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How to deal with uninvited business guests

Q. My job often entails inviting clients to lunch or drinks. While I pay for these get-togethers out of my own pocket, I do get reimbursed for such outings by my company.

My business etiquette issue is this. I have experienced a client/prospective client or two who will bring along a few employees without my knowledge, and even friends sometimes. One of them even said to me "Well your company pays for this, so you have no problems paying for Bill's (client's friend) drinks, right?" While yes, my company will reimburse me for other guests, I know it is not expected that this happen often. I also don't want my clients to feel like they can take advantage of me/my company.

My question is: Does proper business etiquette dictate that I cater to all the client's friends/employees/guests? Or is this out of line on their part, and, if so, what is the proper response to this?

K. R., Coeur d'Alene, ID

A. Once in a blue moon, I’d overlook their faux pas of bringing uninvited business guests to a business social get-together. I would have less tolerance with the person who brings his uninvited, non-business friends or who is a repeat offender. He assumes incorrectly that you have “no problems” paying for his guests. You have a big problem because this is an ethical situation that could land you in a lot of hot water. First, speak to your boss, and apprise him of the situations. He can help direct you as to whether, in the company’s view, you should say something or continue to pay for your client’s uninvited guests.

If you are going to say something to the client, when you bring it up and how you go about saying it matters. And realize that no matter how perfectly you do it, the client may not respond positively.

The least propitious time is at the event itself. Even an attempt to subtly manage the situation, say reserving a table just for the two of you, may not work. A larger table will be offered or additional chairs brought over and your underlying problem won’t be resolved.

Saying something like “So nice to see you Jim. Unfortunately, I can’t host your friends” creates a very difficult situation on the spot. As with many awkward social situations, this one is better handled privately and after the fact. Call or meet with Jim later and explain: “Jim, thanks for talking with me. I’m in a bit of a bind. Although I accommodated your friends last night because I didn’t want the situation to become awkward, this has happened a couple of times, and I would appreciate it if you didn’t bring other people along without first clearing it with me earlier in the day.”

It’s a tough conversation to have, but having your boss back you up is critical to making it work for you. Good luck.

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