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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 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.

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