Meal Manners: Polite eating habits important in business

by epi on August 28, 2012

Q: We recently hired a wonderful research guy who was born and raised in another country but received his PhD in the United States.  The problem is, I find it uncomfortable to have him join us when we bring clients out to lunch or dinner because, to use an American term, he eats like a pig!  What should I do?

A: Normally, I would suggest talking to the individual in private to help him realize that his table manners are an issue, something he may well not be aware of.  In this case, however, simply talking about the problem isn’t enough.  If you are going to talk to him, you should be ready to offer a plan to teach your colleague how to eat without grossing out other people.  Try offering him a book on table manners or suggesting that he attend a local workshop on the subject.  If you and a couple of other co-workers are willing, you could even offer to give him some pointers yourselves.  The key here is that he believes you are talking with him out of a genuine concern that everyone has the best chance to be successful and not because you are trying to embarrass him.  Another way to deal with the problem without singling out any person would be a company-sponsored training session for the entire firm on table manners and business social skills.  Whether you choose to address the problem on your own or through company channels, however, the situation needs to be remedied: Left unchanged, your employee’s off-putting actions are certain to cost your business in terms of lost work and opportunities.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Vanna Keiler August 28, 2012 at 1:26 pm

I like the EPI response. If I may add a sneaky way to go about training this new recruit, to avoid any hurt or insulted feelings, why not tell him that there is additional training every new employee undertakes, whether they need it or not, regarding meeting employees and off-site business conduct. Work on an actual outline, write it out and demonstrate to the whole group once in the kitchen. From then on, use it for every new employee who walks through the door. This way, you will avoid singling anyone out, but by going over “business etiquette” new recruits are empowered with knowing your expectations and being able to meet them through your instructions. I have observed many occasions (in-person and on advice blogs), situations where the offending perpetrator themselves goes on the defensive and becomes immensely insulted when it is brought to his or her attention. I imagine this has the potential to occur in any scenario: you tell someone gently how to correct an etiquette or action, person is incredibly insulted and repercussions ensue, you are left apologizing and wish you had not brought it up in the first place. In a business situation, this could get even more tricky, so I would do unto all what you wish done to one.

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Elizabeth August 28, 2012 at 1:32 pm

I have to believe that someone in a mentoring role, or even the person’s boss or company owner, would be able to tell someone gently that some aspect of their manners left something to be desired – especially if they were to then offer help. If that employee reacted badly, I would take that to mean that they couldn’t handle criticism or direction, and I would definitely rethink my decision to hire them. Have we really become a nation of over-sensitives who can’t handle a hard truth now and then? It’s a depressing thought.

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Mariette's Back to Basics August 28, 2012 at 3:13 pm

EPI’s approach is correct and I agree 100% with Elizabeth.
It should be expected corporate culture for every one in the company, at least at the managerial level, for knowing the basics of etiquette. I’ve seen personally that certain business deals failed because of a weak representation of a company in the aspect of table manners and business social skills.
We all could learn a lot from the Japanese, how they conduct their business and with very detailed and correct table manners, while always dressed professional. In general Asia is in the lead in that aspect.
Like Elizabeth stated above, it is indeed a depressing thought that, in general, we have become passive as the reaction of political correctness.
My business name is chosen for a reason: Mariette’s Back to Baisics!

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Mariette's Back to Basics August 28, 2012 at 3:15 pm

Mariette’s Back to Basics of course… sorry I was too hastily…

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Marie August 28, 2012 at 8:00 pm

I have been taught when you go to a buffet lunch that you job is sponsering, you take what you can eat. If there are many things you might want to try, you take what I was told is a”no thank portion” smallest one there . At the end of our buffet she wraps a few sandwiches and desserts in napkins which gets tucked away in her drawer. When a colleague brings in “treats” for coffee break this one person goes in the room and sneeks some out in a bag.How can we teach this 54 year old what’s right. . Or have the rules changed since I was taught.

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Elizabeth August 28, 2012 at 8:36 pm

It seems like there might be two people who have the authority to say something to your coworker. If the company is paying for the food, whoever is in charge of the food might make a general announcement that any leftover food will be placed in the break-room fridge for whoever wants it. In this case, your coworker would still be able to go and claim some. (And in this case, why not? If you know you’ll want a sandwich later, and they’re left over, you could take one too.) But if someone brings in treats to share, and finds this person taking larger than normal quantities, that person has every right to say – “You know, I brought those in for everyone, and I would prefer it if you took one portion at a time so everyone has a chance to have some.”

Otherwise, it’s a difficult thing to address without being rude yourself. If this person was just a big eater and ate two or three cookies, it would probably be not such a big deal. But the fact that she’s squirreling food away definitely can rub people the wrong way. Most people have the attitude that it’s there until it’s gone, but this woman probably thinks she’s smart – she’s thinking ahead. But the problem is, she’s always taking more than ‘her portion’. My feeling would be that it’s only a problem if other people miss out because of it.

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Scarlett August 29, 2012 at 3:13 pm

I like your advice, Elizabeth! Sorry I’m a little late here, but I’d like to know if your advice would be different if the company-sponsored buffet was off-site, i.e., at a hotel or restaurant, where the company may have paid for the meal but any “leftovers” would not necessarily be taken back to the office. In that case, I think it would be appropriate to take only the amount of food that one can consume during the actual meal on the premises. I have heard of people taking baggies and other containers to buffets and loading up enough food (and sneaking it out!) for another meal. Many people, as well as the establishment, would consider it stealing. I would like to know others’ thoughts and also, who in that case would be the proper party to address the issue?

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