May 30, 2011

Ordering at the interview bar

Filed under: Interviewing, Readers' Forum

In the May 31, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks how to handle job interviews… in a restaurant or bar:

The company I’ve been talking with informed me that our next interview will be at a nearby bar where we can all sit down and relax. The manager also mentioned that he and his group will have some specific questions this time. (In the first interview, I listened more than I talked.) What’s the protocol for interviewing in a public place? I guess they want to see how I act and how I would fit in. Can you offer any Do’s and Don’ts for a “relaxed” bar interview?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

There is some conventional wisdom about interviewing over a meal or over a drink. All of it assumes such a meeting is a clever ruse where the employer is watching your manners and your eating habits, and possibly trying to get you “loosened up” so they can find out what you’re really like.

I caution you: Don’t make any of these assumptions. It’s a business meeting. Be businesslike.

A long time ago someone taught me to take others at face value and to always assume the best. It’s good advice. If it turns out someone is playing games with you, that should be enough to tell you what kind of people they are — and that you probably want nothing to do with them. As long as you are honest and sincere in your words and actions, the burden is on the other guy to act the same. I’ve found this personal policy works very well. If someone screws with me after I give him the benefit of the doubt, I never deal with him again. Word gets around.

Be yourself. Don’t get caught up in the meaning behind the interview location. Do what you would normally do in an interview. (If you don’t feel comfortable in bars, say so and ask for a change of venue.) If you are a woman and the interviewers are all guys and the bar is questionable, use your judgment and trust your instincts.

Order what you want to eat, but don’t spend too much of their money. Use common sense and be polite.

Don’t follow suit. If the boss orders beer but you don’t drink beer, don’t order beer. If you want seltzer, order seltzer. Don’t be someone you’re not…

(…This is the missing part… Sorry, but you must subscribe to the newsletter to get the entire Answer and Commentary in the newsletter… Don’t wait til next week… Sign up now… it’s free!)

…Respect yourself and respect the employer. No games. Discuss whatever they want to discuss as long as you’re comfortable with it. Hopefully, they want to talk about the work. If you’re the one introducing topics, talk about the work. Contribute whatever information you think will help them see how you will do the job profitably for the company, and how you will fit into their social environment.

If you and they don’t fit together, this is the time to find out. If the meeting gets weird, order take-out.

Do the rules change when your interview is in a restaurant? How about in a bar? Have you had such interviews? How did you handle them?

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15 Comments on “Ordering at the interview bar”
By Lorraine T
May 31, 2011 at 5:22 am

Interviews over a meal or drinks can also be cultural. I work in France and it’s common practice to have a 2nd or 3rd interview over lunch or dinner, if you are a candidate they are interested in. All of your advice applies! The only thing I would add is to not drink alchohol if your interviewers are not – and if they do drink alchohol, then only participate if you are truly able to limit your consumption to 1-2 drinks.

By P. Miller
May 31, 2011 at 9:18 am

A former client,the EVP/CFO of a $ billion company, interviewed candidates at Saturday brunch on the patio of Hooter’s. There was no hidden agenda. He thought that if he was working on Saturday why not on a lovely patio with food he liked and pretty young women waiting tables.It was definitely a business meeting even if the locale was non-traditional.
Putting aside strong feelings about Hooter’s (please)I would tell candidates if they were offended, don’t go.It was his ballpark and his rules.
If the culture of a company offends you do not go to work for them.It is unlikely that they will change to suit you.

By John Zabrenski
May 31, 2011 at 9:19 am

How things have changed. In the early 80s I would often host candidates for entry level Engineering positions. The hosting job was assigned to young engineers who were there for one or two years. It was easy duty. You delivered the candidtates to the interviews with the hiring managers, and took them out for dinner afterward. Being young and in possession of a company credit card andunconcerned with mortality left it’s mark on the bar bill.
As far as I can tell, there was no correlation between the number of drinks consumed and the job offer. Most got offers.
Since we were allowed and encourged to bring our spouses to dinner lest they get mad at staying home alone, they served as designated drivers.

