The good news: you landed an interview for that job you’re interested in. The potentially bad news: your prospective boss wants to conduct the interview over lunch. “Meal interviews” can come about for several reasons. Perhaps the interviewer has an insanely busy schedule and must multi-task by talking with you over lunch. Or the reason could be a bit sneakier—as in, wanting to size up not only your business credentials, but also on your table manners and ability to successfully mix business and pleasure.
This trial run is a legitimate test for candidates who may be doing a lot of these “let’s do lunch” meetings if they secure the job. But no matter the reason for the lunch meeting, the trick to mastering this specific interview is to incorporate the usual blow-them-away techniques with some tips uniquely relevant to mealtime meetings.
Remember mom’s rules. The quickest way to turn off a potential employer is to appall him with your table manners. You probably slack off a bit when you’re at home, so in the meals leading up to the big interview, go back to the basics. Sit up straight, no elbows on the table, put your napkin in your lap, use the proper utensils, etc. And for heaven’s sake, don’t talk with your mouth full. If you have real concerns about your table manners, ask a good friend to dine with you and give you honest feedback.
Choose your food (and drink) wisely. The number one rule of thumb? No alcohol. Even in the unlikely event that your interviewer makes it a martini lunch, stick with water, tea, coffee, or lemonade. Skip the soda and seltzer because belching isn’t exactly professional. When it comes to food, picking the “right” entrée is as tricky as a first-date meal selection. You don’t want to go too cheap—a salad says that you aren’t comfortable—but you also want to stay away from the priciest item on the menu. Because you’re the guest, you’ll probably order first, so you may not be able to depend on the interviewer to set the tone. The best choice is to stick to something middle-of-the-road but easy to eat. Go easy on messy pastas, sauce-covered ribs, or anything that will have a strong aroma.
Juggle food and conversation wisely. The trickiest element of a lunch interview is the balancing act between eating and talking. You’re likely nervous and may be tempted to simply pick at your food, but you want to come across as confident, and that doesn’t happen when you’re pushing chicken around on your plate. The solution is to take small bites so you’re not stuck with 30 seconds of chew time just as you’re asked a question. It’s also wise to avoid shoveling your food in just to get it over with—that’s just begging for hard-to-hide digestive problems.
Finish strong. Just as with a traditional, in-office meeting, let the interviewer set the pace. If she doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to end the conversation after the meal, feel free to order a cup of coffee and keep talking. But pay attention to cues that she wants to wrap it up—asking you whether you have any final questions or looking around madly for the waiter and your check, for example.
Other tips for successfully navigating a meal interview:
Be nice to your server. Your interviewer is looking at all of your behavior to determine whether you’d be a good fit for the company.
No matter how much you dislike what you ordered—or even if you’re served the wrong dish—make an effort to go with the flow. “Unflappable” is always a good impression to give.
Don’t ask for a box at the end of the meal. Regardless of how succulent the steak or how fresh the salmon, a doggie bag makes it hard to take you seriously as a candidate.
Don’t suggest that you pick up the check. It’s never expected and comes off as awkward rather than polite.
Reiterate your interest in the position as you’re saying your farewells.
When sending your follow-up thank you note, don’t forget to thank him for the lovely meal, as well as for his time.
Read more job interview tips.