Business Meal Manners

Business meal manners
David Robinson
Sunday, November 23, 2008

A friend told me that when you’re invited to a meal as part of recruiting you should always choose the cheapest item on the menu. This doesn’t seem right – the recruiter isn’t paying for the meal, the firm is. I feel like, hey, I’m giving up my time to go through the interview so it’s just a way of getting paid. I’m going for the lobster!

Your friend is exaggerating and over-stating a rule: The conventional wisdom is that you should never order the most expensive item on the menu when you are guest, either in social or business settings. While it’s true that recruiting involves a great deal of personal inconvenience and time commitment and you may feel entitled to some reward, especially if you don’t get offered a job, that’s probably not the best approach to interview dining.

Firms set up interview meals to provide a more relaxed environment than the in-office interview situation in which the questions and answers are often preplanned. Your duty is merely to be yourself so that the recruiter and other professionals from the firm can get to know you. Additionally, if one of the duties of the job opening is to entertain clients, the firm wants to know that you are reasonably comfortable in a formal restaurant.

As to what to choose from the menu, the chief concern is not price. While you should avoid the most expensive dishes, there’s no need to be excessively frugal. More importantly, you want to choose something that is easy to eat (that rules out lobster!). Since all the focus of attention will be on you, you want to choose something that allows you to take bites and then talk. It’s a good idea to avoid anything that is unfamiliar to you – this is not the time for experimentation. You wouldn’t be the first job candidate who had to make a hasty trip to the bathroom because he over-estimated his stomach’s enthusiasm for calf brains, snails or spicy food.

Aren’t french fries finger-food? I was at lunch with a colleague from our firm and we were at a nice enough “white table cloth” restaurant. When my “Le Hamburger Americain” arrived, I picked up french fries one by one and dipped them in the ketchup that was provided just as I always do. Mr. Snooty sniffed and tut-tutted that I should be eating them with my fork. Who’s right here?

Ah, one man’s finger-food is another man’s faux pas! On the one hand, we have your assertion that everyone picks up french fries one by one and eats them out of hand. On the other hand, your co-worker thinks that the context demanded a knife-and-fork routine.

There’s no way to settle this one. Arguably the level of formality demanded switching to knife and fork, but on the other hand, the broader context was quite informal – a lunch between co-workers. Perhaps the way out is not to order the hamburger. You did wash your hands, though, didn’t you? When do you bring up business during a business lunch? My boss made a big deal about setting up some “private time” away from the office and we went through lunch talking politics and baseball and on the way to the car he blurted out the real reason for the meeting: I’m getting an early promotion. Shouldn’t this have come up sooner?

There are cultural differences as to when and what can be discussed at over a meal. In some countries, even though the context is a “business lunch” business itself is never discussed; the lunch just serves a “getting to know you” function.

Although some people might have different opinions, a good time to get to the heart of the matter is when the main course is served. In your example, if your boss was continuing his sporting analysis, you could’ve reasonably said: “But tell me, I’m anxious to know – what’s the reason for setting up this meeting away from the office?” Even if you anticipate bad news (“As you know, we’re going through a lot of restructuring and unfortunately …”) it’s better to get it over with. As you experienced, it’s not helpful to hear even good news in a rush.

Posted under: Interview