at an interview in a coffee shop, who pays for the coffee?

A reader writes:

At a job interview, I showed up at the company’s office and the person interviewing me announced we were not going to do the interview in his office, but at a local coffee shop. Tall gorgeous shoes ruined by a walk in the snow notwithstanding…… we ordered our coffees and each paid for our own.

Friends I have asked about this are evenly split on the proper etiquette in this situation – half are appalled that I did not offer to pay for his coffee (as the interviewee) and the other half are appalled that he (as the interviewer) did not offer to pay for mine.

As the host of the meeting, he should have paid for your coffee. I’m not sure I’d use the word “appalling,” but it was certainly ungracious.

You paying for his would have been weird and vaguely improper. Not that a job can be bought for a cup of coffee, but someone in a position of power (the interviewer) shouldn’t be letting people who want something from him (a job) buy him anything, even a coffee.

{ 25 comments… read them below }

  1. Charles*

    “appalled” and “ungracious” are just two words, let me add a third and a fourth – “presumptuous” and “red flag” (okay, so that’s a fourth with a fifth).

    I say presumptuous because the interviewer sort of assumed that you would have the cash on hand to pay for coffee (or whatever). While it’s not smart to not carry enough cash for just such; But, what if you didn’t? Also, the interviewer is assuming that you can afford to spend money on such “luxuries.” For some folks being unemployed and spending money to get to interviews is already a lot.

    And, it is a red flag to me because I was once interviewed in a coffee shop. I didn’t think much of it at the time except to think, “this is okay he prefers to be casual”. Wrong! He really interviewed me in the coffee shop because there was no room in the company’s office. All employees sat around a big fold-up table with their computers connected to a router in the middle. There would have been no place to do a private interview. This was just the first of several other warning signs, but I some how or other just didn’t see them. (hitting hand against head saying, dumb, dumb, just dumb I am). The final warning flag (or more like the straw that broke the camel’s back) was that paychecks were delayed – I stayed less than a month.

    Conducting the interview outside the office doesn’t have to be a red flag; but, ask yourself, what was the interviewer’s reason for “going out” to do an interview? The reason may have been valid or maybe it isn’t.

  2. Sergey Gorbatov*

    I agree with Charles: the flags raised in the situation are covering the entire field. Normally, I would refrain from taking someone to a coffee shop for the interview, unless I am travelling and cannot accommodate a person at the office. In that case, normally I would go for the hotel lobby or will rent a small meeting room at the hotel if there are a number of interviews lined up. In any case, I will ALWAYS foot the bill… for a number of reasons: (1) it’s me who is inviting the other person and not vice versa, (2) I want to present myself and the company in a good light, (3) while it is an expense account for me, it is personal cash for the interviewee and I really in no position to make assumptions of his/her financial position. Even if I am inviting a potential candidate for dinner (senior positions), I would always put that on my corporate card…

  3. Rachel - Former HR Blogger*

    I would be concerned about why you’re interviewing in a coffee shop. The advantage to interviewing where you should, at the office, is that you get to see the location and the staff and get a general sense of the office.

    This whole situation sounds weird. You don’t get to see an actual office. They don’t pay for your coffee. Is there an actual job?

  4. JC*

    I’d say this is a bit of a red flag too. Very last minute on their part and inconsiderate to say the least. The potential employer should have picked up the bill – they “invited” you so they should pay. My boss did an interview at a cafe and paid the bill, then got it reimbursed as a business expense, so I don’t understand why your interviewers couldn’t have done the same. Also, as said above, what if I don’t have a lot of money to buy luxuries like gourmet coffee?

    I hate the thought of meal/coffee shop interviews anyway. Nothing would make me more nervous than trying to answer questions while hoping to God I don’t spill coffee or my soup all over the place. :-)

  5. Claire*

    Yeah, this is weird. You show up for an appointment at a certain place/time and he shuffles you out the door for a coffee interview on your dime? At the very least, the inconsiderate nature gives me pause. I’m wondering if he didn’t just want a coffee break!

  6. Chris*

    Going out to do a lunch or coffee interview is quite common. I have done plenty. However, the company always picks up the tab. That should raise a red flag as this person does not understand basic social protocol.

    The only situations where you pick up the tab is if you are a salesperson trying to sell the company a product or service. I usually avoid sales people taking anyone out anyway. A nice meal can make some people very pliant.

    Going Dutch is usually reserved for peers going out. It can be done if a manager goes, but they should not be in your reporting chain.

