Dining/Business Etiquette

In today’s market, employers are ready to hire well rounded individuals. You may have impressive answers and a nice resume, but unimpressive social skills and poor table manners can leave a lasting negative impression. Remember that confidence is important; try not to be unprepared or caught off guard. Yes, dinner is more relaxed than a formal panel interview but don’t get too relaxed- you are still being interviewed.

You know they are watching, but what are they watching for??

  • Conversation ability, social skills, etiquette and personality
  • Ordering interaction with the wait staff, eating, chewing etc.


Learn about where the dinner is taking place and who will be there:

  • Is it at a person’s home?
  • A local pub?
  • Five star restaurant?

Consider the Following:

Dinner Conversation

Questions NOT to Ask



Tips for Extra Baggage

Be Polite


Ordering and Beverages

Cocktail Hour/Appetizers

Dining Etiquette

Entree or Main Course

End of Meal

Things to Remember

Additional Articles for Review

Cross-Cultural Interviewing Over Meals

Dinner conversation

Do not mention work until everyone has ordered. Think of conversation topics you would like to talk about and things to discuss if conversations lulls.   Dinner conversations can often broaden beyond the focus of the the business or interview.   Be ready to ask questions about the company, the employer, the geographic location etc. Some questions you may want to ask are listed below.

Job history questions:

  • How long has the position been in existence?
  • Who preceded and what led to the success and/or failure?
  • What are attributes that make someone successful in this position?

The Company:

  • What are its management/operating style?
  • What do you feel this position adds to someone’s career? What skills does the person learn/acquire through this position?
  • How long has its present management been in control?

The Community:

  • Where can I get information on housing, cost of living, religious, social organizations, shopping, community, schools, libraries, educational and recreational facilities, etc?
  • How does the company interact with the community? What is the social life like?

It is also a good idea to prepare questions about the interviewer’s professional background. There are many benefits to this. These questions may generate a real conversational exchange, give you something significant to refer to in your follow-up thank you letter, and give you first-hand information about how to succeed in that industry from someone who has already been there. Here are a few sample questions: 

  • How did you get into this field?
  • What experiences do you think prepared you for this job?
  • What is a typical workday like for you? What are your job responsibilities?
  • What have you found to be the rewards, challenges, and frustrations of working in this career?
  • What changes have you personally seen since you entered this industry?
  • How does your position fit within the organization/industry/career field?
  • What is unique to your organization and how have you been a part of that?
  • Are there professional publications I should read or associations I should join?

Questions NOT to ask

  • Questions that are answered in the company’s annual report or employment brochure. Recruiters are familiar enough with their own information to recognize when you haven’t done your homework. If some information in the annual report isn’t clear to you, by all means ask for clarification.
  • Avoid talking about salary. Salary negotiations can take place later, more appropriate time. If the recruiter brings up salary, it is okay, but you shouldn’t be the one to initiate it.
  • Personal questions or questions that will put the recruiter on the defensive. This includes questions such as the interviewer’s educational background, marital status, past work experience and so on.
  • Finally, don’t ask questions that have already been answered during the interview. If you have prepared a list of questions and some of them have been addressed during the interview, do not repeat them unless you need clarification.

Keep personal information limited – even if it is a comical event about you that is related to the subject at hand. You don’t want a potential employer thinking your actions as a representative of this company may not be taken seriously or may be considered comical by others.


Arrive 5-10 minutes early; realize you are being interviewed as soon as you walk in. If you are arriving together, be aware that you are still being interviewed and observed at all times. Unless you have an urgent matter where you need to be reached, silence your cell phone.


Research what is appropriate business attire in your field. Accounting firms and law firms, generally tend to be very conservative and have strict rules on how they want their employees to present themselves to their clients. On the other hand, “creative” industries such as public-relations and advertising firms tend to give their employees more leeway and opt for a more “business-casual” look. If in doubt, go conservative. It is also appropriate to ask your hosts ahead of time what the appropriate attire might be.

