Why etiquette matters when you take clients out for lunch.


Chewing with their mouths open. Doing awkward things with napkins and utensils. Speaking casually with wait staff. Such was the business-lunch behaviour of a Bay Street sales team that Linda Allan, a Toronto-based management consultant and trainer who offers business-etiquette training, met up with a few years ago.

She was hired by the VP of sales, who’d been told to “fix it, and fast” by upper management, who were worried the team’s loutish behaviour was causing them to lose sales. Allan took the sloppy eaters to a restaurant and guided them through the basics of table manners – from what to talk about to choosing the correct fork.

After that session, mealtime conversations with clients went much more smoothly. They weren’t able to track whether their restaurant skills correlated with higher sales, but it certainly led to more enjoyable networking for everyone at business meals.

When it comes to business lunches, manners matter and can make or break a deal.

“Manners at the table are such an important aspect of work for any client-facing person,” says Allan. “You want your image to come across as polished and professional.”

The business lunch, if handled well, can land you sales or clients, impress your boss or even secure you a job. Still, we often forget – especially when we head out to the same restaurant we visit with our kids or friends – that the business lunch table is really an extension of the office. Here are the most important lunchtime tips.

Don’t talk with your mouth full

Don’t, don’t, don’t talk with your mouth full, even if someone asks you a question. “Unless you were raised that way, people forget this one,” says Allan. Of surprising importance is the napkin: You place it on your lap at the start of the meal, following the cue of the host, and set it on your chair if you leave during the meal – no one wants to see a dirty napkin on the table while eating. When lunch is over, leave it in a crumple near your plate.

Pass on the booze and the politics

There’s nothing wrong with having a drink with a client, but it’s better to save it for a more informal after-work setting. At lunch, though, “Assume it’s a no,” says Sharon Schweitzer, a cross-cultural trainer and etiquette expert based in Austin, Texas. Some companies have a no-booze-at-lunch policy, but if you do have a drink, make it one, and only if the host gives you the green light. As well, meals should begin and end with small talk – discuss business only when people have just finished eating – and avoid sticky subjects like politics, sex and religion. “The number-one thing you want to avoid is awkwardness,” says Schweitzer.

Let the host lead

“People think once they’ve invited the person to lunch, the role of the host ceases, but that’s not the case,” says Allan. If you invite, you’re in charge: You choose the restaurant (or propose a short list) and book it. When the server takes everyone to the table, the host goes last. After the meal, that person pays. And for the bulk of the event, the host graciously and often subtly guides the conversation, the pace and even the scope of the meal, she says.

Announcing what you plan to order, for instance, tells others what’s appropriate for them. (It doesn’t always work: Allan admits she’s indicated she’ll have a meal-size salad for lunch and had guests order appetizers and desserts anyway.) In return for these efforts, the host gets airtime to discuss their new product line, pitch a proposal or sell themselves.

Guests should follow along

In return for a free lunch, guests follow graciously along. That starts by showing up prepared: in business attire and on time (map the restaurant). Order modestly, so you’re not feasting while others nibble. “It’s not the last supper, or the last meal you’ll ever have,” says Schweitzer. Let the host steer the conversation. “Many guests are so focused on trying to be entertaining or savvy that they talk too much,” says Allan. The host usually has a business agenda for the lunch. You don’t have to buy what they’re selling, but you should listen to the pitch.

The best business lunches are where everyone feels comfortable, a bit of work gets done and everyone’s back at their desk at a reasonable hour. Be polite, control your napkin and do what you can so everyone feels satisfied at the end.