  7. mouse*

    Yeah I’ve done consultant type interviews in coffee shops (I worked as an indie admin asst. for a while, like a temp agency without the agency) but not for actual please show up to work everyday jobs. Actually I did have one coffee shop interview for a regular gig but the shop was downstairs from the office which I still got to see (small office full of biz to biz telemarketers in an old building with weird acoustics) so it made sense there. Without context, this is not just red flags but potentially a flashing red sign (says the paranoid who has had more interviews for scams than real jobs in the last two years).

  8. Reva*

    Wow, everyone here has pretty much covered everything I was going to say – bottom line: red flags galore – in an interview situation, the potential employer should always pay.

  9. The gold digger*

    He made you walk in high heels? In the snow? And your shoes were ruined? That’s just mean. My husband drops me off at the restaurant/theater/whatever when we got out so I don’t have to walk through snow, slush and ice in my nice shoes. Yes, I know you weren’t on a date with this guy, but he sounds clueless.

    1. Anonymous*

      No one made her wear expensive shoes in the snow. She could’ve worn snow boots and changed them in the bathroom, or she could’ve worn plain dress shoes that could handle the snow.

      1. Anonymous*

        She wasn’t planning on walking in the snow at all. Walking in snow on a job interview for an office position is generally not something that one prepares for…..

  10. Chopped Liver*

    Lots of red flags. The ONLY way I see not doing this at the office, or at least giving a tour of the office, is if the OP is replacing someone who does not know they are being fired yet. And if that is the case, OP, you do not want the job anyway. Do you really want to work for someone who hires your replacement before even telling you that the job is in jeopardy?! And his not paying for the coffee again screams jerk.

  11. Anon y. mouse*

    That’s kind of strange, but not a total deal breaker for me. Just keep an eye out for any more weird stuff, and make sure you get a tour of the office before accepting any offers. I’d be more irritated about the ruined shoes than anything else. :-(

  12. Lexy*

    I actually do see a potential reason for not paying that would make sense, sort of.

    The manager let’s you go first to order and before he can get his card (or cash) out to say he’ll pay you’ve already settled up with the cashier.

    He still could have said in line that he would be getting both, or it’s his treat or something, but some people aren’t good at that sort of thing.

    I’ve had plenty of “informational” type interviews/meetings in coffeeshops, but never a realy interview. But if there’s multiple rounds of interviews and you’ll get to see the office and meet people at the next one, I’d say it’s fine. Who knows maybe they only have one conference room and an emergency came up and it had to be used (last minute project demands, important client stopping by unexpectedly…).

    Bottom line, for me, it is a red flag in that you should go on with your eyes wide open and be sure to ask lot’s of pointed questions, but I think there’s definitely some legitimate reasons that your interview could have shaken out like this.

  13. Dawn*

    Maybe the simplest explanation is the right one – he just wasn’t thinking when it came time to pay. I personally don’t see that as a red flag. If it were me I’d likely be thinking the guy is oblivious to social protocol, but it wouldn’t make me run screaming from the coffee shop.

    As for interviewing in the coffee shop, perhaps there was a reason there wasn’t an available office. We recently moved into new digs and it was a few weeks before we had everything settled. Now that we do, there are times when there are (unexpectedly) no avilable offices. Or, maybe he just wanted to make the interviewee feel more relaxed.

    Someone mentioned that maybe the person being interviewed will be replacing someone who doesn’t know they are being fired and that’s why the interview is off premises. That makes perfect sense to me. In our place, the person being fired has received warnings, and knows their work is unsatisfactory, but would NEVER know when they’re being fired. If the person knew when they were going to be fired and saw people coming in to interview for their position, that might cause the person to do all sorts of unethical things that we wouldn’t find out about until they are gone, especially if it’s someone with admin privileges on the network or someone who works in accounting.

  14. Elaine*

    Lots of red flags, especially having you walk through the snow even though you weren’t wearing boots! I know that a lot of young people were not brought up with an emphasis on good manners and etiquette. In that case, a person does have the right to say, “I don’t have boots with me” and expect some kind of reasonable compromise.

    Another point – when you interview with someone, always ask to use the restroom (when you’re finished). You might be able to see the office area, and even if you can’t, you can tell a lot about the place by the condition of the restrooms. Filthy, neglected toilet areas indicate the kind of consideration they have for the employees.

    Yes, I’m old, and old-fashioned.

  15. Interviewer*

    I am trying to figure out what information your friends have that we don’t, because it sounds like more than one thinks you should have to pay for the coffee. Is this an informational interview, where there’s no actual job? In that case, where the man is doing you a big favor by meeting with you, you probably should pay for your own coffee and offer to pay for his as well.

