Lunch is not as care-free and casual when you are interviewing. Eating lunch with a candidate tells me more about the person than anything on the resume. Having sat through hundreds of lunches as the candidate, and now sitting on the other side of the table as the interviewer, there are some definite do’s and don’ts you need to be aware of–
#1 Don’t take charge
What? But, aren’t you interviewing for the job, and shouldn’t you show how you know how to treat the server, and you know what to order, and you know how to carry the conversation? Nope. Let the interviewer lead out. The interviewer requested this time with you, is paying for lunch, will decide whether you progress with the company or not, etc. So, without being awkward, let the interviewer take the lead in choosing where to sit, dealing with the server, and carrying the conversation. It will show respect and appreciation if you let her/him lead out.
#2 Be conversational
Lunch interviews are meant to break down facades and see your personality. Being too quiet or stiff sends the message that you probably don’t want to send. Sure, ask questions about work, but feel free to talk about non-work as well. One-on-one lunch interviews are much easier to handle than large groups. An entire post could be dedicated to handling group interviews. Bottom line, in a group lunch, you have to read the situation. Chime in when you have something to say, but don’t worry about commenting on every remark. On the other hand, a group lunch is a good time for you to see the dynamic of the people you could potentially be working with.
It’s helpful to be familiar with the menu if you can check out it out beforehand. Otherwise, ask the interviewer(s) what they recommend, and make sure to let them order first. You don’t want to order the $50 steak if they only order an $8 salad. The reverse is also true. I once ordered soup ($10) and my interviewers both ordered filet mignon ($70). Couldn’t believe my luck. Another lesson I’ve learned first hand is to eat something 20 min before meeting for lunch. Seriously. If you’re stomach is empty, you may become so food-centric that you order too much, stuff your face too quickly, and miss out on conversation because your mouth is too full. In case you don’t know the basics of dinner table etiquette, here are a few: use a fork and knife, take small bites, chew with your mouth closed, and don’t talk with food in your mouth. We could go on, but I think you get the picture. Oh, and unless everybody at the table is ordering a sandwich/burger, order something that you don’t have to eat with your hands.
#4 Be ready for the interview
Even if this is just an “informational interview” and you’re not up for a job opening, treat it like a real interview. That means thinking beforehand of what you can ask the interviewer/mentor, and what you can say about yourself. As noted in #2, this is a conversation, and you should say things about yourself–but you can say them in a succinct manner, and then ask intelligent, open-ended questions of the person you’re meeting for lunch. This person is taking time out of her/his day to meet with you. You can make it worthwhile for the both of you by being prepared.
There are many more insider tips to being a rock star at the lunch interview, but hopefully these few will help you avoid some common pitfalls.
*Many thanks to Matt, a lawyer friend from Adobe, who let me take pictures of our informational interview lunch.