The Coffee Interview: What to Expect and How to Prepare

coffee interview

As modern recruiters continue to experiment with different ways of discovering talent, it is possible that at some point during your job search, you may be invited to a coffee interview. If you’re a little perplexed and wondering what exactly this entails, then don’t panic – we are here to explain everything.

A coffee interview is essentially an informal meeting with a potential employer that – you guessed it – takes place in a coffee shop. Don’t assume it will be an easy ride just because it involves a pumpkin latte though; you are still being judged and assessed as you would in a formal interview, just in a different environment.

Therefore, we’ve compiled a few handy tips to help you prepare for your interview, including what to wear, how to conduct yourself and, importantly, whether or not you should pay. So for a stress-free interview experience, read on…

Why a Coffee Interview?

Before anything else, you may be wondering why exactly your interviewer has asked to meet you at Starbucks instead of the office. They might not make this clear in their original invitation, but generally speaking there are several possible reasons:

There is No Specific Job Position

Chances are you are not actually interviewing for one particular position, but the employee is interested in your skillset and is either looking to create a possible position for you or wants to keep you in mind for when a vacancy becomes available. This may be the case if you were approached out of the blue on LinkedIn.

It is a Stepping Stone to a Formal Interview

Many companies have multiple interview stages as part of their recruitment process, and there is a good chance that you are being “screened” before the employer commits to a more time consuming formal interview process.

It’s Just the Company’s Culture

Some employers – especially start-ups – may simply prefer to conduct interviews in a more relaxed setting, shunning the conventional methods. This is usually a reflection of their company culture, and might suggest that they like to do things a little differently.

How Should I Prepare?

In a nutshell, you should prepare in exactly the same way as you would for any other interview. This means thoroughly researching the company – what they do, how they are structured, and what their projections are. If you are interviewing for a specific position, you should obviously find out as much as possible about that too. It is unlikely that you will go into too much depth on this, but the last thing you want is to be caught out if the interviewer asks.

Indeed, the most important thing is to practice your competency-based answers; in a coffee interview, the focus is likely to be on you, and what you can bring to the company. It’s unlikely that your interviewer will be sat there rating your answers against a framework, but casually asking if you’ve ever worked in a busy environment should be treated as “give me an example of a time where you overcame a challenge in a pressure environment”. Be prepared to give strong answers to these types of questions.

What Should I Wear?

An invitation to a coffee interview suggests an informal tone, but you should still dress to impress. It could lead to a job offer, so you want to demonstrate to your interviewer that you are taking it seriously; this means a suit and tie for men, and smart business attire for women. Being smartly dressed and well-groomed will reinforce that you are still in an interview, even if you are surroundings suggest otherwise. And if in doubt, remember: it is always better to be overdressed than underdressed.

Should I Bring Anything With Me?

The employer will likely already have seen your CV and your cover letter, but you should still bring copies just in case. If you have a portfolio it is a good idea to bring this too, although don’t just get it out and drop it on the table. Only show them if you are asked – and ideally make sure they aren’t originals so that the interviewer can keep them for future reference.

What Should I Do When I Get There?

When you arrive at the café (early, of course), you will have ideally identified a way to recognise each other beforehand. This could be a quick text message explaining how you’re dressed, or you may have agreed to meet each other outside. If this isn’t the case, then you should be conscious of the possibility that your interviewer may already be there – and that without you even realising it, the interview may already be underway.

This is because even as you walk in, you are being constantly assessed. Did you strike up a conversation with people in the queue? Did you smile when the barista greeted you? And did you hold the door for that little old lady on the way out? Although these things might seem trivial, they can convey a lot about someone’s personality.

What if I Arrive First?

Although you should bear this in mind, odds are you will be the first to arrive. In this case, find a table in a good location and possibly let the waiter know that you are meeting someone. You can also try to find a photograph of your interviewer on LinkedIn so that you have some idea of who you are looking for.

Whichever way you plan it, once you have identified and located each other, all the usual interview etiquette applies. Ensure you give a firm handshake and maintain eye contact, and of course – remember to smile.

Finally, if they offer to get you something, keep the order simple. A “skinny soy latte double decaf with hazelnut and cinnamon” may be your usual tipple, but you’re not here to enjoy the coffee. Just ask for a latte or a water.

Can I Eat Something?

It’s a good idea to eat before interviews so that your mind is focused and you’re not talking over the growls of your own stomach. But if you’ve not had a chance, and you’re starving, there is nothing necessarily wrong with ordering a quick bite.

