Lunch Interview Tips
In today’s fast-paced workplace, business casual interviews over lunch or coffee are common.
Although lunch interviews are less formal by design, candidates should continue to put diligent thought into their presentation. An interview over lunch or coffee is similar in format to an in-person interview (See Blue Signal’s Top 10 Tips for In-Person Interviews).
Coffee of lunch interviews are a glimpse into how a candidate acts in a less formal setting. They are a common format when a candidate is meeting multiple interviewers in a single day. A company may also conduct a lunch interview near the end of the hiring process when a candidate has already forged a personal connection with the hiring manager.
Follow these 10 tips to prepare for a coffee or business lunch interview:
1. Choose an appropriate outfit.
Depending on the interview location and the type of food the restaurant serves, business formal or business casual may be appropriate.
- Wear a suit or similar professional business attire, as for a standard in-person interview. Ensure that everything fits well and is comfortable to sit and move in. Check the restaurant’s website to get an idea of the formality level.
- Avoid large purses, briefcases, and bulky coats, which can get in the way and look sloppy. Bring as little as possible; at most, a very small pocket notepad and pen for note-taking.
- Wear dark colors in case of any accidental food spills. Bring a stain remover pen tucked discreetly in a pocket, just in case.
- When in doubt, Blue Signal can advise what to wear.
2. Agree on a specific place to meet.
Despite their casual appearance, lunch interviews are often tight on time, and the process of being seated and placing orders eats up a surprising amount of time. Minimize lost time by agreeing exactly where in the restaurant to meet the interviewer, whether in the lobby or at the front door. Look up the menu and mentally select a few potential menu items beforehand to allow more time to focus on the conversation.
3. Come prepared with small talk.
Casual interviews over coffee or a meal often involve more small talk than a formal in-person interview. It pays to come prepared for some small talk while waiting to be seated. Knowing the interviewer’s interests can help in choosing a conversation starter that will build rapport—for instance, asking the interviewer about last night’s game if he has indicated in previous conversation that he is a football fan. In general, topics should be neutral and reflect professionalism.
4. Follow the interviewer’s lead.
Allow the interviewer to lead the way to the table and sit down first. Be open to their suggestions and allow them to lead the conversation. Lunch interviews will generally follow a format that is similar to a standard interview. Take advantage of the less formal setting to connect on a more personal level with the interviewer. A touch of humor is appropriate and goes a long way towards building trust and professional rapport.
5. Avoid alcohol.
Unless the interviewer explicitly includes alcohol as a part of the interview (a Friday evening invitation to a round of drinks with the sales team, for instance), avoid ordering a drink. If the interviewer orders a drink and invites you to as well feel free – no one likes to drink alone – but be extremely guarded about having more than one drink during a one-hour interview. An interview is your time to demonstrate heightened awareness and sharp senses, not interrupting and slurring.
6. Use your best manners.
Social graces are under intense scrutiny during a lunch interview, including interactions with servers, other patrons, bus boys, and the maître d’. Your best manners include:
- Greet everyone with a friendly smile.
- Make eye contact.
- Keep elbows off the table.
- The napkin goes on your lap only after everyone is seated. Leave it on the chair if you get up from the table for any reason, and place it on the table after the meal when dishes have been removed.
- Err on the side of formality. Say please and thank you when interacting with all staff. Be deferential and polite, and handle mistakes and inconveniences with grace.
- Use a fork and knife rather than eating by hand. Break bread into bite-sized pieces, rather than biting off chunks.
- Do not be overly particular about the food or make special orders (food allergies are an exception).
- Do not make a big deal if your order does not come out the way you desired.
- Do not speak with a full mouth. Take small bites to avoid a long pause for chewing.
- Place fork and knife together on the plate at the 4 o’clock position after finished the meal.
7. Order appropriately.
The main goal is a productive interview, not a culinary experience. Candidates should be memorable for their excellent conversation, not for how they ate.
Let the interviewer order first, if possible. Order something similar in price and size. Do not order a porterhouse steak if the interviewer orders a small salad. Select a light and manageable dish that is easy to eat with a knife and fork. Avoid messy or sauce-heavy dishes, such as burgers, spaghetti, wings, or ribs.
Unless the interviewer insists, there is rarely time for dessert. It is preferable to skip dessert and coffee unless the interviewer is adamant, to avoid the appearance of greediness or imposing on the interviewer’s time. Politely decline a doggy bag if one is offered.
8. Build rapport, sell solutions.
Briefly review notes from previous meetings with the interviewer before the food arrives (rule of thumb: paper and food should not be on the table at the same time). This is an opportunity to expand upon previous conversations and demonstrate listening abilities. Even though some of the focus is on social graces, do not become lax or sloppy in answering the interviewer’s questions. Candidates should stay on target when answering questions and consistently emphasize how their skills and experiences will directly contribute to solving the company’s challenges and bottom line.
9. Match the interviewer’s pace.
Match the interviewer’s speed of eating and speaking. One major difference between a lunch interview and a phone or in-person interview is that the interviewee and interviewer each take longer turns answering and asking questions, in order to allow the other to eat. If the interviewer asks too many questions, politely attempt to re-balance the conversation by returning with an open-ended question. If the interviewer monopolizes the conversation, give fuller answers whenever the opportunity presents itself.
10. Make a graceful exit.
Wait for the interviewer to close the conversation and announce that the meal is over. Stand to leave when the interviewer stands, thank the interviewer warmly for their time and for the meal, shake hands firmly, and ask for a business card if they have not already provided one. Walk together to the door, and say goodbye when exiting the restaurant. This will avoid the slightly awkward situation of saying goodbye, only to end up walking in the same direction and needing to say goodbye two or three times.
The goal is to move ahead to the next step and secure the position. This requires the candidate to continue selling their work skills and abilities and building rapport with the interviewer. Read Blue Signal’s Top 10 Tips for In-Person Interviews for examples of specific interview questions that may come up during a lunch interview.