    But if it’s an actual job interview – he should have offered to pay for yours. It’s not strange to move location, esp. if the person being replaced needs to be kept unaware of the interviews. But I do agree it will require you to rely on what your gut is telling you if the process continues to stray from the expected norms. Pay close attention to those red flags.

  16. Anonymous*

    Maybe the guy didn’t pay because he has a girlfriend that would have been uncomfortable with it.

    1. Jamie*

      I assume you’re being facetious – because if this were true he shouldn’t have a job if he can’t distinguish between a date and an interview.

      They may have similarities (awkward small talk, judging and being judged, etc.) but as the agendas are different, so are the rules.

      At least for employers who don’t spend a lot of time before the labor board :).

  17. Jamie*

    I agree with those who have said it’s not a huge deal that it was off-site – sometimes timing dictates that interviews happen before someone knows they are being replaced.

    But not paying – very rude. My employer would be mortified if anyone here did that, because of the impression it gives.

    I also think it was weird that you didn’t know it was going to be off-site and a walk would be involved. I don’t think I’m the only woman to takes into account how much walking (and where) I will be doing when I choose footwear.

  18. Nellie*

    It also just sends a red flag for what else you might be expected to pay for out of pocket. Not every org is flush with cash, but they should reimburse expenses that you wouldn’t have incurred had you not been performing a work function. In this case, you weren’t buying coffee for fun (and it wasn’t your choice to do the interview over coffee!). Are they not going to reimburse you for meals when traveling? Ground transportation even within the city where your job is located?

    Not sure if this interviewer was your potential manager, but I also think it sends red flags that he doesn’t have the social wherewithal to have offered to pay for yours (or known that he should). If he’s uncomfortable explaining that it’s on him or making sure he tells the cashier “we’re together,” what else is he going to be too awkward to do?

  19. Michael D. Moore*

    Over 40 years of senior management expereince and extensive activity in hiring and recruiting, there is no question but that the interviewer should have paid for the coffee. This is simply common business practice. In addition, the interviewer suggested the change of venue placing the interview in a location where the coffee had to be purchased versus the interviewer’s office where common courtesy would suggest the interviewer would offer something.

  20. Rachel*

    I find it extraordinary that any serious business person would think it was OK to have someone turn up for an interview at their office, then drop it on that person that what they instead propose is having a discussion in a public place that would be more suited to an informal date with a friend than a formal business meeting with a complete stranger. It raises so many red flags on a professional level, and is frankly more than a little creepy on a personal level.

    As for dragging you through the snow in smart office shoes – I guess most men wont get just how grossly inappropriate this is, but trust me, for a woman having her smart shoes ruined by someone else’s utter lack of consideration and foresight into the consequences of their actions is a Very Big Deal indeed. If this guy had wanted to go trekking in the snow instead of having a civilised meeting in a business environment, he should have said so in advance, not waited until it was too late for his guest to make allowances for his unusual and unanticipated change of venue. For guys, a woman having her shoes ruined in this way is kind of on a par with if she had caused the freshly-waxed and lovingly-polished paint job on your prized car to get all muddy and scratched by asking you to drive her off-road to a meeting place elsewhere, when you had been expecting that your meeting would be taking place at your original location (which you’d been able to drive to on normal roads).

    As for paying for coffee, if it had been me in this interviewee’s place, and if I’d agreed to go along with being interviewed in an unprofessional public setting a trudge through snow away (which I don’t think I would), I’d have been expecting the person that suggested the unscheduled detour to pay for their own coffee. I wouldn’t have had anything to pay for myself, since I’d have been there to listen and talk business, not to eat and drink. To be honest, though, my gut reaction if I’d turned up for an interview and had instead found the interviewer treating the meeting like a social date would be to say “I’m sorry, but I came here for an interview, and I don’t think a public place would be a suitable venue for that sort of meeting”. If she or he then still tried to insist that a public venue was a suitable place to discuss my personal career history and salary expectations, and their skills gap and confidential business needs, I’d have wished them luck and bid them goodbye.

  21. Christine*

    This reminds me of a situation, I was interviewed in a busy hotel lobby, not so bad, except I had to complete a 50 minute written test.
    The interviewer then shows up after the 50 minutes, puts the test to one side saying it didn’t matter, said he didn’t know what position he was interviewing me for, that he was building a team and didn’t want anyone in the office to see who he was interviewing. He was wearing a sweatband on his head with sunglasses perched on top. The test was also completely unrelated to the job.
    This was a large company, I am shocked that they did not mind leaving such a bad impression.

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