Not so traditional job interviews, part 2: Lunch, Dinner, and Cocktails

There are many kinds of interviews, and we have covered quite a few of them thus far.  Today we are going to take a trip to your hiring manager’s favorite restaurant or bar and learn about just how similar interviewing for a job is with a drink or a cheeseburger in your hand is to a traditional interview.

Just how similar is it, you ask?

It is a little similar.  And it is completely, totally, and utterly different at the same time.

It is similar to all interviews in that the goal of the interview never changes: the company wants to fill a staffing need and you want to find a job.

That’s about where the similarity ends.  The devil is in the details, and there are a lot of details to an interview in a bar or a restaurant.  Trust me.

Why would a company want to conduct an interview outside the office?  There are a lot of reasons, but we’ll drill down into four significant ones:

  • First, you may not be able to get your schedules to align during working hours, and the hiring manager may simply find it easier to interview you outside the normal workday.
  • Second, it may be a small company.  Small companies often don’t have hiring managers, or may not even have managers at all.  Small business owners may be busy running their businesses during normal hours and the only way they can squeeze interviews in is to meet with you for a meal or a drink.
  • Third, the company may still be feeling you out.  The interviewing process is often a lengthy one that may begin with a phone call that is followed by a lunch meeting and then, if things go well, a more formal interview at the firm.
  • Fourth, the company may be seeing what kind of person you are outside the formal interviewing arena.  They want to observe your manners, your social awareness, etiquette, etcetera.  This is particularly the case for positions that place the employee in the public’s view, because the firm doesn’t want to hire a caveman to represent them in the business world.  It is also an opportunity for the company to evaluate how well you will fit into their culture by observing you in a social environment.

Regardless of the circumstance under which you find yourself in this type of interview, the most important thing to remember is that you are being observed, evaluated, and judged from the second you meet up to the second that you leave.  Don’t forget it!

The best way to proceed with an interview at a restaurant is to treat it like a date.  You don’t want to look like an idiot in front of a prospective significant other, and you certainly don’t want to look like an idiot in front of a potential employer.  This type of interview is one where you can really make a knockout impression or have the opposite effect of making the person across the table run screaming out the door.

The choice is yours.

The basics in dating apply to lunch or dinner with a hiring manager.  Dress nicely, just as you would for an interview, show up a few minutes early, and double check yourself in your car’s rearview mirror before you get out of the car.  It is always embarrassing to find out after it is all over that your necktie was crooked or that your was hair is sticking up like Don King’s.

You should also do a little homework about the restaurant before you go.  Look at their menu online, and decide what you would like ahead of time.  The hiring manager probably uses the restaurant routinely and knows exactly what to order and it will be awkward for you if you are stumped by what to order when the waiter shows up.  I recommend that you order a salad because it is easy to eat with a knife and fork (not your hands!) and will not put you in the awkward position of trying to eat the world’s greasiest cheeseburger without making a mess out of yourself in front of your interviewer.

That brings me to a significant point about military people, food, and table manners.  Most military folks view consuming food as a method of calorie loading: we need to feed the machine to keep the machine going.  We eat too fast, talk while we eat, and generally just shovel it in, starting on one side of the plate and stopping when we run out of food on the other side.  Not only is this not a way to impress a date, it is certainly not a way to impress an interviewer.

Remember your manners: be polite to everyone (including your server!), use the proper utensils (don’t eat everything with your spoon because of years and years of experience eating rations with the issued plastic spoon), and SLOW DOWN!  A good rule of thumb is to take a bite, chew it at least ten times, swallow, and then take another bite.  Take small bites and pace how quickly you eat your meal with the interviewer.  You will be talking through the meal, and it is quite embarrassing to try to answer a question right after you shove half of a steak into your gaping maw.  To help with this, try paying attention to yourself the next time you eat alone — I’ll bet you will be surprised at how much the military lifestyle has affected your table manners as you mow down French fries like a belt fed machine gun.

Treat your interviewer with the same deference and respect as you would a date.  Allow them to be seated first, and follow their lead in ordering.  Avoid alcohol and drink sparkling water or iced tea.  Remember, you are being evaluated through the entire process, and if they sense that you are a three martini lunch kind of person then you will likely find yourself pursuing an interview with another company.

