FAST TRACK: Are you any good at lunch?

Making small talk may seem like a dull pastime, but to potential bosses it is a sign of professionalism.

SUMMER IS high party season for working professionals. If it's not corporate hospitality at Henley, Goodwood or Cowes, it's drinks with the boss. But don't be fooled. There's more going on here than corporate largesse: for a growing number of professionals, social skills are a key determiner of career progression.

Successful business lunches, corporate hospitality and client entertaining require empathy, flexibility and sound judgement. Much business is developed through informal meetings and bonds forged at social occasions. It's hardly surprising, then, that prospective employers in professions as diverse as accountancy, law and advertising often try to establish the social skills of new recruits before making them an offer or earmarking them for a seat on the board. Their tactics may vary, but their approaches are always subtle.

David is a London-based IT consultant. "I was taken on with a number of other graduate trainees seven years ago," he says. "The final selection round involved an assessment day at which we were all expected to work together on various tasks. Afterwards, we were taken out for dinner by the partners. Believe it or not, it was good fun - although you couldn't forget that the selection process was still going on."

As the wine and conversation flowed, his future employers kept a beady eye on how their prospective recruits performed in the seemingly relaxed atmosphere of an Italian restaurant. "It's not so much about whether they can use the right knife and fork, but what they're like as people," explains an advertising agency executive whose company does the same thing with shortlisted applicants. "It's because at the end of the day, we'll all end up working together. After the second bottle of wine they stop pretending."

In retrospect, David adds, it was a shrewd tactic, if, perhaps, a little underhand. "With so much business being down to whom you know and how well you get on with prospective clients, it's essential in my line of work to get on with people," he says. "Success in this job is not just about doing your job well; I have to bring in new business, too. They were clearly looking not only for people they could get on with but who would click with clients, too."

His view is endorsed by Geoff Webb, chief executive of the international change management consultancy The Webb Partnership. "It is important to engage with clients at a personal level, and quickly. It makes the professional relationship you are trying to build a lot more solid," he explains. "The challenge is that often you have just a few minutes to hit it off. The ability to get on with people at all levels is critical, and it can be difficult at first for someone fresh out of college."

Like many firms, Clifford Chance now operates a two-stage recruitment process, with initial interview followed closely by an assessment day when applicants undergo tests, a further interview, group discussions and role play. "There's little point being an extremely good lawyer if you are unable to communicate effectively to clients and do not have their confidence and trust," says Simon Davis, the firm's partner in charge of graduates.

"We test the ability of people to work with others - not whether they hold their knife and fork in the right way, but how effectively they deal with other people." This means whether they are good listeners and sensitive to other people's views, and, of course, whether those already with the firm would enjoy working with them.

"I would be extremely surprised if someone bright, quick and adaptable made a complete ass of themselves in public," he adds. "We don't test this as such, but then we wouldn't expect [our] people to behave differently in a work situation to how they would behave in a work-related social situation. There is, however, a balance. We will always look for people who enjoy life beyond the office - zesty people are more likely to get on with our clients."

Ian du Pre, recruitment partner at PriceCoopersWaterhouse, agrees. "We expect people at an early age to be aware of the dangers of being over- entertained, or entertaining too much, and the implications this might have," he says. "We are looking for adaptability, flexibility and judgement. If you are young and inexperienced and are taken out for a business lunch, you may not know what knife and fork to use or what you'll get by ordering gazpacho, but it doesn't take long."

He adds: "When I was 21, I had no interest in making small talk about someone else's kids, or the debt crisis in Mexico. Repeated exposure to corporate social events means that you do."

As David points out, "It's naive to assume that if your boss throws a drinks do for the office, or asks you round for dinner, it can ever be a truly `social' event. You're only there for one reason: because you work for them." Corporate hospitality may sound like an excuse to let your hair down, but there really is no such thing as a free business lunch.

Party

Survival

Tactics

l It sounds obvious, but don't drink too much. If wine tends to go to your head, water it down. Or pace yourself by alternating between alcoholic and soft drinks.

l Keep your wits about you. Useful snippets of information can always be gleaned at a party - just make sure the indiscretions under discussion are not your own.

l Don't be shy of engaging the boss in small talk (such as asking about their last holiday) but don't get over-familiar. Store up personal details that he or she may let slip, but keep things neutral.

l Perfect the art of listening. This doesn't mean nodding whilst scanning the room for someone more interesting.

l Try not to be the last to leave - it looks as though you've got no home to go to. Leave too early, however, and you may appear to be a party pooper. Watch the signals.

l Remember, you're not here solely for fun, but also because of what you do for

a living.

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