what to do if a coworker stops by your table during a job interview over lunch

A reader writes:

In one of your recent blog posts, there was a question involving day-long interviews — and the possibility of part the interview taking place over lunch.

In my current job, I often have vendors and sales reps take me to lunch in fairly close proximity to my office. It seems that quite often we will bump into someone I know who stops by the table to say hello. Generally, I feel completely comfortable introducing my dining partner, chatting for a few minutes, then excusing ourselves to return to our business lunch.

But, how would someone handle this situation if it happened during one of these interview lunches? You can’t give someone “the stink eye” from across the room to discourage them from approaching you. What kind of conversation or introduction do you give to an acquaintance — or even a coworker or boss — if you don’t want it to be known that this is an interview?

There are two different approaches you can use here, depending on who’s doing the interrupting.

If your table is approached by someone who doesn’t currently work with you and who you’re not worried will wonder if you’re on an interview, you can handle these interruptions close to how you currently do with your lunches with vendors and sales reps. Say hello and introduce them, but then quickly signal that you need to get back to your conversation, by saying something like, “It was great seeing you! Enjoy your lunch here.” People will understand that you’re in the middle of a business meeting and need to return to it — but if the occasional odd person doesn’t, then you can say more directly, “We’re having a working lunch, but I’d love to catch up later.”

However, if the person approaching you is a current coworker — or god forbid, boss — then I’d add one modification to the above: When you introduce the person to your interviewer, be specific about the relationship — e.g., “Jane, this is my manager at Los Pollos Hermanos, Gus Fring.”* Your interviewer is going to understand the situation and will be able to help you be discreet, if needed. Even here, however, you should be able to use the tactics above to quickly wrap up the drop-in and get back to your conversation … but it will be useful to have your interviewer understand the situation, since it will instantly provide context if you seem rattled.

Of course, even once the person walks away, you might be worried about what they might overhear from another table, and so it’s also useful for your interviewer to hear what the relationship is, so that they realize that they shouldn’t ask you questions within the person’s earshot like “why are you thinking about leaving your current job?” and others that make it obvious what kind of meeting this is. (Of course, this all assumes a minimum amount of intelligence and judgment on the part of your interviewer, but most people are going to get it.)

Fortunately, lunch interviews are generally more for getting to know each other better rather than hard-hitting interview questions, so even if your manager ends up overhearing some of your conversation, it will ideally sound like a networking lunch or other catch-up rather than a job interview.

I’m sure that someone somewhere has a nightmare story about this scenario (and I would like to hear it if so!), but in general, you should be able to recover pretty well by doing what’s outlined above. And you’ll look calm under pressure and reasonably socially adept as well, which is a plus.

* Don’t try this if your manager is really Gus Fring though. He will have you killed.

{ 49 comments… read them below }

  1. Mallorie, the recruiter

    I must admit, the first thing I thought of was the episode of Friends when Rachel gets busted. She did not handle it this gracefully, I am afraid. So, don’t pretend to be on a date!

  2. tangoecho5

    I don’t understand why the OP would even consider a lunch interview anywhere near his current business location? I realize it might not be totally impossible but it seems the OP has some flexibility so can probably take some extra time to travel further away to meet someone. And I expect the interviewer would prefer that too because it’s possible they’re known in the industry and could be recognized too and/or there is always that chance there will be some obnoxious co-worker who won’t take the hint to leave the table after a quick hello. And how awkward would that be?

    1. tangoecho5

      I meant regarding being recognized is if the interviewer travels to be near the interviewee, who knows, it might look like he’s the one job shopping if recognized.

    2. some1

      After the Friends episode connection, that was my first thought. If I was in the interviewee I would head it off by saying, “Is it okay if we don’t go to a restaurant that’s downtown? My employer doesn’t know that I am looking and a lot of my colleagues go out for lunch.” Any interviewer who didn’t understand how awkward that could be is probably not someone I want to work for.

    3. AdAgencyChick

      Completely agree. OP, do as much as you can to avoid this. A reasonable hiring manager should understand the need for discretion.

      (Says the gal who asked for a lunch interview to avoid being seen in the company’s offices — I’d worked there before and knew the rumor mill would get started if I was seen there — but stupidly let the interviewer pick a restaurant very close by, and ended up being seen anyway because there was a tableful of former coworkers ALSO having lunch there.)

