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How to Ace a Dinner Interview

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To get a job you really want, the interview process may feel like jumping over hurdles. Interviews at the office, online personality profile tests and role playing with other candidates – all these have you thinking the process is going well since they keep asking you back for more. After they invite you to join several company executives for dinner, you feel as if you're finally nearing the finish line. You know that job offer is coming, but don't get ahead of yourself. Accept the invitation; then start preparing for your most important interview. The dinner invitation can make or break your chances of being hired.

It’s Not Just Dinner

How you conduct yourself in a social situation is as much a part of hiring a candidate as the resume. Short of coming into your home and analyzing how you comport yourself with your family, the dinner interview reveals more of your personality and behavioral patterns than any other part of the interview process. You’re in an out-of-office atmosphere and must deal not only with the company executives but with service personnel as well. You’re being judged on your conversational ability, your social skills and even your table manners. This is when you must step up your game if you want to get the job.

Do Your Homework

You probably did your company research before walking in the door for your first interview. You know the players, the company statistics and what they’re all about. Review and update that information in your head and be prepared to ask questions and offer commentary.

If there’s been a time lag between your interviews, research any new developments the company may have undertaken. Be inquisitive and show your interest in where the company stands today and where they expect to take it into the future.

Occasionally, dinner conversation turns to topics that are not always politically correct. Don’t join in: They may be baiting you. Instead, insert yourself and steer the talk back to the company. This isn’t a boys’ night out, but an interview, and you must be conscious of it at all times.

During your office interviews, you most likely learned a few details about the executives – where they went to school, their vacation destinations from the photographs you saw on their desks, their favorite sports teams. Use that information to propel the conversation around their comfort levels and to show you’re invested in them as must as they are in you.

Ask ahead who is joining you for dinner and learn about their backgrounds through online research portals, such as the company’s website and LinkedIn. This information is very helpful when engaging others in conversation.

If you haven’t met all your dinner companions before, smile, look them in the eye, and repeat their names as you shake hands. This little trick helps you remember names. Don’t forget to sell yourself, but don’t be pushy. Subtlety is a delicate balance.

Dress the Part

In an upscale restaurant, appropriate attire is expected. Call the restaurant in advance and ask about the dress code. For both men and women, having well-polished shoes is a sign of someone who cares about the details of their appearance and thus can be expected to care about the details of the job.

Don’t overdress. Leave excessive jewelry at home. A simple watch for a man and necklace for a woman, in addition to a ring, should be all the bling you’ll want to wear. Men should wear socks. This isn’t dress-down Friday.

In a casual restaurant, a sports jacket and well-pressed slacks are sufficient for a man. Women can leave their 3-inch heels at home and wear pumps or even casual loafers with slacks or a skirt and a blouse.

Know Your Restaurant Etiquette

Go online and preview the restaurant’s menu. Familiarize yourself with the options and get an idea of what you want to order. Don’t choose the most expensive meal or the least expensive. Don’t add costly sides. Be moderate in cost and look as if you’re able to make quick decisions without pondering. Offer commentary about the restaurant and its history, chef, reviews or ratings.

If you’ve been to the restaurant in the past, offer your suggestions, but don’t be a smarty pants and try to take control of the ordering. You’re the guest; they’re the hosts.

Choose your meal with consideration. Don’t order anything messy such as mussels in wine sauce, slurpy spaghetti or even soup. Stay away from spinach or broccoli; they’re not attractive when stuck between your teeth. Consider the neatness of the meal and how it’ll translate from your fork or spoon to your mouth. If others are ordering wine or pre-dinner drinks, refrain. This isn’t the time to drink with the guys but to be alert and in full control.

Tuck your phone away after you’ve turned it off. Nothing is more important than being fully engaged with your dinner hosts. And try not to leave them alone while you visit the restroom. If another dinner companion moves to go to the bathroom, then take that opportunity to excuse yourself as well.

Treat the waitstaff with kindness and good manners. Don’t gush. Be polite from the moment you walk in the front door until you leave. And don’t forget to thank your hosts.

When Your Spouse Is Included

Not only will you be nervous having dinner with the executives you hope to be working with in the near future, but when they invite your spouse to come as well, that’s also a good sign. They’re looking to understand your family dynamic.

Is your spouse invested in this transition? If it includes relocation, can your spouse handle the day-to-day arrangements while you concentrate on work? Is it important for your spouse to work, and can he/she find employment in a new location? What is the vibe between you and your spouse?

One of the main purposes of the mealtime interview is to observe you in a social situation. Many positions require your presence at social functions, and how you conduct yourself is being evaluated. Winston Churchill was famous for his dinners with friends and foes alike, and it wasn’t just about the food and champagne.

Indirectly Interview the Company Executives

Just as the company is interviewing you, do the same with them. Be observant. Do they work as a team and hold the same corporate philosophies? Do they talk about other employees behind their backs? How much do they drink, and does it affect their communication skills? And most importantly, do you want to work with these people? It’s as much your decision as it is theirs.

Leave on a Polite Note

Once dinner is over and you’ve thanked your hosts, don’t mill around or wait for an invitation for after-dinner drinks. Be sure you have all their business cards. The next day, immediately write thank you notes to each person. Not an email. Not a text. An actual, hand-written thank-you note that shows you’re at the top of your class.