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Nail Your Recruiting Dinner: Dining for Dollars

By MBA Jungle, Staff Writer – 11/01/2000 – 12:00am

Welcome to the recruiting dinner, where the stakes are high, time is tight, the competition is merciless, and one faux pas can cost you the job. Your hostess will seat you now.

Dining with the Prez

Caitlin McLaughlin spends a lot of time at restaurants. As vice president and manager for MBA recruiting at Salomon Smith Barney, much of her job—making presentations about the firm, answering questions, wooing students, being wooed—actually happens within a few feet of a place setting. She has seen a great swell of candidates handle themselves with aplomb. But she has also seen the ugly side of the recruiting dinner: the student bright enough to be invited to an open-bar reception but demented enough to order the $185 cognac; the guy who was caught trying to change place cards so he’d be seated closer to the company big shot; not to mention countless other missteps, blunders, and screwups.

“We all know that the resumé is not perfect information,” says McLaughlin, “which is why the dinner is almost reverse recruiting.” That is, recruiters already know what their guests look like on paper, so the real test is seeing how well they handle themselves in a social situation.

How hard can it be? The savvy student shows up, pushes around some pasta, waxes eloquent about the Nasdaq, and hits ’em with the charm train so hard their heads hurt. Right?

Well, not exactly. After all, if recruiting dinners were such a cakewalk, the firms wouldn’t bother with them. All things being equal—grades, resumés, and test scores—how you handle yourself between the bar and the coat check can determine whether you receive a job offer. With so much at stake and with so many potential pitfalls, it takes a deft combination of tact, assertiveness, and savoir-faire to shine in these circumstances. In other words, eat before leaving home, because it’s not about the food.

Something to Chew On

“The typical recruit going through the process could easily have 10 meals with us,” says Dana Ellis, director of recruiting for Arthur Andersen, which hires 300 MBAs straight out of school every year. “It’s a great forum for exchanging information on many levels.” One of those levels is etiquette. Considering that a candidate will likely be wining and dining clients, manners are something a recruiter can’t help but notice.

Everyone knows not to chew with an open mouth, but consider a few less obvious deal breakers that recruiters have noted: mopping up sauce with the bread; cutting an entrée into a lot of bites rather than one bite at a time; eating too quickly. Regardless of what looks enticing on the menu, avoid ordering soup, spaghetti, lobster, ribs—anything that could possibly make you look like a slob. And while recruiters profess not to judge people by their menu choices—for instance, deciding that someone is a girly-man because he ordered the salad as an entrée—they do notice the matter of price. “Anything in the extreme draws attention,” says Ellis. “If everyone’s having the $9 cheeseburger and some guy orders a $35 steak with an $18 appetizer, it looks bad.”

On the subject of looking bad, eat what is served, however undercooked, charred, or otherwise unpalatable. “On the whole, fussy is bad,” adds Ellis. “If someone’s picky about their food, maybe they’ll be picky about their job assignments, or who they’ll work with, or about having to make a 7 a.m. meeting.” If you’re a vegetarian and the recruiting dinner is in a steak house? “Well, my heart goes out to you,” says Ellis. “But I wouldn’t make a big deal about it.”

If a waiter happens to serve you the wrong item altogether, or something that’s flat-out inedible, bring it to his attention—but do so subtly. Although some candidates evidently think it makes them look like a take-charge type, don’t rigorously hail the server; eye contact and a discreet tilt of the head will carry the day. (Rumors exist of firms arranging for this to happen to see how a candidate handles mix-ups.) “Err on the side of being too polite to the servers. Even the mildest condescension toward a waiter is a huge negative,” says McLaughlin. “One of the things we’re looking for is the capacity to deal with people at all levels. When somebody takes a superior attitude, you have to wonder how well they’re going to work in a team at our company.”

Drink But Don’t Be Merry

“A lot of companies will let you have a few drinks to see how you do,” says Charles Sacarello of Charles & Associates, a New York-based image-consulting firm that whips boorish spouses of CEOs into shape. “They look for whether you loosen your tie or take off your jacket when no one else has. That sort of thing.”

When it comes to alcohol, most recruiters advise following the host’s lead before ordering—that is, having a beer or cocktail only if the rep does so first — though abstaining is not necessarily a negative mark. A few other points to remember: Cup your hand when squeezing a lime wedge over a gin and tonic. Drink beer from a glass. When it’s time to head to the dinner table, leave cocktails on the bar. Once seated, drink what the host drinks with the meal. (This is not the time to showcase one’s individuality, let alone one’s knowledge of rare Lebanese wines.) Refrain from completely finishing off the wineglass at any point during the meal. Refrain from refilling your own glass (let the waiter do that). And by all means, do refrain from that human-garbage-pail, bottoms-up move when it’s time to go.

A Little Practice

It’s an odd contradiction: While the American workforce is becoming better educated, better traveled, and increasingly professional, knowledge of basic manners doesn’t seem to have kept pace. “I’ve had a client tell me, ‘This person is brilliant and handsome, but we took him to a restaurant and everything changed. His tie was over his shoulder, his face was over his dinner plate, he ordered wine when he shouldn’t have,'” says Sue Fox, author of Business Etiquette for Dummies and president of Etiquette Survival, a California-based company that helps Silicon Valley executives polish their acts. “This was a guy who was going to be called upon to host the company’s Japanese clients—and they would have been mortified.”

Those with a tendency to get spots on their ties or who feel even slightly uncomfortable dining in business attire might consider practicing. One way is to eat at home in a jacket for a week. The producers of the original James Bond films are said to have made Sean Connery do as much, and it clearly paid off for him. It’s worth rehearsing your manners, too. While recruiters downplay the formality of their outings as well as their own knowledge of the minutiae of etiquette, the professional manner-meisters claim that future employers look for polish without knowing it.

“Companies are trying to find future executives, people who will project the image of the firm,” says Sacarello. “Bone up on this stuff ahead of time,” adds Fox. “Because you don’t want to be distracted by thinking about what glass to use while you’re being interviewed. You want to spend that time asking smart questions.”

As it happens, recruiters say, they’re more likely to schedule meals at noisy, hip places than at morguelike restaurants where a person can hear the silver clink. So candidates can look out of step if they show up dressed for a board meeting. Recruiters agree that if someone is uncertain about what to wear, it’s entirely sensible to scout the restaurant beforehand or to call the person organizing the dinner to ask about appropriate dress.

This article originally appeared in the November 2000 issue of MBA Jungle.

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