Sometime in your professional career it’s likely you’ll have a job interview over a meal. There are several reasons you might have to interview while eating.
The position could entail meeting with clients or VIPs over lunch or dinner. Other times companies schedule lunch interviews because it’s the only time they can fit you in. Or it could be because you’re in a full day of interviews and they know you need to eat lunch.
According to Arden Clise, business etiquette expert, author of Spinach in Your Boss’s Teeth and President of Clise Etiquette, no matter the reason for the meal-time interview, your table manners can make or break being offered the job.
“Your dining etiquette is an aspect of your personal skills that is just as, if not more, important than your job knowledge and technical skills,” said Clise.
People don’t realize how little things, such as not putting your napkin on your lap or ordering an expensive item on the menu, can affect how you are perceived by the interviewer.
Moreover, according to Clise, “When you know how to gracefully navigate a business meal you will be more comfortable and confident and better able to focus on the interviewer rather than the messy sandwich in your hand.”
I spoke with Clise about how you can shine in a meal-time interview by following her five tips.
1. Be more formal
When you walk into the restaurant with the interviewer, wait for her to invite you to sit down or indicate where to sit before you plop down in a chair. And if you’re wearing a jacket, Clise recommends keeping it on, even if the interviewer takes hers off.
2. Small talk is big talk
If your host picks up the menu right away, follow suit. Otherwise, chit-chat until she looks at the menu and indicates she’s ready to order. According to Clise, the time spent exchanging pleasantries is just as important as the time spent answering interview questions. “The host may be seeing how comfortable you are with small talk and building rapport.”
3. Focus on the interviewer, not on the food
When the interviewer does look at the menu, go ahead and follow suit, but avoid spending a lot of time studying it. Clise shared that, “it’s fine to ask what the host recommends. That will give you an idea of both the price range to stay in and which items are favorites at the restaurant, making your decision easier. If she doesn’t make suggestions, order something in the mid-price range.”
Also, order something that’s easy to eat, isn’t messy, and doesn’t require a lot of chewing or manipulating. Clise recommends bite-sized pasta such as ravioli, penne or tortellini. Other easy-to-eat foods include a chicken breast or a fish fillet (but not fish and chips, which is typically finger food), soup, or a simple sandwich that isn’t too big or saucy. “The item you order should allow you to focus on the interviewer, not on the food,” said Clise.
4. Outside in
Have you ever wondered which utensil to use when faced with several on a table? Clise shared a simple tip. “Follow the outside in rule. This means start with the utensils farthest from the plate and work your way in towards the plate.”
5. Watch your table manners
Clise listed several helpful table manners tips. Put your napkin on your lap once your host puts hers on her lap. When your food arrives, wait until your host starts eating before you dig in. Clise recommends that you “Take small bites you can chew and swallow easily so that you’re able to answer questions more readily.”
Sit with good posture and bring your food up to you rather than leaning down to your food. Also, don’t season your food before tasting it. Clise suggests, “Some people believe that a person who puts salt or pepper on his food before taking a bite is stuck in a rut and does things the same way all the time. You have to try the food before deciding if it needs additional seasoning.” It’s fine to have the waiter grind fresh pepper on your dish before you take a bite.
And about those teeth…
What do you do if you get spinach or something else stuck in your teeth? Clise advises, “Don’t use your finger or a toothpick at the table. If it’s really bothering you, excuse yourself and remove it in the bathroom.”
Interviewing over a meal can seem extra challenging, but practicing these small but important tips will ensure a successful interview. And you’ll never have to utter Oscar Wilde’s woeful words: “The world was my oyster, but I used the wrong fork.”