Business lunches bring a more relaxed atmosphere to a business meeting. However, aside from great food, proper behavior is expected to keep the experience pleasant for everyone. Therefore, we asked experts to share tips on the proper etiquette when attending business lunches to help you build relationships and leave a good impression with your peers.
Here are 27 business lunch etiquette tips from the pros:
1. Nail the Invitation
Lisa Grotts, Etiquette Expert, LisaGrotts
When extending an invitation, no matter how well you know someone, always choose a location that is convenient for them, not you. When extending the invitation, make sure you give them some options of times and dates to meet. Follow up accordingly before the lunch just as you would a meeting.
2. Ask Your Guests About Potential Food Restrictions
Matt Edstrom, CMO, GoodLife Home Loans
Making sure that the restaurant of choice works for all the guests is not only considerate, but will be appreciated by anyone in attendance who might have food restrictions. It can also prevent your guests from having to make a lot of modifications to their order or needing to ask for a list of ingredients, saving time when ordering the meal. In the event that you don’t check with your guest’s dietary restrictions, you may end up making your guest feel uncomfortable and even excluded. Neither of these situations is optimal for a professional lunch.
3. Be Prepared as a Host
Liz Bryant, President, Liz Bryant Business Etiquette
A successful business lunch begins with a prepared host. Plan to arrive at the restaurant about 15 minutes ahead of time to select your table, and make arrangements with your server to settle the bill after your guest has departed. Also, let your server know the importance of the lunch meeting and alert him or her to your guest’s name so they may be greeted by name upon arrival. This perhaps seemingly small attention to detail can make a very great favorable impression and help set you up for success.
5. Have Something to Eat Before the Lunch Meeting
Mark Ortiz, Founder, ReviewingThis
A formal business lunch is about taking small bites of food in between conversation, as opposed to having conversation in between those bites. Whether you’re sitting across from your boss or client, you’re there for a reason, and it’s important that food does not get in the middle of discussion. To add to this, order food that is easy to eat, and is sliced up. You want to avoid the awkward one to two minutes of silence that comes with eating a complicated or big meal. Keep your portions small, and maintain conversation.
Maggie Alland, Marketing & Review Editor, Fit Small Business
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6. Research the Venue
Toni Purvis, Owner, Paradigm One Carer Consulting LLC
Research the restaurant, check the dress code, and determine the cuisine. For example, if it is a type of Asian cuisine, practice using chopsticks and brush up on the applicable Asian dining traditions. Review the menu online, and select at least two moderately priced entrees you could order (having the second as a backup), and master pronouncing the names of the unfamiliar items.
7. Prepare to Talk About Yourself
Jane Scudder, Founder & Coach, The New Exec
Be ready to answer “So – tell me about yourself?” This is not exactly an elevator pitch, since you’re not necessarily pitching something (yourself included). I recommend people have a few professionally-focused snippets they’re ready to speak to (think: what you focus on a work, any current interesting projects), along with a few personal elements (think: where you’re from originally, how long you’ve lived in the area, how you are connected with the lunch). Lunches, like anything else but more so than interviews, are ultimately a conversation. If you misread a cue and begin to pitch yourself or an idea, it can come off as clumsy and awkward for everyone involved.
8. Know Your Fellow Attendees
Katherine Blaisdell, CEO & Coach, Divine Communications
Do your research. If you can, look into who will be there and think about what kind of relationship you want to form with them. What can you do to help them? What can they do to help you? Visualize your conversation with them and imagine what success looks like. Think about how you want to answer their questions and what kind of questions you want to ask. You don’t have to memorize people’s resumes, but knowing who’s in the room will help put you on firmer ground. This kind of preparation is good etiquette because it demonstrates interest and dedication, but it’s also great for calming any nerves you have about impromptu social situations.
9. Arrive Early & Interact With Other Attendees
April Rushing, Brand Coach & Branding Workshop Presenter, Rushing Media Marketing Communications & Public Relations
This will allow the opportunity to introduce yourself casually before the formal event begins. When introducing yourself, remember to include what you do. How you dress will make interactions at the event more memorable. Dress business appropriate but add a little twist, e.g., bright shoes, interesting tie, beautiful necklace, or something that will invite conversation. This will lead to more conversation.
