Interviews are nerve-wracking enough when you’re not worried about ordering faux pas or spinach in your teeth. Taunee Besson, career transitions expert and President and Principal Consultant at Dallas-based Career Dimensions, has some excellent pointers for how to handle yourself in a range of situations when you’re invited to interview over a meal.. — Maurice Gilbert
Tom Miller sat looking at the message he’d received from a Fortune 1000 company, who was interested in him for its newly-created position of Vice President of Information. After a successful preliminary interview, its executive team had decided to extend an invitation to him, his wife and daughter to spend a long weekend in Dallas. This trip would give the Millers a chance to become better acquainted with the company’s management, their families and homes and a few well-known haunts (including the CEO’s backyard) known for Texas hospitality.
Tom had mixed feelings about the trip. He was very enthusiastic about the company and the position, but he wasn’t too excited about the proposition of so much conversation over food, especially with his wife and teenage daughter in attendance. Although he was used to talking regularly with top executives in his company, he was more comfortable meeting over charts and graphs in a conference room than veal piccata in a fancy restaurant. He didn’t know if this discomfort with talking business while eating came from his small-town upbringing or his preference to converse with computers rather than people, but it was a discomfort he couldn’t ignore. To complicate the situation, his spouse had her own career and was not a good candidate for playing the role of “the dutiful corporate wife.” And his daughter was an unknown quantity who could be tremendously charming or a female version of Beavis. Yet both of them seemed intrigued by the opportunity to get to know the city, its lifestyle and his potential company better. Filled with a combination of enthusiasm and trepidation, Tom called the CEO to say he and his family would be delighted to visit for a few days at the end of the month.
Perhaps you have received or extended such an invitation yourself because companies are exhibiting an increasing concern about getting to know potential employees thoroughly before they extend them an offer. They also recognize it’s a smart policy to assure the candidate that s/he and the family will find a welcoming new home when they relocate. Interviewing over breakfast, lunch, dinner or a weekend barbecue is a good way to talk business in a collegial environment while keeping an eye on your dining partner’s social savvy. One can tell a lot about a person by the way s/he eats.
Of course, humans have been eating their way to lasting relationships since they started gathering in tribes. Breaking bread together has been the catalyst for signing treaties, sealing deals, starting businesses and solidifying teams for thousands of years. As the social lubricant that greases the wheels of commerce, meals often provide the venue for determining whether we get the job or the contract, or don’t. Consequently, whether we enthusiastically or reluctantly embrace the agenda behind the power lunch, we need to accept it, if we plan to be players in the economic game.
Should you find yourself unhappily eyeing an email like Tom’s, here are some tips that should get you (and your family) through that meal with the savoir-faire of Miss Manners.
To Smoke or Not to Smoke?
Whatever your feelings about this controversial habit, the less said and done the better. Never smoke unless your companion lights up first. If you are an avid non-smoker and your lunch partner asks for a table in the smoking section, grin and bear it. If you are allergic to smoke and you’ll have a coughing/sneezing fit if seated among smokers, diplomatically request a non-smoking table and watch the reaction of your host. If he quickly acquiesces, your relationship may have a chance. If he’s obviously annoyed, he probably insists on a smoking environment at work as well.
To Drink or Not to Drink?
For the most part, the day of the three-martini lunch is long gone thanks to the IRS and MADD. Yet the option to order wine or a cocktail can still be an issue. The best rule of thumb is: when in doubt, don’t. If you do, confine yourself to one round, or two at the most, if it’s a long meal. The last thing you need is impaired judgment or a hyperbolized sense of your knack for clever repartee.
Should your potential employer drink too much, discreetly suggest to the restaurant management that they call him a cab. It’s not your responsibility to take his keys. He’s not your friend yet. And, given his initial behavior, it’s unlikely you will want him to be.
When in Doubt, Take Your Cue from Your Host
When ordering an appetizer or dessert or choosing an appropriately-priced entree, use your host as a guide. If he is raving about the beefsteak tomato and mozzarella salad as a great start for your meal, he’s going to select an appetizer as well as an entree. If he’s ordering chicken and you have been salivating over the chateaubriand, choose a less expensive option. If he insists the waiter bring the dessert menu, he wants you to have one.
Most hosts understand their guests are looking to them for guidance. In fact, your host’s effort to make you comfortable in a somewhat awkward situation is one of the characteristics on which you may choose to evaluate him. Both good hosts and good bosses recognize the value of a supportive environment.
Avoid Exotic or Messy Menu Choices
Food should enhance your conversation, not detract from it. Select a meal that doesn’t require twirling, cracking, digging, sawing, picking or finger licking, and avoid appetizers and entrees that splash, squirt, crunch, drip, form viscous strings or roll around on your plate. Unless you have raised eating lobster to an art form and watching your culinary ballet will only serve to increase your reputation as the consummate professional, order the sole.
