Should I Wear a Mask During My Job Interview?

Dear Boss,

Since my new job fell through due to COVID-19, I am actively pursuing other opportunities. After applying for a job at a restaurant, I was asked to come in for an on-site interview.

But what does job interview etiquette look like in the current COVID-19 world? For example: Do I wear a mask to the interview? Should I eliminate the traditional handshake? Is it rude to ask to wash my hands before starting the interview? How does this all work now?

Some employers have responded to the pandemic incredibly well – giving employees extra flexibility on work schedules, projects, and deadlines; providing more paid leave; and encouraging people to work from home long-term when their jobs allow it. Others have been fairly awful – inflexible, unaccommodating, and reckless with people’s safety. Now that certain cities and industries are beginning to creak back to life, you’ll want to know what you’re signing up for before you take a new job.

First and foremost, consider requesting a video interview.

This particular interview is for a job in a restaurant, so it’s not surprising that it’s in-person and on-site. But if you’re interviewing for a job where off-site work seems more feasible, consider asking if a video interview is possible, at least for the first interview. The employer might want to meet in-person at some point before extending a job offer, but if there will be multiple rounds of interviews, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask that conversations in earlier stages of the process be done remotely.

You can frame it as, “I’m trying to be very careful right now because of the pandemic. Would it be possible to do this initial meeting by phone or video? I’m of course happy to meet in person later in the process if we move forward.” And if your area still has stay-at-home orders in place, cite that: “I’ve been trying to be vigilant about following the stay-at-home order.”

But if the interview is in-person…

Don’t rely on employers to have figured everything out. 

We’re taught to defer to employers in an interview situation – and generally look to them to decide on the structure of the interview and to arrange the logistics. But if your default assumption is that the employer will be taking all necessary precautions right now, that can leave you blindsided and in an uncomfortable position (like being seated in a tiny room with little space between you and an interviewer who isn’t wearing a mask and breathing all over you.) And if you’re anxious to make a good first impression, you might be reluctant to speak up for fear of seeming difficult or insinuating that they’re being reckless or cavalier. (They are, but that’s a tough message to deliver during a job interview.)

Instead, it’s smart to ask ahead of time about COVID-19-related precautions so you’re not caught off-guard once you get there and so you’re able to ask for any accommodations you might need. When you’re setting up the interview, you can broach the topic by asking, “Do you have any COVID-19 policies that I should know to follow when I arrive?” Ideally you’ll hear that you should wear a mask, that they’ll be wearing masks, and that they’re following social distancing guidelines. If you don’t hear that, you can ask for those arrangements or decide whether you’re still willing to attend.

Wear a mask.

If you do end up doing an in-person interview, wear a mask.

If you show up without a mask while your interviewer is wearing one, you’re going to look inconsiderate and out-of-touch with public health advice.

If you show up with a mask and no one else is wearing one … I hope you’ll keep the mask on. I realize you might feel pressure to remove it in the context of a job interview, but keeping it on is the right thing to do for public health and for the health of the people around you, whether they recognize that or not. That’s especially true if you’re in an enclosed space (which is likely if you’re interviewing in an office).

You might worry it will put you at a disadvantage. What if they think you’re too uptight or dislike that you’re making a different choice than they are? Honestly, that’s a possible outcome. But job interviews are two-way streets; you’re supposed to be assessing them just as much as they’re assessing you. And an employer that penalizes you for taking public health recommendations seriously is an employer that doesn’t take employee safety seriously. You should judge them on that.

Handshakes are out for now.

It’s perfectly socially acceptable right now to skip a handshake. When you first meet your interviewer, say in a warm tone, “I know we can’t shake hands right now, but it’s great to meet you.”

(You also asked about asking to wash your hands when you arrive. That’s fine to do!)

Pay attention to what you learn about the employer.

As I mentioned above, interviews are two-way streets. Too often, in their desire for a job offer, job candidates forget that the interview process should be about more than convincing the interviewer to hire you. You should also be figuring out if the job and company are the right fit for you.

When you interview for a job, you get a ton of information about what the company is like and what the manager you would be working for is like. Pay attention to those cues! At the moment, that includes a lot of data about how seriously the company takes employee comfort and safety. A manager who looks down on you for wanting to maintain some physical distance, for example, is a manager who will be cavalier with your safety once you’re working there – not just with COVID-19, but more generally too. An employer that balks at an easily-accommodated request for a video interview in the current climate is an employer that probably isn’t going to be terribly supportive of working from home right now either.

And in addition to all the questions you should ask in any interview, consider asking, “How has the pandemic affected your operations?” and “How has it changed how employees are working?”

But don’t dismiss those less explicit cues. Part of the point of interviewing is for you to gather information to help determine if you even want this job – and right now, there’s more data coming toward you on that front than ever.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email askaboss@nymag.com. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.