10. Review the Purpose of Your Meeting
Melanie Herschorn, Business Consultant & Entrepreneur, VIP Business Connection
Spend 10 to 15 minutes before the formal business lunch brushing up on what you need to know about the topic to be discussed. If you’re meeting with your employees, make sure you go over what you plan to speak about before the meeting and bring an outline (either a physical one or at least a mental note) so that you can hit all the important points before lunch ends. If you are meeting with an employer, do your homework ahead of time. Make sure you know what your boss wants to talk about and think about all the answers you’ll need prepared to sound professional and on top of your work! If you’re meeting with clients, prepare for what they’ll want to ask by reviewing your work with them and coming up with new strategies to impress them with at the meeting.
11. Put Your Phone Away
Mary Williams, Executive Coach & Founder, First Impression Authority
In today’s digitally-dependent, technology-driven world, our phones are constantly with us. It’s very important we ensure our phones are out of sight while dining for business. Never place your phone on the table. Always silence it to safeguard that no rings, beeps, or bells are disturbing your conversation. Do not check messages. Do not answer your phone while dining. Do not take an extended trip to the restroom and try to catch up on a call or a text. Simply put, leave your phone in your handbag, briefcase, or pocket. And don’t bring it out again until you have successfully concluded your business lunch.
12. Introduce Yourself to the Host & Speaker
Donina Ifurung, Owner & Managing Director, Ohh Events
Often, as guests, people will drift toward people that they already know – which is human nature. But the point of such a business lunch is either to listen to a speaker or to the person who hosted the lunch. As an invited guest, it’s very relevant and good etiquette to let the host and the special guest know you value them. Let them know you look forward to their talk, and if you’re speaking to the host, thank them for the invitation to participate.
13. Be Considerate When Ordering Food
Renata Castro, Managing Partner, Castro Legal Group
I remember a specific time I invited a marketing executive to pitch their services during lunch, as I wanted to be out of the office to allow for uninterrupted interaction. The exec ordered the most expensive plate on the menu and champagne. Needless to say, I did not hire their services. If the other party is extending the lunch invitation, be mindful of your choice. My first thought was: If this is seen as a free ride to this person, what will they do with my money once hired?
14. Don’t Start Eating Until Everyone Is Served
Alex Membrillo, CEO, Cardinal Digital Marketing
Traditional etiquette tells us that you shouldn’t eat until everyone is served. However, this doesn’t just extend to the first course of the meal. For each course, wait until everyone’s meal has arrived before eating. Also, follow the cue from the host. Wait until they’ve taken a bit or two before you start eating. At a recent formal lunch meeting, one of the attendees had finished their desert before everyone’s had arrived. This was awkward and poor etiquette, especially when he was commenting on how good the food was as other had to sit and watch.
15. Don’t Be Rude to the Wait Staff
Dr. Caroline Thorpe, Ph.D, Executive Coach, Kohler & Company
If someone refills your glass of water, turn to that server and say a simple “thank you.” You come across as a down-to-earth person who probably earned your way up the corporate ladder versus an entitled rich kid. It is a simple thing, and something you should do anyway.
16. Follow Your Host’s Lead
Jodi RR Smith, Etiquette Consultant, Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting
A formal meal is a game of follow the leader. If the host does something, such as order a drink or appetizer, then so too may the guest. If the host does not, neither may the guest. This maintains the symmetry of dining; everyone at the table should have the same number of courses. (Imagine being a candidate for a job opening, and you order a soup. The interviewer does not. The soup arrives. The interviewer has nothing, and you are trying to eat your soup while answering questions. Rather awkward situation.)
17. Be a Good Listener
Andrea Pass, Owner, Andrea Pass Public Relations
Make the most of a business lunch by growing the relationship with the person you are lunching with, whether that person is a potential new client, someone you are networking with, or someone you can refer business to. Start out the lunch with general background conversation. By getting to know the person on a personal level, you find a connection (e.g., you might both enjoy travel, exercising, or going to the movies). Make sure to give the other person ample time to lead the conversation. Be a good listener and piggyback off of the other person’s points in order to get your points through.
18. Choose Your Conversation Topics Wisely
Matthew Gillman, CEO, SMB Compass
Certain topics are meant for family and friends and shouldn’t be brought up in conversations with colleagues and clients. While you’re looking to build relationships, you want to make sure to not to bring up topics that might be insulting or create conflict with others. The two main topics to avoid: religion and politics. Personal beliefs are not meant for formal business lunches.
19. Give Everyone an Opportunity to Speak
Richard Pummell, Human Resources Lead, DevelopIntelligence
Give everyone an opportunity to speak, and if there are people who appear to be uncomfortable or maybe feeling out of place, try to gently pull them into the conversation by asking them something you know they’ll be at ease answering. It could be a question about their career, a project they’re working on, or a hobby that is particularly interesting (if you know they’d be comfortable sharing). Likewise, if someone is monopolizing the conversation, find an appropriate moment to insert that you find what they have just said to be of significant interest, and then ask another member of the group to comment.
