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Top Five Fails with Cafe Interviews

By April 14, 20116 Comments

Before I crack into this one it is worth noting that there is a very valid argument that recruitment interviews should never be held in public places such as cafes for basic confidentiality purposes.  I am sure there are many of you out there that would never dream of conducting interviews this way.  But there is no getting away from the fact the world of work, and most importantly the way we work, is changing rapidly.  As businesses gradually shift away from the large, monolithic corporations, to the more nimble, agile, subject-matter-expert businesses, all fuelled by smarter technology and communication channels, the humble café is becoming more and more a place of work, networking, business meetings and interviewing.

This article from the website (via the SMH) caught my eye last week.  It looks like Australians have coined the word “Coffice” to describe this new workplace revolution.  Unsurprisingly this is catching on big time in New Zealand too, where a more casual, relaxed and well, just Kiwi, approach to business has been evolving, making cafés the ideal spot to conduct business in a relaxed, sociable and non-threatening kind of way.

Over my years in recruitment I have found myself increasingly meeting up with clients and candidates for coffee.  If I am meeting someone for the very first time then I typically try and avoid this, and stick with more formal locations like my own office, but this isn’t always possible, particularly when visiting other cities where I don’t have a permanent base.  During that time I have learned from a few mistakes, and honed the art of making these meetings as professional and confidential as possible, without losing the feeling of relaxed sociability that makes this form of meeting more appealing in the first place.  I have also heard many horror stories from other recruiters, and experienced some myself first hand, where this practice has not been done effectively at all, leaving both parties with a bitter taste in their mouth (and not from the coffee).

So as the “Coffice” plays an increasingly large part in a recruiter’s toolkit, here are my Top Five Coffee Interview Fails, to help you avoid the many pitfalls in this kind of meeting and make the most of the opportunity:

  1. Eating Alone      It is best to avoid eating during an interview altogether no matter whether you missed breakfast and the hollandaise sauce on those eggs benedict on the next table looks oh so creamy.  If you have agreed to catch up for a breakfast meeting, or a lunch meeting, and your candidate is expecting to eat, then go ahead.  But if your candidate declines your offer of food, then you must avoid eating too.  There is nothing worse than trying to interview a candidate when they are staring at the runny egg slowly solidifying on your tie and you are staring at the croissant flake you just spat out and landed on their forehead, and you are the only one eating.  A senior recruiter recently told me how he had been interviewing with a large, global recruitment firm, and all had gone very well and just had the final stage of meeting the GM who would rubber stamp the deal.  The GM asked him to meet for a coffee around breakfast time.  Upon meeting the senior recruiter declined the GM’s offer of food, but the GM went ahead and ordered himself a huge plate of bacon and eggs.  So the interview consisted of the candidate doing all the talking while the GM scoffed at his trough and noisily chewed his way through a fry up the whole time.  The ensuing offer of employment was swiftly turned down by the candidate, whose impression of the entire brand is now tarnished by the mental image of watching a scoffing, slurping GM conducting a cursory interview.
  2. The Obvious Interview                 You can often tell when someone is being interviewed, or has met someone in public for the first time, by the body language of both parties.  But it is poor form to make it so blatantly obvious with CVs strewn across the table, the candidate’s name blazoned boldly across the top, and you shouting out behavioural based questions over the din of the café.  Most candidates will be slightly nervous or apprehensive in an interview situation and this kind of behaviour will add a significant does of embarrassment.  Nobody likes to show off that they are looking for a new job, especially to other random members of the public, not to mention the chance that someone they know might spot them.  As the interviewer I have always found it important to memorise as much of the CV as possible and keep it tucked away in a folder for quick reference at only the most crucial moments.  It is ok to ask questions and make notes on a blank piece of paper but ask the candidate first if they are comfortable with that.  If not, then you will have to find a more private place to talk, or make it a less formal coffee chat and arrange a more formal follow up back at your offices for some other time.
  3. The Noisy Café                 The coolest café in town with the funkiest dub beats being laid down from a booming sound system and a massive lunch time surge is not the best choice of café to conduct interviews.  It might make you feel hip and contemporary to be interviewing someone there, but your candidate will be distracted by the noise, and made uneasy by the close proximity of chattering work colleagues, and you will not get the best out of them.  Look for larger cafés, particularly ones with booths.  Hotel lobbies also make excellent meeting places for interviewing and are well worth the small premium you pay on the coffee prices.
  4. The Chance Encounter                  There is a chance you might spy someone else you know while interviewing your candidate.  This is especially true in smaller cities like Wellington.  When this happens then a cursory nod of greeting or recognition is more than enough, but even this will distract your candidate.  Definitely avoid doing what I have witnessed a few times, where the recruiter loudly greets someone by name, even stands up to shake hands, have a chat, and then introduce them to their candidate.  It is all well and good networking and sharing contacts around, but during a job interview is definitely not the time or place.  Just wait for your contact to declare to your candidate that they know their boss and bumped into them just last night, and watch the blood drain from your candidate’s face, along with any chance you had of representing them to your clients.
  5. Forget-me-not                  It is a very dangerous ploy to try and remember everything you have discussed with the candidate over coffee without making any notes.  When I have decided that it would be a bit too awkward to sit there openly asking questions and taking notes, then I have hung around after the candidate has left and quickly scribbled down all of the salient points from the meeting, and areas of agreed follow up.  It is then very helpful to send a recap e-mail to the candidate, thanking them for meeting for coffee, and covering off the main points of what you agreed to do.  It is also ok to re-confirm some of the more important points, such as availability or salary expectations, via e-mail.  If you just leave it a few days and then start selling the candidate in to clients, with no notes to refer back to, you may as well not have bothered meeting up with them in the first place.


