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A Guide to Business Dinner Etiquette

Updated on May 16, 2012

Business Etiquette: Dinner with Boss Tips

A formal business dinner or lunch always seem to intimidate people. It doesn’t matter if you’re new at the job, or have been with the company for awhile. The experience can be dreadful.

In my previous pharmaceutical sales position, I have often taken clients out to dinner as well as participate in organized dinner meetings with the "higher people up there." Learning correct dining etiquette has given me a leg up on that promotion.

Business dinner etiquette should match your professional skills, and that includes having table manners. Good table manners show respect and consideration for your coworkers and especially your boss. Learning proper etiquette at the table can help you excel in business. In some cases, it could land you the dream job. So I suggest you engrave these tips into your brain to prevent doing something embarrassing, and better yet, save your job!

Don't order spaghetti if you don't want the sauce to end up on your tie.
Don't order spaghetti if you don't want the sauce to end up on your tie. | Source

Business Dining Etiquette Starts Before You arrive!

1. Do not be late! Arriving at dinner late implies that you are irresponsible and inconsiderate. No one likes a non-punctual employer/coworker so if you are late to dinner, you are automatically starting off on the wrong foot.

However, if you do anticipate on being late, give the host a courtesy call. In the worst case scenario, make up a funny story about why you were late. Here’s a good one, “On my way here, I got pulled over. Sorry I’m late, but I had to be a good citizen.”

2. Do not immediately sit down at any chair. Wait for your boss to sit first, and strategically sit right next to him. This is the best opportunity to get to know him and kiss-up if needed.

3. Be chivalrous, if you’re a guy, escort the ladies (and your female boss) or help them remove their coat.

4. Do not place your cell phone, purse, or makeup on the dining table. Turn off your cell phone and leave it all under the table.

Don't Order These Foods at a Business Dinner or Lunch

1. Shellfish

Crab, lobster, clams, and shrimp are difficult to manage. Lobster requires special equipment and a bib. That doesn’t exactly look professional. It is also generally the most expensive item on the menu.

2. Spaghetti

Any type of noodle dish including angel hair pasta, linguine. It’s difficult to eat this gracefully without having a strand dangle from your fork or mouth. Order another type of pasta, such as penne or bow-tie where you can easily pick it up with the fork.

3. Finger foods

Don’t order ribs, chicken wings where you have to rely on digging in with your hands. Those items are messy and require you to constantly wipe your hands of the sauce. Bread is okay to eat with your fingers.

5. The basic table setting will include a couple of forks on the left side and knives on the right side. The basic rule here is to start on the outside. That means the fork farthest away from your plate is for the salad, or appetizer that requires use of fork. (Don’t pick the calamari up with your fingers, please.)

6. When you cut your food, use both the knife and fork. Don’t leave the fork halfway on the plate and halfway on the table.

7. When eating soup, don’t slurp! No matter how delicious it is, don’t make any noise! The trick to eating soup gracefully is to dip the spoon in and moving it AWAY from you. You are less likely to spill soup on your lap.

8. Your napkin should be unfolded and placed on your lap, not the table. If you drop it, say “excuse me,” and bend down gracefully and pick it up. No matter how badly you want to protect your new tie, don’t tuck your napkin in to the front of your shirt. Do not blow your nose with the napkin; find a tissue. Better yet, keep a tissue in your purse or pocket.

9. Depending on the formality of the restaurant, there can be up to 4 glasses at the table, situated in a square pattern. The top left glass is for red wine, below that is for white wine. The top right is for champagne, with the remaining glass for water.

10. Do not begin eating your food before everyone is served. If you start with the bread basket, don't forget to pass it to the person on your left.

Business Dinner Meeting Attire for Men

Business dinner meeting attire for men.
Business dinner meeting attire for men. | Source

Business Dinner Meeting Attire for Women

Business Dinner Meeting Attire for women
Business Dinner Meeting Attire for women | Source

During a Business Meal, Do Not Discuss...

11. Do not bring these topics up during dinner: politics, religion, sex, or other controversial subjects at the table.

12. Eat naturally. This may seem like a no brainer, but it is after all, a business dinner, so eat! Relax and eat! Don’t talk with your mouth full. A good idea would be to take smaller bites in case you need to talk.

If you barely touch your food, it looks like you are wasteful and inconsiderate. On the other hand, don’t overindulge, no matter how delicious that piece of steak is or how smooth that wine tasted. No matter how starved you are as a newly college graduate, don’t swallow your entire dinner in one bite and do not order the most expensive item on the menu.

