Q. I am an instructor, and I often use your column in my Office Administration course for Business Management undergraduates. My class benefits greatly from the advice you give and has decided to submit two questions as a group. (Readers: This is the second question from C. P.’s class.)
What is the proper etiquette for business meals at restaurants? For example, should you drink alcohol, should you offer to pay if you are with your supervisor, and how important are table manners when out with a supervisor/co-worker as opposed to family or friends?
C. P., Warwick, RI
A. Table manners matter. A lot. For some strange reason people take the measure of each other more by their table manners than by almost any other social skill. In business they can prove to be the differentiator between you and your competition. They also imply a lot about your confidence. If you know what to do when at the table, then your focus is on the person you are with and on building your relationship. If you don’t know what to do, then you fret about how to act and can appear unconfident or uninvolved. People like to do business with people who are focused and confident.
Drinking alcohol is a two-edged sword. On the one hand people ask, “Isn’t it important to be social and ‘keep up with the guys’?” Perhaps in the Mad Men era, but not today. There are a number of good reasons why a person might not drink in any situation: religious, medical, or personal. No one should feel the necessity to drink alcohol, and no one should coerce another person into drinking. On the other hand, drinking too much can quickly become a serious problem. Safety, of course, is of paramount importance. Beyond that, the fact is that alcohol affects judgment before the drinker even realizes it. Certainly, in business, you never want to put yourself into a position where you’ll have to apologize for your actions the next day. The only way to be sure alcohol won’t put you in that position is not to drink at all or to follow the “one drink rule”—nurse one drink through the evening, or, after one drink, switch to non-alcoholic beverages. Being on top of your game is more important than having one or two drinks.
As to who pays for the meal, whoever does the inviting does the paying. If your supervisor invites you out, then she is expecting to pick up the bill. If you are asked out but would like to do the paying, then offer to pay at the time of the ask, not when the check arrives at the table.
By the way, table manners are just as important when out with family or friends as when out with a supervisor, colleague, client, prospect or supplier. They all deserve your best.