Tom Miller sat looking at the fax he'd received from a Fortune 1000 company, who
was interested in him for its newly-created position of Vice President of
Information. After a successful preliminary interview, its executive team had
decided to extend an invitation to him, his wife and daughter to spend a long
weekend in Dallas. This trip would give the Millers a chance to become better
acquainted with the company's management, their families and homes and a few
well-known haunts (including the CEO's backyard) known for Texas hospitality.
Tom had mixed feelings about the trip. He was very enthusiastic about the
company and the position, but he wasn't too excited about the proposition of so
much conversation over food, especially with his wife and teenage daughter in
attendance. Although he was used to talking regularly with top executives in
his company, he was more comfortable meeting over charts and graphs in a
conference room than veal piccata in a fancy restaurant. He didn't know if this
discomfort with talking business while eating came from his small-town
upbringing or his preference to converse with computers rather than people, but
it was a discomfort he couldn't ignore. To complicate the situation, his spouse
had her own career and was not a good candidate for playing the role of "the
dutiful corporate wife." And his daughter was an unknown quantity who could be
tremendously charming or a female version of Beavis. Yet both of them seemed
intrigued by the opportunity to get to know the city, its lifestyle and his
potential company better. Filled with a combination of enthusiasm and
trepidation, Tom called the CEO to say he and his family would be delighted to
visit for a few days at the end of the month.
Perhaps you have received or extended such an invitation yourself because
companies are exhibiting an increasing concern about getting to know potential
employees thoroughly before they extend them an offer. They also recognize it's
a smart policy to assure the candidate that s/he and her family will find a
welcoming new home when they relocate. Interviewing over breakfast, lunch,
dinner or a weekend barbecue is a good way to talk business in a collegial
environment while keeping an eye on your dining partner's social savvy. One
can tell a lot about a person by the way s/he eats.
Of course, humans have been eating their way to lasting relationships since they
started gathering in tribes. Breaking bread together has been the catalyst for
signing treaties, sealing deals, starting businesses and solidifying teams for
thousands of years. As the social lubricant that greases the wheels of commerce,
meals often provide the venue for determining whether we get the job or the
contract, or not. Consequently, whether we enthusiastically or reluctantly
embrace the agenda behind the power lunch, we need to accept it, if we plan to
be players in the economic game.
Should you find yourself unhappily eyeing a fax like Tom's, here are some tips
that should get you (and your family) through that meal with the savoir-faire of
To Smoke or Not to Smoke?
Whatever your feelings about this controversial habit, the less said and done
the better. Never smoke unless your companion lights up first. If you are an
avid non-smoker and your lunch partner asks for a table in the smoking section,
grin and bear it. If you are allergic to smoke and you'll have a
coughing/sneezing fit if seated among smokers, diplomatically request a
non-smoking table and watch the reaction of your host. If he quickly
acquiesces, your relationship may have a chance. If he's obviously annoyed, he
probably insists on a smoking environment at work as well.
To Drink or Not to Drink?
For the most part, the day of the three-martini lunch is long gone thanks to
the IRS and MADD. Yet the option to order wine or a cocktail can still be an
issue. The best rule of thumb is: when in doubt, don't. If you do, confine
yourself to one round, or two at the most, if it's a long meal. The last thing
you need is impaired judgment or an hyperbolized sense of your knack for clever
Should your potential employer drink too much, discreetly suggest to the
restaurant management that they call him a cab. It's not your responsibility
to take his keys. He's not your friend yet. And, given his initial behavior,
it's unlikely you will want him to be.
When in Doubt, Take Your Cue from Your Host
When ordering an appetizer or dessert or choosing an appropriately-priced entree,
use your host as a guide. If he is raving about the beefsteak tomato and
mozzarella salad as a great start for your meal, he's going to select an
appetizer as well as an entree. If he's ordering chicken and you have been
salivating over the chateaubriand, choose a less expensive option. If he
insists the waiter bring the dessert menu, he wants you to have one.