13. The type of food that you order may also make it easier for you to survive this business dinner. Do not order the ribs, no matter how tempting it is! It doesn’t matter how neat and experienced you are at eating ribs, it will always be messy and difficult to converse while smacking your BBQ sauce on your lips at the same time. Unless, you’re interviewing with Bobby Flay for a chef position, by all means to for it.

Avoid ordering finger foods or whole chicken, as this can also get messy. The best suggestion is to order penne pasta, where you can simply eat individual “fork-size bites.” There’s no cutting required, and you have more options if you are a vegetarian.

14. In some cases, the food is ordered by the host. How do you eat a whole chicken? Use your fork and knife. To eat a whole fish, start on one side of the spine and eat from top to bottom. When you’re done, gently lift the bones and discard it, instead of attempting to flip the fish over. If you catch a small bone, remove it with your fingers. If sushi is served, share!

Recommended books on how to succeed at the business dinner meeting. (Also available on kindle version)

For all other general etiquettes in business

More Etiquette Table Manners

15. If you are on an interview, do not order alcohol, even if there are wine glasses on the table. Just order iced tea or strawberry lemonade. For other business types of dinner, your boss will most likely be ordering some wine. Shadow him and order a glass of wine as well. Say something like, “Oh that sounds good, I’ll try a glass of that cabernet too.” Don’t order triple vodka on the rocks, or a long island ice tea, no matter how badly you need it to calm your nerves. You may just look like an alcoholic! Usually one glass of wine is sufficient for the entire dinner, so don’t say to the waiter, “Just keep them coming please!”

16. Dress conservatively, but properly for the occasion! Save that tight skimpy red dress for a hot date, and not to impress your host. For women, go easy on the cleavage and excess jewelry. For men, do wear a tie and leave the t-shirt and jeans at home. The rule of thumb is: it’s always better to be overdressed than under dressed for a business dinner.

17. If you are trying to get a job position as a sales representative that usually requires top notch people skills, they want to see how you interact with the waiter as well. So be polite and remember to always thank the waiter. If you need to grab their attention, subtlety raise your hand or say, “excuse me.” Don’t underestimate the common courtesy phrases such as “May I…?” “Please,” “Thank you.”

18. Your posture is important. Keep your elbows off the table, sit up straight and don’t lean back in your chair. Don’t look too stiff, once in a while leaning forward with your elbow slightly pressed against the table at an angle is acceptable.

19 Don’t try worry about having to pay for the bill. The proper dining business etiquette for the host (in this case, your boss) is to pay for the business clients. However if you are a guy, you can offer to pay. Most likely your female boss will insist on taking the bill. The bill is usually expendable by the company anyway. In any case, by offering it showcases the true gentleman in you and women love that.

20. Coffee and dessert time is important, so don’t skip it! This is the time to seal the deal, or close the client! If you’re dining with the boss, thank him/her for a wonderful dinner.

Wrapping it Up: Business Dinners

Employers are always silently observing every one of your move during the business dinner table. They want to see how you handle yourself at the table. Always remember that you are not really there to eat, rather to accomplish something business-related. It is very important to remember this. Every action equals some kind of representation of you and your company. On that note, it’s not always do-or-die so if you slip up, forget it, don’t dwell on it, just focus on the next task. Bottom line is, focus on the agenda. Breathe! You'll be fine, now that you've read all these rules.

Copyright © 2012 Turtlewoman (Kim Lam)

Comments or Questions with Business Etiquette at the Dinner Table

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    • Turtlewoman profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Lam 

      8 years ago from California

      Thanks Pam. You're definitely right!

    • Pamela N Red profile image

      Pamela N Red 

      8 years ago from Oklahoma

      Great information everyone should read. Many people missed out on learning important table manners because of eating in front of the television.

    • Turtlewoman profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Lam 

      8 years ago from California

      Thanks for stopping, Docmo! A lot of it involves having some common sense and unfortunately some people do lack that skill. I appreciate your vote!

    • Docmo profile image

      Mohan Kumar 

      8 years ago from UK

      Superb. What may seem like simple issues can make or break impressions. You've captured the necessary advice very well indeed. I wish some people I know could read this as they seem to break several of the etiquette tips much to others embarrassment. Voted up/awesome.

    • Turtlewoman profile imageAUTHOR

      Kim Lam 

      8 years ago from California

      Thanks, Cindy!

    • homesteadbound profile image

      Cindy Murdoch 

      8 years ago from Texas

      Wow! This hub is full of advice that all business people need to read. Great job!

    • CreateSquidoo profile image


      8 years ago

      This is a very import information for those people that are planning to work on a business field.


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