Business Lunch:10 Things Not to Do

Last Updated Jul 2, 2009 3:06 PM EDT

Call him the finger licker. While devouring a juicy burger during an interview in a trendy French restaurant last year, a candidate for a job with a Boston-based law firm sucked all five fingers after every bite. "This guy's manners were atrocious," says workplace etiquette expert Gretchen Neels, president of Neels & Co., whose client recounted the story. Manners may not have been the only reason the man never got an offer, but how he handled a messy sandwich certainly didn't help.

In a job market as tough as this one, the business meal is one more ritual you can’t afford to get wrong. Table manners that have served you just fine around the table with your family or friends could cost you a coveted deal, a key promotion, or a new job. “People need every arrow in the quiver to excel today,” says Peter Post, director of the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt. “Companies call us and say, ‘Times are tough. We have to make sure we have everything right now. We can’t afford to have people embarrass us or themselves.’”

Ordering properly, tackling the bread basket, manning utensils, staying sober, and surviving endless courses can be challenging. But becoming well-mannered isn’t as simple as reading Emily Post. It takes planning, some education, and plenty of self-awareness. Here are 10 things to avoid if you don’t want that crucial meal to be memorable for the wrong reasons.

1. Don’t go to a restaurant unprepared

Many restaurants today post their menus online, and for those that don’t, there’s always MenuPages. If you’re going to a restaurant with a boss or prospective boss, check out the menu and make some selections beforehand so you don’t get thrown by the choices or appear indecisive. And if you hate the cuisine, get over it and find something on the menu you can eat, says Peggy Newfield, founder of the Atlanta-based American School of Protocol. After all, the meeting isn’t about the food.

2. Don’t sit down hungry

If you’re ravenous, you’ll be lightheaded and unable to focus on the conversation, and you’ll want to wolf down everything on your plate. That draws the wrong sort of attention your way. So before heading out, munch on a protein bar, some cheese and crackers, or a small meal. (If you have a drink at dinner, the snack will also help absorb the alcohol and ensure you don’t get drunk or lightheaded.)

3. Don’t order the T-bone when your boss is having the Cobb salad

In these health-conscious times, you’ll often dine with bosses and managers who order lighter meals. So if the boss recommends the Cobb salad, don’t order the T-bone with five side dishes. It could signal that you lack discipline in other areas or that you wouldn’t fit in well at the company. By the same token, if the boss strongly recommends a certain dish or drink, don’t say no, even if you don’t really want it. “Maybe you don’t finish it,” says Sam Gordon, CIO practice director at executive search firm Harvey Nash. “But don’t spurn the hospitality.”

4. Don’t get drunk

After surviving multiple interviews and making it through HR negotiations, don’t blow it by getting too loose before the final offer’s signed. If you do order a drink, try to sip more slowly than your host, and don’t have more than one drink. Jonathan Pyle, vice president for consulting services at ThinkHR in Pleasanton, Calif., recalls a final candidate for a high-level job at a Silicon Valley company having several drinks during a dinner with the firm’s board of directors. The candidate, normally reserved, became incoherent and aggressive, slurring his words. The incident wound up costing him the job.

5. Don’t forget basic table manners

The table is a test. “I want to know if [a potential hire] can handle it if they are going to be dining with others,” says Clayton Hollis, vice president of public affairs at Publix Super Markets, based in Lake City, Fla., who always brings senior candidates to dinner before hiring them. Syndi Seid, an etiquette expert in San Francisco, says a man applying for a senior job with a Chicago-based financial firm lost the offer, in part, because he picked his nose throughout the entire meal.

6. Don’t make the most common table mistakes

Some of these include blowing your nose into your napkin, chewing with your mouth open, and putting your fingers in your mouth.

Other no-nos:

  • Don’t put your napkin on the table when excusing yourself during the meal. Place it on your chair. It goes on the table when you are leaving the restaurant.
  • Memorize the BMW rule: Bread plate to the left, meat in the middle, and water to the right.
  • Don’t put your utensils on the table. They belong on the plate.
  • Never, ever eat off another person’s plate.

7. Don’t eat like a kid

Slicing your meat into bite-size pieces before you start eating might inspire a recruiter to offer you a juice box instead of a job. Always cut food as you go. And how you eat your bread speaks volumes, says Neels. “Slicing a big roll, slapping on a slab of butter, and cramming it shut like a hoagie is the biggest sign that you just walked off the turnip truck,” she says. Instead, pull off a piece of bread and use your knife to spread a little butter on it.

8. Don’t order foods that stain, are hard to eat, or get stuck in teeth

Melted cheese sticks to facial hair. Greasy food smears lipstick and speckles ties. Avoid spaghetti, which might fly off your fork; cherry tomatoes, which risk popping; sloppy sandwiches; and anything with sauces. Broccoli and spinach can ruin your smile. The best bet is to order the blandest, easiest-to-eat dish on the menu, like a salad or a piece of meat or fish without sauce.

9. Don’t put a BlackBerry, iPhone, or other device on the table

It will tempt you to be rude. “Checking messages is disrespectful and sends a message that there’s somebody and something more important than your boss,” says Stephen Begley, president of Begley Consulting, who’s worked on business etiquette with Google and Jamba Juice execs. If you can’t resist checking your phone every five seconds, leave it at home. And if your phone accidentally rings during an interview, turn it off immediately and don’t check the number. “If they do that to me, they are going to disregard the client,” says Connie Thanasoulis, co-founder of career coaching firm SixFigureStart and a former recruiter at Merrill Lynch.

10. Don’t treat the help poorly

Don’t ever explode or take out frustration on the waitstaff, even if someone dumps a glass of wine on your new suit. How job candidates treat people and handle stress in eating situations indicates how they might perform under pressure at work. Your best bet is to keep your cool and laugh off any mishaps. And never send back your wine or food when you’re the guest. Not only does it create a potentially uncomfortable situation, but if your boss or interviewer chose the restaurant, they could feel insulted.

  • Kim Girard

    Kim Girard has written about business and technology for more than a decade, as an editor at CNET News.com, senior writer at Business 2.0 magazine and online writer at Red Herring. As a freelancer, she's written for publications including Fast Company, CIO and Berkeley's Haas School of Business. She also assisted Business Week's Peter Burrows with his 2003 book Backfire, which covered the travails of controversial Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. An avid cook, she's blogged about the joy of cheap wine and thinks about food most days in ways some find obsessive.

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