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College Grads: Alcohol at a Job Interview -- Yes or No?

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A large part of my business is training university students on the importance of dining etiquette skills, particularly those related to second job interviews conducted over a meal. The question consistently arises regarding whether (or not) to accept alcohol at a lunch job interview. I have observed much confusion among college students who "have heard" from multiple sources, everyone from their roommate to a family member, not to refuse an alcoholic beverage if one is offered. One student even remarked, "It's a great way to relax and let your hair down!"

Regardless of the length of your hair, or on your distant cousin's advice, from a corporate protocol perspective, the answer is a polite, "No thank you." The safest option is to decline alcohol at a lunch interview. It does not have to be an uncomfortable scene; simply say, "No thanks, I will take a rain check after I get the job and we meet at our first official business dinner." Score! You kept it light, upbeat and proved you are not opposed to drinking liquor -- just exercising your best discretion during the initial lunch interview.

"If I skip the drink, will it hurt my chances of getting hired?"

A common concern is appearing uptight and unfriendly by refusing to share a glass of wine during an interview over lunch. While you may run a very slight risk of getting passed over by an interviewer who places a high value on an employee who can hold his or her liquor, you are more likely to hurt your chances of securing a job by accepting the drink. Tiffany Stott, with the Center for Career Development at Rice University says, "During the interview process, we advise our students to always respectfully decline alcohol. Not only does it show good judgment, but it keeps the prospect sharp throughout the interview. You don't have that job yet!"

Some companies may deliberately offer you a drink at a lunch interview as an attempt to determine your ability to use good judgment under pressure. If you lose a job because you didn't accept alcohol at an interview, consider yourself lucky, as you successfully dodged a bullet. Lauren McGrath, Marketing and Communications Manager with Abacus Group, an executive recruitment firm in New York City adds, "For an entry level candidate, competition is fierce and employers must look for any reason to disqualify you. Making the wrong move, such as accepting a drink at an interview, can cost you the job."

"What about drinking before an interview to ease my nerves?"

While having a pre-interview drink may give you a shot of courage, it also sends the message that you need to rely on a crutch to calm yourself down. A subtle hint of liquor on your breath is all it will take to negatively influence an interviewer's decision. A better idea is to channel your nervous energy into something productive. Take a run, mediate or attend a yoga class. If you are prepared and have done your homework, you are less likely to get flustered. Interviewers are human and understand it's common to be nervous, taking your slight unease into consideration.

A recent study, "The Imbibing Idiot Bias: Consuming Alcohol Can Be Hazardous to Your (Perceived) Intelligence," backs up the importance of declining a drink. According to the study, job candidates who ordered alcohol in simulated interviews were seen as less intelligent and less hirable than those who did not, even when the boss ordered one first. Mark Babbitt, CEO and Founder of YouTern agrees, "A job interview is not the time to enjoy a cocktail. Your focus should be on the mission at hand, getting to the next round of interviews."

"What about a dinner interview?"

When you are a seasoned executive with a proven track record, you may have the occasion to be recruited by another company, sharing casual conversation over an informal meal in a social setting. This is one example when it wouldn't raise eyebrows to have a glass of wine. Recent college grads, take note: This circumstance is an exception to the rule and applies to professionals who have established themselves, not first time job seekers looking to begin their careers. Human resources expert Joseph Fung of TribeHR cautions recent graduates, "As a general rule, I'd agree that no alcohol at an interview is the way to go. Having said that, there may be circumstances or cultural norms that support getting acquainted over a beer. But for an interviewee, it's always best to err on the side of caution."

The bottom line, accepting a drink at a lunch job interview in the middle of the work day is strongly discouraged and a huge risk. Once you secure the job, going out with coworkers or sharing a drink with a client at a fundraising event is a different topic altogether. But, while you are still unemployed and attempting to impress an interviewer, put the wine glass down and drink the water.

For more business etiquette tips, you may also like Dining Etiquette: Are You Guilty of These Business Lunch Don'ts? and Business Etiquette: The Art of the College Job Search. Visit my blog, connect with me here on the Huffington Post, follow me on Pinterest and "like" me on Facebook at Protocol School of Texas.