The phone interview accomplished its mission, i.e., you’ve been invited to the next round. You are now at corporate headquarters for a series of face-to-face interviews. They seem to have been going well when the interviewer says, “Let’s go to lunch (dinner).”

At the end of the process, you are not offered the job! What went wrong? Let’s make sure you didn’t lose the deal over the interview meal. After all, the meal—or more precisely, how you conduct yourself during the meal—DOES brand you!

As noted in “Headhunter” Hiring Secrets, there are four general questions all hiring managers seek the answers to throughout the process: Can you do the job?; Will you do the job?; Do you want to do the job?; and, Are you a cultural fit? Your etiquette (conforming or adhering to accepted standards of behavior) goes a long way toward  addressing this fourth question.

While I am not going to even attempt to address all of the potential “opportunities” for success (or failure) at the interview meal, I am going to address some very important and common ones:

  • The purpose of the meal . . . to eat or seal the deal?
  • Linen secrets.
  • Pasta, steak, burger or chicken?
  • Where do I put those pesky sugar packages?
  • Oops! I am going to sneeze.
  • I really want a beer!
  • Sip or sop?
  • There are too many utensils here!
  • That devious cherry tomato!
  • Do I cut one bite of meat, two to three bites, or all of it?
  • I can’t swallow this!
  • It’s stuck in my teeth!
  • They waited until I took that bite of food to ask me that question, didn’t they?
  • Oh, no! I just spilled my drink and dropped food on my shirt.
  • Salt and pepper: a couple or orphans?
  • OK, I’m done. Now what?

The purpose of the meal . . . to eat or seal the deal?  All eyes are on you. Regardless of the manners of everyone else, you alone are being judged. The meal is about your ability to engage, relate and converse—not eat. You are being judged on how well you will brand the company’s image vis-à-vis your etiquette. You can eat until you are full at a later time.

Linen secrets. Wait for the host or hostess to put his/her napkin in his/her lap first. If everyone is just putting them in their laps, do likewise but never be the first. (And regardless of what everyone else does, yours still goes in your lap.)

The most practical way to place the napkin in your lap is to fold a third of it over (instead of in half). That gives you plenty of coverage for your clothes in case there is that run-a-way piece of food. And with a third of the napkin folded over, when you get something on your fingers, it is much easier to clean them off because you have a “pocket” you can slip your fingers into for wiping.

If you need to get up from the table, place the napkin in your chair—not on the table.

Pasta, steak, burger or chicken? Pasta – Do not order anything that is messy. Yes, people have ordered spaghetti and walked away with red spots on their white shirt. Not cool. Steak – Unless that is what the host/hostess is ordering the answer is no. You want to show that you think about the company’s money. Thus, never order anything that is out of line in terms of pricing. Burger – Don’t order anything that you have to eat with your fingers. Chicken – Yes. Chicken, fish . . . ordering anything that can be cut into small bites is the right answer.

Where do I put those pesky sugar packages? Place them at the 2 o’clock position slightly under the edge of your plate. More than two packets of sweetener is considered excessive. So, if you like, say, five packets of sugar in your coffee or tea, too bad. Use two or go for the sugar substitute.

Oops, I am going to sneeze! In today’s germ-conscious society, never sneeze (or cough) into your right hand. There are varying opinions on this topic. It is polite to bring your forearm to your mouth/nose and cough/sneeze into your forearm. Some people say it is fine to use your napkin; others say never use your napkin as a handkerchief. If all else fails, sneeze/cough into your left hand. If you have time, excuse yourself from the table.  And, yes, say, “Excuse me.” When someone else sneezes, common protocol is still to say, “Bless you.”

I really want a beer! Before evening? Too bad! Evening? One beer, or one glass of wine. No more. No hard liquor. If the position you are interviewing for involves the benefit of a company car, no alcohol, period!

