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Bad Etiquette Can Leave a Bad Taste

By Paul Lima |

When Rosaleen Citron sat down to a business meal, she did not appreciate watching her dinner companion order a messy plate of ribs and wash it down with beer, as he talked with his mouth full.

"I was sitting there thinking, 'Oh, my God, I can't have this person at the same table as my customers. That's not how you eat, not at an executive meeting, ' recalls the chief executive officer of WhiteHat Inc., a Burlington, Ont.-based information technology security firm.

That supplier was not the first table mate to fail her test. Ms. Citron, who makes it a point to break bread with potential business contacts and employees before moving forward, has on several occasions passed on opportunities because of the manners -- or lack thereof -- exhibited during meals.

Andrew Miller, director of training with Toronto-based Sysco Food Services of Canada Inc., a food marketing company, can relate to Ms. Citron's lack of enthusiasm for poor table manners.

Mr. Miller found himself at a food industry dinner where people grabbed the wrong bread plates, reached across a large table to clink glasses during toasts and, to his horror, picked their teeth at the end of the meal.

Bad table manners are not only a bad social grace -- they could be hazardous to your career health.

Job interviews and sales meetings are often held over meals. But a serious etiquette miscue could break a deal, hold back a career or even cost a person a job, says Adeodata Czink, founder of Business of Manners, a Toronto-based company that offers training in international etiquette and formal dining.

Many clients come to her, she says, after power meals have gone sour.

How people conduct themselves during meals says more than what they actually utter, Ms Czink maintains. For instance, people might say they are considerate of others, but if they eat before their dinner mates receive their food or order alcohol when the host has ordered mineral water, they appear inconsiderate, she says.

"You get to know the measure of a man over a meal and, if the person's behaviour embarrasses you, you don't want to go there," adds Ms. Citron, who dines out a couple of times a week with suppliers, clients, employees and potential employees. She has cut back on work with some suppliers because of their business meal behaviour and she interviews every potential WhiteHat employee over lunch. Nobody is hired until they pass her lunch test.

Etiquette taboos she has witnessed include asking for alcohol when she has requested mineral water, ordering "messy" meals, eating before everyone receives their food and plunging into a meal as if one has not eaten for days. She particularly dislikes it when candidates talk with their mouth full.

Since she needs to know if this is how the candidate would behave during a meal with a client, she has devised a simple test. "I wait until the person has taken a bite and then ask a question."

She's surprised by the number of people who spew chunks in their hurry to reply instead of raising a finger to ask for a moment before replying.

Ms. Citron does not ask for perfection but she expects the basics and advises job seekers who might experience lunchtime interviews to watch themselves in a mirror while eating. "Mistakes can be corrected," she says.

Ms Czink concurs. Most people make errors because they lack knowledge and training. They don't know on which side the bread plate is properly placed so they take the wrong plate. They bring their head down to their fork, rather than the fork up to their mouth. Then there are those who put their elbows on the table or shake salt and pepper on their food before they taste it.

Hiring, collaborating with or buying from someone whose manners are a turnoff may lead to a clash of business cultures, and perhaps even ethics, says Deborah McGrath, director of Millar McGrath and Associates, a Holland Landing, Ont.-based company that offers social etiquette and international dining skills training.

"If someone has skipped learning these elementary [social] skills, what else have they skipped?" she asks.

Indeed, cultural differences are also important to bring to the table.

Roberta Fox, the president of Fox Groups Consulting in Markham, Ont., says her "understanding of different cultures and their individual, unique meal rules," such as how to use chopsticks, vegetarian food guidelines and the specific rules pertaining to halal foods, has paid off for her firm.

She has also been told that her company has landed business due in part to the way she and her staff handle themselves during meals. Conversely, she has not taken on several clients, based on their behaviour over business meals, because she felt there would be a clash of cultures.

It is important to conduct business outside the office occasionally as dining affords a potential employer or customer "a quick and fairly accurate way" to assess a person's social skills, says Ms McGrath.

For instance, conversation is different when you are discussing a business proposition over a meal, rather than in a boardroom. It's all business in the boardroom. Over a meal, however, people must be able to engage in small talk. Much of the business conversation takes place toward the end of the meal, over coffee, she says.

If someone can't engage in small talk during an interview over lunch, it is not likely the person will magically develop those skills when hired. If an executive seems eager to close a deal over the appetizer while his or her client believes social relationships are as important as business relationships, the deal will probably fall apart because the client will feel badgered.

The business meal is a two-way street, says Ms McGrath. An interviewee can also assess a prospective employer. Someone with rather relaxed dining manners might not want to work for someone who seems like a fuss-budget. An introverted, vegetarian abstainer with impeccable tastes might not want to accept a job offer from a backslapping boss who insists that everyone chow down on the ribs or chug-a-lug beer during lunch.

All those etiquette problems can be corrected through training, Ms. Czink says. Social and business etiquette is so important to clients of Fox Group Consulting that all new hires are also given three to four hours of manners, etiquette and business protocol training before they meet with clients, Ms. Fox says.

To beef up the etiquette skills of its work force, more than 200 Sysco Canada sales representatives have taken etiquette workshops with Ms. Czink. As a result, Sysco sales representatives have become "far more confident diners," says Mr. Miller, who knew when he attended that industry event which bread plate was his, only toasted with those on his immediate left and right and passed on the offer of a tooth pick.

"Training has helped us set the standard in how our people conduct business," adds Mr. Miller, who says there has been no resistance to etiquette training. In fact, employees actually enjoy it.

"In a hectic business environment, it is so nice to slow down and fully appreciate a meal. It makes the whole dining experience a pleasure when people know how to partake of the meal."

Etiquette tips

  1. Unless everybody is pressed for time, engage in small talk before and during the meal. Talk business over coffee and dessert.

  2. Don't try to be witty. "Tell me about yourself" is a much better way to start a personal conversation than "How's business?"

  3. When it comes to ordering food -- the type and price of the meal -- and alcohol, the guest should follow the lead of the host, the person most likely to pay the bill.

  4. You do not have to order alcohol if your host does.

  5. To help you know which plates and glasses are yours, think BMW: Bread plate on the left, meal in the centre and water (or wine) on the right.

  6. Pass the breadbasket before you take anything from it.

  7. Don't assault food with salt and pepper before you taste it.

  8. If a toast is made, raise your glass to those on your immediate left and right. Do not reach across the table to clink glasses with everyone.

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