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Dining with Upper Management
December 2010

By Barbara Bergstrom

As homemakers, parents and social events managers, we often forget that our paychecks are based on how the family wage earners are perceived in business. We may be very comfortable in our own surroundings with family and friends, but when we are invited to the bosses’ house we must be informed and as comfortable as possible in unfamiliar territory.

Recently, at a formal dinner in the home of a C.E.O., manners exhibited by even senior managers was so appalling, the host made etiquette classes mandatory for all of the executives in his company.

In many cases, people skills are more important than technical skills. Today, C.E.O.‘s are well aware that business has been lost due to social ineptitude of younger managers and there is a definite decline in human interaction due to the high-tech workplace. Skills that you think you have are often the very skills you do not have and you don’t even know you don’t have them. Most of us were raised by loving parents and taught to mind our manners; but today, social etiquette and business etiquette are quite different.

For example, whether it is a formal dinner, or a business lunch, many of the nuances of blunder-free dining are appropriate and expected. A business lunch or dinner is not about eating. It is about business and the professional image you project.

If you are the host, you want your guests to feel comfortable, and the time spent with you a worthwhile investment. You want to provide an enjoyable atmosphere and accomplish business at the same time for a win-win event.

A business meal is not a time for the scoop and shovel crowd to shine. Rather, it is a time to easily communicate your social acumen and exhibit your professional presence.

Approximately 90% of all high-end executives are taken to lunch or dinner before they are hired. Not because the would-be employer thinks they are hungry. It is to test the social skills, the communication skills and yes, table manners to see whether or not the future manager or executive will be able to properly represent the company at social events and business meals.

Often, the spouse is included in the pre-hire process. I know of one example, when the wife of a candidate arrived for lunch with the would-be employer wearing her jogging suit. Right then and there, the interview process ceased.

It is important to remember that a spouse is a partner. Your spouse can be a benefit or a stumbling block. When a spouse is asked to join you at an important business event, it is your responsibility to make certain you explain expectations and who’s who on the guest list.

When you are dining at your employer’s home and you enjoy mint jelly with your lamb, or applesauce with your pork and it hasn’t been served, don’t ask for it. Your request would embarrass the hostess because she either didn’t have it, or has forgotten it.

As an invited guest, it is customary to bring a small gift. Do not bring flowers, which the hostess must stop what she is doing and immediately arrange. Do not bring wine you expect to be opened and shared. Do not bring candy, which tempts a dieter or even worse a diabetic. Small books, a plant, a flower arrangement, in a decorative container, are very appropriate gifts. You could also select a good bottle of wine and present it, not chilled, to be enjoyed at another time.

Although it is necessary to arrive early for a business event, it is not considered good form to arrive early at a private home.

Always carry a good supply of business cards. Try never to be without them, even socially. An occasion may arise when you’ll be glad you carried your cards. Be discreet, however, and careful in a private home. If business cards are exchanged, try to find a private spot, perhaps a hallway. Don’t ever produce a business card at a private luncheon or dinner in the presence of others.

If it is getting late and you want your guests to make their exit gracefully, here is a little hint. Casually walk toward the door and take your place. As your guests stop by to talk with you, they will automatically take their leave. It is a gesture that guides the sub-conscious mind very effectively.

A few extra suggestions you may find helpful are actually reminders.

  • Remember to pass the salt and pepper together. Think of them as a bride and groom and they should never be separated.
  • When passing food, always pass to the left around the table.
  • Your bread plate is on the left; your liquids are always on the right. Sometimes it does get confusing.
  • Never put a used utensil on the table. Put it on the plate, saucer, or bread plate. Never use it to point or wave it in the air.
  • Don’t begin to eat anything until the host has begun to eat.
  • Open your napkin under the table and place it in your lap, with the fold facing you.
  • No elbows on the table please, and take small bites so you can participate in table conversation, without talking with food in your mouth.
  • The expression “turning the tables”, comes from talking to the person on your right and then on your left. Don’t focus your attention on one person, especially your spouse, but “turn the tables”, and include as many guests as possible in the conversation.

There is a distinction between your business life and your personal life. When you treat business colleagues as friends and family, it often has a disastrous effect. Don’t allow the invitation to dinner at the bosses’ home destroy the sense of boundaries that characterizes professional behavior. It is not just a friendly dinner. Remember, your boss also fires people. When engaged in conversation, after a glass of wine or two, one must be careful not to slip into the cozy, casual, at-home mode, and reveal something personal about oneself. Don’t reveal too much because you will definitively come to regret it in the morning.


An award-winning trainer, public speaker, author and nationally syndicated columnist, Barbara B. Bergstrom has offices in Chicago and Orlando. Her books, Bound For The Boardroom, the Spanish version, Rumbo al Exito Empresarial, and her latest, Don’t Forget Your Keys, are the successful businessperson’s keys to professionalism. To engage her to speak for your organization, purchase her books or request information, contact her via her business web site, or e-mail her at .

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