10/01/2014 05:22 EDT | Updated 12/01/2014 05:59 EST

How to Determine Who Pays for a Business Lunch

Jupiterimages via Getty Images

"I'll get that."

You may say that too often, or not enough, when having a meal or cup of coffee with a business colleague or friend.

The rules about when to pick up the tab or let your dining partner pay can be murky, and misunderstanding them can put a damper on a great working relationship. Here are some guidelines based on three decades of experience paying for (or being treated to) business breakfasts, lunches and dinners.

I pay when:

  • I want to thank companions for a referral and ideas or information they have offered to share with me
  • They are prospects or clients with whom I want to deepen a professional relationship
  • They paid the last time we got together
  • I can't remember whose turn it is to pay and don't want an arm wrestling event to unfold

I let them pay when:

  • I have steered business their way or referred them
  • I paid the last time we got together
  • They want to celebrate a promotion or other event and insist on picking up the tab. (Why rob them of the pleasure of feeling good about what they've accomplished?)

There are also some other things to consider.

You create a positive impression when you:

  • Unhesitatingly but graciously reach for the bill before your companion can get to it.
  • Inform your companion that you are paying even before you get to the restaurant. This sets you both at ease and creates an experience that your guest will long remember.
  • Be a good host by being attentive to your companion's comfort level with the restaurant and food, and treating servers with the respect they deserve.
  • Agree to go 50/50 if your companion suggests it. Avoid escalating the conversation about who is paying beyond one or two sentences into a grand debate.
  • If he or she insists on paying and it is really your turn, suggest you will get the next one.
  • Send a short thank you note via e-mail to your host the day after the meal. If the meal was lengthy, expensive and memorable, a hand-written note to your host is even better.

You may create a bad impression when you:

  • Silently stare at the recently arrived bill as if waiting for it to blow up in the middle of the table. The trance that engulfs you when you both leave the bill untended to pay for itself can be an awkward end to an otherwise pleasant meal.
  • Complain about the service and indicate to your guest and server that no tip will be forthcoming.
  • Don't pay when it is your turn. (Cheapness is not a valued personality trait in most circles and can lead to being uninvited or not being invited to an event at all.)
  • Pay all the time, which can make you look desperate for respect or even flashy.
  • Grab the bill from your companion when they have made it clear they want to pay. (They will see this as your attempt to control the situation and diminish them.)
  • Pay, but voraciously complain about the restaurant's inflated prices and small portions "I could feed my kids for a week on this tab. I'm in the wrong business!"

How and when you pick up the tab can create a lasting impression. Hopefully it's a positive one that secures more invitations.