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In the February 12, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader asks about going on a job interview in a bar.

Question

The company I’ve been talking with informed me that our next interview will be at a nearby bar where we can all sit down and relax. The manager also mentioned that he and his group will have some specific questions this time. (In the first interview I listened more than I talked.) What’s the protocol for interviewing in a public place? I guess they want to see how I act and how I would fit in. Are there right and wrong things to order? Can you offer any Do’s and Don’ts for a “relaxed” bar interview?

Nick’s Reply

bar

There is some very clever conventional wisdom about interviewing over a meal or over a drink. All of it assumes such a meeting is a clever ruse where the employer is watching your manners, your eating habits, and trying to get you drunk so they can find out what you’re really like.

I caution you: Even if that’s what the employer is doing, don’t make any of these assumptions yourself. Even if they’re testing you, don’t play along. Treat it as a business meeting and act accordingly.

Don’t play games

Don’t try to figure out how you should behave. Be yourself. Behave as you would in any business setting.

A long time ago someone taught me to take others at face value and to always assume the best. It’s good advice. If it turns out someone is playing games with you, that should be enough to tell you what kind of people they are – and that you probably want nothing to do with them.

As long as you are honest and sincere in your words and actions, the burden is on the other person to act the same. I’ve found this personal policy works very well. If someone “games” me after I give them the benefit of the doubt, I never deal with them again. Life’s too short to deal with jerks.

Behave normally

Don’t get caught up in the meaning behind the interview location. Be yourself.

Do what you would normally do in a job interview, and deal with the bar as you normally would. If you’d have a beer in a bar, order a beer if you want. If you don’t feel comfortable in bars, say so and ask for a change of venue. If you find yourself with a group of interviewers in the kind of bar where you feel unsafe, use your judgment — and trust your instincts.

Order what you want to eat, but don’t spend too much of their money – not any more than you would if you were on a date. Use common sense and be polite.

Don’t follow suit. If the boss orders wine but you don’t drink wine, don’t order wine. If you want seltzer, order seltzer. Don’t be someone you’re not.

Don’t over-analyze

Trying to psych this out so you can “do what they expect” will sink you — even if you strongly suspect the location is a test. The entire purpose of a casual meeting is to be casual. If they have another (sneaky) agenda, then that’s their problem. Because if you buy into a sneaky agenda, you will have to live with a sneaky agenda and sneaky people after you take the job.

Clever interview advice usually comes from self-proclaimed experts who are trying to be clever. For example, “Don’t order anything exotic, or they’ll think you’re strange.” (What if the manager values independent thinking?) If you over-analyze, you will stumble all over yourself. Forget about clever. Be yourself.

Respect yourself and respect the employer. No games. Discuss whatever they want to discuss as long as you’re comfortable with it. Hopefully they want to discuss their business and how you can make it more successful. Contribute whatever information you think will help them see how you will do the job profitably for the company, and how you will fit into their social environment.

If you and they don’t fit together, this is the time to find out. If the meeting gets weird, order take-out.

What unusual interview venues have you been to? Do you think a bar is a legitimate place for a job interview? What kinds of surprises have you encountered in unusual interview locations?

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31 Comments
  1. I find these unusual interview venues incredibly annoying. It seems like game playing to me. My doubts would creep in about an organization that does this. At the end of the day, one should be themselves, never pretend to be something your not to please a prospective employer or anyone else.

    • @SAG: Interviewing someone in a restaurant over a nice meal can be a good thing, if the purpose is to demonstrate respect to the candidate. This may be lost on many people, but it’s a sort of friendly compensation for the candidate’s time. But this kind of interview should not replace one at the company; nor should it be used as an opportunity to play tricks by judging how the person eats. (“If they pepper their food before they taste it, it means they act rashly without good data!”) If it’s the latter, then the practice is just another kind of stupid interview question that reveals the interviewer is inept at assessing the candidate’s abilities to do the work. Which has unfortunately become the trend both for hiring managers and HR.

      • Agree. I once had the office interview, first. This was followed by the informal luncheon interview at a nearby restaurant, the upper executives in the organization as I was a major player candidate for placement in a upper corporate management position with the company as I had been flown in all expenses paid. All this was new to me as the position credentials had recently channelled to something entirely new per the CEO and the corporate Board of Directors.

  2. I had an interview in a pub. The interviewer wanted to know specific contacts I had in the industry and wanted me to call them so he could confirm they were people that would take my call.

    I ended the meeting and skipped the meal. I knew I never wanted to work with him and that I never wanted him to connect to any of my contacts through me.

    • @Rick: Hope you left him with the tab and a smile. My compliments. Imagine taking someone on a first date and trying to impress them by insisting they call a mutual friend to prove it’s really a mutual friend.

      This kind of thing is nothing more than a revelation that the interviewer is a boob.

  3. I had an interview at a Panera once. The position was church secretary. There was nothing unusual or “off” about the situation. Of course, if they had suggested meeting at a bar, I would have had second thoughts about what kind of church that was.

