As workplace conventions become more relaxed, with T-shirts and Converse replacing suits, it may be tempting to consider judging someone’s table manners a relic of the past.
Though you might not lose a job offer for not knowing where the salad fork is, etiquette still matters.
When a hiring manager for a promising position invites you out for a meal or coffee, it’s important to be on your best behavior. But avoiding a faux pas shouldn’t be your sole focus, according to Diane Gottsman, founder of the Protocol School of Texas.
“What they are noticing is your ability to put them at ease,” Gottsman said. “They can see how you handle an awkward moment. That’s what they’re looking for.”
Managers read into a candidate’s behavior throughout the course of a meal, according to Gottsman. This helps them determine characteristics that may help or hurt the interviewee on the job.
Employers often start their observation of a candidate’s mealtime decorum as early as the discussion of what restaurant to choose. Brittany Hodak, an entrepreneur and speaker, shared the unique criteria she uses to determine if a candidate or client will be a good fit before breaking bread with them.
“One of my favorite things to do when we’re setting the meeting is to invite somebody to a quick-serve restaurant,” Hodak told Inc. in 2014. “If you invite somebody to meet you at a Chili’s, for instance, and they say, ‘Absolutely not, I would never go to a Chili’s,’ it’s an easy way to say, ‘You know what, this is probably going to be a very difficult person to work with.'”
In an interview, Hodak noted that people who push back on a quick-serve style restaurant are more likely to “argue about something that doesn’t need to be argued about — and it’s not necessarily because it’s a better idea, it’s just a different idea.”
Hodak, who has a shellfish allergy, also mentioned that people who reject franchise restaurants don’t take into account that their host may have dietary restrictions that trendy restaurants can’t accommodate.
“One of the great things about franchise chain restaurants is that they often have much stricter protocol around allergy preparation,” Hodak said.
Dietary limitations aside, mealtime interviews are also necessary for positions where interactions are likely to happen in casual settings.
“Leaders have to be able to talk to people of all stripes and they have to be able to carry a conversation. You many times will see that at a meal because it’s more casual and you’re not necessarily talking all business,” said C-suite consultant Heidi Pozzo.
Getting job candidates in a more natural situation allows employers to see things that a prospective employee may conceal during a traditional interview. SquareFoot CEO Jon Wasserstrum regularly conducts interviews over coffee and meals, noting that in a conference room conversation, interviewees will often put their best foot forward as opposed to their “real” foot.
“And that’s nice,” Wasserstrum said, “But it’s not terribly helpful. You don’t work with the best version of somebody.”
At the restaurant, potential employers look at your interactions with the waitstaff as well as your consideration for them when selecting your meal.
Nick Kamboj, the CEO of Aston & James LLC., said a big red flag is “when the candidate does not understand the time commitment involved.” Kamboj said he takes note if an interviewee requests a time-consuming dish or orders dessert and coffee right after the entree.
“It simply demonstrates poor form and poor decision making when a candidate decides to make the meeting more about the culinary dining experience than really for what the meeting is for, which is to assess their candidacy for the role.”
One tricky question is whether or not to order alcohol. According to Pozzo, if part of a candidate’s job is attending functions where alcohol is served, it makes sense to see how a person conducts themselves in the presence of drinks.
“I haven’t put a nix on it because that’s what people are going to do as a leader in the company. So you want to see how they behave when they are having a glass of wine or a cocktail or whatever,” Pozzo said.
Wasserstrum mirrors this line of thinking. “‘A drunk man’s words are a sober man’s thoughts’ — you’re not trying to get somebody liquored up to say something stupid, but surely after somebody has a glass of wine or a beer, they’re a little looser and they’re more likely to say what they’re really thinking.”
But according to Gottsman, an employer’s perception of you changes when you have a drink, whether or not you actually overdo it.
“You spill something on yourself with a glass of wine, you’re drunk. Without a glass of wine, you’re clumsy. And it’s much better to be clumsy,” Gottsman said, citing the “Imbibing Idiot Bias,” a study from the Journal of Consumer Psychology, which states that people who hold or consume alcohol are viewed as less intelligent.
In general, your behavior during the meal should reflect your confidence and good judgment, more than your immaculate knowledge of table settings or excellent taste in wine.
“You need to do your homework and be aware of what puts you in a position to stand out in a positive way,” Gottsman said.
And when all else fails, Hodak has one simple rule to fall back on: “Make sure you’re not being a jerk.”