Mind Your Manners: Interview Etiquette for a Mealtime Meeting
Originally Publish on The Ladders (July 08, 2014)
Ace any interview in a restaurant setting by practicing proper decorum.
These days, job interviews can take any form. Don’t be surprised if your next interview lands you in the hot seat across from your interviewer with two plates of food between you. Generally the final round in a series of hurdles you’ve had to clear, these business lunches or dinners are less about assessing your business acumen – this has been solid enough to get you to the final round – than about seeing how you are able to interact with others in collegial and social situations. In short, this is where the smallest of small details are what separate those who receive a job offer from those who get a phone call saying, “I’m so sorry to have to tell you this – it was a really tough decision – but we’ve decided to go with someone else.”

Over the years I’ve been in business, I’ve realized there are many pitfalls – large, small or unforeseen – that can knock you out of the running.

Since I would hate to have any etiquette misstep undermine your hard work, here’s a quick-and-dirty list of things to know before your next lunch or dinner meeting. While some are likely self-evident, it’s my hope that some surprise you. And – if I’m lucky – a few might even make you laugh.

  • Your napkin goes in your lap immediately after sitting down.
  • If you are offered a roll, break it in pieces and butter each piece individually just before eating it. Do not cut it in half and butter it like a sandwich.
  • Check in with the other party about what he or she might be ordering. If it’s just an entrée, follow that lead. You don’t want to be tucking into a fois gras appetizer followed by a whole, de-boned fish when your host only ordered a salad.
  • Please do not discuss your feelings about carbohydrates, white flour, white sugar, eating fats, the use of bovine growth hormone, the conditions under which chickens are raised, or your latest diet plan, should you be on one. If you are a lactose-intolerant, wheat-intolerant, or have too much candida, keep it to yourself. If you are a vegetarian, pescetarian, vegan, fruitarian, raw foodist, don’t bring it up unless directly asked. If you are asked, respond and move on. Unless your eating plan is the focus of the meal, this is not the time or place to discuss those habits.
  • Order food that’s easy to manage. For example, if you have the choice between vegetable or onion soup, order the vegetable soup. No one wants to see you playing cat’s cradle with the cheese on top of the onion soup. If you have a choice between a green salad and a frisée salad, get the green salad. No one wants to see the frisée hanging out of your mouth like calamari legs.
  • Don’t forget to use “please” and “thank you” with the wait staff as they take your order and bring your food.
  • For multiple courses, choose the fork or spoon farthest from your plate for your first course and work your way inward.
  • Sit up straight. Again, are you sitting up straight?
  • Should you need to go to the bathroom, excuse yourself to use the ladies’ or men’s room. You aren’t going to the john, the restroom, or the powder room. You are definitely not going to “hit the head.” Leave your napkin on your chair when you go, not on the table.
  • Aside from the fact that my mother always told me that salting your food before tasting it was an insult to the chef, I’ve heard that those in the business world view it as indicative of poor impulse control—you may make judgments without having all the facts.
  • Don’t drink alcohol, even if they do.
  • Nobody – and I repeat nobody – is so important they need to check their PDA during an interview or lunch. The people with whom you’re talking need to have 100 percent of your focus. If you can’t give them this when you’re sitting in front of them, why would they believe you will give them this when you aren’t? (I would also request that you refrain from looking at it in between standing up from your table in the restaurant and exiting the door, or until you’ve left the building in which your meeting took place. You need to give your goodbyes the same attention you did your hellos.)
  • Your host will handle the bill. Do not feel the need to chatter as he or she does so.
  • A simple, “Thank you so much for a lovely lunch,” will suffice, since you will be following up with a handwritten thank-you note.
If you can keep all of the above in mind (and still enjoy your meal!) I guarantee you will wow them.