    4. Cat

      That’s hard to do if the two offices are right next to each other, which isn’t that implausible in a dense city core. You can’t really ask the interviewer to go way away from their office for lunch, especially if you’re in a dense city core where everyone is just expecting to walk to a local restaurant. I semi-recently got a call from a recruiter about a job for a law firm located in the same building as mine. I wasn’t interested in the job anyway, but I did spent a few minutes contemplating how awkward sneaking to that interview would be.

      1. De Minimis

        I did that once, had to sneak around in a suit to interview in a building that was only a couple of blocks away from my job. No one wore suits at my job so co-workers would have known what I was up to if I’d been seen. It very easily could have happened, people from my work were out and about at all times of day, running to Starbucks, the bank, etc.

        I took an indirect route and parked in a different area, but it was a nerve-wracking walk both to and from my interview.

        1. some1

          Regarding the suit thing, I worked in an office as an admin and none of the admins ever wore suits. I came in on Casual Friday in a suit because I was interviewing for another job (which I got). I planned to say I was going to a wake right after work because I was sure someone would say something, but no one did.

          1. RubyJackson

            Oh! a wake! or a funeral. *Great* excuse. I’m going to keep that one in my back pocket.

          2. Matt

            I appeared at my previous job several times in a suit due to funerals during the day. Each time people got all riled up worrying that I was interviewing somewhere.

            When I did interview over lunch, I set it up way across town, further than I had ever known anyone from the office to go to lunch. It helped that the interviewer was from out of town and didn’t have any reason to be known by my coworkers anyway.

            1. Chocolate Teapot

              What about saying that you are fed up with “Dress down Fridays” and instead have decided to have “Dress up Fridays”?

              1. AgilePhalanges

                We are VERY casual at my company (combination of casual region and casual company), and we actually did this once. It was awesome to see our co-workers in nicer clothing (some went all out to formal, some just wore business attire, one woman busted out her 1980s office wear–totally awesome).

      2. businesslady

        oh man, I once had an interview at a staffing agency that was in the same *building* as my current job (where I was the assistant to the CEO &, needless to say, not open about my search). even worse, they used a different set of elevators than our company. the the time I spent waiting in the lobby, praying none of my coworkers walked past me, were the longest 30 seconds of my life.

      1. Rana

        Yeah, I lived in a couple of those, and if you ate in the one Nice Restaurant, you were pretty much guaranteed to run into several colleagues while there.

    5. Kou

      I don’t know, most of the cities I’ve lived in have one or only a few specific lunch “districts” that are near the business districts. You would actually have to really try to go somewhere outside that zone, and I’m imagining this is something the interviewing company usually sets up– not you.

    6. Pandora Amora

      For an interview that’s happening over lunch, it’s quite possible that the interviewer has travelled cross-town to make it easier for the interviewee to make a full hour-long lunch. I’ve done this very thing several times, in fact:

      “Hey manager, I’m taking a 2 hour lunch today. Jane has a former colleague who seems to be in the market for a new job, and I wanted to recruit her. It’ll take me about an hour round-trip on the subway.”

      It’s completely understandable from the hiring company’s perspective to eat the travel time in order to meet really close to the candidate’s work.

      I always leave it to the candidate to chose the lunch spot, and always make it clear that it’s my tab.

  3. KarenT

    I would try to avoid this by lunching away from the office wherever possible (especially in the interview scenario). If I was taking someone for an interview lunch and they said, X restaurant is right across the street from my office, can we go a little ways from X Street, I would completely understand.

    As for the vendor thing, I agree with Alison. A simple “It was nice to see you” or “Anyways, we’re in the middle of a business lunch” should send most people on their way.

  4. BB

    I have nothing of substance to add really, but I love your little addendum. I think we’re all ready for Breaking Bad to start again already!

    1. Littlemoose

      Seconded. And if you want to know whether something’s legal, I wouldn’t call Saul.

    2. FRRibs

      Ditto. After the end of that last season, there must be a lot of job openings in that organiztion.

  5. OP

    Thanks for answering my question. It’s nice to know that I probably would have handled the situation reasonably well – but I like the idea of introducing the boss or other working associate by stating the relationship so the interviewer is aware of what’s going on. I’m not sure I would have thought of that. Is it reasonable to introduce the interviewer only by name and implying that whatever you happen to be doing there with them is some sort of personal business (letting your boss think it’s your insurance agent, financial planner, etc.?)

    As for the people wondering why you’d be at a restaurant close to work, I was basically using my current situation of having lunch interrupted to establish that there is always a possibility of bumping into someone you know. BUT, even in a city the size of Atlanta, when your company has multiple branch offices and 50-100 outside sales reps, I don’t think there is ever a place that’s 100% guaranteed privacy. Lunching 10 miles away from MY office could still put me across the street from a remote office, or across the street from a customer that the VP of Sales takes to lunch every Wednesday, or any of those other random yet typical business meetings could take place.

