Surviving a Business Dinner: The Essentials of Etiquette

Written by Cassandra Rudd

All of us know some form of etiquette when it comes to eating at the dinner table, whether it is where the fork and knife go in relation to your plate, to not talk while you have food in your mouth, or to push your chair in when you leave the table. However, when it comes to etiquette and business dinners, there are important steps to take in order to make a good impression.

Eating in a professional environment is a way to “break bread,” as the saying goes, and get to know your co-workers or future employer on a more personal level, but as with anything else in the business world, there are guidelines to follow.

You’re invited to a lunch at a nice restaurant by a potential employer. He wants to interview you in a more relaxed setting so he proposes lunch at a local eatery. In order to make a good first impression, make sure that you show up a few minutes early to avoid being late. Showing up too early may be awkward for the potential employer. When you arrive at the restaurant you quickly spot your host, and make your way to his table. You realize that he has brought some of his colleagues with him to the luncheon. Shake hands and let him know that you are thankful for the opportunity to have lunch with him. You then make your way to the others at the table and introduce yourself to them as well. The more people you network with, the better!

Once seated, remember to sit upright in your chair. Slouching would appear lazy or like you were uninterested in the conversation. Proper posture will show that you are present and engaged in the conversation at hand.

When the wait staff brings the menu, look it over being careful to avoid the pricey items like the fresh Maine lobster with truffle butter. Instead opting for something more reasonable like the chicken Florentine or the California Cobb salad. Your potential boss tells you to “order whatever you want!,”  but try to pick a dish that is neutral price-wise. Try to order something that is easy to eat so that you do not make a mess, even if the rack of ribs sounds delicious.

While in the middle of discussing the expansions that have been made to the company that the host works for, your phone begins to vibrate (you put it on vibrate ahead of time knowing that it would be rude if your Miley Cyrus ringtone started to go off in the middle of this important meal). Instead of checking your phone when the conversation begins to die down, leave your phone in your pocket, out of respect for the others at the table.

Before getting to the restaurant study up on the positioning of place settings and glasses at a dining table (See link for place setting: http://www.u.arizona.edu/~cflac/etiquette/settings.html). Be cautious not to grab your host’s water glass by accident; this would be an embarrassing mistake.

When you finally get your meal, you realize, much to your dismay, that the roasted chicken you ordered came with a side of asparagus, a vegetable you despise above all others.  One thing to keep in mind is that it would not look good for you to be picky about what is on your plate; this may give a lasting negative impression.

At one point in the dinner, just after taking a good sized bite of chicken, one of the guests at the table asks you what drew you to apply for the position at the host’s company; an excellent question that you have an answer for, but you just started to chew your food. Wait a minute gesturing to the person to hold on one moment and finish chewing before you speak. At this point in the luncheon, you begin to feel anxious, overwhelmed and worried about whether you are giving off the right impression and if you are presenting yourself in the proper way to the host and his colleagues. Just take a deep breath and remember to relax, you’ve got this!

While making a move toward your water glass, your elbow accidentally hits your butter knife, sending it crashing to the floor. You think to pick it up out of habit, but then think, “This isn’t someone’s home, so I should just leave it.”

After finishing the meal, the host insists on ordering a round of drinks for the table. He asks what you would like to drink, and although you know you probably shouldn’t, he insists.  Go with the safe choice and order one beer, no need to overdo it with multiple drinks or hard liquor when you are discussing business.

As everyone is conversating at the table, you begin to feel as though you may not be speaking up enough, but the discussion is currently about the most recent Mets game, and this is right in your wheel house. Although you know a lot about baseball, you know that you cannot do all the talking and that listening is an important skill to illustrate as well.

When the bill comes, a few guests at the table offer to go Dutch or at least pay for the tip, however you know that it is the host’s responsibility to take care of the whole bill and the tip, as he is the one who invited you out to lunch. When preparing to leave the table, make sure to push in your chair so that it does not obstruct the path of the other guests as they exit or that of the waiters and bussers as they clear the tables. Shake everyone’s hand and let them know how great it was to meet them and to have had lunch with them.

Overall, you think you did a really great job remembering all the etiquette tips you have learned and that you made a great first impression with the host. You are hopeful that the position that you applied for will be yours.

Use these tips to help you at any professional networking events. Some of these points may seem like common sense to most people, but they are very important to keep in mind. Making a good impression at a business dinner is very important and could make or break a job interview, give you a leg up for that promotion, or just help you to build a stronger relationship with your potential supervisor and fellow employees.