Most hosts understand their guests are looking to them for guidance. In fact,
your host's effort to make you comfortable in a somewhat awkward situation is
one of the characteristics on which you may choose to evaluate him. Both good
hosts and good bosses recognize the value of a supportive environment.
Avoid Exotic or Messy Menu Choices
Food should enhance your conversation, not detract from it. Select a meal 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 have raised eating lobster to
an art form and watching your culinary ballet will only serve to increase your
reputation as the consummate professional, order the sole.
Now, about that backyard barbecue...Hamburgers and ribs are inherently messy.
Being nit-picky about getting greasy will only serve to set you apart from the
crowd. Dig in and enjoy. If you aren't covered in sauce, you'll look out of
Downplay Dietary Preferences
Many professionals are vegetarians. Others may have allergies to certain foods
or want to maintain a low-fat diet. If your food options are limited, keep your
preferences low-key. Although you may be trying to avoid eating more than 40
grams of fat per day, your breakfast companion doesn't need to be privy to this
information, nor do you want to make her feel guilty for ordering bacon, eggs
and home fries with a cheese danish on the side. Find something on the menu you
can eat, or quietly ask the waiter to substitute fruit for fries. Food martyrs
can be most unpleasant company.
Brush Up on Your Table Manners
While we often ribbed my mother during large family dinners about being more
interested in the abundance of silverware than the quantity of food, most
siblings don't have a weekly drill on which of seven utensils to use for what.
Some people pick this information up along the way. Others don't. If you are
befuddled by table etiquette, you are not alone. However, as with our American
system of law, ignorance of appropriate manners is no excuse. Should the
thought of eating at a fine restaurant, where fish forks and finger bowls are
de rigueur, make you long for a can of chicken noodle soup and a big spoon, take
heart. There are numerous professionals who make their living teaching grownups
how to master the intricacies of whether to use a spoon or fork with English
trifle. In fact, many companies will pay for you to learn this information so
you can close a deal at the Four Seasons with uncommon aplomb. (If one of these
consultants isn't available to you, you might consider reading Corporate
Protocol: A Brief Case for Business Etiquette by Valerie Grant-Sokolosky.)
Why Must I Interview Over Lunch?
Aside from the camaraderie dining lends to an occasion, two other important
issues also take their place at the table. If you have been asked to interview
over food with one or more of your potential managers or colleagues, you will be
evaluated on how you handle yourself in a social situation. This is also true
for your family. Many positions require entertaining or deal-making away from
the office. Being a good negotiator isn't enough if you don't know how to
conduct yourself properly in a social setting. Often your spouse will also play
a role in entertaining clients or accompanying you to conventions or large
corporate meetings. Management wants to see that he or she will be active in
supporting your career and can hold her own in pleasant conversation for several
hours over dinner. While children don't rate such careful scrutiny, there may
be a perceived correlation between raising well-behaved children and building an
effective team. If you think this thinly-veiled excuse for running you and your
family through a social gauntlet is anachronistic and inappropriate, look for
employment in an organization where social discourse is not part of the job,
but be prepared to severely limit your choices.
The other major issue for your lunch is deciding whether you and this
organization would be a good match. Employment, not the best steak in town, is
the real reason you are meeting. Before you head for the restaurant, put
together the questions you need to ask and the achievements you want to cover.
Should the conversation begin to wander too far from its original purpose,
referring to your pre-determined agenda will help you and your companion do the
work you both intended. Then, by the time you are lingering over coffee, you
will have decided if you want to frequent Arturo's as the new VP of Information
for Acme, Inc.
A Final Note
Please ignore the previous paragraph if a non-American asks you to dine with
him. Executives from many other countries think talking business during a meal
is uncivilized. With a citizen of the world, it's wise to confine your
conversation to more general subjects unless you want to be labeled "an ugly