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When Your Interview Is Held In A Coffee Shop Mark Swartz, M.B.A. M.Ed.

About the Author

Mark Swartz, MBA, M.Ed., is Canada's Career Activist. His insights reach millions yearly as the Workopolis.com Career Advisor, as author of the best seller "Get Wired, You're Hired," also as a professional speaker and coach on career/work issues. A former Toronto Star careers columnist, Mark's advice is forthright and practical. For Canada's biggest directory of free career articles, and for personalized coaching, please visit www.CareerActivist.com.

Question: The other day I was in a Starbucks near where I live. Part way through my muffin and coffee, I noticed three people seated not far from me having an intense conversation. Two were seated on the bench, and one was sitting across the table from them on a chair. Since it's not that hard to overhear discussions sometimes, I detected that the person on the chair was getting interviewed for a job.

Is this normal these days? I ask because I have some interviews coming up for me over the next few weeks and I wonder if there are any special rules if I should happen to be taken to a coffee house for my interview. For example, one thing I noticed is that the person getting interviewed kept looking around self-consciously. Any tips on this?

Sonia B., Vancouver, B.C.

Dear Sonia,

I too have seen people getting interviewed in Starbucks, Second Cup, Timothy's and other such venues, lately. And I think that similar "rules" apply to when your interviewer invites you out to lunch or dinner as part of the interviewing process. First and foremost, you must keep in mind that, regardless of where the meeting takes place, you must treat it just as seriously as if you are on that employer's premises.

What this means is that all the standard guidelines of interviewing apply. Dress appropriately. Show up five minutes early. Don't be fooled into a false sense of informality just because you aren't in an office setting.

Also, there are also rules of etiquette to be aware of in a coffee shop. For instance when entering the store, try to be the one who opens the door for your interviewer(s). Stand side-by-side with them, or behind them, when waiting in line to order since you don't want them staring at the back of your head. When you go to place your order, invite them to do so first. Remember that you are demonstrating courtesy and respect throughout. And when you do order something, make it as simple and inexpensive as possible: this is not the time to demand a triple mocha whipped espresso delight that takes 10 minutes to prepare and costs $7. Offer to pay for all that is ordered, even though you know the employer will insist that they foot the bill themselves.

Hanging around too long at the condiment centre is a no-no as well. Skip the extra helpings of chocolate cinnamon sprinkles. It's time to get down to business. However don't rush over to a table before your interviewers are ready to do so. Let them choose the table and seating arrangements. This is, after all, their meeting, even if it's not being held on their turf.

One brief comment about chair selection. In some coffee houses, there are certain seats that are much shorter than others. If you get stuck in a short one, look around to see if you might borrow a chair that puts you at eye-level with your meeting partners. Being forced to look up the whole time like you're an eight-year-old can be unnerving.

If you've ordered a hot beverage, test the table for stability before placing your cup on it. Nothing says "careless" like bumping an unbalanced table and watching your steaming tea tumble into the scalded lap of the person across from you. (Ask me about the time I squeezed a lemon recklessly and the droplets squirted straight into the eye of my interviewer. Ouch!) Bring an extra napkin with you just in case. But don't grab a dozen napkins, or it will look like you are wasteful.

Something unique to coffee shops is how voices travel. We've all heard extra loud conversations held there as if people believe they are in a "cone of silence." Your goal is to modulate your own voice so that it's around the same level as that of your interviewer(s). If this means that nearby patrons will overhear you, well, you may just have to accept this lack of privacy for now. You might try lowering your voice, though, when asking the interviewer(s) questions about their organization. This shows that you are concerned about preserving the confidentiality of their information.

Other than that, proceed with the interview as normal. Sip your beverage slowly and gracefully. Don't speak with your mouth full (wouldn't that be a sight!). And stand up when the meeting is over to shake hands, smile, and thank the interviewer(s). Offer to take their waste to the trash. Politeness counts right to the final moment - as do all the traditional touches. p.s. A small note of caution: if an employer asks you to meet them in a coffee shop rather than at their place of work and refuses to let you visit their premises, be at least a little bit suspicious. Are they trying to hide something?
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