As college students prepare to graduate next month, thoughts of job prospects begin to take center stage in their minds. The job interview — for those who progress to that stage — can be a little unsettling for anyone, let alone someone applying for their first real job. Combine the nervous energy of an interview with lunch or dinner — one complete with easy-to-spill gravy or sauce — and you have a recipe for a potential disaster.
For veterans of the business world, meals are often the backdrop for an interview or meeting, discussion of a potential contract, hiring a client or just an introduction to a new boss. The last thing you want to do is to spill food or drink on yourself or on someone else you are trying to impress, or engage in a social faux pas.
So, what can you do to minimize the chances of a disaster from happening at a time when impression management is crucial?
First, remember to focus on the business part of a business meal. While eating is certainly part of the event, your primary objective should be the business-at-hand. It is better to leave the encounter with a half-empty stomach than to create a half-baked impression.
Eating something before the meeting is often a good idea so that your focus can be on the discussion itself. And even if you suddenly feel famished during the meal and are tempted to order the delicious but messy items on the menu, remember that you can always eat to your heart's content after the meeting, either at home or at another restaurant.
Here are some other dos and don'ts of proper etiquette during business meals:
• Arrive on time. (It sounds simple, but you would be amazed at how many people fail this first test.)
• Be prepared for the lunch or dinner meeting, just as you would for any other type of meeting.
• Demonstrate good table manners. (Your napkin should be on your lap; don't reach across the table; and break off only as much bread as you can eat at one time.)
• Use silverware appropriately and place cutlery on the plate (never on the tablecloth) once they have been used.
• Focus mealtime conversation on non-controversial topics, especially avoiding politics and religion.
• If you did the inviting, be sure to pay the bill.
• Remember B-M-W for identifying your place setting: from left to right — bread, meal, water. (This avoids the inevitable, "is that my bread plate or yours?")
• Avoid ordering difficult-to-eat, messy or sticky foods. This includes pasta, cherry tomatoes, meat on the bone, and crispy desserts, such as a napoleon, which will shatter upon contact.
• Select a meal from the menu that is in the middle price range of options.
• Do not order an alcoholic beverage, even if your dinner partner does so. Many firms look down on drinking at a business meeting, and you may be subjected to a "test" to see if you order an alcoholic drink. Don't do so.
So, what do you do if despite your best efforts, food or drink gets splashed the way of your dinner partner?
Your response should be quick and sincere. Do not attempt to wipe the offending substance from their clothes. Instead, say, "I apologize. Please send your dry cleaning bill to me."
Then, try to move on with the conversation at the table. The other person does not want to focus on their stained clothing for the rest of the meeting, and will appreciate you returning to the conversation at hand.
Follow up with a message to their office the next business day to request the bill. This shows that the offer from the previous day was not an empty gesture.
Finally, if you were the guest at the meal, follow up with a thank you note (email is fine), mentioning one of the topics of discussion that interested you. This will remind your tablemate of the good conversation you had, and hopefully motivate him/her to want to get to know you better.
Bon appétit and good luck with the job search.
Ellen Durnin is the dean of the School of Business at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. She coordinated SCSU's recent Business Etiquette Dinner that featured Karen Hinds, a consultant who CEO of Workplace Success Group LLC.