Further Questions: How Can a Candidate Ace Dinner with the Search Committee?

This week’s question is from a Twitter follower. I asked people who hire librarians:

Do you have any tips for acing dinner with the search committee?  If you do not work for an organization that includes a meal as part of the interview process, do you have any tips do for the more informal, social aspect of mingling or making small talk with your interviewers?

Samantha Thompson-FranklinI would recommend that if a candidate is having lunch or dinner with members of a search committee, that you do your best to act naturally and participate in the conversation. Do not sit in silence but be polite, well-mannered and engaging. The meal is a good time for more informal conversation and candidate can use this time to ask questions about the region, activities available to do outside of work time, general interests of your prospective colleagues, etc.  so that both parties can get to know each other a bit more. I think that it’s also the responsibility of the search committee members to initiate conversation with the candidate and to include them in the conversation.

- Samantha Thompson-Franklin, Associate Professor/Collections & Acquisitions Librarian, Lewis-Clark State College Library

Laurie PhillipsFirst of all, please please let the chair of the search committee (or the person who is your contact) know if you have dietary restrictions. We once unknowingly took a vegetarian to a restaurant that had no vegetarian option on the menu and we were horribly embarrassed. We would have been happy to accommodate had we known. If everybody else is having a drink and you want to have a drink, by all means, go ahead. I wouldn’t recommend it at lunch! Be open to new foods. We are always so careful to choose restaurants that have a lot of options but in a foodie city, we worry that candidates will be overwhelmed. If possible, ask for the name of the restaurant so you can have a look at the menu and be comfortable in advance. Above all, realize that this is a chance for the hiring committee to get to know you. Be sure that you talk rather than just listening. We want to see how you’ll fit with our group. If there is banter at the table, dive in!

- Laurie Phillips, Associate Dean for Technical Services, J. Edgar & Louise S. Monroe Library, Loyola University New Orleans

scott wiebensohnA few years ago, I worked for a boss who did take potential candidates out to dinner.  His make or break decision was whether or not you added salt or pepper to your meal before tasting it.  If you altered your meal before tasting the way the chef had prepared it, he would not hire you.  Now this may be an extreme example, and yet he had his reasons and I respected him immensely.  I’m not advising anyone resist the option of adding salt or pepper to your meal!  Simply be yourself and be professionally comfortable in this type of interview setting.  I would encourage sharing a short story or two that would be both entertaining and memorable.  Your dinner companions would like to enjoy working with you knowing that you are a sociable person outside away from your desk.

- Scott Wiebensohn, Manager of Library Services, Jones eGlobal

Dinner–

Eat a light snack before you go–because you are not going to eat.

Wear clothing that will not drape or trail on the table (and in food)–and elbows off.

On best behavior.  Study up and then practice etiquette, sit up straight, what goes where, how to use butter (if common, take a bit and place on plate–if individual, more or less, the same), don’t forget where your napkin goes, don’t speak while you chew–listen as best you can when you are eating (if you can’t be sure not to eat much), and remember to place your silverware correctly when pausing (crossed on plate) or when done (aligned at 4:20 or 7:35 positions).  (God help anyone invited to a private home–although I am grateful to several professors along my career route who held dinner parties and let us all practice–and corrected–our youthful enthusiasm and rotten behavior–despite all our parents’ best efforts–or not.)

Order something light, designed not to spill–so soup or spaghetti are out. Almost anything with melted cheese or needing to be wound on a fork is just a bad idea.  Unless everyone else is dealing with finger food–sandwiches and chips/crisps/fries are not ideal either–unless open faced and can be cut and forked.  Salad, while spillable, works.  Do I have to say–no alcohol!  Stick with water or tea (hot or iced) for a beverage. (Not coffee–it’s a breath killer)  And certainly not the most or least expensive on the menu.  No dessert, even if offered.

Oh, and be decently nervous and/or sufficiently concentrating enough NOT to finish dinner.

If something spills on your lap, pray it gets caught in your napkin, and return it to the edge of your plate if a solid.  If it hits the floor, leave it.  Caught in your teeth, do your best–but like your nose–no picking!  Flies across the table (heavens) apologize and then let your dinner companions excuse you.  Same thing for spilling beverages.  In all cases, try to be calm, it will minimize the likelyhood of any of this.

No wrapping the remains, either.

Small talk should follow the lead of the elders.  If questions are asked, respond courteously–but do not babble.  Even if you must rehearse, ask questions in kind–about pets, interests, hobbies, location, area attractions, the best local coffee shop, books, movies, and so forth–you can even ask after their careers.  It might be a good idea to stay away from families, children–as it opens the door for them to ask the same of you.  If you are still in the interview process, this is illegal.  But, to be honest, it’s whatever you’re comfortable with.

Good luck and bon appetit!

