Tales from the interview: Lunch is not a competition, episode 2


Last time, we saw the consequences of failing to recognize that lunch is not a competition. Today we'll see an even more unfortunate result.

One candidate went to lunch with my colleague the economist. (Claim to fame: "Jenna von Oÿ is my cousin!") They went to a local Thai restaurant, Thai being a very popular cuisine here in the Seattle area. The afternoon interviews showed a marked change for the worse from the morning interviews, and the afternoon interviewers began to ask, "What happened at lunch? The candidate was doing really well in the morning, but in the afternoon, had difficulty concentrating and didn't look all that well."

My colleague fessed up. "Yeah, sorry about that. We went to a Thai restaurant, and for some reason, ordering lunch turned into a competition. I'm not really that good with spicy food, and obviously neither is the candidate, but somehow our competitive natures took over and we ended up trying to one-up each other with how spicy we could order the dishes, and, well, you can see what happened. If it's any consolation, I'm not feeling all that great either."

I don't know what the resolution to the situation was, but I hope the candidate was given a second chance.

Remember, folks, lunch is not a competition. You will not be evaluated on the strength of your stomach lining.

Comments (27)
  1. Fly on the wall says:

    You left out the best part of the exchange:

    Colleague #1: By all medical logic, steam should be shooting out of his ears.

    Colleague #2: His ears – if we’re lucky.

  2. Tim Smith says:

    ROFL…

    I married a Thai lady (she works in the same building).  I use to be a very picky eater when I grew up in the southern US.  I love good Asian food and love the the hot Thai food.

    mmmm eggplant and a bowl of num-plic (sp?)

  3. reader says:

    Hmm, so which one of them ended up eating the spiciest dish?

  4. How about use of chopsticks? Is that an important part of the evaluation?

  5. grg says:

    I’ve spent one month in China and eating with chopsticks is not a problem for me. Quite good to impress a lady inviting her to a chinese restaurant and eating eating with chopsticks :)

  6. Paul Wittkorn says:

    Maybe you guys should be taking candidates to less risky places.

  7. jondr says:

    In Thailand most folks use flatware utensils, not chopsticks. This is a consequence of Anna, ("Anna and the King of Siam" a.k.a. "The King and I".

  8. Tom says:

    Plus, the film is banned in Thailand to this day, because it insulted the king.

    What percentage of Thai restaurants are run by Chinese people with no connection to Thailand?  I’ve encountered quite a large number.

  9. Andrew says:

    But, as we all know, how likeable a person is does influence our reaction to them (see Psychology of Persuasion by Cialdini). Sure, being really friendly isn’t going to get you a job if you completely flunk all the questions in the interview but if the hiring decision is hanging in the balance the temptation to say "well, the candidate was really easy to get on with and would fit right in to our team so I say lets take a chance". Ergo lunch suddenly becomes this hugely stressful situation with the candidate doing all they can to appear likeable.

    You write a lot about developers who fail to take into account all the consequences of an API, this is just a human equivalent. While it might be convenient for you as an interviewer to say that the candidate will not be graded on lunch the candidate likely won’t believe you so you might as well just accept it and move on.

  10. Josh says:

    Everyone knows you poison *new hires* with spice, not candidates.  I know Thai food isn’t quite as bad, but activities such as meeting "The Man" are a hazing ritual after you join, not before!

  11. James says:

    "You will not be evaluated on the strength of your stomach lining."

    Darn, there goes my edge! I’d be wary of Thai food mid-interview, though, for exactly this reason: much safer to get something plainer (burger, ribs, steak, fajitas).

    Getting into a spice-level arms race sounds dim anywhere, but in my experience a Thai restaurant is a particularly bad place to do it. I do like Thai food, but never go for the hottest options (although I have been known to eat the hottest item on the set menu, which doesn’t go as high as the a la carte version).

    The owner of the Thai restaurant I used to eat in regularly told me he often got men – always men rather than women – who would feel this need to show off by ordering incendiary devices on a plate. His warnings were invariably ignored, usually followed by screams of pain as another digestive tract ignited. (Think Homer Simpson’s Guatemalan Insanity Peppers.) I do suspect he made most of his profits on drinks orders…

  12. Matt Green says:

    Maybe people do weird things at interview lunches because they’re so worked up at the prospect of interviewing at Microsoft. Or, Raymond knows a lot of people and thus has a higher chance of hearing funny stories about interviews.

  13. ::Wendy:: says:

    Torturers!  You don’t let the candidate have a break over lunch so they can take down-time.  I guess the idea is that you won’t get a break in the run-up to ship,  so we are going to test you under pressure by having an interviewer take you to lunch.

    you’ll either get people really chilled… what the hell this is me… or without a fully implemented V3.0 working concept of a work-life-balance…

  14. Randall says:

    I’m starting to like this economist character.

