Lunch often is an important part of the interviewing process, and must be handled properly. The lunch (or breakfast, or dinner) interview is ideally suited to reveal characteristics about the candidate not often discovered otherwise, and can be useful from the candidate's point of view for similar reasons. And, if things are going well, the social ritual of breaking bread together can cement a relationship. Conversely, handled poorly, an interview lunch alone can destroy a candidate's chances of getting a job offer. With so much riding on one meal, you can't afford to make any major gaffes.
The first thing to remember is that this is an interview, not a social situation. Although it is a more relaxed setting, do not let your guard down. What you eat, how you eat it, what you say, and how you act all will be scrutinized. Above all, MIND YOUR MANNERS! If you are unsure about your etiquette, stage a dress rehearsal. Ask a good friend or loved one to have lunch with you and honestly (and constructively) critique your luncheon technique. Then, read Emily Post or take a brush-up course to polish any rough spots.
The scrutiny begins from the moment you enter the restaurant. Be polite to the maitre d' and all wait staff. Follow your host to the table and allow her to indicate where you should sit; don't just grab a seat. When asked for your beverage order, ask for water, iced-tea, or a soda, as you prefer, but do not order an alcoholic beverage at lunch, even if your host does so. (If the interview is at dinner, and you are encouraged to order an alcoholic beverage, stick to wine-and just ONE glass!) Put your napkin on your lap right away, and remember that the bread and butter plate to your left, and the glasses on the right, are the ones you use. Follow your host's lead when helping yourself to the bread rather than just jumping in.
Now, what to eat? Choose something you know and like. This is not the time to try something new. Keep logistics in mind: no sloppy sandwiches, stringy pizza or other melted cheese, unpeeled shellfish or bony ribs, and so forth. Avoid foods that will drip or spatter, or get stuck in your teeth. Good bets are tender and easily cut meat, fish, or poultry, chopped salads, small pastas (that you do not have to twirl around your fork and risk getting sprayed with sauce). You may also want to keep spicy or garlicky foods to a minimum if you are going to continue the interview after lunch. You don't want to smell of lunch well into the afternoon, or suffer from indigestion or worse!
Take a cue from your host when choosing your meal. Notice whether or not she orders an appetizer, soup, salad, or after-meal coffee and/or dessert. Keep your host's time constraints in mind, and do not linger unless your host wishes to do so. Never order the most expensive item on the menu; choose something in the same range as the dish your host orders. Order something similar to what your host chooses, or ask her to suggest something. If you have special dietary requirements, quietly choose something that meets your needs, without discussing the details with your host. Nearly every menu has selections to accommodate vegetarian and other dietary preferences. It's acceptable to request dressing on the side, or to ask for cheese or sauce to be omitted, but don't make a big deal about it. Minimize substitutions or exceptions to the menu. Remember: you want to keep the focus on YOU, not the food. (If you are strictly kosher, however, inform your host, or have your recruiter do so beforehand, so an appropriate restaurant can be selected.)
When the food arrives, don't gobble it down. Pace yourself to your host's speed. "Mirroring" is often a valuable technique when trying to get someone to be comfortable with you. During an interview lunch, this could mean talking and eating at a similar speed, resting your forearms (never elbows!) on the table, or leaning back in your chair, etc. in a similar fashion as your host.
At the risk of sounding like your mother, here are some of the basics:
- Your napkin belongs on your lap, not on the table, nor tucked into your collar.
- Use your silverware, not your fingers. If you are eating at a restaurant where chopsticks are provided, and you are not a chopstick expert, ask for a fork!
- The general rule regarding silverware is that you start with the utensil placed on the outside, and work in towards your plate for successive courses. Review your book on basic etiquette beforehand if you are unsure about this.
- Cut your food into small bites. Don't gobble your food. Eat slowly.
- Don't chew with your mouth open or talk with your mouth full.
- Put down your utensils between bites to continue the conversation and pace your eating.
- Do not gesture with your silverware.
- Keep your hair and sleeves out of your plate.
- Do not smoke before, during, or after your meal, or anywhere your host can see you smoke.
- Do not play with your hair nor pick your teeth.
(If you've got something stuck in your teeth, excuse yourself and deal with it in the restroom. If you know it's a problem that is likely to occur, carry floss in your pocket or purse-to use in the restroom only. Do not use your fingernails or a toothpick in public.)
In addition to being on your best behavior, watch what you say. Do not discuss inappropriate, controversial, or personal matters; keep the conversation on business or neutral subjects. Do not use slang, profanity, or too-casual language, and do not tell off-color or discriminatory jokes. You may use this opportunity while your host is more relaxed, however, to inquire about lifestyle issues at the prospective employer's organization such as firm culture, business development, lateral integration, and the like. (See Interviewing Is A Two-Way Street.)
Remember that your host selected the restaurant. Therefore, do not complain about the food or service, even if it was substandard. Your host will know it and feel uncomfortable enough already. Also, you do not want to be viewed as being negative. Of course, sincere compliments always are appropriate. Since an interview lunch is the treat of the prospective employer, do not reach for the check even if it is placed near you, or offer to pay your share. Just let the check sit there, smile, and graciously thank your host for the meal. If all goes well, the interview lunch should be just the first of many occasions to break bread together.