12 Most Detrimental Business Lunch Faux Pas

12 Most Detrimental Business Lunch Faux Pas

Jennifer (not her real name, to protect the guilty) was a young, highly recommended sales person. New in her job, she met a client for lunch at a nice restaurant. Jennifer ordered baked salmon and proceeded to eat it with her fingers. Unfortunately, she was promptly fired for her lack of manners.

This is just one of dozens of stories I’ve heard over the years about someone’s lack of table manners being their undoing. Business dining etiquette mistakes can wreak havoc on your career whether you’re meeting with a client, interviewing for a job or dining with the boss. Be sure to avoid these 12 deadly faux pas.

1. Taking your vegetarian client to a steak restaurant

If you are the person calling the meeting, find out first if your client has any food restrictions. Never ask your customer where she wants to eat. Instead, give two different restaurant suggestions that take into account her food limitations, if any. Say something like, “The Fusion Grill downtown offers a wonderful eclectic menu. I also really like Chandler’s Crabhouse on the waterfront. Which do you prefer?” Then, once the date is set, make reservations and be sure to confirm the meeting the day before or the morning of the get together.

2. Holding your utensils like a caveman

To avoid looking like you were raised by wolves don’t hold your fork in your fist, as if you’re going to stab someone or use it as a food shovel. Instead, grasp it like you would a pencil. It should rest on your middle finger with your pointer finger bracing the side of the stem and your thumb resting across it to meet your pointer finger. Isn’t that lovely?

3. Ordering the most expensive item on the menu

When you’re the host of the meal, ordering the lobster makes you look ostentatious and careless with money. If you’re a guest, it’s best to order something mid-range if your host doesn’t give you clues about what to order. Ordering the priciest item on the list conveys either immaturity or greed.

4. Drinking from your boss’ glass

Before you accidently put your greasy lips on your manager’s cup, heed these simple tips to help you navigate your place setting. When you sit down, think of BMW. Your Bread plate is on the left, your Meal is in the middle and your Water, or glasses, are on the right. If the plethora of utensils has you stymied, simply start with the items farthest from your plate and work your way in towards it.

5. Berating the waiter

A colleague of mine had lunch with his high powered attorney. During the lunch the attorney berated the waiter and my colleague promptly fired him. He didn’t want to do business with someone so mean-spirited. When you are rude to the waitstaff, you are sending a signal that you are cruel and arrogant. And, please don’t snap your fingers while shouting “Waiter!” Treat those serving you with respect. You’ll get better service and more esteem from your dining companions.

6. Eating like it’s your last meal

Business meals are not about the food, they are about relationships. That means you need to focus more on the person in front of you then the food. Start by ordering something that’s easy to eat — avoid spaghetti, messy sandwiches, or anything that takes a long time to eat. Order the same number of courses as others, and match their eating pace so that no one is left eating alone. And remember what mom taught you — chew with your mouth closed, sit up straight and bring your food up to you rather than bending down to your food.

7. Asking if you can have something on your client’s plate

Remember, this is not about the food; it’s about the business at hand. Coveting your client’s food makes you look gluttonous, and puts her in an awkward position. Don’t do it.

8. Blowing your nose at the table with your napkin

Your napkin has three jobs and only three jobs. It is meant for wiping your mouth, especially before you drink from your glass. It protects your lap from spills — put it on your lap when your host puts hers on her lap. And, it is used for wiping messy fingers, rather than dipping them in your water glass or putting them in your mouth. If you need to blow your nose, step away from the table and use a tissue.

9. Answering your phone at the table

Unless you’re waiting for a kidney, and I’m sorry if you are, never look at or answer your phone in the presence of others. Doing so says the person calling you is more important than the person in front of you. If you are expecting an important call, let your companion know at the start of the meal. Should the call come in, excuse yourself and step away from the table to take it. That said; never take a call during an interview.

