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My friend was called for a job interview that took place at Starbucks a few days ago. IMHO these kinds of places are not a very suitable environment for interviewing specialty positions, such as programmers, which led me to this question.

  • Do interviewers conduct interviews differently in this type of location compared to something in an office?
  • Do interviewers look for candidates to act or respond differently in this setting, and does that matter?
  • Is it appropriate for a candidate to drink coffee or not?
  • Is it appropriate for a candidate to ask why they're being interviewed in a public location (like a Starbucks)?

Are there major advantages or disadvantages to these types of interview settings, such that the candidate should prepare differently?

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    Is this for programming in... Java? </puns> – JohnMcG Jun 20 '12 at 20:02
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    Hi Soner - I made some edits to your question to focus it a bit more. Please feel free to re-edit if I misunderstood anything. Thanks! – jcmeloni Jun 20 '12 at 20:53
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    I'd ask. Unless you know upfront you are working remotely you could end up working in some creepy guy's basement. – Rig Jun 20 '12 at 20:59
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    To be honest, when people attempt to interview me in public locations like coffee shops that's a major red flag for me. Starbucks is not the place to be discussing your confidential business requirements, and it's certainly not the right venue to get into my private career history and salary expectations. If you don't get that, that's a pretty big clue I'm not the professional for you. And as for the excuse that the interviewer may not have a meeting room available; if someone can't even organise a meeting room, how the hell do they expect to be able to work with me on something requiring as m – user8407 Mar 25 '13 at 10:08
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In my experience, the main advantage is mutual convenience. If the candidate has a full time job, meeting before or after hours in a coffee shop means she does not have to explain a prolonged absence from her current employer. As a candidate, I actually suggested this a couple of times when I was employed at a location on the outer edge of the suburbs that it was difficult for me to get away from. These have either been "getting to know you" type initial contacts or "we'd like you to meet one more person" type chats after I had already gone through more formal interviews.

I have also done this with out of town employers who don't have a local office (e.g. a consulting company based in another city trying to establish a presence in your city).

As others have mentioned, this will generally be a "cultural fit" type interview rather than a technical skills assessment. I would expect it to be a bit less formal than an on-site interview. I would expect the candidate to be dressed on the dressy side of business casual, but not to pull out the "interview suit." All parties understand that the candidate is coming from / going to her current job, and may not want to set off red flags.

I would feel free to accept an offer of a beverage, or have one already if you arrive first. Despite being informal, you'll want to observe common-sense manners (chew with your mouth closed, be polite to the staff, firm handshake, etc.)

If the company actually does try to do a skills assessment in that environment, that would be a red flag for me about how they understand people.

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    another reason I've encountered for such things is when a company is working through an intermediary and don't want their name revealed to candidates unless and until they pass the first interview. Rather than invite you to their office, a recruiter may suggest a "neutral" site for the interview (sometimes not even mentioning his own company's name so candidates can't use that to find out who the customer is). – jwenting Mar 25 '13 at 13:01
  • Yes, and also rapidly expanding startups do this. If there isn't any hope of booking a meeting room for an interview Starbucks is a very popular alternative. – MrFox Mar 25 '13 at 15:53
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I have no issue with a one-on-one interview in a cafe, restaurant, or even a pub, if it's a personality interview, to see if the developer is a team fit. It lowers the stress levels of the situation and you have a much better chance of seeing the real personality.

But, unless this is an internal recommendation (from someone you trust to judge such things), it should not be the only interview. You are not going to get a good idea of someone's technical skills in Starbucks. You can't, without sitting someone down in front of a computer and either making them code or making them talk through their code.

If it is the only interview then your friend should worry a lot about the quality of people he will be working with.

Personally, I've never had an interview start in a coffee-house, but I have had a couple of interviews which then led on to going out for lunch or a drink. Those have worked out well for me and I've ended up at places with decent, talented people, so it must have worked out well for the employer.

If I were invited to an interview like that, I would ask the interviewer about dress-code expectations before going (I tend to do that anyway, it tells me a lot about a company), but I wouldn't act any differently. Stay professional, don't be over-friendly but don't be stand-offish.

The only reason I would ask why I was being interviewed in a coffee house would be if it was a big company. I have had bad experiences with big companies who cannot manage their meeting rooms well (their offices also tend to be cramped) and it would be a red-flag that I'd want to investigate.

  • not every job is a programming job. What if you were hiring a project manager, or a salesrep, or a model? – Kate Gregory Aug 31 '12 at 22:04
  • @KateGregory: The question was specifically talking about "specialty positions, such as programmers". – pdr Aug 31 '12 at 22:35
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    @KateGregory interviewing models in a coffee shops is a career option? Someone should have told me when I was younger. – MrFox Mar 25 '13 at 15:55
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Probably the strangest place I've ever done an interview was in the stands at an arena. The candidate was employed elsewhere and had kids in hockey; I had a kid who skated three nights a week. Trying to set up an interview, every evening timeslot was out because one or the other of us was at the (same) arena. So we met there, went to a quiet part of the stands, and conducted an interview. There were technical and cultural aspects to the conversation, and I hired the candidate. I learned about creativity and problem solving, confidence, and community and volunteer spirit by meeting there. I doubt a coffee shop could offer the same though.