    • @ASKELADD: There’s nothing wrong with using a restaurant as office space. I do it all the time. I just make sure to leave a nice tip.

  4. One thing not to do when you have an interview at a public location is to talk about sensitive information. This includes about yourself or work related.

  5. My interviews over meals have mostly been at breakfast. This keeps alcohol off the table and tends to be more casual. Arrive early and scope out a booth or table that provides privacy away from the bustle of kitchen and serving stations. As for food. . . keep it simple.

  6. I have never taken a candidate to a bar or have been asked to interview at a bar. In all instances, we met at a nice restaurant for lunch. Usually half of my lunch is left uneaten. As the candidate, I’m doing most of the talking. In one case, they asked if I wanted to take the remainder of my lunch to go. The setting was rather formal (i.e., business suits, elegant restaurant), so I declined. These situations have been comfortable and professional. Meeting in a bar at night might make me pause. It would really depend on the position I’m seeking, the culture of the company, my impression of the manager and team up to that point, and the location of the meeting. Does it makes sense in the overall context or does it feel like an inappropriate test or game?

  7. I’ve been on a few interviews over breakfast or lunch which is no big deal – generally I’ve taken this as an opportunity to get to know potential co-workers in a less formal setting than around a conference room table as well as the ability to check out the dynamics withing the team (who are the more outgoing people, who seems to be the “pack leader” etc.),

    As for a bar, I find this to be just odd and potentially insensitive to the person being interviewed. The interviewee could be someone who avoids alcohol and places that serve alcohol due to religious or personal reasons, past addiction issues with themselves or loved ones, or any other reason.

    If it’s necessary to conduct an interview outside the office, have it in a coffee shop or over a meal.

    • @Jim: Agreed. The bar thing is a siren and red flag going off to me. No restaurants in the area? Really tacky and out of touch IMO. Does manager have drinking issues?

  8. Been on both sides of the table relative to breakfast and lunch meetings/interviews. When I was the manager hosting the person’s visit, it’s partly hospitality (providing a guest a nice meal) and partly business. Not so much “to see them in a social setting”..but to make best use of our time and that of the guest. Plus in most cases the days were busy…and lunch or breakfast times are often the only time you can reel in the other people you think the candidate should meet & talk with. As the candidate, I have no problem with it, as the door swings two ways, I get to see and assess them, but as someone said, don’t eat much.
    To me a bar cross a line in usefulness and too subject to introducing discomfort. Everyone eats, but not everyone drinks and as such you can put the candidate in and awkward situation..having to push back, or taking them somewhere they’d never personally visit. Plus when I talk with people, I want to talk with them, not shout at them or being shouted out. Bars lean to very noisy. not a good venue. And I can’t disconnect such a venue from game playing.

    I have taken people to restaurants that serve alcohol. There was one time my wife and I hosted an interviewing couple (both) to dinner. And one of them got hammered, badly. She asked me “is this an interview?” No it wasn’t it was simply hospitality. And she poured it on to the growing discomfort of her spouse.

    As to unusual places. Airports, catching people on layovers. Both sides on this one too. People meeting me, or me meeting people.

    • @Don: Thanks for your discussion of prudent practices.

    • @Don Harkness: Thanks for your input, especially from the other side of the interview table. Like you, I find bars too noisy. An interview is still serious, whether it is the first interview or a follow up/second/third interview, and I would prefer to have it in a place that suggests a less party atmosphere, less of a hookup scene. Many bars have big tvs, and will have the game (whichever game that happens to be) on, blasting so people sitting at tables away from the bar can hear. So yes, I’d prefer not to have to compete for the interviewer’s interest with the touchdown/homerun/ref’s (bad) call plus all the noise from the other patrons. It is a venue, but not the best venue, IMHO.
      Was the one who got hammered the one being interviewed or was she the tag along?

  9. As to food, avoid anything too messy. Eating lightly will help you keep a clear head.

    If you don’t drink, be very clear and firm about this. If you get static about that, consider ending the interview early. It’s a very bad sign. It’s unlikely to happen but it might.

  10. The consensus is that meeting for breakfast, lunch or dinner is OK for business related meetings. With this in mind, why doesn’t the person who posed the question ask the company, “Why do you want to meet in a bar?” This puts the onus on the company and quickly reveals if you should/want to associate with the company or the personnel in charge. If the company gives a vague answer to the “why” question, then the person can state, “I’d rather not discuss business-related issues in a bar setting. Is there someplace else we can meet?” Now you’ve established YOUR standard of conducting business. If the company doesn’t see value in this revelation of your character, your worth to that company won’t be appreciated.

  11. Don’t order soup. Similar to the confidentiality discussion for salary, you can always mention that you have concerns discussing confidential information in a public place.

    • And slurping. You have concerns about slurping, so no soup. :-)

  12. I find the whole bar thing a little creepy/off-putting for a job interview. I get that the idea is to have the job interview in more casual setting. That’s fine, but why not have it in the company cafeteria (if they have one)? This way the job interview is still on-site, you don’t have to worry about random people listening in on your interview, and, as a woman, I’m not going to worry about the interviewer getting grabby with me after having a few drinks. Not that he can’t get grabby sober, but alcohol can make people do stupid things.

