Handling the Meal Interview

By Joe Stein

The majority of interviews are held at a prospective employer’s place of business.  Generally, the proceedings follow a similar pattern of meeting in the lobby, receiving a tour, and then sitting down to talk in a private office area.  Sometimes, however, the normal practice is not followed, and the interview is conducted outside of the employer’s base (at a public setting such as a restaurant).  This can bring extra stress to the Job Seeker, since we are departing from the norm that has been practiced so diligently.

The meal interview may be over breakfast, lunch, or dinner, although the first two are probably most common.  There are a number of reasons why the interview may be done over a meal. It may be that the Hiring Manager desires to see how you will respond in a non-traditional social setting, but generally it occurs because of convenience.  The meal interview can be very efficient for both parties, especially when the job seeker is currently employed and has limited availability.  It is also used when the situation is more of a mutual networking and the parties have not decided yet to move forward with a more formal interview.  Finally, in a situation where the incumbent has not vacated the position, an off-site interview may be necessary.

Tips for the Meal Interview:
• Dining Etiquette – Virtually all the meals we consume are done in a casual setting, either by ourselves or with family/friends.  In these type of situations, we spend minimal time thinking about our actual table manners (i.e., what utensil to use and when).  Prior to the meeting, review the most common dining etiquette items and make sure you have familiarized yourself with the basics.

• Plan Ahead – Since you are meeting at a public place without the benefit of a reception lobby, plan to arrive early in order to connect with your Interviewer.  Drive by the location the night before to make sure you are clear regarding the location of the restaurant. 

• Plan for Pleasantries – In a meal interview, there is typically more small talk than just your usual one ice breaker prior to the actual interview questions.  Be prepared to spend the first few minutes discussing the weather, sports, current events, etc.  Take the lead of the Interviewer regarding topics, and don’t delve into anything controversial.  You will want to make sure that the Interviewer does get down to business and does not spend the entire time in non-interview conversation.

• What to Order – You wouldn’t think something that a person does so often could become so complicated…but it is!  Breakfast is usually the easiest in this area, since the food items are basic and alcohol is not an option.  When ordering, you will want to stay fairly conservative regarding the price of the item.  You also should make sure to order something that is fairly easy to eat, along with creating little mess.  Be decisive when ordering so that you leave little doubt regarding your decision making (go online and look at the menu in advance to make it easier).  The idea is that the focus should be on you and your answers, rather than what you are eating.  Never order alcohol without first being prompted by the Interviewer and (even then) travel that path carefully, as you will want your wits with you during the interview.  A simple iced tea is never a bad choice for a drink.

• Be Polite – A savvy Interviewer will be observing how you interact with others.  You will want to make sure to be polite with anyone who assists you.  Make sure to say “please” and “thank you” at the appropriate times.  Do not initiate any criticism of the service or food.  Refrain from sending the food back, unless they clearly made an error in your order, which the Interviewer notes prior to you starting the meal.

• Don’t Arrive Hungry – Although you will be ordering food, the reality is that if the interview is going well, both parties will be doing quite a bit of talking.  Order something that can be easily consumed in small bites during the conversation.  You should also order a small enough portion where you can easily consume most of the order during the course of talking.  Politely decline to take any leftover food with you.  Remember: you are there to sell yourself and land a job, not to eat.

• Normal Rules Apply – Just because you are in a different setting does not mean that normal good interview rules no longer apply.  Dress appropriately for the meeting, make good eye contact, and turn off your mobile phone.  Basically, all of the checklist items you should be quite comfortable with at this time should be followed or practiced.

• The Bill – It is practice for the Interviewer to pay the check.  An experienced server should pick up (or ask) on this early in the meal and allow you to avoid awkwardly passing it over if it is given directly to you.  Please remember to thank the Interviewer at the end, not only for the meeting, but also for the meal.

The meal interview can be quite different than the normal office setting conversation.  You have the added complication of eating while conducting a business discussion.  By following the tips above, you can greatly improve your chances of having a successful meal interview.

As always, best of luck in your job search!