Now, about that backyard barbecue…Hamburgers and ribs are inherently messy. Being nit-picky about getting greasy will only serve to set you apart from the crowd. Dig in and enjoy. If you aren’t covered in sauce, you’ll look out of place.
Downplay Dietary Preferences
Many professionals are vegetarians. Others may have allergies to certain foods or want to maintain a low-fat diet. If your food options are limited, keep your preferences low-key. Although you may be trying to avoid eating more than 40 grams of fat per day, your breakfast companion doesn’t need to be privy to this information, nor do you want to make her feel guilty for ordering bacon, eggs and home fries with a cheese danish on the side. Find something on the menu you can eat, or quietly ask the waiter to substitute fruit for fries. Food martyrs can be most unpleasant company.
Brush Up on Your Table Manners
While we often ribbed my mother during large family dinners about being more interested in the abundance of silverware than the quantity of food, most siblings don’t have a weekly drill on which of seven utensils to use for what. Some people pick this information up along the way. Others don’t. If you are befuddled by table etiquette, you are not alone. However, as with our American system of law, ignorance of appropriate manners is no excuse. Should the thought of eating at a fine restaurant, where fish forks and finger bowls are de rigueur, make you long for a can of chicken noodle soup and a big spoon, take heart. There are numerous professionals who make their living teaching grownups how to master the intricacies of whether to use a spoon or fork with English trifle. In fact, many companies will pay for you to learn this information so you can close a deal at the Four Seasons with uncommon aplomb. (If one of these consultants isn’t available to you, you might consider reading Corporate Protocol: A Brief Case for Business Etiquette by Valerie Grant-Sokolosky.)
Why Must I Interview Over Lunch?
Aside from the camaraderie dining lends to an occasion, two other important issues also take their place at the table. If you have been asked to interview over food with one or more of your potential managers or colleagues, you will be evaluated on how you handle yourself in a social situation. This is also true for your family. Many positions require entertaining or deal-making away from the office. Being a good negotiator isn’t enough if you don’t know how to conduct yourself properly in a social setting. Often your spouse will also play a role in entertaining clients or accompanying you to conventions or large corporate meetings. Management wants to see that he or she will be active in supporting your career and can hold her own in pleasant conversation for several hours over dinner. While children don’t rate such careful scrutiny, there may be a perceived correlation between raising well-behaved children and building an effective team. If you think this thinly-veiled excuse for running you and your family through a social gauntlet is anachronistic and inappropriate, look for employment in an organization where social discourse is not part of the job, but be prepared to severely limit your choices.
The other major issue for your lunch is deciding whether you and this organization would be a good match. Employment, not the best steak in town, is the real reason you are meeting. Before you head for the restaurant, put together the questions you need to ask and the achievements you want to cover. Should the conversation begin to wander too far from its original purpose, referring to your predetermined agenda will help you and your companion do the work you both intended. Then, by the time you are lingering over coffee, you will have decided if you want to frequent Arturo’s as the new VP of Information for Acme, Inc.
A Final Note
Please ignore the previous paragraph if a non-American asks you to dine with him. Executives from many other countries think talking business during a meal is uncivilized. With a citizen of the world, it’s wise to confine your conversation to more general subjects unless you want to be labeled “an ugly American.”
Taunee Besson, CMF, is president of Career Dimensions, Inc., a consulting firm founded in 1979, which works with individual and corporate clients in career change; job search; executive, small business and life coaching; college major selection and talent management.
“One of the smartest minds in the career field,” according to Tony Lee (VP of CareerCast Operations at Adicio and former publisher of the Wall Street Journal’s Online Vertical Network), Besson began writing for the Dallas Times Herald in the early 80s. Having read several of her columns, Lee asked her to contribute regular articles to the Journal’s National Business Employment Weekly (NBEW) as well. Since then, she has been a triple award-winning columnist for CareerJournal.com and Senior Columnist for CareerCast.com, as well as WorkingWoman.com and Oxygen.com. At Lee’s request, Besson authored five editions of NBEW’s Premier Guide to Resumes and three of its Premier Guide to Cover Letters. She has also written articles and/or been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Business Week, Time, Smart Money and Yahoo among others.
Taunee has worked on community nonprofit boards and committees for over 30 years including Girls Inc., Women’s Center of Dallas, Girl Scouts and Dallas Women’s Foundation, The Volunteers of America and Mortarboard, among others. She was a member of the Leadership Dallas in 1987 and Leadership America in 2003.