Caught between casualness and formality, the serious coffee shop interview is tough not to notice. (Photo: Mónica Guzmán)
Caught between casualness and formality, the serious coffee shop interview is tough not to notice. (Photo: Mónica Guzmán)

Everything looked just as I expected inside the Uptown Espresso in Belltown. Then I noticed the dress.

Deep red, form fitting and smart, it looked good on the young woman sitting ten feet in front of me. She who wore it with a cardigan, black shoes and — whoa wait is that pantyhose? Daring a longer look I saw the rest: Her folded hands. Her rigid posture. The way she leaned forward, so alert, as the woman sitting across from her in a suit jacket shuffled papers and said something deliberate.

Oh dear, I thought. That’s not a coffee meeting. That’s a job interview.

Coffee shops can blend almost any conversation into their cool laid-back vibe, but job interviews, the really serious ones, at least, stand out. They’re so tense. So charged. So … important. Suspended between the casualness of the environment and the formality of the interaction, they become spectacles too out of place to ignore.

And they beg for sympathy.

“Sitting two tables away from a job interview,” I posted on Facebook. “Silently wishing her luck.”

“Good luck, stranger!” wrote a friend. “Hope she gets it!” wrote another.

Then Chris Pirillo asked something interesting.

“What if she’s wrong for the job?”

There are excellent reasons to interview job candidates at coffee shops. Employers can learn how Candidate X acts in public places. Or how comfortable he is with, well, getting comfortable. Can he handle in-line small talk? How does he interact with the cashier? Can he chat and eat? If recruiters want to preview someone’s personality as well as his skill set, meeting at a coffee shop accomplishes both.

Then there’s the turf. An office is all business, all intimidation. A coffee shop is at least spatially carefree.

“It’s a neutral site that is familiar to people so it is easier to break down barriers of communication,” Dow Lucurell, owner of the Uptown Espresso coffee chain, wrote in an email. “Both parties benefit from the anonymity.”

Monica Guzman
Mónica Guzmán

ThinkSpace founder Peter Chee sets some of his interviews at coffee shops, but not the most critical ones. “I’ve conducted informational interviews inside a coffee shop and that’s fine when I’m looking for a more relaxed environment and I want the person to be totally at ease,” he wrote in a Facebook thread. “When it comes to hiring and doing a formal interview I would only do that in a professional meeting room.”

Of course, plenty of small business employers interview in coffee shops for no other reason than that it’s the only place they can. Almost every Seattle coffee shop doubles as an office suite for someone.

But whatever the value coffee shop interviews, it’s the contrast that kills me. (This Onion article satirically sums it up.) Relaxed as they are, coffee shops play ungraceful hosts to serious job interviews for one simple reason: They’re not designed for it.

Candidates notice.

“(I) had the awkward experience of having to listen while my contact and the candidate scheduled before me were finishing up,” wrote Hillary Reeves. “Felt compelled to order coffee and a muffin, and eat while answering questions. Horrible.”

“There was no guarantee of privacy, which left me feeling a little bit like I was giving the interview to a whole room full of people,” wrote Beth Anderson. “I felt like the baristas were kind of annoyed.”

Two things made Marie Montemayor’s interview at a Starbucks less than ideal — volume and money.

“In an interview you need to be your own cheerleader and I really had to try and get my point across while being enthusiastic but quiet, which by far, was difficult,” she wrote in a message. “In an office setting I would have been fine going into details about what I was being paid and what I wanted, but when I was in the coffee shop I got quiet quick.”

No doubt some coffee shops assimilate job interviews more easily than others. As marketer Angel Djambazov pointed out on that Facebook thread, some coffee shops have that sweet spot volume and busy-ness that makes it possible for even a career defining conversation to fade into the background.

But if the strength of the coffee shop interview is informality, why are we still telling candidates to act formal? The woman in the red dress may have read the highly ranked Ask.com article about job interviews in public places: “Dress professionally, even if you are meeting in a casual environment.”

But come now. If the employer can set the interview at a coffee shop, she can show up wearing jeans.

Comments

  • Dave Cannon

    Coffee shops are great for the first informational interview, but get real. You don’t schedule a real job interview at Starbucks. It signals that you’re trying too hard to look casual and you’re oblivious to other people—classic Silicon Valley hubris.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Is it Seattle hubris, too? We’re a lot more laid back — hardly anyone in tech dresses up here — which makes seeing formal interviews in coffee shop all the more jarring.

      • Gary

        Sadly, Dave had it right the first time. Silicon Valley = Seattle to a vast majority of Americans.

        • Dave Cannon

          I happen to live in Seattle, which is why I thumbed my nose at the Valley.

          No one in Seattle would ever do that ;)

  • Harkonnen

    I wear jeans to any meeting in a coffee shop. Subsequent interviews on-site is when I dress it up a bit.

  • gregpiper

    I was going to point out the hilarious Onion article… and then you already did it. Something equally disturbing I saw at Uptown in SLU recently – a woman making phone calls to job candidates, telling them they didn’t get the job. It was awkward just eavesdropping!

  • boop

    Well, we already knew, Monica, based on your May 15, 2013 blog, that you have strong feelings about what should and shouldn’t happen in coffee shops. I don’t necessarily disagree with you re: job interviews in coffee shops although I wonder if you are more concerned about your own comfort or the interviewee’s comfort? I also wonder why anyone would choose to interview someone in a coffee shop? There must be some reason, e.g., they work out of their home and don’t feel comfortable having strangers come over? (That doesn’t seem like a legitimate reason to me by the way.) Also, a few coffee shops (including the Uptown Espresso you mention I believe) have separate meeting rooms that can be reserved. Street Bean has one I know for certain. Why do people not take advantage of this amenity?

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      I swear I’m not a coffee shop curmudgeon, though maybe I’m starting to sound like one. What bothers me about the contrast between the formality of job interviews and the casualness of coffee shops doesn’t “bother” me in the “I’ve got to get out of here” sense at all. It’s something I’ve observed that I find interesting, and an entry into a few of the themes I bring up here.

  • http://www.about.me/tgowland Tara Gowland

    I have interviewed folks in coffee shops and many of our startup partners do so as well. The great thing about a non-traditional interview environment when it comes to assessing a person’s fit within the startup world is that it shows flexibility and the ability to flex under different sets of stresses. I don’t agree with Peter in that a formal interview can’t happen in a coffee shop – except for compensation conversation (you never know who’s listening) and if information that shouldn’t be public on either side of the table is shared.

    Now this brings up phone interviews – years ago they weren’t a standard practice for any company and now many employers use it instead of a face to face – even when people live in the same city as the company is located. Phone interviews will never replace a face to face and I would much rather meet someone in a coffee shop with all the distractions rather than try to understand who a person really is and what motivates them in their work over the phone!

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      Not too long ago I did phone interviews for a position and thought, for the sake of expediency (this was an intern position) that I’d make my choice just from that. Our CEO cleared that up pretty quick – I had to meet them, he said. I’m really glad I did.

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