I think the “Coffice” is an excellent place to have a catch up with candidates you recently placed to see how it’s all going, or to meet clients for a general catch up where you are not taking down complicated job briefs.  But for first time meetings it is a scenario fraught with danger, and if it is the only way of meeting to interview for specific roles, then it is worth keeping the above points in the back of your mind so you can get the most out of the time spent.

Jonathan Rice

MD at New Zealand rec-to-rec firm Rice Consulting and co-founder of on-demand recruiter offering Joyn. Recruitment agitator and frustrated idealist, father of two, husband of one, and lover of all things Arsenal and crafty beer.


  • Spot on Jonathan. We have to be flexible about interviewing candidates but not at the cost of professionalism. I especially endorse #3 – noisy cafes are a disaster and your recommendation of a hotel lobby/cafe is excellent – quiet, discreet and well worth the extra you pay for the coffee or four.

  • Great article, Jonathan. There are nearly always other options besides the ‘coffice’, which I still see as fraught with a whole range of risks like those you’ve listed above. The lack of privacy for both recruiter and candidate is the biggest issue. I’ve overheard full interviews where names and companies are repeated and I can’t help thinking those involved have no idea who I might know – could be I’m a friend of the current employer, for example… This concerns me to the extent that if I were a candidate offered an interview at a cafe, I would decline.

  • Adrian Coysh says:

    I try to avoid using a Coffice where ever possible (it would nearly always be at the candidates request), but when there is no choice I am very selective about where I go for most of the reasons listed in the article – also because I do not have perfect hearing and “white noise” is a killer for me. As I meet a lot of senior people, I assume they may also have the same impediment.

    Unless you have a shabby office, you are missing out on demonstrating your business brand. Very important for the time they are your future client.

    I do take notes as memory alone is not a good thing and it is common to see note taking at Coffice locations, however a recording on Iphone or Ipad would be another option. Another good reason for a quiet location!

    I would virtually never take a potential client (ie a prospect) to a cafe for our first meeting – again unless by their request. This is for the same reasons as detailed above, but one of the prime reasons for a client visit is to see them on their own turf as you learn so much more about the person and the business they are in.

    Lastly, I would always look to be at an outside table – unfortunately our tobacco laws mean that you may have to share the space with their unwanted drift so if you are really astute you would sit up-wind. Don’t get me started on tobacco smoke at al fresco locations.

  • Shane Burton says:

    I agree – it’s about applying a common sense approach to it. As with many things it’s location-location-location. I conduct 90% of my candidate inteviews over coffee, but never in a place that I know the candidate’s supervisor is going to frequent (or anyone from their work, for that matter!) Great article – you’re right, having CV’s strewn over and lots of branded stuff saying “RECRUITER” is a sure way to blow your cover!

  • Hi Jonathan,
    Great article.
    Couldn’t agree more. In all my experience I have never found them succesful and as you say fraught with danger. I generally find that it’s those Recruiters, who “work out of the back seat of a car” who insist on coffice interviews, i.e they have no office.
    If you are going to be in a different city or country, where you don’t have an office I have always found it is worth the cost in hiring an office for the purpose. It certainly gives your brand better recognistion.
    Rosemary Scott FRCSA (Life)