10. Asking for a doggie bag

It can be hard to leave food on your plate, but asking for a doggie bag at a business meal will have you barking for a new job. Don’t risk looking like a penny pincher or Ms. Piggy by asking to take unconsumed food home. Let it be.

11. Letting your guest pay for the meal

Whoever calls the meeting pays for it. When you’re the host, avoid the awkward check grab by arriving early to the restaurant and making payment arrangements. You can give the maître d’ or the waiter your credit card to swipe before the meeting and then sign the charge slip when you leave. Or, ask the waiter to set the check next to you, not your customer.

12. Leaving no or a small tip

A friend shared that she was dismayed to see a colleague leave a small tip for the waiter. It made her think less of this person, and, she felt compelled to leave some bills on the table so the waiter wasn’t shortchanged. To avoid looking like a cheapskate, tip the waiter 15% to 20% of the bill before tax. If the server was very helpful and efficient, a 20% tip would be appropriate. If the service you received was fine but not exceptional, a 15% tip would be fitting. Most tips are about 18%.

Business will never cease to be conducted over meals. When you practice good dining etiquette you’ll leave a positive impression on others, and you’ll never have to utter Oscar Wilde’s woeful words, “The world was my oyster but I used the wrong fork.”

What would you add to the list? Have you witnessed business meal mishaps or been guilty of any?

Featured image courtesy of Bob Schubert licensed via Creative Commons.

Arden Clise


Arden disliked learning manners as a kid. She thought they were silly rules that didn’t really matter. When she flew the coop and was faced with her first business meal all those silly rules came back to her, and she was grateful. Today, Arden Clise helps professionals navigate business situations as an etiquette consultant, coach, speaker and President of Clise Etiquette.

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Another good rule of thumb: Never salt your food until you have tasted it!  It shows a lack of trust on your part, to assume the chef didn't season it enough.  It is perfectly acceptable to use the salt and pepper after you have tasted it, to adjust to your pallet.  It also prevents you from ruining your lunch, by over salting your meal.  

Thanks so much for this great list!  These would seem to be common sense, but it is disturbing to realize how many people don't know or stop the think how they look, when eating. 


@RKHooks Great tip. I've also heard that it can make you  look like you're not very adventurous, that you always do things the same way. There is a story that a job candidate did not get the job because he salted his food before tasting it The hiring manager figured he was not a risk taker.


would also add to the etiquette faux pas: chewing with mouth open, including gum-chewing, and yawning without covering mouth


Great list! I'd add "no grooming at the table," since this seems to be another thing that's fallen by the wayside. That means no lipstick application, hair combing, toothpicking, etc.  That's why we have restrooms.


My goodness it's a little scary that you have to include "don't eat off of their plate" in this list!!! But I guess it's best to assume the worst and work up from there! I also wonder if there's a bit of a tip about timing .... i.e., make small talk before launching into the business reason for the lunch .... . Great list!


My own rule for paying: Who's going to profit from the relationship? Of course, as a marketing agency, our clients "profit," but we're the one's who receive a check from the other - so WE pay for lunch.

Also, if you encounter a vegetarian, gluten-free, or other food-limit person - DO NOT make a big deal of it and ask for an explanation.  Or even make a big deal of it, like noting, "oh, there's a few things on the menu you can eat!"


@Arden Clise, thanks for these tips! I especially like the BMW tip and the reminder that the meal is about the relationship, not the food.  

RE: #5, while it wasn't a business meal, I'll never forget in junior high when a friend's father took me and my friend out to lunch at a nice restaurant. He was rude to the waiter, and both of us felt terribly embarrassed. It left a strong impression on me; imagine how such behavior might influence an employer or client! 

I'd love clarification about #10. I can see not asking for a doggie bag for the bread (even if it's really good) or if there's only a very small amount of food left, or you're traveling and have no means to store/reheat it. But what if there's a lot left, particularly if you've been doing a lot of talking and not a lot of eating? Doesn't it seem wasteful to send it all to the trash? Perhaps we should order something that can be finished in one sitting or that isn't traditionally carried-out, such as soup and salad?