Quick question: When you’re dining with your boss, client or colleagues, who should pay the bill? 

Throughout your career, you may attend many business meals. Some meals may be at casual sandwich shops, others may be at upscale restaurants. Whether the venue is humble or fancy, you should know the answer to this critical question: 

Who pays?

“More business decisions occur over lunch and dinner than at any other time, yet no MBA courses are given on the subject.” Peter Drucker

The answer is – it depends!

The traditional rule is simple: the person who extends the invitation pays. But in today’s modern business world, this rule doesn’t always apply. Let’s look at a few common business dining scenarios:

  1. Your boss invites you to lunch. It can be exciting to be invited to lunch with the boss. Whether you’ve been invited solo or as part of a group, your boss is probably following the traditional rule and expects to pay.
  2. Your client invites you to lunch. If you’re thinking “free lunch,” not so fast! Before accepting (or extending) an invitation to a client, understand your organization’s rules on client interaction. There may be guidelines that you need to follow. 
  3. You are dining with colleagues. Dining with one colleague is straightforward. In the American business culture, the traditional rule doesn’t apply peer-to-peer. Never expect a colleague to pay for your meal unless she explicitly says that she would like to treat you.

Dining with a group of colleagues, however, can be tricky. Unless other arrangements have been made, expect that each person will pay for her meal. It’s best to request separate checks from the server at the beginning of the meal. Splitting the check evenly among diners works best if all meals are similarly priced. Otherwise, it may make sense for the person who spent markedly more (or less) than the others to pay her appropriate share. If a colleague pays the entire bill for the sake of efficiency, reimburse her by the end of the workday. 

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Stayce Wagner is the author of Modern Business Etiquette for Young & Fabulous Professionals, available at Amazon.comBarnesandNoble.com, the iTunes Store, and other major outlets. Stayce is the founder of Spencer Crane Etiquette, LLC, where business etiquette and authenticity are partners, not rivals. Our many services are designed to help you achieve success on your terms. We invite you to contact us today to discuss how we can help you with your business etiquette needs.