Business Meal Etiquette

When employers make hiring decisions, the thought process does not start and stop with interview questions.  Employers need to staff their companies with employees that are not only technically competent, but also culturally suitable.  They evaluate job applicants with visual observations of behaviors, including what occurs during business meals.

Admittedly, this topic applies both to job applicants as well as existing employees looking to climb the corporate ladder.  The right set of behaviors during business meals can mean the difference between getting that promotion and missing an opportunity for advancement.

In this article, we're going to focus on business meal etiquette - at a very high level.  Our aim is to supply enough information so that no one commits a major faux pas during the meal.  We'll start off by talking about the business meeting itself, and then move on to meal etiquette.

Business Meals

By definition, a business meal is a meeting where business is conducted while eating.  There are many reasons to have a business meal, and while the etiquette described in this article applies to all types of gatherings, we're going to focus on those that occur during a job interview.

If you've never met the recruiter or hiring manager before, then meet in the workplace and drive there together, or follow them to the restaurant if at all possible.  This way everyone arrives at the same time, and no one has to worry about trying to recognize a new face at the restaurant.

Restaurant Conversation

Come prepared to the business meal in the same way as a job interview.  The primary objective is to participate in a fruitful conversation; eating is secondary.  In addition to being prepared to ask questions about the hiring company, it's also a good idea to have more casual topics to talk about.  Don't be lured into a debate, so stay away from topics such as politics and religion.  Talking about activities or hobbies such as gardening and fishing are better ice-breakers.

Table Manners

The host is going to be observing your every move during the meal, including how you treat others.  Always be polite to restaurant staff members, especially the waiter or waitress.  This holds true under all circumstances; even if the food is cold or something is spilled on you or the table.  Don't lose control of emotions.

Let the host sit down first at the table.  When sitting down at the table, always place the napkin immediately on your lap.  When the meal is over, proper etiquette calls for the napkin to be placed back on the table to the left side of the dinner plate.

Don't start eating your meal until everyone at the table has their meals delivered.  Turn cell phones off unless you're expecting an emergency phone call.  If it's absolutely necessary to leave a cell phone on, tell the host ahead of time that you're expecting a call that needs to be answered.

When the meal is over, don't forget to thank the hiring manager or recruiter for taking the time to meet; and don't forget to thank them for the meal.

Ordering Food and Drink

When ordering food, it's a good idea to follow the lead of your host.  If they order dessert or an appetizer, then it's fine to follow suit.  Avoid ordering the most expensive items on the menu, again, follow the lead of the host.  Avoid ordering "messy" foods that are awkward to eat or stand a good chance of splashing on clothes.

Alcohol Consumption During Business Meals

It's never a good idea to consume alcohol during a business lunch or dinner. The purpose of the meeting is to conduct business, and at the very least alcohol will slow down or cloud the thought process.  If everyone else is ordering a drink containing alcohol and you feel it would be more awkward to not order one, then order something and don't finish the entire glass or bottle.

Eating the Meal

One of the more confusing and awkward issues that occurs during a business meal is the struggle to figure out the ownership of the bread and butter plates.  The proper placement of plates, glasses, and utensils is as follows:

  • Glasses:  on the right hand side, and working from the outside towards the dinner plate (center) can be a red wine, white wine, and water glass.
  • Bread and Butter Plate:  this will be on the left hand side.
  • Napkin:  the napkin will either be placed on the plate in front of you or it will be on the left hand side.
  • Forks:  will be placed on the left hand side.
  • Spoons and Knives:  will be placed on the right hand side.

Generally, forks and spoons are used toward the dinner plate.  So if forks are on the left, they are used from left to right (in towards the plate).  Spoons and knives are placed on the right, so they are used from right to left (again, towards the plate).

If you've decided to order soup, always place the spoon on the plate when not being used.  Don't leave the spoon in the bowl because you run the risk of bumping the spoon and sending soup flying across the table.  Accidents can happen, and if you can avoid this problem during a business meal, you should take all the precautions possible.

When eating bread or a dinner roll, tear a bite sized piece of the bread over the bread and butter plate so you don't get crumbs on your lap.  If you're going to use butter, take some from the butter plate and move it to your bread and butter plate.  Butter each piece individually before eating.

As mentioned earlier, what is said, as well as your behavior, is being observed during the meal.  For example, subtle actions such as salting foods before tasting them might send the signal that you make decisions without evaluating the facts.  It cannot be stressed enough that business comes first, and the meal is secondary.


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