Eat Your Way to a Winning Job Interview

Eat Your Way to a Winning Job Interview

Taunee Besson, CMF, Senior Columnist

Problem: Last week's column told the story of the reluctant Tom Miller, who sat looking at the email he'd received from a Fortune 1000 company about an opening to become their CIO. After a successful preliminary interview, the company's executive team decided to extend an invitation to him, his wife and daughter to spend a long weekend visiting them in Dallas.

Tom had mixed feelings about the trip. He was enthusiastic about the company and getting a new job, but not about the prospect of so much conversation over food, especially with his wife and teenage daughter in attendance.

Solution: If you find yourself in a similar situation, here are some tips that should help you (and your family) turn a mealtime job interview into a resounding success:

  • Downplay Dietary Preferences
  • Even if you're a vegetarian, have allergies to certain foods or are trying a low-carb diet, keep your dietary preferences low-key. While you may be trying to avoid eating more than 40 grams of fat per day, your interviewer doesn't need to know this. You don't want to make them feel guilty for ordering bacon, eggs or a cheese Danish during a breakfast job interview. Find something on the menu you can eat, or quietly ask the waiter to substitute fruit for fries, etc. Food martyrs can be most unpleasant company.

  • Avoid Exotic or Messy Menu Choices
  • Food should enhance your conversation, not detract from it. Order a dish that doesn't require twirling, cracking, digging, sawing, picking or finger licking, and avoid appetizers and entrees that splash, squirt, crunch, drip, form viscous strings or roll around on your plate. Unless you've raised eating lobster to an art form that astounds all who are privileged to bear witness to it, if you want to look like a professional, order something else.

    That said, if you're invited to a casual meet-and-greet like a backyard barbecue, accept that hamburgers and ribs are inherently messy. Being scared of grease on your clothes will just set you apart from the crowd, so dig in and enjoy. If your interviewer is covered in sauce and you aren't, you'll look out of place.

  • When in Doubt, Follow the Interviewer
  • When ordering an appetizer or dessert, or choosing an appropriately-priced entree, use your interviewer's actions as a guide to what is and isn't appropriate. If the hiring manager raves about the beef salad as a great starter, chances are you can order an appetizer as well as an entree. If execs from a prospective employer are all ordering chicken and you'd planned to get the New York Strip, pick a less expensive option instead. If your interviewer insists the waiter bring the dessert menu, it's okay to have one.

    Most hosts understand that their guests will look to them for guidance. In fact, your interviewer's effort to make you comfortable is one of the characteristics you can use to evaluate them. A good boss creates a supportive environment for subordinates, both in and out of the office.

  • To Drink or Not to Drink?
  • For the most part, the days of the three-martini lunch are long gone. Yet the option to order wine, a cocktail or beer during a lunch or dinner job interview can still be an issue. The best rule of thumb for these situations is simple: When in doubt, don't order booze. And if you do, stick to one round, or two at the most (for longer meals). The last thing you need is impaired judgment or slurred speech when trying to convince a prospective employer to offer you a job.

    Should your potential employer drink too much, however, discreetly ask the restaurant to call them a cab. Your interviewer isn't your friend yet – it's not your responsibility to take their keys.

  • Brush Up on Your Table Manners
  • Since the tradition of elaborate family dinners has been replaced by quick meals on-the-go, most job seekers don't have any idea about how to use many of the utensils featured in a fancy meal. Some people pick this information up, but many don't. If you're stumped by table etiquette, don't worry – you're not alone. However, if you're asked to interview at a fine restaurant where fish forks and finger bowls are de-rigueur, ignorance is no excuse.

    If you're applying for a job that requires you to attend fancy meals, there are professionals who can help you master the intricacies of table etiquette. In fact, some companies may even pay for you to learn this, so you can close deals at the Four Seasons as well as at TGI Fridays. Another option is to check out a book like Corporate Protocol: A Brief Case for Business Etiquette by Valerie Grant-Sokolosky.

  • Thank You For Smoking?
  • Finally, there's smoking. Lighting up during a job interview is largely a thing of the past, but if you live in one of the remaining states to allow smoking in restaurants, there are a few rules to follow. First, whatever your feelings are about this controversial habit, the less you say about your love or hatred of "cancer sticks," the better. Never, ever smoke (or even reveal that you're a smoker) unless your interviewer lights up first. If you're a rabid anti-smoking activist and your prospective employer asks for a table in the smoking section, grin and bear it.

    However, if you're allergic to smoke and you'll have a coughing/sneezing fit around cigarettes, it's okay to request a non-smoking table. As smoking becomes an increasingly private habit, chances are no one will expect you to accommodate their smoking preferences. Then again, forcing your interviewer to go outside to smoke won't exactly help your chances of getting the job, either.

Senior Columnist Taunee Besson, CMF, is president of Career Dimensions, Inc., a consulting firm founded in 1979 that works with individual and corporate clients in career transition, job search, executive coaching, talent management and small business issues. She is an award-winning columnist for and a best-selling author of the Wall Street Journal's books on resumes and cover letters. Her articles on a variety of career issues have appeared on numerous career/job websites and trade and business journals. Ms. Besson has been quoted numerous times in The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Business Week, Time, Smart Money, and a number of other websites and publications.

Career Topics
Job Interviews