Who is responsible for paying the bill at a business lunch or dinner?
The rule for who pays: The person who does the asking does the paying.
That said, there are situations when other social rules, norms and assumptions come into play that can cause confusion and difficulty. For instance, a woman asks a man to a business meal. When the check arrives, the waitperson hands the bill to the man, and then he takes the lead and pays. The hostess can either let him pay or she can ask that he give her the bill or she can insist that he give her the bill. All three options create a potentially awkward situation.
Instead, she can avoid the problem altogether by letting the waitperson know at the start of the meal to bring the bill to her. Alternatively, she can arrange payment of the bill ahead of time with the restaurant. Or she can excuse herself near the end of the meal, give her credit card to the waitperson and ask that the bill be ready for her to sign (with 20% added for a tip) when she comes back to the table. I like the idea of either arranging for payment ahead of time or having the waitperson prepare the credit card slip for signing while she is away from the table because those options remove ever having the bill arrive at the table. It also skips the processes of figuring the tax and signing the bill, which take her focus away from her guest.
While the “Who Pays Rule” clearly assigns the payment responsibility to the host who does the inviting, what is the protocol when several people all go out together and no one is the clear host? In such a case the bill is going to be split. The best option is to ask for separate checks. The key to success here is to make the request before the waitperson starts taking orders so the orders can be written on separate slips. If separate checks aren’t possible or weren’t requested ahead of time, then, when the bill arrives, the group can ask that it be split evenly, with each person paying his or her own share.
The potentially awkward situation here is when one person orders an inexpensive salad and everyone else has a three-course meal. The salad-eating person is left with two options: either saying nothing and paying a disproportionate share or having to speak up and be perceived as complaining. The considerate alternative is for one of the people who ordered the three-course meal to suggest an unequal but fair split of the bill. Problem solved and everyone can enjoy having spent time together.
Bottom line: When you are a guest, let your host pay the check; when you’re in a group, be aware if there are any inequalities in the meal or drinks orders and adjust the payment split accordingly.
If you have a business etiquette question, please email it to email@example.com. You can hear more Emily Post etiquette advice on the Awesome Etiquette podcast featuring Lizzie Post and Dan Post Senning. Listen and subscribe at infiniteguest.org.
Peter Post’s newest book, The Unwritten Rules of Golf, Morrow, is available at emilypost.com.
Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled etiquette issues in The Boston Sunday Globe’s weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business” and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book “Essential Manners For Men” was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of “Essential Manners for Couples,” “Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf,” and co-author of “A Wedding Like No Other.” Post is Emily Post’s great-grandson. His media appearances include “CBS Sunday Morning,” CBS’s “The Early Show,” NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and “Fox News.” Follow Post: @PeterLPost.