When you invite someone—or get invited—to lunch for the purpose of doing business, there’s one thing to remember: It’s still business, not time to let your hair down.
In other words, your lunch table persona needs to be as respectable as your conference table persona (which I hope is respectable!).
A long time ago when I was working in a sales position, a wise man taught me that people enjoy doing business with others who share similar values. The idea so intrigued me that I studied the subject further and even earned a certification in values analysis (yes, such a certification exists).
Essentially, values are assumptions, convictions, or beliefs about how things ought to be in the world, and they are the hidden force behind our behavior. This concept is vitally important in sales, but its wisdom should stretch far beyond a sales scenario. It should be foundational for all aspects of business relationships.
Consequently, if you want to do business with someone—or you’re already in an existing business relationship—it’s best to minimize any differences in values.
One community leader I know who agrees with this principle puts it this way: When at a business lunch, act if you’re dining with the king: Do what the king does, and eat like the king eats.
It’s a great guideline, especially for lowering the risk of bumping up against someone’s value system.
What follows are some time-tested tips for good business lunch etiquette, including some from Joan Lloyd, author of The Career Decisions Planner. These tips are drawn from commonly accepted etiquette, so following them will likely increase the chance of conducting yourself along commonly accepted practices.
- Arrive on time! Arrive 30 seconds early and your image is fine, 30 seconds late and your image is tarnished. It’s strange but true; just one 60-second slice of time can make or break you!
- Talk with your other guests to find out what they’re interested in having before the server arrives to take the order. If they’re looking at the $7.95 salad instead of the $21.95 steak, order something on the lighter side, too. On the flip side, if they’re going to get the steak, don’t order the salad! This isn’t about lunch – it’s about business. Nobody says you have to eat the entire plate of food. (Remember: Eat like the king eats.)
- If your meal includes a roll, use your hands to break the roll into bite-sized pieces one at a time, buttering them (if you so choose) as you go. Avoid buttering half of a roll and biting into it. (Kings eat a bit different in the 21st century than they did in the 12th.)
- Place your napkin in your lap as soon as you sit down. If you have to leave the table for any reason, place the napkin either to the left of your plate or on your seat.
- Be respectful to the wait staff! A long time ago I learned how true is the saying, “a person who is nice to you but not nice to the waiter is not a nice person.” Accordingly, if you’re eating with someone who’s treating the waiter like a dog, you might want to rethink how much business you want to do with that person.
You might be interested to know that a poll conducted by The Creative Group, an advertising and marketing company based in Menlo Park, California, found that being snobbish or rude to a restaurant employee is the number one reason a business lunch goes sour.
- If you have to take notes, use a smaller notepad. Taking notes on legal pads can be awkward, especially on small tables. At business meals where you’re not familiar with your company, it’s better to focus on the people you’re with, not be preoccupied with reorganizing plates and glassware. Keep books, laptops, and larger tablets off the table.
Meals are usually perceived to be a more relaxing time than a formal conference room meeting. And although it’s okay to evaluate each situation for its own merits, be careful not to breach someone’s value system and hinder a business relationship over something as simple as lunch.