Tips for Extra Baggage

Put your briefcase or purse either under the table or next to your chair. Only eating utensils should be placed on the table. Turn cell phones off. A ringing phone will cause unwanted distractions and suggest your priority is not the interview. If there is an urgent reason why you absolutely must have your cell phone on, make sure it is set to vibrate so you will know when it rings without alerting everyone else at the table.

Be Polite

Wait until your host sits or asks you to sit before you take your seat. Be polite! Remember the basics - say “please” and “thank you” to the host and your server, as well as all other wait staff and restaurant patrons (basically, be polite to everyone). It is also a good idea to address all people by proper titles – Mr. and Ms., or Sir and Ma’am. Many employers view restaurant employees as potential customers or clients and pay close attention to how you treat them. 


Do not start eating until everyone at your table has been served and the host starts.  This is especially true if at a catered event; wait until the host takes his/her napkin before you take yours and start to eat. That is the host’s cue to the serving staff to begin serving the first course. Your salad fork will be on the far left, your entree fork will be next to it. Your dessert spoon and fork will be above your plate.  An easy way to remember which utensil to use first is to start at the outside and work your way in.  Although there are several acceptable ways to hold utensils during a meal, it is best to hold the fork in whichever hand you are most comfortable, keeping the prongs facing up rather than down (like you are scooping the food rather than spearing it!).  Keep your knife at the top of the plate after its first use.  Keep your elbows off the table, have good posture (sit up straight), and never talk with your mouth full or eat with your mouth open! You may also want to take small bites. This will assist you if someone asks a question and you have to finish before answering.

Utensil Placement

Ordering and beverages

  • Pick a moderately priced meal if the employer does not take the liberty to order for you. You can also ask the host if they have any recommendations in order to get an idea of the appropriate price range. You don’t want to order the most expensive thing on the menu but ordering fish and chips when everyone else is having a full meal could also make you stand out!!
  • Avoid all alcoholic beverages unless ordered by host. Drinking too much when dining could be highly damaging, so don’t do it. Beer is acceptable as long as you poor the bottle/can contents into a glass. Wine is acceptable; however keep it limited to one drink.
  • When you are not eating, keep your hands in your lap or resting on the table.
  • In order to make a good impression, it is important to sit up straight at the table.

Cocktail Hour / Appetizers

Oh behave!

  • If you are invited to cocktail hour prior to dinner do not assume it is less formal or that you are not being observed or evaluated.
  • It's very unwise to order alcohol during an interview – even if the employer does. You don’t want to be under the influence of alcohol when being asked interview questions.
  • If alcoholic beverages are available, you may have one drink and one drink only—and only if you are of age! The goal is not to impair your senses and abilities. Do you want to be remembered for the number of drinks you consumed or as the potential employee that the employer can’t live without.
  • If you have been invited to a social gathering, you will be meeting new people. Be sure to have room to set your drink on your plate in order to shake hands. Be able to handle both items in one hand because you will be shaking hands.
  • Keep your drink in your less dominant hand. The reason is so you can shake hands with someone quickly without having to transfer your drink to the other hand.
  • If you are to wear a name tag, place it on the side of your chest closest to your handshake. That way, when you extend your arm to a person, your nametag is turned towards that person for a better view.
  • Use the correct utensils. Make sure you have done your research prior to the event.

Dining Etiquette

Never season your food without first tasting it. This can be viewed as an insult to the chef, and observant employers may view you as someone who makes uninformed decisions, not as someone who gathers all the facts before proceeding. Also, if you must pass the salt or pepper, pass them together. If sharing a sauce or dressing, spoon some onto your plate and pass it on. If you order soup, the polite way to eat it is to spoon the soup across the bowl away from you. There is less chance of spilling it in your lap or on the table.  When it comes to eating bread; tear off a piece, butter only that piece over your plate, and eat it rather than biting into your dinner roll. 

Entrée or Main Course

Time to eat!