By Nick Corcodilos
May 31, 2011 at 10:27 am

I don’t think that bar/restaurant interviews are a bad thing. But I do think that both the employer and the candidate can waste the meeting by letting turn too social and casual. For a strong candidate, I think it’s a good opportunity to get an edge over the competition — assuming the employer is really there to talk shop. (As John Z points out, such meetings can turn into pure fun, even today. Don’t get lost in that. Remember that your objective is to get an offer.) Enjoy the social setting, but keep the focus on the work. I think that’s what makes a good employer remember you.

By Kimberly Schneiderman
May 31, 2011 at 10:31 am

Love the advice – straightforward and easy to follow. Just tweeted it!

Also love the other readers’ stories. Thank you for making me laugh this morning!

By Diana O
May 31, 2011 at 11:22 am

This type of interview is becoming more common, whether it’s lunch during the interview at the potential employer’s site, or snacks and drinks after hours at a bar.

I have one thing to add to everyone else’s advice: Eat *before* you go. If it’s either a “stress interview” and they don’t give you a chance to eat, or if you just really get along and talk non-stop, it’s probably better if you are not extremely hungry when you go to the interview.

One company who interviewed me last year provided lunch, but with three people firing questions at me, I had no chance to eat more than a few bites! Fortunately, I had eaten a big breakfast, so a few bites of salad were not a hardship. I’ve spoken to others that have also been provided food, but also too many questions to allow eating very much. The interviewers apologized for the compressed lunch time. I said, “Oh, it’s fine! Don’t worry about it.” This was the correct response; in their environment, being flexible and pleasant is very important. I must have done ok–I got an offer from them, but did not accept, due to a better offer from another company.

If you have not checked up on past interviews for your potential employer, check out Glassdoor.com, and search for the company name. Many companies have reviews, salary information, and interview questions posted. I’ve found this site very useful to prepare for both the interview–and the offer. (And no, I don’t work for them!)

Good Luck!
Diana O

By Diana O
May 31, 2011 at 12:35 pm

PS: Great article, Nick!!

By Suzanne
June 1, 2011 at 10:02 am

I have heard that some companies think they can judge a person’s character by the way the candidate treats the wait staff. I suppose it’s good advise for dating, but in a business setting it feels like game playing.

By Steve H
June 2, 2011 at 12:53 pm

Suzanne: Why go to a bar when they can judge how you treat the folks at the reception desk of their offices?

Generally, I’ve found restaurants and bars to be noisy and distracting and try to encourage having the interview in their office. If I can’t, I just run with what they suggest. You have your own topics to cover and answers for their questions ready anyway.

I don’t drink, but I agree with Nick, focus on the goal, not the moment.

Diana: Glassdoor.com was a nice suggestion for reference material. Thanks.

By rkc
June 10, 2011 at 10:14 am

I know I am coming into this late — hectic couple of weeks.

I always include several meals during the interview process. They help me evaluate how candidates will perform in real situations as well as give me (the employer) a leg up in attracting the best candidate. Typically I will set it up an interview with:

1) A business breakfast. Candidate picked up at hotel and breakfast in hotel with manager and another senior person. I am evaluating ability to handle this situation because it happens often.

2) Lunch with colleagues. How well will candidate get along with current personnel in fast-paced discussions ranging from work to personal hobbies in rapid fire. Helps with recruitment (person sees potential colleagues in less formal setting) and allows evaluation of how well they can provide information in a less formal setting.

3) Informal dinner. Usually only with people in same “peer” group. This is primarily a recruitment tool. Candidate sees colleagues as real people with real hobbies and lives outside of work. It is still part of the evaluation though. The people at the meal will be evaluating whether this is someone we would want in the organization as someone you are going to be around 40+ hours per week. Also, can the person handle him/herself. Getting drunk would not be viewed positively since it would have the potential for the person to make the organization look bad in the future.

