Gottsman, managers read into a candidate’s behavior throughout the course of a meal. This helps them determine characteristics that may help or hurt the interviewee on the job.

Employers often start their observation of a candidate’s mealtime decorum as early as the discussion of what restaurant to choose.  Brittany Hodak, an entrepreneur and speaker, shared the unique criteria she uses to determine if a candidate or client will be a good fit prior to breaking bread with them.

“One of my favorite things to do when we’re setting the meeting is to invite somebody to a quick-serve restaurant,” Hodak told Inc. in 2014.  “If you invite somebody to meet you at a Chili’s, for instance, and they say, ‘Absolutely not, I would never go to a Chili’s,’ it’s an easy way to say, “’You know what, this is probably going to be a very difficult person to work with.’”

In an interview, Hodak noted that people who push back on a quick-serve style restaurant are more likely to “argue about something that doesn’t need to be argued about – and it’s not necessarily because it’s a better idea, it’s just a different idea.”

Mealtime interviews are also necessary for positions where interactions are likely to happen in casual settings.

Leaders have to be able to talk to people of all stripes and they have to be able to carry a conversation. You many times will see that at a meal because it’s more casual and you’re not necessarily talking all business.

Getting job candidates in a more natural situation allows employers to see things that a prospective employee may conceal during a traditional interview. They will often be “more real and forthcoming” in a casual setting than in a conference room.

At the restaurant, potential employers look at your interactions with wait staff as well as your consideration for them when selecting your meal. A big red flag is when the candidate does not understand the time commitment involved and will order a time-consuming dish or orders dessert and coffee right after the entrée.  It demonstrates poor form and poor decision making when a candidate decides to make the meeting more about the culinary experience than really for what the meeting is for, which is to assess their candidacy for the role.

One tricky question is whether or not to order alcohol.  If part of a candidate’s job is attending functions where alcohol is served, it makes sense to see how a person conducts themselves in the presence of drinks.  You want to see how they behave when they are having a glass of wine or a cocktail.

The line of thinking is “A drunken man’s words are a sober man’s thoughts”. You’re not trying to get somebody liquored up to say something stupid, but typically after somebody has a glass of wine or a beer, they’re a little looser and they’re more likely to say what they’re really thinking.

An employer’s perception of you changes when you have a drink, whether or not you actually overdo it.  If you spill something on yourself with a glass of wine, you’re drunk. Without a glass of wine you’re clumsy. It’s much better to be clumsy. 

In general your behavior during the meal should reflect your confidence and good judgment, more than your immaculate knowledge of table settings or excellent taste in wine.

“Portions of this article were originally posted in the Midlands business Journal, 8-2019”

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