Ask yourself if you really want to be conducting an important meeting in between mouthfuls of meatball panini though. Unless your interviewer is eating too, or it was stated in the original invitation that you would be meeting for lunch, then it’s probably best to just concentrate on the matter at hand.

The Interview Itself

Once you’ve sat down, this is where the nitty gritty starts. The biggest thing to remember is that unlike a formal interview, a coffee interview is more of a conversation than a direct Q&A. This means that it requires two-way participation and that you will be expected to contribute as much to the discussion as your interviewer.

What Questions Should I Ask?

Even though the interviewer will naturally take the lead and guide the conversation onto certain topics, they will also be looking for you to engage them. This means asking relevant and well thought out questions that instigate a dialogue, and are not just token attempts to appear interested.

Keep the questions open, and where possible link them to specific things you have already discussed. For example, if they alluded to certain difficulties in their wider industry earlier in the conversation, you can ask:

You mentioned that there is currently X problem in the industry right now. How are the company looking to deal with that over the next 12 months?

You can utilise your earlier research as well. If you read a particular article, you can make reference to it:

I saw in the news that the CEO is looking to expand into X product; are the company looking to change their focus, or is it part of a wider growth strategy?”

These are questions that require long answers and will stimulate conversation. Take advantage of the fact that there is less rigidity and learn as much as you can about their business; your enthusiasm will reflect well and your line of questioning will demonstrate that you have taken the time to learn about the company.

What Questions Will They Ask?

As already mentioned, at this stage the interviewer will be interested more in your personality than what you know about their company. They may have highlighted certain aspects of your CV that they want to know more about, as well as trying to paint a better picture of what motivates you; just answer honestly and naturally, but always be aware that you are being assessed.

Here are some broad samples of questions you’ll likely be asked:

  • Tell me about yourself
  • What motivates you?
  • What are you passionate about?
  • What do you consider your strengths and weaknesses?
  • What type of work environment do you prefer?
  • Do you prefer to work independently or in a team?
  • What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Remember, at this stage nothing is set in stone; you may not even be interviewing for an actual position. Therefore, the questions won’t be so specific (for example, they won’t ask you about your current employment status or why you want to leave) – they will be designed to allow you to open up about yourself. Try to give detailed answers that give the interviewer something to build on.

Other Things to Consider

You are not just being judged on the answers you give, but also on how you conduct yourself. Make sure you pay attention to the following things:

Treat the Waiter / Barista Well

If you treat the staff poorly (ie you are rude or dismissive), this is a massive red flag for your interviewer. Consider it from their perspective: if you are disdainful of the person serving you your coffee, then how are you going to treat the people working underneath you? It should go without saying, but be polite and friendly to the waiting staff.

Don’t Get Distracted

It can be difficult in the middle of a busy coffee shop to stay focused, but ensure you give your interviewer your full undivided attention at all times. Don’t get distracted by the television screen positioned directly behind their head, and certainly don’t let your eyes wander if a hot guy or girl walks past in a particularly tight pair of jeans. Always remember why you are there.

Basic Table Manners

Don’t neglect your table etiquette either. It doesn’t reflect well if you are sat slurping your coffee or chewing food with your mouth open; use a napkin and try not to cover yourself in crumbs. It’s all well and good explaining how your background in performance metrics can translate into marketing, but nobody is going to take you seriously if you’ve got froth all over your upper lip while you do so.

Body Language

Body language speaks volumes in any situation, and coffee interviews are no different. This is probably the one instance where you should take into account your surroundings though. While you should sit up straight, and be open and authoritative (just like in a formal interview), you will look slightly strange if you are sat in the middle of Costa bolt upright with your hands spread across the table for the full duration of the interview. Use common sense, and try to be natural.

How Should I End the Interview?

If you haven’t already paid, the interviewer will ask for the bill and start to wrap things up. As they invited you, they will foot the tab, but you should still always offer to pay. When they decline, don’t press the issue – just be polite and thank them.

When you leave, try to avoid any awkwardness. The last thing you want to do is say your goodbyes, walk out the door, and then end up awkwardly walking alongside each other to the nearest train station. Go in the opposite direction (even if it’s out of your way), or better yet, stay in the café to “check emails”. You don’t want to end a successful interview with a cringe-worthy departure.

Finally, make sure you follow up afterwards with a thank you letter as you would with any interview.

Coffee interviews may be a new experience for many people, but they are not so different from traditional ones – you even get the added bonus of a free tasty drink. As a result, the same things that will lead to success there are applicable here, and there is no reason why you shouldn’t be successful. Just remember: informal does NOT mean casual.

Have you had any experience with coffee interviews? How did they go? Let us know in the comments below…