By Nick Corcodilos
June 10, 2011 at 10:37 am

@rkc: Thanks for posting an actual agenda for interviewing over meals. I wonder what others think about this. The way you describe it, it makes me want to be a candidate at your company.

The question is, Why? Maybe others see this differently, but I see a friendly approach here, while restaurant interviews normally give me the willies.

Do others see this? What is it about the way rkc describes it?

Finally, rkc, what other kinds of interviews do you do at your company, to get at the candidate’s ability to do the work? Or, do you do that assessment during the meals, too?

Thanks again for posting this — nice to see it from a manager’s perspective.

By rkc
June 10, 2011 at 2:44 pm

The meals are part of the overall interview, but certainly not the whole process. These all occur within the 24-36 hour period of the on-site interview.

Prior to being invited for an on-site interview, a candidate will have at least two phone interviews with two different people within the group. The resume will be scrutinized not just for experience, but to see if we can identify anyone in our groups personal networks who might know you. Those overlaps will be contacted. (The vast majority of people that make it to the phone interview stage were referred by someone in-network anyway.) No commonality doesn’t disqualify a candidate. But, we will need to work harder to get to know you. (I have two excellent people in my group who came in out-of-the-blue. They wowed us during the interview and are still wowing us.)

Once a candidate has made it through the phone interview process, they progress to the on-site interview. Generally, we fly the person out and put them up in a local hotel. We meet the person at 6 am for the “discussion over breakfast”. After breakfast, we have an hour drive to our work-site. The candidate then spends a full day at the worksite for a day of meetings with a range of people in the organization. Some are one-on-one. Some are multiple person discussions.

The key to those meetings are learning about the candidate and for the candidate to learn about what we do within the organization. I would much rather have someone turn down the position because it isn’t a good, interesting environment for them than to have to go through another search in 6 months.

Also during the day, the candidate will have to give a seminar on some past technical project they have worked on. Depending upon the person’s level, this ranges from a 20 minute seminar to 45 minute seminar. Questions are asked. Including questions that have no business being asked in order for us to judge how well the candidate can defer.

At the end of the day, there is another hour drive back to the hotel, where they have an hour or so to prepare for dinner. It is a long day.

By rkc
June 10, 2011 at 2:59 pm

On the topic of process being friendly….

The whole interview is friendly. Thorough, but friendly. We view the candidate as being a co-worker. Or at least a potential co-worker. There is no need for bullying tactics or being unnecessarily distant or biting (the questions are inappropriate — perhaps unrelated to the presentation or information that the individual could not have known, but never “mean-spirited”). You shouldn’t be treating a candidate and differently than you would treat co-worker. Either better or worse. The person needs to make an informed decision about taking the position (if offered) just as the group needs to make an informed decision as to whether to offer the person a position. There shouldn’t be any surprises/shocks the first few weeks on the job.

By Anonymous Worker
June 10, 2011 at 6:09 pm

It sounded friendly until I got to the 6 AM part for breakfast.

About 40% of the population are not “early birds” but are instead “night owls.” Some of us don’t function that well at 6 AM and I am one of those people, unfortunately for me, because I am not in the majority here. And yes, I have learned to cope with an early work start time, but I plan critical tasks for after 9:00 AM, and take care of planning and email before then.

Interviewing at 6:00 AM in a hotel dining room sounds like one of Dante’s levels of “Heck” to me.

Just my $.02.

Anon Night Owl

By rkc
June 17, 2011 at 12:36 am

Before I started, I thought there was no way I could adjust to an early schedule. But, the opportunity was good and people I respected told me that I would adapt, and I have. Don’t under-estimate your ability to adapt.

The early start is realistic for my organization. Our “flex-time” isn’t that flexible. You can start anytime between 6:30 am and 7:30 am. Plus, it is an hour drive from where most people live. We also have the occasional very early meeting (4 or 5 am). One of the disadvantages of being a small part of an organization with HQ’s on the east coast. (They tend to forget/not care about the time zone changes.) Of course, the advantage is that we are 2500 miles+ away from our HQ’s. ;-)

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