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Professionalism & Etiquette – Business Meals

Cite this article as:"Professionalism & Etiquette – Business Meals," in The Business Professor, updated December 15, 2019, last accessed July 14, 2020, https://thebusinessprofessor.com/lesson/professionalism-etiquette-business-meals/.


Business Meals

Business dinners are a common thing. This is yet another environment in which you have the opportunity to establish your professional brand. Below are some tips for demonstrating professionalism at the dinner table.

Note: These tips are oriented to a formal evening dinner at a fine dining restaurant. You can translate all of these practices into less formal meals.

  • Reservations – If you are planning a business meal, make certain to pick an appropriate restaurant. The space and ambiance should be conductible to the purpose of the meeting. Also, make certain to reserve the restaurant or table before making the invitation. It looks bad if you have to change the location because you cannot get a reservation after sending out an invite.
  • RSVP – If you are not the host, make certain to RSVP in a timely manner. If invited, make certain to identify if you will be bringing a guest. Never assume that guests are invited.
  • Dress Code – Find out the dress code for the dinner ahead of time. Make certain to be as formal or more formal than the group. The timing of the meal and nature of the restaurant is a strong indication.
  • Valet Parking – If you drive, expect to have to valet your car at the restaurant. Make certain your vehicle is clean. You never know if you will give someone a ride home. Also, have some cash on hand to tip the valet.
  • Meal Etiquette
    • When to Sit – Remain standing until everyone begins sitting down together. In some parts of the country, particularly the South, men are expected to wait until women are seated before taking a seat.
    • Sit Up Straight – No slouching at the table. Sit slightly forward in your seat. Do not lean forward over the table. Never put your elbows on the table.
    • Napkin – Upon taking your seat, the napkin is placed squarely in your lap.
    • Silverware – Silverware will generally consist of a salad fork and dinner fork in the left-hand side. On the other side will be a butter knife. At the top of the plate will be a soup spoon. In Europe, it is common to hold the fork in the left hand and knife in the right hand throughout the meal. The knife is used to move food onto the back of the fork. In the US, we generally switch the fork from left hand to right hand after cutting the food. We scoop the food with the fork, rather than moving onto the back of the fork. Laying the utensils on the side of the plate indicates you are still eating. Laying the knife across the top of the plate perpendicular to your seat indicates you are finished.
    • Chewing – Make certain to not make noise while you are chewing. Never chew with your mouth open. Likewise, never talk while you are chewing.
    • No To-Go Boxes – You should make an attempt to eat at least half of your meal. But, you should never ask for a to-go box.
    • Conversations
      • Prepare – You should come to dinner prepared with some topics of conversation. Make certain to avoid controversial topics are topics that could be offensive to an appetite. Try to know something about others at the table so that you can ask engaging questions. Looking up the other parties’ LinkedIn profiles can be very helpful.
      • “I” and “Me” – Avoid using “I” or “me”. A dinner is the opportunity to learn about others. It should not be used as a time to brag on yourself. If you talk about yourself, it should only be in response to the questions of others.
        ⁃ Involves Others – Do not talk for long before asking questions of others. Make certain to spread your time around the table. Though you will spend more time talking with the people to your left and right. Try to avoid talking past someone without including them in the conversation.
      • No Negativity – Negativity is infectious. You should only bring positive comments to the conversation. This includes avoiding negative comments about others.
      • Work Topics – At formal dinners, you may not bring up work at all. If the purpose of the dinner is work-related, do not bring up work topics until the senior person at the table does so.
    • Alcohol – Do not drink too much. It will cause you to lose your composure. It looks juvenile and irresponsible.
    • Server – The server will introduce him or herself. Make certain to remember his/her name. If you are the host, you will likely use it several times throughout the meal. Everyone at the table should be very nice to the server. Others will judge you on how you treat those who are working for you.
  • Meal Service – Below are some rules for ordering and service etiquette.
    • Menus – Pass around the drink menu prior to picking up your food menu. As the host, if you plan on ordering a bottle of wine, you will take control of the wine list and make your order.
