The Job Doc Blog

Etiquette for Dining with Potential Employers

Q. I am interviewing regularly with no offers yet, but I think I am getting close. I was asked to have lunch with two people from the group I hope to join, and the hiring manager. I know not to order spaghetti, but what else do I need to know about meeting three people over food, so I can turn lunch into a job offer.

Many important interactions happen over food, and you are wise to consider what to choose from the menu. The message that is often associated with an invitation to interview over food is “we like you, and now we want to get to know you even better”. So take the opportunity seriously, and as with any meeting you are invited to, do your research. If you know where you will be going, check out the menu in advance. Select something that looks easy to eat, doesn’t have red drippy sauce, and isn’t something others would be appalled to see you order? (not the time for liver and onions, or steak tartare).

I consulted with Jean Papalia, owner of A+ Etiquette in Boston, who provides business protocol programs. Through 25 years of experience working with employers and job candidates, Jean has found that dining etiquette skills are an essential part of our business culture and a blunder can cost you a job or lose a client. Employers need to know they can trust you to represent their organization in any dining or business-social situation.

Papalia suggests that before you go to that business lunch, you brush up on your dining etiquette skills so that you will be confident and comfortable. “You want your interviewers to pay attention to what you bring to the table (i.e. your skills and experience) not what you are doing at the table.”

Though Jean has a comprehensive list of etiquette tips the keys seem to start from knowing which utensils are yours. Forks are to the left of your plate, (clue - 4 letters in fork and 4 in left).
Remember BMW – Bread plate is on the left, meal in the middle, and water/drinks on the right.

As far as what to order, you can ask your host for recommendations, such as “What do you like? Or do you have a favorite dish?” Whatever you order, this is not the time to experiment with new foods. If you’ve never had oysters, just move on to something that you know will be safe and easy to eat. Do not order alcohol at lunch, even if your hosts do. If wine is served with dinner, consider half a glass or none.

And some basics that we know you know but just for others, don’t talk with your mouth full and always chew with your mouth closed. Covering your mouth with your hand while you talk and chew is not acceptable. Cut food one piece at a time, and make pieces small.

Consider this a business meeting. Meetings don’t start until everyone has the materials, and meals don’t start until everyone has been served. Most often your host may say “bon appetite” to signal everyone to begin. If not, look to your host and follow their lead.

Papalia offers one additional piece of advice about business meals. Do not arrive starving. “It’s NOT about the food! You want your focus to be on the conversation and the relationships you are building, not on the next course.”

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