If you're being interviewed somewhere unorthodox, I have two pieces of advice:

  • Know why. If it's a scheduling thing like us, try to find a way to at least see their offices from the outside (eg drive by on the weekend) or have a phone call with a future peer to ask about the workspace. If it's that there is no workspace yet, be sure to discuss that in detail during the interview. If the company doesn't want the current staff knowing they're interviewing, you could be landing in an uncomfortable situation. So make sure you know why this is happening
  • Be prepared to answer some questions with "this is difficult to go into in this location, but..." whether it's technical or personal, and to limit your answers if you feel the need to. This could be because you're worried about something confidential being overheard, or because you don't have the equipment with you to demonstrate something you're being asked about. If the interviewer needs some information that can't be gathered in the location they chose, you can always have a second interview somewhere more conventional or at least quieter.

Generally speaking when your first interaction with a company is unorthodox, it sends a strong signal that they don't do things like everybody else. Don't ignore that signal: it might be good or it might be bad, but it's real. After all, they could have rented a boardroom somewhere for a day of interviews and demanded you take a vacation day or the like to free yourself up to see them. They chose to meet in a public place and that information shouldn't be ignored.

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When I was between jobs, I spent a lot of time at Starbucks. (Had to get out of the apartment!) A lot of people were interviewing there. Attacked are my thoughts based on an unofficial sampling.

Do interviewers conduct interviews differently in this type of location compared to something in an office?

Yes. It's less formal, and there's no white boarding and fewer technical questions. Questions tend to flow in both directions. It tends to be more of a 2-way screening in a neutral setting, rather than a formal grilling.

Do interviewers look for candidates to act or respond differently in this setting, and does that matter?

The interviews tend to more screens or informational.

Is it appropriate for a candidate to drink coffee or not?

Yes, just don't get an order that requires more than 3 words - it signals you as high maintenance. Avoid the "Skinny soy decaf venti chai tea latte"

Is it appropriate for a candidate to ask why they're being interviewed in a public location (like a Starbucks)?

No. But... If a candidate is very concerned about word getting out, they can ask for some place more subtle. For many candidates, it looks less like a job interview if it's at Starbucks. ("We weren't interviewing, just having coffee.") This works better at a restaurant or bar where it's harder to overhear.

Are there major advantages or disadvantages to these types of interview settings, such that the candidate should prepare differently?

Dress the same. Come with more questions, since it is more conversational.

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    +1 for "don't get an order that requires more than 3 words" - If I was interviewing in this scenario, I would be less than impressed if they picked the most expensive item off the menu, not for financial reasons, but because it signifies a lack of decorum. – SeanR Sep 9 '15 at 12:48
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I've interviewed candidates in both coffee shops and in conference rooms-- I wouldn't expect either side to behave any differently or to look at different things depending on the environment. Whether you're interviewing in a meeting room or at a Starbucks is irrelevant.

At the outset, the interviewer will generally offer to buy the candidate something to drink-- that should be treated no differently than the interviewer asking a candidate if they'd like something to eat when you're meeting in a conference room. Assuming you're thirsty, feel free to accept but don't feel obligated.

If the candidate wants to ask why the interview is being conducted at a coffee shop, feel free to ask. Sometimes you're interviewing with a small company that doesn't have its own meeting rooms. Sometimes the interviewer is out of the office that day and suggests a coffee shop to minimize everyone's travel time. Sometimes it's just a matter of logistics-- the recruiter's office is reasonably far from the candidate and the company so making the candidate drive out to the recruiter's office is a pain, the recruiter will occasionally be at the client site but may not want to/ be able to use the client's meeting rooms.

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For an initial interview, I can see plenty of logic in meeting at a Starbucks or somewhere public so that there can be some form of screening beyond a phone screen. The idea here is to get an idea of your style and what kind of persona would bring. In some ways the key here is to see if you fit culturally as others have mentioned. Think of this as a basic test to see if you are OK to let into the office and meet others.

There can be the interesting notes about social etiquette in this setting. For example, do you get a snack and drink here that costs a lot or do you take nothing and go right into an interview mode? How do you handle other people being around? How do you deal with a busy place versus a quiet office? There can be some tests that some could see as stressful as well as how well do you uphold confidentiality in a public setting.

My personal take is to have whatever kind of regular beverage you'd usually have as this may be seen as setting a precedent. How big of an issue is it that it takes you 30 seconds to say what your order would be? This can be interesting. My typical Starbucks beverage would be a "Triple Venti Caramel Macchiato" which likely isn't that bad.

As for why this place, that can be a good question though the key is to consider how you are framing the question. "Why in the world would you choose this place?" could be seen as a bit dramatic though there could well be various explanations to consider not the least of which is how do you know this person isn't going to do something horrible?

The only tweak to make in the interview preparation is to be aware of what is available at the coffee shop that you may want as well as what time of day would you be having this food. In most cases, I don't think it would be judged though if you ordered a handful of snacks at a Starbucks for a 10:30 am meeting, that may raise an eyebrow from the interviewer wondering, "Are you trying to freeload me here? Why would you need to eat that many snacks at this hour?" or something similar.

  • This is a very nice answer.. – Soner Gönül Mar 27 '13 at 6:42

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