    • Specials – The server will explain the specials of the day. Stop talking and listen. Do not ask questions until the end of the spiel.
    • Ordering Drinks – Before ordering alcohol, make certain that it is appropriate given the context of the meeting. Alcohol at lunch is generally not expected. Alcohol at dinner is commonplace. This includes an aperitif (pre-dinner drink) and wine with dinner.
    • Ordering Food – When ordering, avoid things that could cause problems. Do not order anything with peanuts or tree nuts without asking if anyone at the table is allergic. Also, do not order anything messy, like spaghetti or crab legs. Ovid terribly smelly foods, and never order for someone else unless invited to do so. You should balance your order with the host. For example, if the host orders a sandwich, you do the same.
      • Appetizers – The first stage of foodservice concerns the appetizers. Generally, the host will order appetizers for the table. Once again, if you are the host, you should consult with the table for any allergies or preferences.
      • Soup & Salad – The next course in a formal dinner is the soup and salad course. Just a note, you will order the soup/salad and main course at the same time. The salad or soup will come first. It is the job of the server to time this appropriately.
        • Salad Dressing – Except for teaser salad, the dressing always comes on the side of the salad. You don’t need to ask.
        • Soup – Do not slurp your soup. You spoon the soup, lift it at a 90-degree angle from the bowl to your mouth. Again, no leaning over the table.
      • Bread – Generally, the server will bring out bread with the soup and salad course. If the bread needs to be broken, do so with your hands (yes, your hands) and pass it to your left. You do not start eating the bread until your soup, salad, or entree arrive.
    • Main course – How you eat the main course will depend upon what you ordered. Here are some general rules.
      • Pasta – Pasta with long noodles is tricky. You should swirl the noodles around your fork using your spoon. This keeps you from leaning over the plate to but dangling noodles.
      • Temperature of Meat – It is generally considered low class to order meat cooked well done. If you do not like medium-rare or rare steak – order something else.
      • Cutting Meat – Cut single pieces of meat at a time. Do not cut multiple slices before eating.
      • Sauces – Sauces recommend by the chef are fine. Never, ever ask for ketchup, steak sauce, or any other sauce to go with the meat. The same goes for jelly with tuna.
    • Dessert – You will receive a new menu for dessert at the conclusion of the main course. You will also listen to specials. Besides the appetizer, this is the only other course of the meal that is okay to share. You tell your server ahead of time if you plan on sharing.
    • Post-Dinner Drinks – It should be expected that some will order coffee, hot tea, or an after-dinner drink to aid digestion.
  • Service Process
    • Bottle of Wine – If you order a bottle of wine, the server will present it to you for approval before opening it. Once you approve it, s/he will pop the cork and pour a small taste. You will examine the cork before picking up your glass of wine. You should swirl the wine, smell the fragrance, and taste it. You will be able to tell if the wine is soured. One clue is that a soured wine will often have wine soaked almost to the top of the cork. This is a signal that air has penetrated the cork. If the wine is okay, you give a nod of approval. The server will go around the table clockwise, pouring wine for women first and then men.
    • Delivery and Clearing of Plates – The server will deliver the food on your left-hand side. Later, when the meal is finished, the server will clear the plate from the right side. The server will only clear your plate when you are finished eating. To signal that you are finished, you can lay your knife perpendicular to the top of the plate. Never push the plates away from you. You will wait to begin eating until everyone has received their meals. Women are generally served their plate before men.
    • Summoning the Server – Simply lift your hand (either hand slightly) to signal the server. Never whistle or make a hissing sound. This is highly disrespectful.
  • The Check – The server will deliver the check to the host. It is expected that the host will pay the tab for the entire table. If there is a special situation where you will split the check, you simply add all of the credit/debit cards into the book and ask the check to be split evenly. You should never ask the server to separate checks by order or seat. The one acceptable thing is to separate food from alcohol, as this may concern corporate payment policies.
    • Tip or Gratuity: Standard gratuity is 20% of food cost and 5% of wine bottle cost. If the service is exceptional, you can leave more. Some restaurants will add gratuity to a large group’s check (generally 18%). If so, you are not obligated to leave an additional gratuity.

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