It is the job interview scenario that worries MBA students the world over: A meeting with high-powered executives over cocktails and dinner.

How will I know which bread plate is mine? Which is the dessert fork? In which direction do I pass the bread basket?

Northeastern University Graduate School of Business Administration, however, has set out to make the dinner interview less daunting. Students can now attend a two-hour workshop on business etiquette and networking. The workshop – sponsored by IBM – is structured like a recruiting event and aims to help students interact with corporate executives, as well as teaching them the correct manners in a professional setting.

Well-served: workshops should make dinner less daunting
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“This generation has grown up thinking ‘It’s all about me’, but when you get into the workplace it’s not all about you, it’s about who you work for,” says David Rand, executive director of catering and special events for Northeastern University in Boston and consultant on professional etiquette, who teaches the class. “It’s about how well you represent that company.”

The workshop is part of a semester-long course on career management, which covers basics such as interviewing skills and résumé and cover letter writing. It is part of Northeastern’s new focus on cultivating students’ interpersonal skills.

Northeastern revamped its MBA programme two years ago and today combines traditional courses on financial accounting, strategy analysis and marketing, with a “shadow curriculum” of seminars that include lessons on how to use data in a persuasive manner and how to lead teams and projects effectively.

The workshop starts with a mock cocktail party. Breakfast hors d’oeuvres are served and Mr Rand encourages the students to mingle with the eight IBM executives in attendance.

“I tell students to project an air of confidence: look people in the eye, give a firm handshake, but not so hard as to break the knuckles,” he says. “Be sure to hold your drink in your left hand so that you may grip with your right more easily and so that you don’t offer a wet, clammy greeting. When you are introduced, repeat the other person’s name back to them.”

Mr Rand advises students to think up “small tidbits to start the conversation”.

“You might say: ‘I understand you work for IBM; how long have you been there? How did you find the recruiting process? Have you ever dined in this restaurant before? What do you recommend?’”

Students are then seated for the meal. Mr Rand gives students a simple mnemonic device to remember the order of their place setting: BMW. “Everyone can remember BMW: it’s bread on your left, meal in the middle and water on your right. With silverware, you work from the outside in.”

He gives a running commentary during brunch, telling students when to unfold their napkin (only after your host does so, or everyone at the table is seated), how to pass the bread basket (counter clockwise) and what to do when asked to pass the salt (pass together with the pepper and never salt your own food before passing).

Kathy Colucci, a 27-year veteran of IBM finance, says the course is especially helpful for those considering client- or customer-facing roles. “The message was: understand you’re being judged. I am not a stickler for manners, but I do notice when someone does something improper,” she says. “And it stays with me.”

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