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“I’ll have a beer.”
Then I felt the eyes on me. All four of them. Two from my potential peer and two from my potential boss.
I was on one of my first lunch interviews. Back then I looked at it as a “lunch break” between interviews.
But hey, what did I know?
No one covered lunch etiquette at the college recruiting center. I just figured it was a chance to relax. Nothing more than a nice breather between the grueling questioning.
And besides, I was just over 21 and feeling my oats about being able to order alcoholic beverages during meals.
But those two pair of stares indicated a mistake.
And it was only the first of many.
The fact is, many techies don’t even eat lunch – let alone know the expected rules of conduct during a lunch interview. And oh yes, it IS an interview.
Sure, you’d rather be snacking on Cheetos and energy drinks while writing code – and that is a good thing to share in your lunch conversation. As I share my story, I’ll point out some common rules to help avoid my disastrous results.
So I smiled back at the stares and they both smiled back at me. Ah, all was well. Then I ordered my meal.
“I’ll have the French onion soup to start and the grilled chicken salad, ranch on the side.”
I loved the melted gooey cheese in French onion soup. I know – the mistake seems obvious now. My lunch partners ordered a couple sandwiches and…sodas.
Yep, I would be drinking alone.
Rule #1 – Order your meal and beverage last.
Just say, “I’m still deciding” and defer to your lunch mates. This way you can gauge what everyone else is ordering and order accordingly.
Rule #2 – Don’t order alcohol at a meal during your day of interviewing.
Even if someone else orders a beer, you should take a pass. Better safe than sorry.
As I sipped my beer and they drank their sodas, the waiter brought my soup. No one else ordered an appetizer – just me. And oh the gooey cheese was so good! I wrapped my spoon around the barely pliable provolone and found myself using my fingers to extricate the extra cheese that now seemed to be one with the spoon.
All while my potential boss was asking me a question about what I liked to do in my spare time. With soup dripping down my chin and a strand of cheese extended from my mouth to my spoon to my fingers, I attempted to answer.
To this day I’m pretty sure he didn’t understand a word I said and just nodded to be polite.
Rule #3 – Don’t order an appetizer if no one else has.
See Rule #1.
Rule #4 – Avoid messy foods. It can get ugly.
The only worse choice would have been buffalo chicken wings. And I do love a good chicken wing.
Four rules broken in a matter of minutes! But I had not a clue while enjoying my yummy soup.
Next up was my salad. The waitress put down my plate and to my chagrin the salad was drenched in ranch dressing.
“This is wrong. I said on dressing on the side!”
My voice was more annoyed than loud and the young waitress was very apologetic. She took away my plate and my potential boss and peer just let their sandwiches sit while I waited for my do-over salad.
And they looked very uncomfortable. So I suggested they start eating. They declined and there was an even more uncomfortable silence.
Rule #5 – Be polite to everyone you encounter while interviewing – including the restaurant wait staff.
Thinking back, I don’t even believe I said “please” or “thank you” to our waitress. Maybe I was nervous, but no excuse. My parents would have been appalled.
And now I was starting to feel outwardly nervous. So when the nice waitress came back with my corrected salad, I ordered another beer.
Rule #6 – Don’t panic and double down on any prior rule violations. (Plus, I was just adding to the lunch tab – soup and an extra beer!)
The questioning started again as we all ate. I took a big mouthful of salad and then proceeded to answer a question about my favorite college course – and broke two rules in the process.
Unnoticed to me, as my fork made its way to my mouth filled with veggie goodness and loaded with ranch dressing (that I dumped on my salad), a large glob of white dressing dropped down on my black suit pants.
Then with my mouth full, as my tongue tried to formulate the double “S” in assembly language, a small piece of broccoli dislodged and shot forward at what seemed like slow motion at the time.
It landed right on my potential bosses’ forehead.
Rule #7 – Place your napkin in your lap.
The dry cleaner removed the dressing stain, but the white splotch was prominent for the rest of the day.
Rule #8 – Swallow your food before answering questions.
Yes, just like you were taught as a child – don’t talk with your mouth full.
As my unlikely boss (“potential” was too optimistic a word as this point) took his napkin from his lap and wiped the green spec from his forehead, I simply said “My bad. Sorry about that.” My bad indeed.
Because I realized my chewing and talking at the same time error, I hardly touched my salad so I could answer questions.
When the waitress came around, I smartly passed on dessert. Then I asked for a doggy bag. I had over a half of a salad left, so seemed the prudent thing to do.
As a result I had the pleasure of carrying a doggy bag to my next three interviews, which resulted in snide comments in every single one such as “So, you brought me your leftovers?”
Rule #9 - No doggy bag.
I managed to leave the restaurant without any more blunders (that I can remember) and proceeded with the rest of my interviews. I wondered why my interviewers seemed a bit distracted and couldn’t quite look at me without smiling.
In my last interview with a very nice older lady, she gave me a concerned look.
“Oh, dear. You really should take a trip to the men’s room and have a look in the mirror.”
So I uncomfortably excused myself and with a building panic made my way to the mirror in the bathroom. To my horror, I saw the huge white splotch on my pants. And as my onion soup began to sickly churn in my stomach, I saw a huge piece of dark green lettuce stuck between my two front teeth.
Rule #10 – Visit the restroom after lunch to do a teeth check – especially if eating a salad.
I didn’t get a job offer. Shocking, right? Maybe it was because I flubbed an answer on database normalization. Or maybe it was clear I wasn’t quite polished or even mature enough to be a part of their team.
The problem was, I let my guard down during lunch. During my office interviews I remember being polite, charming and had great answers to most questions. I learned the hard way that interviews start from the time you walk in the door until you leave to go home.
Everything you say and do in between is open to scrutiny.
I had nightmares about flying broccoli bits for a very long time.