    If the company doesn’t have a cafeteria, then why not choose a coffee shop (Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, even Barnes & Noble anyone) or even a diner instead of a bar? Those are still casual, but without the bar characters. A bar seems too casual for a job interview to me.

    • @Marybeth: I debated discussing special issues for women in the article, but some of those issues can apply to all genders and I decided not to go there because I wanted the article and discussion to focus on the bigger issue. More than once I’ve seen a manager invite a “candidate” to a bar for an “interview” when it was an improper and deceptive way to create a “date.” Candidate beware.

      • @Nick: I hesitated introducing a woman’s take on this from a woman’s perspective for the very reason you mentioned: many of the issues you raised can apply to both genders. That said, I still think women have to take extra precautions. I wouldn’t meet a date for the first time at a bar and I’m still a bit suspicious of the interviewer’s reasons for meeting in a bar, especially for me the candidate as a woman. It smacks of being a pick up–is he or she looking for a date or looking for an employee? And it is just more than a little too casual, too it’s 5 o’clock somewhere when a job interview is not a party event. I, too, wondered whether the employer is playing a game–is he testing me to see if I drink (I wouldn’t order a drink at a job interview) or to see if I don’t drink? Is he testing me to see how I handle drinking (if the employer culture is a drinking culture)?

        There are other ways to do an interview in a more casual, relaxed setting than in the employer’s conference room. A nice restaurant off site, a coffee/tea shop (fancy or casual), a diner, even the employer’s cafeteria (if they have one) would work. None of those places suggest partying, fun, after hours kind of thing, even if the restaurant or coffee bar serves alcohol. A bar….sorry….ick. And double ick from me as a female. Some men behave badly sober, and I’d rather not even put myself into a situation at a bar where I have deal with a drunken man I don’t know (interviewer).

    • My girlfriend had an interview in a local McDonald at breakfast once. (Remote company)

      It worked quite well quieter than at lunch, more casual, other people around (I actually went and sat the other side of the McDonald’s at her request) I think she would have been less likely to go to a bar.

      They arranged follow up interview at lunch in a cowork area. Less casual but not as formal plus they have private nooks for discussions,and a desk for manager,much less busy at lunch time too.

      Though I suppose you could make a canteen like that if you have one.

      She was happy with the interview although never too the job.

  13. Group interview in a bar?

    You can’t make this Shinola up.

    Decline and tell them why. Hint to managers…company dinners are not relaxing events, unless you give the senior member of the team the company charge card, say “ have a great evening” and then retreat to your hotel to fix your excel pivots to Finance.

  14. If you interview in a bar, order club soda with lime – it is my go to drink. It has the sophistication of a cocktail without the alcohol. You need a clear head anyway.

  15. Lunch meeting/discussion about an open position with a former boss. More of a getting reacquainted and hearing about the position. No pressure, it was very pleasant. And I took the job.
    And Kevin’s advice is spot on. Anything in a rocks glass with lots of ice looks like a cocktail

  16. I had the unique experience of going to the hiring manager’s home, where his wife served us lunch.

  17. Here’s an example of where and how NOT to have a job interview (and how NOT to behave): https://youtu.be/FTHoIehOkK0. And yes, the guy was looking for a date or hookup, not to hire an employee.

  18. Order a salad and lemonade or ice tea. Play it safe.

  19. For my recent masters degree, I had two mandatory internships. The first was super professional and staff treated well. The second was a hell hole and staff insisted the interns join them for happy hours after work. I begged off most of them but they made the last one our going away party. We interns thought they were buying us dinner. Instead, the manager downed three drinks before 6 pm and the drinkers weren’t eating. It was buy your own food or drink, not their treat for a semester of our hard work.The manager got pretty tipsy and decided that the next group of interns would be interviewed at this same bar during happy hour. Because sitting around drinking was so bonding, she said! Most of the employees drank enough to blow over the legal limit on a breathalyzer and they all drove home. I realized I got a real eye opener to this office culture. And yes I reported this on my mandatory evaluation to the school.

    • @Anonymous: I remember an alumna telling me that she had been required to do unpaid internships, and that once per month the interns went out to lunch with their bosses, but the twist was that the interns had to buy lunch not only for themselves but for their bosses. The bosses also picked the restaurants. She said that not only was this an expensive outing once per month for the year, but that she often left the restaurants hungry, and that on more than one occasion at least one of the bosses got drunk. She also said that the bosses all made six figures, so it wasn’t as if they were struggling. She came to hate the monthly lunches out, but didn’t dare refuse because many of the bosses hired for vacancies from their interns, but she hated having to try to figure out what she could eliminate from her own expenses so she could treat her boss and buy herself lunch. At the time, she said the meals ran over $50.00 and it was such a burden for the interns, but no one dared to complain because the internship was supposed to be a great honor. I’d think it less an honor when the bosses take advantage of the interns that way.

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