- Virginia Roberts, Director, Chippewa Falls Public Library

Marleah AugustineDo your research about the organization. It does wonders for a candidate when they can ask informed questions and talk about issues or activities that are relevant to the folks already at the organization. It gives you something about which to hold a conversation. Be natural when speaking with everyone. We aren’t looking for people to be completely scripted, but rather we are looking at the interactions and how that person fits with existing staff.

- Marleah Augustine, Adult Department Librarian at Hays Public Library

Dusty Snipes GresWe include a meal, usually lunch, as part of our interview process. It was set up as part of the process before I was hired and has remained as a tradition.  I think it provides a way for someone to relax a bit in a more informal setting, and show the ability to interact with different people in different surroundings. Particularly in a rural setting like ours where the librarian wears many hats, that ability is an important skill. But, it can be tricky. Folks aren’t really trying to catch your bad habits or find out secrets, but informal doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be cautious and remain professional.

I can tell you things some things to do and not to do – based on many of these meals I have attended through the years. All of these really happened, you can’t make this stuff up, and they all should be fairly obvious.

  • Don’t announce to the table that you are aware that the meal is a ploy to try and find out information that is illegal to ask in the interview.
  • Don’t ask for a doggy bag; especially don’t order two meals and ask for a doggy bag.
  • Don’t order an alcoholic drink, even if others in the party do.
  • Don’t be snarky to the waiter/waitress.
  • Be upfront before going to the restaurant if you have specific food requirements.  If you are a vegetarian or you don’t eat fish, say so.
  • If you are on a special/restricted diet say so and let it go. Do not explain about your strange medical condition. Particularly do not elaborate on what happens when you eat bell peppers (or whatever).
  • If you are a picky eater and have to change everything on the menu, or give extensive special instructions for how you want your meal prepared: don’t do it this time.
  • Now is the time to remember every rule of good manners and dining etiquette your Mother or Grandmother ever tried to teach you. No elbows on the table, close your mouth when you chew, don’t talk with your mouth full, use your napkin, don’t hold your fork like a shovel, don’t put dirty utensils back on the table, don’t start eating until everyone is served – if you don’t remember them, and you know there will be a meal as part of the process, look them up!
  • Say excuse me, please and thank you.
  • This is a hard one, but it has to be said – some folks say grace before meals, always and everywhere with anyone. Be prepared and if you don’t believe, be quiet.
  • Be prepared for conversation. Someone will ask, always, what you are currently reading and what do you think of X book or Y author. Don’t fake it if you haven’t read it or don’t like it; don’t elaborate, it isn’t a book review, it is conversation. They might also bring up movies, the weather, and the price of rice in China. It is conversation. Be on the mental lookout for the words I and me and how many times you say them.
  • Even if someone who should know better brings up politics or religion, figure out a good way to avoid and reroute the discussion. You can’t win, no matter what side you are on and this is also good practice for being a librarian who deals with the public all day. And, please, don’t you be the one to bring up politics or religion!
  • Don’t  say things like, “Wow. Who would have thought there would be a good restaurant in a town like this.”
  • Men – take your hat off, unless you are wearing one for religious reasons. Women – don’t fix your make-up at the table.

I think you can get my drift, here. I have never not hired someone just because of how they acted during one of these meals, but I have included my impressions in the overall evaluation of the candidate and his/her suitability for this system.

- Dusty Gres, Director, Ohoopee Regional Library System

Thank you as always to our contributors for their time and insight.  If you’re someone who hires librarians and are interested in participating in this feature, please email me at hiringlibrariansATgmail.com.

Thank YOU for reading!  If you’re changing color due to emotions engendered by something you read  here, you might be a comment-chameleon.  So comment, comment, comment-chameleon!

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3 Comments

Filed under Academic, Further Questions, Other Organization or Library Type, Public, Rural area

3 responses to “Further Questions: How Can a Candidate Ace Dinner with the Search Committee?

  1. Stephanie Bennett

    Just an FYI: asking personal questions is not illegal; hiring based on someone’s answers to those questions/their status is. A good resource on that is Ask A Manager aka Alison Green, who wrote this: http://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/outside-voices-careers/2011/01/10/is-that-interview-question-legal

    For my part, I try to mirror my host in my ordering and conversation topics (without being a creepy copycat). A light lunch is a must, and nothing too ostentatious – especially if they also already paid for my travel. Being polite never hurts, and I believe it’s important to understand colleagues on both personal and professional levels, so I welcome the opportunity to have “casual conversation” (interviews rarely feel casual, but these opportunities are as causal as it gets!)

  2. Rachel

    I love the story about the guy who would hire based on whether they added salt before tasting!! I get on people about that too (but not as a basis for staff decisions). As I understand it, chefs find it insulting to add salt or pepper to a dish because it insinuates that it was not seasoned properly. I wonder if the hiring manager was a chef at some point?

  3. Pingback: Further Questions Questions | Hiring Librarians

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