By Gerald Walsh ©
Which fork should I use? Is that my bread on the left? Is it okay to have a glass of wine? You may not worry about these things if you’re having lunch with friends, but if it’s over lunch with a prospective employer, you better get it right.
Why is meal time etiquette so important?
Employers will sometimes interview over lunch because it is the only free time they have available in the day. However the most common reason employers take candidates out to lunch (or dinner) is to evaluate their social skills and see how they will perform in real-life situations.
For example, if you’re applying for a sales or business development role, where business is commonly conducted over lunch, there is a good chance this test will be part of your interview process. A serious etiquette miscue – such as having too much to drink – could possibly harm a deal with a client, so any prudent employer will want to test you in this area before making the decision to hire you.
Having lunch with a prospective employee also gives the employer the opportunity to evaluate interpersonal skills. When business is conducted in a boardroom or an office, both parties tend to get down to business right away with little small talk beforehand. But over a meal it’s different. Small talk is important and is more like a conversation than a question and answer format. So unless everyone is pressed for time, the work portion of the meal may be left until dessert and coffee although you should follow the interviewer’s lead and listen closely for when they wish to switch from casual conversation to more targeted questions about the job.
What are the basics everyone should know?
1. Arrive 15 minutes early. Plan to arrive early and wait for your hosts near the front of the restaurant. And if you don’t already know what they look like, check them out on LinkedIn or their company web page so that you recognize them and can call them by name when they arrive.
2. When ordering, take the lead from your host. Ask them what they would recommend and then select from that list. It gives you a sense of what price point they have in mind too. If they order soup and salad, for example, it would be inappropriate for you to order an appetizer and an expensive steak. Alternatively, if you know the restaurant you’re going to, check out the menu online first so you can decide in advance what you’re going to order.
3. Always consider how easy a food will be to eat before ordering. You don’t want your meal to be a distraction and worse yet, you don’t want to run the risk of it spilling on your clothes. Always choose something that is light and easy to eat with a fork and knife, like fish and grilled vegetables or tossed salad. Avoid the more arduous foods (like spaghetti), foods you must eat with your fingers (like a big, messy sandwich), and food that may get stuck in your teeth (like spinach).
4. Do not order alcohol even if your host orders some. While you might feel this is being impolite to your host, if they order a drink and you do not, you should never feel obligated or pressured to consume alcohol. Besides, it’s just smart to avoid it altogether in an interview setting.
5. Always be super-polite to the wait staff. An observant employer will be watching to see how you interact with your server. Never disrespect servers. Always listen to them, ask their advice on menu items, and say “please” and “thank you” as much as you can.
6. Mind your manners. Having good table manners might give you an advantage over other candidates. There are a host of things to remember. Some are obvious like don’t speak with your mouth full, don’t point with your fork and wait until everyone has been served before starting to eat your meal. Others are a bit more obscure like using the right utensils, placing them correctly when you’re finished, and eating soup by bringing it to your mouth instead of leaning over the bowl. And don’t forget BMW –
B – Bread is on your left;
M – Meal is in the middle;
W – Water (or wine) is on your right
The employer invited you to lunch so they pick up the tab. Don’t think that if you pay that it will improve your chances of being hired. As the bill is being paid and lunch is wrapping up, make sure you discuss next steps to find out what’s next. And don’t forget to thank your host for their time and their interest. And for the lunch!
Gerald Walsh is an executive recruiter, career coach, public speaker and writer. During a 25+ year career, he has interviewed more than 10,000 job candidates, completed hundreds of successful searches for a range of organizations and guided many individuals – from young professionals to senior executives – to successful career change. He is the author of “PINNACLE: How to Land the Right Job and Find Fulfillment in Your Career.” You can follow Gerry on Twitter @@Gerald_Walsh and LinkedIn