    1. Construction HR

      LOL about the ATL. I ran into my almost next door neighbor at the restaurant at the Orange County, California airport.

      No place is safe.

      1. Mena

        NO public place is safe. You can run into someone, any where. For example … My husband grew up and played sports with “Tom.” I have run into Tom in Boston, Orlando, the customs line in Toronto and, yes really, in Fumicino Airport (Rome, Italy). It is becoming a weird joke …

          1. some1

            I went to high school in my midwestern hometown and a h.s. classmate was my TSA guy at the airport in Vegas.

            1. Gene

              I ran into an old girlfriend in the Dallas Love Field while changing planes. Walked up behind her and whispered into her ear.

              Unfortunately, it wasn’t her… I guess the look of shocked horror on my face saved me. I bought her a drink and we chatted for a bit; never saw, or heard from her again.

            2. Chinook

              First week of work in Northern Japan there was a local call for me. It was a childhood friend who was working the next town over and I hadn’t seen in 10 years. She called to tell me that her father got a call from my father to ask her to track down my new office number and call me to tell me to phone home. (in my defense, I had called when I landed in Tokyo).

              Her replacment the following year turned out to be the neice of a former boss of mine. I was then able to convince people that there are only 10 families in Alberta and it is actually worth it to ask if they know their friend Joe in Edmonton.

        1. Kaz

          We ran into my husband’s former coworker when we were deplaning in Chicago, coming from Rome, and he said, “Hey, what are you doing here?”

          We’re in an airport coming out of an airplane, what the eff do you think we are doing here?

        2. Elizabeth West

          I went to a Grateful Dead concert once (before everybody died) in Mountain View, CA. My date and I were on the lawn seating up near the top. Out of the thousands of people there that night, two rows in front of me was a former coworker.

        3. Ellie H.

          I ran into someone I met at a party in Chicago (where I was visiting, and no longer lived there) in a Starbucks in Berlin.
          I ran into a kid who went to college with, and knew, my nephew in line for a plane at Charles de Gaulle in Paris. (Apparently this guy is famous for showing up unexpectedly in weird places, so it was apropos that I ran into him.)
          My dad ran into a childhood friend in the HEB supermarket while visiting me in Austin.

          It’s always weird and surprising – but when you think about it, you see literally thousands of people you don’t know every day, so statistically it might not be so weird. And of course, we only notice running into people we know, so it’s selection bias, too.

      2. jesicka309

        I ran into a former coworker in the customs line of an airport in a foreign country. WEIRD.
        Even more weird – we had both been scheduled to fly on a different flight that had been cancelled. We both took the same indirect flights instead, stopping over in the same cities, before meeting by chance at the destination.
        Very random.

    2. annie

      Yep, I once had an interview in the middle of the downtown, and in the few blocks from the train to the office I was interviewing at, I ran into not one but two people I knew while clearly dressed for an interview. Thankfully neither were current managers/coworkers, but it was so obvious what I was doing I just confessed and begged them to keep it a secret. They were both pretty amused at the coincidence and kept it quiet, thankfully.

    3. Kou

      The distance thing is especially tricky in the south where distances are pretty large anyway, everyone drives, and it wouldn’t be that weird to go miles away from the office for an errand in the middle of the day.

    1. ThursdaysGeek

      I’m glad she gives a link for those of us who don’t watch TV and are thus culturally illiterate.

    2. GonnaBAWriterNGetOut

      I’ve never seen the show but now that I’ve read the blog about this Gus dude, I’m in! Any minute here in the beauteous NW, the weather will change up to rain so it’s always fun to have another show to marathon. :)

  6. Christine

    I am now thinking of all the times I’ve run into colleagues lunching with people I don’t know, and just assumed they were vendors, clients, friends, or other people I’ve never met. I have never once assumed they were interviewing. A lot of people won’t think twice about it if you act natural.

    I wear a suit jacket to work once in a while just to freak them out. It’s good for them to remember that I have options and might exercise them.

  7. Editor

    Sending out for food and eating it in a conference room is sounding better and better for interviews in a dense urban area, although there’s no opportunity for the interviewer to see how the job candidate interacts with the wait staff.

    On the other hand, I would not particularly want to eat pizza or Chinese or Thai at an interview. Too much potential for spills. Rice, noodles and frisee (curly endive) are all on my list of dangerous foods.

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