  • Generally, it is a rule of thumb to wait until the host begins his or her meal before everyone else can take a bite
  • Mistakes happen; the focus will be on how you correct the mistake. Rather than complaining, simply suggest what you would like to have done. If you spill or make excessive noise with utensils or dishes, apologize and move on.
  • Imagine your plate is like the face of an analog clock. When you are done eating, place your fork and knife at 4:00PM to signal to the wait staff that they can take your plate.
  • Excuse yourself if you must blow your nose, if you are feeling ill, if you have an urgent phone call or if you need to use the restroom. Place your napkin on your seat or arm of your chair when you excuse yourself during the meal.
  • It’s best not to finish eating before your host. That makes it awkward for both of you. You also don’t want your host to eat or drink alone; so if they decide to have dessert, coffee or tea, you should take their lead and join in.
  • At the end of the meal, fold your napkin neatly on the table and place on the table.

End of the Meal

  • The person who extended the invitation (regardless of gender is responsible for paying the bill.
  • Don’t criticize the food, staff or setting. Even if you didn’t enjoy the food or it wasn’t as good as you had expected, this is not the time to be critical. You want to leave the interviewer with good memories, not criticisms, so consider complimenting the food and the restaurant’s environment.
  • Thank the host. If this is the end of your interview process, (gather business cards, ask when you will hear word about their decision, find out if you need to send materials, etc.
  • Make sure to send a thank you letter to the host and all other members of the organization who attended. 

Things to Remember

It's Not About the Food

If you go into a social function such as an interview over a meal (or even a gathering such as a reception) thinking about how fortunate you are to get a free meal, you probably won't succeed beyond the evening. Social functions are about one thing - social interaction. Don't focus on the food, focus on presenting yourself in the best light. Be engaging, talk to people, listen, and put your best foot forward.

Evaluating the Company/Culture

Remember, interviewing goes both ways. Not only is the employer evaluating you, this is also your chance to evaluate the employer to see if this company is a good match for you. Also, remember to do research on the company before the interview so you can answer questions concisely and thoroughly and discuss items related to the organization. Research is the key to preparation.

Mishaps and Accidents

How you handle mishaps during an interview can be just as important as your answers to the interview questions. Be calm about unexpected events and try not to draw attention to yourself. If you drop a utensil, leave it and ask a waiter for a replacement. If you spill something, discretely clean it or ask the waiter for assistance. If you spill something on yourself, politely excuse yourself and attend to it in a restroom.

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Additional Articles to Review:

Food for Thought on Lunch Interviews: 10 Dos and Don'ts for Making the Best Impression over a Meal


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Cross-Cultural Interviewing Over Meals

Conversational Tips

If your host is from another country, please consider this: Executives from many other countries consider it to be extremely rude to “talk business” during a meal. If this is the case, consider talking about broader topics and leaving business for a more appropriate time. Remember, diplomacy comes in many forms, and knowing what to expect will help you land the job and more importantly, avoid being labeled the ugly American. For more tips on interviewing with hosts from abroad, do some research on relevant countries.  You will be surprised at what you find. Internet searches on “International Dining Etiquette” or “Cross Cultural Dining Etiquette” will yield some good results.

Also remember that using idioms, catch phrases, and colloquialisms may not be easily understood by non-Americans. Though part of casual conversation here, they are regional and often misunderstood when conversing with someone who speaks English as a second language or doesn’t hear them very often. You may have “gone the extra mile” on a project, had a “knee-slappin’ good time” at the interview, or plan to “keep tabs on” a suggestion, but if the intended audience doesn’t understand you, then it was a wasted effort that put you in an awkward position.

Different Styles of Eating

Cross-cultural interviews provide a unique set of dining challenges. Though most people in the United States use the “American” style of eating (fork in right hand, prongs up while you eat), if you are participating in a cross cultural interview; you might want to do some research on the “Continental” style of eating (very popular outside the U.S.). The Continental style involves holding the fork in your left hand with the prongs pointing down and the knife in your right hand. Do an Internet search on “continental style eating.” You will find plenty of information if you need to brush up on these skills.

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