20. Stay Polite & Professional
Eleesha Martin, Recruiting Manager, G&A
In the case where everything is going fine until something happens and suddenly, things are awkward, remember – you are interviewing them just as much as they are interviewing you. Your behavior is important, but so is theirs. Do you really want to work with someone who can fly off the handle at a small mistake or says things that make you uncomfortable? If you can’t handle the intensity of the questions at lunch, is this really the right job for you? Stay polite and professional and you can handle any awkward situation that comes up.
21. Show Empathy
Dr. Lewena Bayer, CEO, Civility Experts Inc.
The fact is, whether you use the right fork or not doesn’t matter. That you have ability to decipher when a table companion is uncomfortable with a topic of conversation, or pick up on a gesture that shows someone is feeling ill, or respond to someone appropriately when they light up when asked about their children or their work – that’s what’s important. These are behaviors that build long-term rapport. If you can show people that you are truly present, that you have genuine interest in them, and that you are trustworthy and authentic, most will forgive you all kinds of social dining faux pas.
22. Know the Rules for Toasting
Maryanne Parker, Founder, Manor of Manners
We never toast with an empty glass or clink glasses during a toast, even if we see it in the movies. The glass clinking comes from old traditions and superstition rituals. Today we just raise the glass in front of us and look the other person in the eye, without clinking. If we are toasting with champagne and we do not drink alcohol, we should choose to toast with some beverage that looks similar to the champagne. When someone proposes a toast to us, we never drink in our own honor. But we should reciprocate the toast and in this case, we can drink.
23. Refrain From Drinking Too Much
Vipin Labroo, Marketing Director, Advanced Mixology
First things first: There is an agenda to a business lunch, which is to talk business. So you can’t expect to toss back a few drinks and talk about last night’s NBA match. Take your cue from the host. If the host does not seem too pleased when the waiter presents the drinks menu, you might pass on ordering anything. If on the other hand, the host seems to be comfortable with the notion of ordering drinks over lunch, it is best to order a glass of wine or beer and no more. You want to be as alert as you normally are during the course of the important business conversation you are going to have.
24. Use Your Napkin
Robin Lee Allen, Managing Partner, Esperance Private Equity
If you have to sneeze or cough, make use of the napkin in your lap, covering both your nose and mouth. This is an instance where being obsessive compulsive is appreciated. I cannot count the number of times I have been turned off by a fellow diner deflecting his or her germs in my direction with a misplaced hand. I have declined to invest with people on this basis alone.
25. Offer to Pay
Miguel A. Suro, Founder, The Rich Miser
If the lunch was your idea, or you are seeking business from your lunch companion (who is your client or potential client), pay. In these circumstances, it is customary for you to be the one paying. Not paying or trying to split the bill risks making you look tacky, inelegant, or cheap. It might also make you look bad in comparison to other suitors (if the potential client is shopping around). To pay without any issues, wait until the meal is over. Then, ask your lunch companion whether they want anything else. If the answer is no, ask for the check, and take it and pay the moment it arrives. Never let it just sit on the table.
26. Say “Thank You” More Than Once
Christine Flynn, MSW, Founder & Owner, fás trí comhar
Thank your host at the beginning of the meal for inviting you, or if you’ve invited them, thank them for taking the time to join you. Before leaving the meal show gratitude again. Time is valuable in business, and showing appreciation for the time they spent with you will go a long way. Finally, follow up with a handwritten note referencing the meal and thanking your host or guest again. This simple action is not only proper etiquette, but it will make you memorable and show your potential client, colleague, or boss that you are dedicated to building a respectful relationship with them.
27. Stay in Touch
Lynette Campbell Founder & CEO, Zoomers Employment Services Inc.
Specifically be prepared to exchange contact information such as a business card. Consider sending thank you emails to the other meeting attendees commenting on positive elements of the meeting. It also helps that you’re prepared to pay; however, if your meal is being paid for, do not spend more than the person paying.
The advancement in communication technology has led to a wider variety of meeting with prospective clients. However, having a face-to-face such as a business lunch still brings a certain personalization that most clients look for. Keep in mind our expert list of business lunch etiquette tips to impress your prospects.
Got more business lunch etiquette tips worth sharing? Let us know in the comments.