Food for thought: The etiquette of business lunches or dinners

By Robert Half January 5, 2015 at 9:14pm

We’ve all seen it: business deals happening not in the office or over the phone, but across a dining table. The business lunch (or dinner) is standard practice for working with both customers and business partners. But the proper protocol for a working lunch or dinner can be tricky. Who chooses the restaurant? If it’s you, which type of restaurant do you pick? Are there any ‘off-limits’ topics? And if your boss invites you to dinner, what are the rules? Here are some basic tips and tricks for business lunch (or dinner) etiquette.

Types of meal meetings

There are various reasons to conduct business over a meal. You may be informally getting to know a client, celebrating the signing of a contract with a customer, discussing tough negotiations with a business partner in a more relaxed environment, or simply taking a break with colleagues to satisfy your hunger.

Whatever the reason, it’s important to realise there are rules to follow and roles to play. And these differ depending on the occasion and who’s in attendance.

1. The internal business lunch

Who selects the restaurant?
A regular and friendly lunch with colleagues does not actually fall into the category of internal business and therefore requires no real precautions. Let the group democratically decide where to get a bite to eat.

If you ask your boss to join you for a meal, however, you should consider a few things. For example, the choice of restaurants is important and should be of a high standard. If you don’t have a good recommendation, you may want to let your boss decide.

Seating
With colleagues, seating shouldn’t matter. If you’re with the boss, let them take the lead. Wait to see where they sit first or whether they indicate a certain seat for you.

Topics of conversation
If you’re with your workmates, enjoy the chance to talk to them outside the office. Just remember that you shouldn’t use this time as an opportunity to gossip or badmouth your boss or other colleagues. And although having a one-on-one with your boss might seem daunting, just be yourself and let the conversation flow. Business should be the focus, but you will most certainly exchange banter during the meal. If you’re worried about getting the conversation started or other awkward silences, consider some topics ahead of time. Maybe your boss spends the weekends playing golf, or perhaps you know some people in common.

Who pays?
With a group lunch, people generally split the bill, unless you’re shouting someone for their birthday. If you invite your boss to lunch, etiquette dictates that you should pay. If the boss wants to discuss business with you, he or she should pick up the bill.

2. The informal business lunch

Who selects the restaurant?
Informal business lunches are often common practice for meeting with business partners or clients to discuss a project or contract negotiations. The company or person hosting the meeting should suggest the restaurant. Think practically – easy access and short waiting times are more important than a fancy atmosphere for this kind of meal.

Seating
With a group, it’s a good idea to try to alternate your business partners or clients with your own employees. You may want to speak with your colleagues about this before the lunch.

Topics of conversation
This type of lunch may be a continuation of business discussions from that morning in the office, and your manner should always be professional. However, the informal business lunch can also often be conducive to more relaxed, more candid conversations. This might just be where you get the deal done! On the other hand, lunch may simply be a reprieve from business negotiations. Take some cues from your guests (or your hosts) and try to go with the flow.

Who pays?
The lunch host should pay the bill – and do so gracefully. You want to make a good impression on your business partners.

3. Official business

Who selects the restaurant?
Hard-core business discussions and negotiations often take place in the evenings. If you extend an invitation, always consider your business partners when deciding on a restaurant. If you know them well, you can go with their preferences. If in doubt, choose a quiet restaurant with a wide selection of dishes, including vegetarian options. If you’ve not been there before, you may want to check out the atmosphere in advance.

Seating
When you have several guests, as the host, you should seat the business partners along the table, with the most important closest to you. Ensure you make all necessary introductions if there are people who’ve never met. As the host, it’s your responsibility to make sure everyone is comfortable and enjoying themselves.

Topics of conversation
Generally, the host also leads the business discussion and makes sure all stakeholders at the table get their say – and their questions asked and answered. If possible, hold off on the business talk until dessert and coffee, as long as you’ll have enough time to cover everything.

Who pays?
The host should pay discreetly. Quietly excuse yourself from the table shortly after dessert and pay out of sight of your guests.

Whether you’re having a spontaneous lunch or a planned business dinner, make sure you know the proper etiquette before mealtime. It’s easy to make a faux pas that could reflect negatively on you or your business.

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