Vanderbilt Lawyer - Volume 35, Number 2

"It's Not about Your Food"

Angela Chapman teaches business lunch basics

Angela Chapman

As Scott Tift sits down to a dinner of Beef Wellington at the University Club, Angela Chapman's class in job-interview etiquette begins.

"Wait until your host reaches for his or her napkin to put yours in your lap," she says. Following the lead of Career Services assistant and table host Mary Griffin, the eight 1Ls at Tift's table gingerly place their napkins in their laps.

Along with more than 100 of his classmates, Tift has paid $30 for dinner with Chapman, whose annual event acquaints 1Ls with the do's and don'ts of interview lunches. Having served on the staff of Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, whose public primal scream effectively ended his bid for the presidency, Tift understands the potentially devastating consequences of a badly timed behavioral gaffe. Although his table manners are impeccable, he acknowledges, "by no means am I sure that I know all the proper etiquette."

Chapman, a career counselor at the law school, organized the dinner after realizing that "many students didn't understand that dinner with a prospective employer is part of the job interview," she says. "Once you pass the paper test, the decision to hire you is based at least in part on your social skills. A prospective employer isn't entertaining you; they want to see how you handle yourself in every situation."

As students carefully pick up their salad forks, Chapman covers etiquette basics. Never order the most expensive item on the menu. Don't "sit down, grab your napkin, and start eating like you've been starved for a week." Wait until your host starts eating before you start. Pass to the right. Always pass salt and pepper together. Don't salt or pepper your food until you have tasted it. Don't fuss with your food, and never complain about it. Never send anything back. Pretend to eat if you have to.

"This is not about your food," she emphasizes repeatedly. "It's a job interview. If you're still hungry, go through the Wendy's drive-through later."

While most students learn basic table etiquette growing up, Chapman says, "You'd be surprised how many people don't know which fork to pick up at a nice restaurant." In addition, many students aren't aware that prospective employers use interview meals to determine how they will interact with the firm's clients.

Potentially fatal errors include ordering too much alcohol or "messy" items, such as spaghetti or ribs, or trying to eat the cherry tomato in your salad. "Take one tiny bite," Chapman says, "and they become little cherry bombs, splattering juice and seeds all over the table."

Tift and his classmates studiously ignore the cherry tomatoes in their salads.

By the time dinner ends, they've learned another important lesson. While good table etiquette isn't a guarantee of a successful interview, it's an essential component.