Sip or sop? Soup can be tricky, so unless it is served as part of a formal, pre-ordered meal, avoid it. Don’t sop your plate with your bread. Just break one bite off at a time and butter it. Don’t saw it in half; don’t butter the entire roll; and don’t bite directly off the roll!

There are too many utensils here! If you have ever gone to a “fancy restaurant” you know there can be more “equipment” there than at a construction site. The forks are to the left of the plate, with the salad fork being to the far left. (If salad is the main course for you, it is permissible to use the dinner fork.) When finished with the salad, leave the fork on the salad plate/bowl. The fork closest to the plate is your dinner fork.

To the right: If there is an appetizer that requires a fork, the small appetizer fork will be to the far right. Working your way inward generally is the soup spoon and closest to the plate is the knife.

Dessert forks/spoons and stirring spoons are often at the 12 o’clock position.

When eating, put the knife across the top of the plate with the blade turned toward you. If you used your spoon to stir your beverage, it too goes on a plate. Never put a wet spoon on the tablecloth.

What if the host/hostess (your future boss) uses the wrong utensils or “violates” protocol? Do what you know is right. Yes, they may be TESTING YOU!

That devious cherry tomato! That cherry tomato IS out to get you. If it is too firm, when you go to stab it with you fork, it may just shoot across the table into your future boss’s lap! Too soft, and juice squirts everywhere. So test it with your fork. If it is just right, the fork will go in. If it isn’t too big, you can put the entire tomato in your mouth, otherwise cut it. If it seems it is out to get you, just leave it alone.

Do I cut one bite of meat, two or three bites, or all of it? You can cut up to three bites. No more.

I can’t swallow this! Food comes out of your mouth the same way it went in—with a fork. The hand-to-mouth motion with a fork is natural, so if you get a bone, piece of gristle, etc., just taking the fork to your mouth and moving the culprit to your fork and back to your plate is seldom noticed, and even if it is, well, so be it. (Yes, try to hide the culprit on your plate so others don’t see it.)

It’s stuck in my teeth. The moment you have an interview meal something is going to get stuck in your teeth. You can try to maneuver it out with your tongue, but don’t make that funny sucking noise or show your teeth. If necessary, just say, “excuse me,” put your napkin in the chair and leave the table. No explanation is necessary. And, no, don’t use your fingernail to try to pry it out!

They waited until I took that bite of food to ask me that question, didn’t they? Oh, the timing of that question just as you took that bite was planned, wasn’t it? (And, yes, sometimes it is.) Thus, that’s obviously why the bites should be small. Don’t rush chewing your food and it is OK to hold up a finger giving the “one moment” signal.

Oh no! I just spilled my drink and dropped food on my shirt. Of all the times to happen, it happens now. Use your napkin the best you can, call over a waiter, apologize for the inconvenience and excuse yourself to the restroom if necessary.

Salt and pepper . . . a couple or orphans? They are passed together, never separately. But NEVER use salt or pepper without tasting the food first. That can demonstrate that you make hasty decisions without having all of the information available to you.

OK, I’m done. Now what? Place your napkin to the left of your place setting, silverware parallel on your plate with the handles at 3 o’clock.

Final note: If something is wrong with your meal, you find a hair, etc., just discreetly call the waiter/waitress over. Do not make a scene and sometimes it is best to just let things go. Your ability to handle a meal issue brands you on how you will deal with other issues that come up on the job.

As I said above, this blog is by no means all inclusive and I do not profess to be an expert in this area. What I DO KNOW is that more often than I would like, I hear hiring managers talk about the table manners (or the lack thereof) of candidates they have interviewed and know on more than one occasion the “meal has lost them the deal.”


Skip Freeman is the author of “Headhunter” Hiring Secrets: The Rules of the Hiring Game Have Changed . . . Forever! and is the President and Chief Executive Officer of The HTW Group (Hire to Win), an Atlanta, GA, Metropolitan Area Executive Search Firm. Specializing in the placement of sales, engineering, manufacturing and R&D professionals, he has developed powerful techniques that help companies hire the best and help the best get hired.