Proper Etiquette for Job Interviews

Job interviews can be stressful enough, especially in today’s tough economic climate when many companies aren’t hiring and people are desperate to find work.

But when a job interview occurs during lunch or dinner that adds another dimension to what can already be a not-so-pleasant encounter for many people.

Suffice it to say there are many do’s and don’ts for lunch or dinner job interviews, and some of them aren’t as obvious as you’d think.

It’s very important to be aware of proper etiquette during lunch or dinner job interviews and to act accordingly. After all it’s an employer’s market, and just one slip up during an interview can mean the continuation of your job search.

One of the big questions is whether it’s appropriate to drink alcoholic beverages during lunch or job interviews. For non-drinkers it’s a non-issue, but for people who imbibe, whether to drink during an interview poses an interesting dilemma. And the situation becomes even stickier when the would-be bosses order a beer or two.

Gary Witherspoon, Deputy Long Island Editor for Newsday, expresses a sentiment felt by many with respect to drinking alcoholic beverages during job interviews: Don’t.

“I believe it is inappropriate for people to drink during lunch or dinner job interviews,” said Witherspoon. “You want to have control of all your faculties so you can be as composed as possible during the conversation.”

In his nearly three decades as a journalist, Witherspoon has been on both sides of the aisle – going to lunch or dinner interviews as a candidate and as a recruiter. He knows sometimes executives order drinks during interviews but said under no circumstances should candidates follow suit. And for non-drinkers who might be encouraged to order a beer or glass of wine, “Simply stating ‘I don’t drink’ should suffice,” he said.

Curtis Dean, Assistant Professor of Business Administration at Livingstone College, a small, private historically black college in Salisbury, N.C., agrees.

“I don’t think it’s proper etiquette for a potential employee to drink during a job interview or prior to a job interview,” Dean said, adding that employers sometimes feel comfortable sharing a drink with employees after they’ve worked at the company awhile.

“But during the interview the job candidate should try to listen carefully to the interviewer and learn about the company’s vision, and this should be done with a clear, focused mind and without ingesting alcohol.”

Of course, whether to drink during a lunch or dinner job interview isn’t the only thing candidates must consider. Job applicants should also be mindful of how they dress, what they say and even what they order.

“The first advice I give young people for interviews is to come prepared …” Witherspoon said. “Recruiters like to see applicants who are organized, eager and aggressive. They should dress professionally, look interviewers in the eye and speak clearly and concisely. They should have a set of questions in mind, including what the job entails and what salary is being offered.”

According to a survey released in February 2010 by, a division of, job candidates often make many outrageous – and costly – mistakes during interviews. In fact, the survey categorized and ranked the mistakes. Dressing inappropriately topped the list at 57 percent. (It even said one candidate wore a business suit and flip flops.)

Other mistakes cited by the more than 2,700 hiring managers interviewed for the survey were:

• Appearing disinterested – 55 percent

• Speaking negatively about a current or previous employer – 52 percent

• Appearing arrogant – 51 percent

• Answering a cell phone or texting during the interview – 46 percent

• Not providing specific answers – 34 percent

• Not asking good questions – 34 percent

Candidates might not be able to think of everything they should or should not do during lunch or dinner interviews. But Witherspoon had a good idea for people who know in advance the restaurant where they’re dining.

“If you have trouble making up your mind, then you should definitely call ahead about the menu,” he said. “You do not want to appear indecisive to someone who is weighing your future.”

Likewise, Witherspoon said it’s probably advisable for candidates to have money on hand in case they have to pick up the tab.

“In the past, I’ve had to pay hotel bills that I expected to be covered by the company,” he said. “While interviewers generally cover the tab, particularly at restaurants, oversights occur and you may have to be reimbursed later.”

People should also be mindful of what they order during lunch or job interviews.

For instance, it’s best to stay away from messy foods like pasta with a lot of sauce, chicken with bones and big sandwiches. It’s also wise not to order the most expensive item on the menu.

And candidates should never talk with their mouths full.

Andrea Shaw, West Bank bureau chief at The Times-Picayune, said job candidates sometimes make the mistake of becoming too relaxed during lunch or dinner interviews, “especially when they are taken by staffers rather than high-ranking executives.”

“Regardless of the audience, it is still an interview and those staffers will report in detail what occurred, as if it was a business meeting,” Shaw said. “While ordering alcohol is a complete no-no, using language that is especially loose, slang or expletive is forbidden.”

Likewise, Shaw said, candidates should always wait until the host, be it an executive or a staffer, begins eating before taking part in the meal – even if the host suggests to the candidate he or she may start first.

“Employers glean not only candidates’ social graces during the course of a meal, but also money management habits,” Shaw said. “If a candidate orders the most expensive item on the menu, it might indicate that he or she will be wasteful with the company’s money. That’s not to say a candidate should be uber-frugal and order a salad and water, but he or she can take cues from the prospective employer.”

The meal is really secondary during lunch or dinner interviews, Shaw suggests.

“The purpose of the meal is to sell yourself and show knowledge of the company, and it’s a time to ask in-depth questions to demonstrate one’s interest in a company and perhaps suggest areas for improvement,” she said. “As a recruiter, I want candidates to show me that they know about my company and my community. Candidates should critique the product, ask questions about marketing and the target audience and question where the company is headed in the future. The strongest candidates are those who are engaging and use the meal as a backdrop to get to know prospective employers and supervisors better.”

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