Place your napkin in your lap and keep your elbows off the table.  As with a date, it is a good idea to have some topics of conversation ready.  Lunch and dinner interviews tend to be a bit more informal and social, and the hiring manager is feeling you out to see if you are a social match with the company in addition to asking about your skills.  Remember the rules of the military mess: do not discuss politics, religion, or sex. Any one of those topics will be a guaranteed job loser.  Even if the interviewer initiates a conversation on one of those topics do your absolute best to steer the discussion back to the company and your interest in working there.  One thing that may help is reading the newspaper before you go to the interview or listening to the news on the radio in order to have something to chat about when you need to fill some time.

Here are a couple of other do’s and don’ts:  don’t complain about the food (do you want to look like a whiner?), don’t get a to-go box for your uneaten food (you will look cheap), don’t order dessert unless the interviewer does, and lastly do be both appreciative and gracious when he or she picks up the tab.  It is assumed that the company is paying the bill, but it is good form to be thankful for the free lunch or dinner that you just enjoyed.

So there are some tips for an interview over a meal, but what about an interview in a bar or lounge?  That is again similar, but also different.

Think of being interviewed in a bar as the same as running through a minefield in your underwear — it can be both embarrassing and potentially lethal for your career.  You can do just fine, however, if you treat it as an interview the entire time you are in the bar.  My recommendation is to order one drink and nurse it all night.  The best drink to order is a Gin and Tonic because you can just keep topping it off with tonic or soda water and nobody will ever know.  Keep the conversation clean and on topic, and even if the interviewer gets hammered don’t give into temptation to join him down the boozy trail!

You may be interviewed in a bar for the same reasons as you would be for a meal, but now you have the added factor of involving alcohol.  This is a big deal because we all act differently after a few shots of loudmouth juice.  Here how an interview at a bar can change everything:

A prospective employee spends an afternoon interviewing with a company.  He meets people at varying levels of the company and impresses them all with his savvy demeanor and job skills.  So much so, he thinks, that they invite him out for drinks after work.

While having a few cocktails he shifts out of “jobseeker” mode and back into “military” mode, complete with a liberal sprinkling of the “F” bomb and barracks humor.  He had a great time, but was very surprised when he was informed that he would not be working at the company.

The trip to the bar was part of the interview.  They wanted to see what the interviewee was like outside the office, and they learned enough to know that he was not someone that they wanted in their firm.  He blew his shot because he was not savvy enough to see that rule number one of interviewing is that the interview is not over until you start working at the company or they tell you to go away.

Now that is a lesson worth learning.

__________

Lessons Learned:

1.  You are being evaluated the entire time that you are being interviewed, from the moment you walk into the restaurant until the moment you leave.  There are many more things to get wrong in this environment, so limit your possible mistakes by preparing before you go.  Check the restaurant location and menu online before you leave home.

2.  Be ready for some chitchat, but stay away from politics, religion, and sex.

3.  Be polite to everyone.  The interviewer will notice if you are a jerk to the waiter and you will NOT get a job offer.  I guarantee it.

4.  Eat a salad.  Avoid the Monster Burger.

5.  Manners, manners, manners!  Slow down.  Bite, chew, swallow, repeat.  Don’t shovel in your chow like it is the last MRE you will ever eat.

6.  Be gracious and don’t forget to mention how much you enjoyed lunch or dinner in your thank-you note.

7.  If alcohol is involved, order one drink and nurse it.  Keep the barracks language and humor at the barracks.  It has no place in the business world.

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2 responses to “Not so traditional job interviews, part 2: Lunch, Dinner, and Cocktails

  1. As always, this is outstanding advice. I’ve interviewed and hired dozens of geologists over the past forty-plus years. Perhaps half that number were hired for a large independent energy company in Houston, where I was the exploration manager for a division. After an initial experience, I never again let the HR department become involved. These new hires were going to impact my team’s success, and that was my responsibility.

    HR had this wonderful idea that all new hires would have to pass a psychological exam. Well, after three or four outstanding candidates flunked, I looked at the exam and concluded that I couldn’t pass it. I asked the President of the company to exempt me from this requirement, and he did. So I hired the most recent flunkee, a 4.0 GPA geologist with dual master’s degrees in geology and engineering. My intuition proved correct, and this guy was extremely good. He passed muster based on the criteria cited above too.

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