Business-lunch blunders

From interns to experienced execs, too many folks forget basic niceties at business meals, says Fortune's Anne Fisher. Here are 10 rules to keep you from committing a serious faux pas.

By Anne Fisher, FORTUNE senior writer

(Fortune) -- Dear Annie: I hope you can help me out. A while back you answered a question from someone who wanted to know if he could wear casual attire to a job-interview lunch. Can you give some more rules for proper behavior at business lunches?

I work for a large ad agency that has had several interns this summer, all very bright but totally lacking in business experience. Every time I took one of them out to lunch with a client, I ended up having to call the client afterward and apologize for the intern's behavior. One intern asked a client for a date! Another ordered a bottle of wine and proceeded to drink most of it, then went off to the men's room and didn't come back. If you publish a list of tips, I will post it on the wall and suggest everyone read it. - Cringing in Cleveland

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Dear Cringing: Sounds like your interns were trying to have a little too much fun. Business lunches and dinners, as anyone knows who attended many of them, are not about fun - they're about business. Robin Jay, the expert I quoted in that last column on lunch etiquette says they're also about keeping in mind certain basic niceties that your mom probably taught you eons ago, but that tend, alas, to be forgotten as time goes by.

For example, "Never, ever talk with your mouth full!" says Jay, the author of The Art of the Business Lunch: Building Relationships Between 12 and 2 (Career Press, $14.99). "When I was writing the book, almost everyone I talked to asked me to mention this. Apparently there are a lot of otherwise successful executives who never learned that they should not talk with food in their mouths." Instead, she says, take small bites, so that you can quickly swallow if somebody asks you a question.

A few of Jay's other rules for business meals:

The three-martini lunch is deader than a dinosaur. (Needless to say, that applies to the full-bottle-of-wine-per-person lunch, too.) "Drinking clouds your judgment, so unless your client (or job interviewer, or boss) takes the lead, don't suggest a round of cocktails," says Jay. "If the other party take the initiative and orders alcohol, you can avoid an awkward situation by ordering something light," like a wine spritzer. Then, don't finish it.

Never assume your client is looking for a social encounter. "People in a business setting can sometimes appear extremely friendly or open," Jay notes - but that doesn't mean they have the slightest interest in meeting up with you after hours. Asking for a date is strictly verboten.

Whenever possible, meet at the client's (or job interviewer's) office and accompany him or her to the restaurant. Saying "I'll meet you there" may save a little time if the other party is someone you have met before and will easily recognize, but if not, "imagine the two of you waiting for each other to arrive, when you've each already been seated," says Jay. It seems this happens a lot and is, she observes, "a colossal waste of time."

Always be kind to the wait staff. "Anyone who is nice to you but nasty to their server is not a nice person," says Jay. "Be polite to restaurant staff, no matter what happens." This can be tough when a waiter has just spilled a hot bowl of soup on your best suit, but grit your teeth and do it anyway.

Don't slam the competition. A business meal gives you the chance to talk about how good you are, but doing that at someone else's expense is in bad taste. "Learn to build business relationships by outperforming the competition, not by putting them down," says Jay. "If you're lunching with a prospective client who is already doing business with a rival, insulting that competitor can too easily imply that anyone working with them must be stupid or foolish as well."

Come prepared with well-informed small talk. Avoid awkward silences by having a few casual, non-business topics in mind. "Learn to ask interesting questions," says Jay. People enjoy giving their thoughts on things that interest them, whether the subject is travel, sports, gardening, or the movies.

Know your client's business. "Never head off to a business meal without knowing everything you can about your client's business and current trends in the industry," Jay says. The fewer times you have to say (or think), "I didn't know that!" in the course of the conversation, the more impressed with you the other party will be. Thanks to the Internet, being in the know, or at least seeming that way, is easy. Just take 20 minutes or so to do a Google search before you leave for lunch.

Don't ask your guest to help you figure out the tip. "Good grief! Is there anything tackier than showing someone how much you just spent on them?" asks Jay. "Anyone who can read a menu will already have a pretty good idea anyway. If you can't read the check without your glasses, then have them with you at all times."

Put some thought into choosing the right restaurant. "This is extremely important," Jay says. "Your choice says a lot about you and about how you feel toward the client. Too casual or inexpensive and the client may not feel valued. Too extravagant and expensive and they may perceive you as wasteful and wonder how careful you'll be with their money if you win their business." When in doubt, suggest that the client pick the place. Their choice will tell you a lot about them, too.

Hope that helps! Readers, what was the best or worst business lunch (or dinner) you ever sat through? Have you, a staffer, or client committed a business-meal faux pas? Got any more rules for successful business lunching? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog! Top of page