The days of the three martini lunch are pretty much done. But, whether eating with your boss or taking out a client, business meals are still important. Sometimes they're just a chance for the boss to see a new employee's social skills. But in consulting, lawyering, banking and sales, they're a key part of everyday business. Even in the tech industry, executives constantly meet with customers and senior managers over food.
So you better know what you're doing. The simple fact is that your manners and sophistication will be on display. And - yep - people will be paying attention. If you screw it up you'll be seen as rube best kept locked in his office. But if you master the nuances everyone will know that your social skills and presence are as sophisticated as your dress and as sharp as your acumen. You'll impress your clients and you'll impress your boss. And guys who do that move up.
So to that end, this is the first in a series of posts about how to navigate a business meal from start to finish with class and polish. One thing to note - while we'll try to cover basic table manners to make sure you don't drink out of your finger bowl, there are legions of books with hundreds of pages detailing the minutia of dining etiquette. Buy one and read it if you're interested. It'll come in handy the next time you're invited to a state dinner. But for business we think you'll do just fine so long as you know the basics. Most guys we know don't. So by learning, understanding and knowing what to do, you'll put yourself way ahead of the pack.
Let's get started with the invitation. If you're just getting into your career, odds are you'll probably be the one getting the invitation, not the one extending it. Still, we'll cover both scenarios, taking the latter first.
For most business meals you won't be getting an engraved invitation, as if it were a wedding or a ball or whatever. You're more likely to get an e-mail or call from the host's assistant asking you whether you can go.
Rule of thumb: GO!
Obviously if your boss invites you to lunch or dinner, go. Drop whatever plans have with your buddies and accept the invite. The reasons should be obvious. First, you don't want to piss off your boss. Second, it will give you a chance to show off the kind of sophistication that bosses want to see in their rising stars. Third, the boss didn't ask you to go just for his health - it's most likely either a reward or a test. Sometimes it's both. If it's a reward for something you've done well, you should take advantage of it. If it's a test to see how well you interact with clients or management, you need to ace it. The bottom line is this: When your boss issues an invitation accept it.
The same should go for an invite from your colleagues, too: If you get an invitation from someone else in your organization, take them up on it. You never know what might come of it. You might make a new contact who could become a friend or a mentor or a customer. And it's a good opportunity for you to practice your social skills so that when the boss does call, you'll be ready for the spotlight.
Now all of that said, if it's your anniversary or your grandmother's 90th birthday party, reasonable people will understand if you can't make it to a business meal. Just don't turn down a chance to impress your boss or your big client to play poker with your buddies. Use your judgment.
What's the timing on accepting the invitation? Preferably right after you get it. If for some reason you can't accept or decline immediately, do it ASAP. And if you need to bow out after you've accepted, let the host know immediately. Call or send a note explaining what's happened and why you can't make it. Express your regrets and your hope that you can make it the next time. By showing a little class you'll increase the odds that there will be a next time.