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Corporate Conundrum: Who Pays for Lunch?

10/16/2013 06:49 EDT | Updated 12/16/2013 05:12 EST

I'll always remember being at a corporate luncheon when the host whipped out his calculator at the end of the meal and proceeded to compute - to the penny - how much each person at the table owed. Which was no big deal, except for the fact that he had invited each of us to be his guest that day. Or so we thought. Talk about a dining dilemma!

Business meals can be awkward at the best of times, but things can get particularly uncomfortable when it's time to pay the bill. I was recently asked by an audience member if there's a foolproof way to determine whose responsibility it is to take care of paying for a business meal. She said, "A client contacted me to say he'd like to meet for lunch to discuss next steps. Should I pay for the meal because he's my client, or should he pay because he's the one who brought it up?"

Old-fashioned business etiquette would dictate that the person who extends the invitation always pays for the meal. Period. But things have changed, and that rule no longer applies in every circumstance.

Let's look at this question from both sides of the table. Here are suggestions for dealing with seven standard scenarios:

1. You're inviting someone to join you for lunch and you plan to pay: In this case, clarify your intention to treat someone to a meal by using words like "be my guest" or "it's on me" when you extend the invitation. You could say something like, "I'd love it if you would be my guest for lunch next week. Which day works for you?" or, "Are you available to meet me for lunch on Wednesday? It's on me."

2. You've been invited for a meal but you don't know who's paying: A straightforward phrase to use in this situation is, "Shall we arrange for separate bills?" Consider asking this question after the menu has been delivered and before you order anything.

3. You intend to pay but find out your guest can't accept anything that's free: Sound strange? It's not. Some companies have strict corporate policies about what their employees can and cannot accept, including meals. If your dining companion is in this position, simply ask your server to divide the meal costs.

4. You don't want the bill to come to the table: You can avoid this one altogether by prearranging payment. To do this, either arrive early to let your server know you'll be paying and ask them to bring the bill to you, or excuse yourself from the table near the end of the meal to discreetly take care of payment. You could also give your credit card to the Maître d' or server when you arrive and ask them to add the appropriate gratuity and present the processed bill to you when the meal is over. This tactic doesn't work as smoothly as it once did, however, now that portable payment devices have entered the scene and credit card fraud is on the rise.

5. You want to share the bill 50/50: This guideline is often established between people who meet regularly for a meal. For example, I meet a business associate for a monthly midday confab, and we alternate who pays for lunch. Another colleague and I agreed long ago that we would each pay for our own lunch whenever we get together. Both procedures work like a charm.

6. Your dining companion snuck away from the table and paid: Even though you planned on paying, they beat you to it. This is where professional poise comes in. There's no point in getting upset; a gracious "Thank you" is all you need to say. Send them a note of gratitude when you get back to your office, and follow suggestion #4 the next time.

7. Your guest wants to argue about who pays: "No, no, no! Put your money away. You paid last time, it's my turn." Sound familiar? Now what? Do what you can to avoid getting into a debate about the bill. Some people are really touchy about this; they can become irritated and may even insist on giving you cash after you've already paid (which can be embarrassing). You can try to reason with them by saying, "It would mean a lot to me if you'd allow me to treat you to lunch today. How about you get it next time? " If they just won't let up after a couple of attempts to convince them you're paying, it may be in your best interest to let it go.

What advice did I give the woman who asked if she should pay for her client's lunch? I said yes. The client simply indicated that he'd like to get together over lunch to discuss things. He didn't actually invite her, though. Now it's her responsibility to arrange - and pay for - a mealtime meeting to develop their dialogue.

Corporate Conundrums is a weekly column providing practical advice for readers who need help dealing with workplace challenges. From incivility and unprofessionalism to learning how to how to work with a jerk, no topic is off-limits. Send your corporate conundrum to: conundrums@TheCivilityCEO.com.

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