When someone I am representing for a job with a client emailed to tell me he was scheduled for a dinner interview with three people on Monday, I was reminded that how to do a meal interview is a subject I have not addressed in my articles and books yet.
Lunch or dinner interviews are actually very easy. It is an interview. It is an opportunity to assess your knowledge and manner, just as they would in an “in the office” interview. The problem is that most job hunters succumb to the more casual setting to lower their guard and be sufficiently revealing as to make it easy for an employer to disqualify them from consideration.
There are obvious ways that this occurs— the person who drinks too much at the interview and acts like a fool. There is the more subtle way of ordering the wrong dish and leaves food on their face and makes it hard for them to be taken seriously (never order a dish with lots of barbecue sauce).
Here are a few points to remember when having a meal interview:
• Arrive on time; if you are going to be late, call ahead. When you arrive, apologize and explain the lateness (the cab driver got lost; there was an accident that caused a traffic jam; the GPS in your car gave you the wrong directions).
• When introduced to each person by your host, offer a friendly smile and a handshake (if the handshake is denied, there may be a religious reason for a denying the handshake; just move on in your mind and don’t get caught up in it).
• When seated, ask where they would like you seated. If told to seat where you like, try to sit opposite your host.
• This type of interview is just like a panel or group interview in an office setting but it includes food.
• As I mentioned before, avoid sloppy food. Avoid drinking an alcoholic beverage. If you are encouraged by your party to do so, reply by saying, “As much as I would like to, I am on an interview and want to make sure I’m at my best.” If you are uncomfortable with this wording, pick language that fits your personality.
• Before ordering, if you are at a restaurant you are not familiar with, ask the members of your party, “Have you been here before? What would you recommend?” Ideally pick something they recommend.
• Avoid the most expensive item on the menu; pick something that is “middle of the road.”
• Generally, the interview part of the “festivities” begin after everyone orders. Be ready!
• My preferred way of starting the Q&A is for the job applicant to start it. As I suggest in traditional interviews, start off by thanking them for taking time to meet with you. Then continue by saying, “So far, I’ve spoken with (mention who you’ve spoken with about the role) and they have given me their take on the position but, I was curious about yours. Tell me about the role as you see it and what I can be doing to help.” This may result in being asked what you’ve been told so far. Be prepared to answer!
• When asked a question in a panel or group interview, you would not speak only to the person who asked the question. You would speak to each individual person starting first with the person who asks the question, switch your gaze to the second person, then a third before concluding with the questioner. The same is true in a meal interview.
• Make sure you don’t only speak about what you’ve done. Speak about what you’ve done in the context of what you’ve been told they are looking for someone to do (or have experience doing). Too often, people lose track of what the goal is in the interview—demonstrating that you have experience that fits what the employer needs done. Nowhere does this happen more often than at a lunch or dinner interview.
• When the food arrives, start to enjoy your meal. If they ask you a question, put your knife and fork down to insure that you are not tempted to eat and talk. Use manners that will make your mother proud of you!
• Be prepared with questions to ask when offered the opportunity ask some. These may include milestones that need to be met, what success would like for you, commitments that need to be fulfilled, reporting structure . . . work related questions, not compensation questions.
• Avoid dessert even if the others are having it. Stick with coffee or tea instead. Sweet things and after dinner drinks have a way of causing interviews to go badly.
• When the bill arrives, thank the person who charges the meal simply by saying, “Thank you.”
• Before everyone separates at the table or at the coat check (offer to pay the coat check for everyone if you can afford it), make a point of saying, “I just want you to know that I am interested in the role we’ve discussed. What would you expect the next steps to be?”
• Send a thank you email to each person and expressing your interest in the role. ONLY DO THIS IF YOU ARE INTERESTED.
If you follow my advice, you may not be hired but it will not be because you committed a faux pas or “misbehaved” during the meeting. It will be because they perceive a skills deficiency they judge is essential for the role.
And more often than not, you will be hired because, the fact is, when asked to a lunch or dinner meeting, they are already favorable disposed to hiring you and you have done nothing to change their mind about you.
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