Jonathan Malesic

Freelance writer at Freelance writer

Try to Lower the Stakes of the Job-Interview Dinner

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Growing up in a family in the suburban Midwest, Betsy Barre was not into fancy food. Dining out meant a place like Applebee’s, and one of her first jobs was waiting tables at Bob Evans. Her early eating habits were shaped by that experience: "No seafood, no mushrooms. And I didn’t really like tomatoes."

When she went on the academic job market in religious studies, she got an on-campus interview at a prestigious East Coast university. For dinner, the department took her to a venerable French restaurant near the campus. As Barre recalls, much of the menu was in French, with words like "soubise" and "fumet," and there were no prices listed. Mushrooms abounded. She wasn’t sure what was appropriate to order or how to pronounce it.

The whole situation raised the pressure of the interview. "You’re trying to be composed and be your best self, and then you’re confused about the menu," said Barre, who is now executive director of a teaching center for faculty members at Wake Forest University. She would be at ease in the same situation today, but for some rookie candidates, she says: "It’s an extra burden. I didn’t like being in a situation where people had to teach me something on my job interview."

Her experience puts a spotlight on a part of the hiring process that gets little discussion: the job-market dinner. Most of the advice I’ve seen on that front is directed at the job candidates: how you should (and shouldn’t) act, what you should (and shouldn’t) talk about.

But hiring committees need to get the interview dinner right, too. Above all, departments ought to put the candidate’s needs first — not just because it’s bad form to invite a vegan out to a steakhouse, but because meals tell the candidate a lot about who the department’s faculty members are as colleagues and human beings.

Dining is filled with unwritten social codes: signifiers of status, indexes of health, identity markers, taboos. When academic departments invite a job candidate out to eat, they’re putting all of that on the table. As a result, their choice of a restaurant can signal who belongs and who doesn’t belong at the university or in the wider community.

The decision about where to hold the interview meal can put certain candidates at a disadvantage: scholars who belong to underrepresented racial or ethnic minorities, or who have disabilities, or who come from the working class, or who, like Barre, grew up far from the culture of large, cosmopolitan cities. Dining thus presents a potential hurdle — among many other hurdles — to finding the very best candidates and building a more diverse professoriate.

Departments understandably want to impress their job candidates. But in so doing, they might overreach and bring candidates to a restaurant where they’ll be uncomfortable. Your favorite sushi bar won’t dazzle someone who hates seafood, or who’s avoiding it because she’s pregnant yet doesn’t want to reveal that to the search committee.

Ultimately it’s up to the hosts to make the best of such awkward situations. In Barre’s case, for example, she said the department members who took her to that French restaurant weren’t snobby about it. They didn’t look down on her when she revealed her culinary ignorance and, once ordering was out of the way, she was able to be herself.

If reaching for a too-fancy restaurant for the interview dinner can alienate some job candidates, then so can picking a place that’s too ordinary.

A department took my former colleague Garrett Barr, an associate professor of biology at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., to Olive Garden for his interview dinner. The decision, he was told, had to do with ensuring that faculty members who had long commutes could get on the interstate quickly and make it home at a reasonable hour. That’s a valid concern, but the meal left Barr wondering if he’d like living in a city where endless breadsticks seemed to be the height of culture.

Barr ended up getting an offer, taking the job, and discovering the region’s best restaurants on his own. He served as chair of the department for five years. When job candidates come to visit, he told me, he typically gives them options that include a Thai place near the college or a brewpub a 10-minute drive away.

Yet even those two options send signals about who will fit into a department’s culture. The Thai restaurant, like many in Pennsylvania, doesn’t have a liquor license, while the brewpub obviously puts beer at the center of the experience. Job candidates might fear they will be judged based on whether — and how much — they drink. Rather than put the candidate on the spot by asking "do you drink?" or making the decision for them by choosing a place without a liquor license, perhaps it’s best to just allow candidates to make the choice and then avoid commenting on it.

In addition to all the other cultural codes surrounding dining out, restaurants are highly racialized spaces. For one thing, the restaurant industry tends to be sharply segregated by race, with white workers typically interacting with customers and workers of color laboring for low wages out of diners’ sight.

Furthermore, dining rooms are often what the sociologist Elijah Anderson calls "white spaces," where people who aren’t white may feel unwelcome. "When the anonymous black person enters the white space," Anderson writes, "others there immediately try to make sense of him or her — to figure out ‘who that is,’ or to gain a sense of the nature of the person’s business and whether they need to be concerned."

That feeling of being suspect can pose a further challenge to candidates of color at a time when they are trying to manage all the other professional and social demands of the job interview. Feeling racially excluded in that moment can also cause candidates to wonder if it’s worth moving to the town. For that reason, it’s better to take candidates of any race to restaurants that are among the more universally welcoming "cosmopolitan spaces" — Anderson’s term — that exist in otherwise segregated cities.

Despite the many potential pitfalls, it is possible to get the interview dinner right. I know from experience. My first interview dinner was a collegial affair at a perfectly fine casual restaurant in a small city. I was exhausted, and the department members didn’t put too much pressure on me to perform. I was able to eat my meal and enjoy their company. I got the job.

Years later, I had an interview at a university in a city known for its food culture. The department took me out to a pizza place located in a former fire house. The restaurant was busy and fun, the menu uncomplicated, the food excellent. I was well advanced in my career by then; even a bad restaurant pick wouldn’t have rattled me. I had a great time. I was disappointed when I didn’t get that job; I wanted to go back to that place, with those people.

Here are a few ways departments and search committees can make the interview dinner less stressful and more welcoming:

  • Inquire about the candidate’s dietary restrictions and preferences early — right when the call is made to schedule an on-campus interview.
  • Let candidates know — before they arrive — where they’ll be dining so they can research the menu online. That will relieve the pressure of trying both to process a potentially unfamiliar place and project competence and good cheer.
  • There’s no need to go off campus for every meal in an effort to impress a candidate who is probably worn out from traveling and meeting people. Campus cafes and dining halls are fine.
  • Pick restaurants with dining rooms where people of multiple races and ethnicities are working and eating. (Granted, this may be difficult in racially homogeneous regions.) Also try to favor restaurants with gender-neutral restrooms. Yelp tracks this information.

Keep in mind: The faculty’s favorite place might not be right for the candidate for a variety of reasons. At any rate, candidates may barely have a chance to taste the amazing meal they’re having. The department can go to its favorite place another time.

I realize it’s easier to follow much of this advice in large cities with vibrant dining scenes. But it’s possible to be a courteous host anywhere. Together, these suggestions aim to: (a) lower the stakes of the interview dinner and (b) put more of the social burden on the search committees. That’s where the burden should rest. Job candidates have enough to worry about as it is.

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