  15. Steven says:

    "How about use of chopsticks? Is that an important part of the evaluation?"

    a little bit too ‘dining philosophers’?

  16. ArC says:

    I’m generally too reserved (?  maybe "insecure" or "cheap" is a better word) to order anything more expensive than the cheapest 25% of the menu.

  17. JD says:

    Agree, you should *think* before taking a candidate out.

    I’m sorry, but "hey I like sushi" is NOT a good reason to bring a candidate to a sushi restaurant. If the *candidate* tells you they like sushi, now that’s a good reason to go.

    Showing local flavor is nice and understandable – you want to show the candidate the good places you’ve found. But seriously, think for at least nanosecond about something other than yourself.

  18. fschwiet says:

    "I’m sorry, but "hey I like sushi" is NOT a good reason to bring a candidate to a sushi restaurant. If the *candidate* tells you they like sushi, now that’s a good reason to go."

    MS isn’t softball, and the people who work there aren’t particularly empathetic.  If someone can’t assert that a certain sort of food doesn’t suit their stomach, their probably missing some core company values and shouldn’t be hired anyhow.

  19. Hackish Code says:

    Why does interviewer invite a candidate to lunch?

  20. Bikedude says:

    "Getting into a spice-level arms race sounds dim anywhere, but in my experience a Thai restaurant is a particularly bad place to do it."

    I eat a lot of spicy Indian food. I can cope quite well with most chili-based flavors. Heck, I can eat a chili pepper alone while my yellow-bellied colleagues gawp at me in awe.

    But…

    Last year I had the pleasure of sharing lunch with a female lawyer in Bangkok. She ate everything on the plate, while my face got redder and redder. It was really spicy! REALLY spicy! It still tasted yummy, but my capacity had definitively been reached.

    Funnily enough, she couldn’t eat regular plain black pepper corns. They hardly taste anything to me — not spicy at all, but she told me that they almost exploded in her mouth. Apparently different spices challenge different people…

    Spice races are fun though. At least when I win.

  21. AndyB says:

    "But seriously, think for at least nanosecond about something other than yourself."

    The interviewer worked for microsoft, what else did you expect? Its not an open-source company where everyone plays nicely with everyone else :-)

    Lunch interviews are part of the interview, of course they are. If you got along with someone during the morning, then took them to lunch and they behaved badly and threw things at the waiter, you’d think twice. Probably pass them up the chain for a senior management position, but you’d still not hire them for your department.

  22. Ulric says:

    I like this series of blog post..

    Why does interviewer invite a candidate to lunch?

    Because interviews at microsoft is a whole day of 1h interviews with multiple peoples.  So someone should have the grace to take that person out to dinner, and then back to for the next interview

  23. Coleman says:

    The interviewer worked for microsoft, what else did you expect? Its not an open-source company where everyone plays nicely with everyone else :-)

    LOL.  One of the worst interviews I EVER had was with an "open source" company.  I was told "we’re REAL engineers here" and the implication was that I was not a "real engineer" — whatever that means.  Certainly not my idea of playing nicely!

    After that comment, I quickly and politely ended the interview.

    The moral?  Insulting a candidate is as much a bad idea as engaging in a lunch time competition!

  24. Stephen Jones says:

    The basic problem you’re facing is that there is no longer any neutral cuisine people can agree on.

    Forty years ago you could have taken a guy to a steak house and he’d have the choice how the steak was done. Now with loads of vegetarians even that’s out.

  25. Poochner says:

    You can pretty much find something for anyone on a menu.  Not that it might be a place they’d be first pick, but they can live with.  Steak places serve chicken, fish, steamed veggies, entree salads.  Every seafood place I’ve ever heard of has plenty of other things on the menu because they know not everybody likes fish and it prevents having a blocker in a group.  Thai places have mild dishes, and so on.

    I wouldn’t take someone with peanut allergies to a Thai place, though.

  26. Eric Duran says:

    Bah, the candidate was just either a wussy (for not knowing how to handle the spicy Thai food) or just plain stupid (for not knowing that s/he can’t handle spicy Thai food). Either way, s/he deserves no second chance.

    On a related note, I should’ve suggested going to a Thai place and order the hottest item on the menu when I interviewed with MS. As James said, that could’ve been my edge, but silly me, didn’t think of that at the moment.

  27. Brooks Moses says:

    Poochner: Yeah, well, try ordering something vegetarian at Applebee’s.  There are lots of salads … where the "interesting" ingredients are largely based around meat, so if you ask them to leave that out, you’ve essentially got a $10 bowl of lettuce.  Or maybe you’d like to try subsisting on fried cheese, which is great for having a settled digestive tract….

    I suppose "something they can eat" doesn’t necessarily mean "something they’ll be happy eating", though.

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