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Students devoir dos and don'ts of business dining and interview etiquette

Dinner interview practice
ECS Assistant Director Susan Piacenza (left) conducts a practice dinner interview with mechanical engineering student Mary Bestul. Larger Image

Shower. Groom. Dress. Eat. Behave.

For college-age students, easy, right?

Not necessarily-especially for students embarking upon the all-important interview that, with luck, will land them their first "real-world" job. Add a few butterflies to the mix, and somehow successfully accomplishing those basic life functions can become as difficult as notching a perfect score on the physics final exam.

Suit or sport coat? Skirt or pants? Cologne or perfume? What to do with four forks, three spoons and three knives? In response to questions like these, the Engineering Career Services Office (ECS) recently debuted "Dining/Etiquette/Attire," a one-hour etiquette-refresher course. About 50 students attended the slide-based lecture to learn how to dress for an interview and mind their manners during a business dinner.

ECS already helps students develop thorough resumes, and offers individual counseling, mock interviews and workshops to enhance their communication skills during an interview. "Dining/Etiquette/Attire" is another way ECS can help students boost their chances of landing a job during the entire interviewing and selection process, says ECS Assistant Director Susan Piacenza.

The workshop evolved from student concerns about what styles of dress are appropriate for various segments of the interview process, says Piacenza. "As business attire becomes more casual, students have many questions regarding what constitutes 'business casual,' and what is appropriate 'beyond the interview' in meeting with employers," she says. "Recruiters are increasingly asking students to dine with them on campus and in on-site visits. We feel it is important for students to be comfortable, behaving with poise and graciousness, during this important part of the recruiting process."

Although students learned a variety of etiquette and attire dos and don'ts at the workshop, they also reviewed and reinforced many common-sense concepts they learned at home. Piacenza, who led the workshop, used an actual place setting to demonstrate how to use silverware, goblets and napkins appropriately before, during and after a meal. She says students brought a variety of etiquette knowledge levels to the table. One student had just returned from a cruise and was very polished in the ways of dining etiquette-especially when it came to grappling with how and when to use various pieces of silverware, she says. His simple suggestion: "When in doubt, go from the outside in."

But what about those pesky, unexpected food situations? Piacenza also posed hypothetical questions: "You have just placed a bite of chicken into your mouth and you find a bone. What do you do?" Students could choose to spit it out onto their plates, use a fork to take the bone out of their mouth and put it on their plates, swallow it, or use the bone to clean their teeth. (Believe it or not, the correct action is to use the fork to remove the bone and set it inconspicuously on the plate.)

To research "Dining/Etiquette/Attire," Amy J. Huseth, assistant director of the ECS co-op/intern program (on family leave during the workshop), went straight to the sources. She contacted employers to learn their expectations for appropriate interview and on-the-job attire, and consulted major clothing retailers and dining and etiquette experts. In that gray area of business casual, a popular style of dress with few concrete guidelines, employers suggest that entry-level engineers err on the conservative side or, if in doubt about what's appropriate, ask questions. And when it comes to the interview, they say prospective employees always should come in "business dress." For the workshop, Huseth assembled a slide show that demonstrated everything from interview attire to appropriate accessories.

Piacenza already is examining ways to improve the workshop, which ECS will offer every semester. She's thinking about adding actual clothing examples and bringing many place settings so students can practice what she's preaching. However "Dining/Etiquette/Attire" evolves, ECS will continue offering it to students in small groups. "Students are more comfortable asking questions regarding sock color and the correct direction for food passing in a small group," she says.

Perhaps her most sage piece of dining advice is this: "When in doubt, follow your host-except in the case when your host slyly uses the corner of the tablecloth as his napkin!"