Workplace lunch dilemmas: Who pays!?

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There always seems to be some awkward confusion when having a meal with co-workers or managers. No one is certain what’s happening when the bill arrives and the awkward faux-shuffling for wallets and pocketbooks occurs. Everyone is secretly hoping that the top dog at the table is just going to foot the bill. But if that company card isn’t whipped out, that upper-lip sweat begins to form at the thought of splitting that check nine ways.

I asked Vicky Oliver, author of such books as “301 Smart Answers to Tough Questions: Business Etiquette Questions” and “The Millionaire’s Handbook,” about business lunch faux pas. What should folks do during these situations and others where it’s uncertain who’s picking up the tab? When do you need to just step up and pay?

So let’s take a stroll through the scenarios you may find yourself in…

Co-worker lunches:
“If you’re out with five co-workers and you’re the sixth person, just take the full amount of the lunch total, add a 20 percent gratuity, and divide by six,” Oliver says. “This will prevent all sorts of nickel and diming and help keep group morale high.” So despite the fact you had a $6 salad and your co-worker had a $15 pulled-pork po’boy, just grin and bear it — eventually you’ll be ordering the high- ticket item, and it will all even out over time. It’s not worth the drama between your co-workers and the hassle for the server to split the tab unevenly.

She also suggests that if group lunches are becoming too costly, just pack your lunch and opt out. But realize that it’s a good opportunity to socialize, network and bond with your team members.

Usually the person with the higher title or position will pay; essentially, “Protocol dictates that the person higher up on the proverbial ‘food chain’ treats his or her co-workers to lunch,” says Oliver.

Job-opportunity/intel-gathering lunch:
Let’s say you want to take a co-worker out to either learn more about what’s going on in his or her department or chat about how your team can help alleviate the workload for his or her team. Typically, because you’re offering up the lunch and initiating the convo, you’re expected to pay. If you’re truly using this as a business discussion, Oliver suggests that you check in with your boss to see if the lunch can be reimbursed. Be sure to spell out how the lunch will benefit you, your boss and your entire team by finding out more of what’s going on in another department or area.

However, if the purpose is gossip only, it’s basically up to you to decide if you’re splitting or paying on your own, without any company help.

The boss’s treat lunch:
It’s safe to assume that if your boss is taking you out for lunch, he or she is footing the bill. It’s still polite to offer up splitting the check, but don’t become too combative. Just express your appreciation and gratitude for the meal.

Show your appreciation lunch:
“If you are thanking the other person for a job well done, but you don’t always want to treat the person, you might explain by saying: ‘Unfortunately, corporate won’t cover this lunch today. But I am so personally grateful for all of your hard work and late nights. I want to thank you by taking you out for a celebratory lunch. Next time we’ll split it, but today it’s on me,’” Oliver suggests.

The mentor/reference lunch:
When offering (or in some cases asking) to meet a mentor or potential reference out for lunch or coffee, the expectation is that you’ll pay. Oliver explains that as the one with more to gain from such a meeting, this is your token of appreciation. But if you both have an equal amount of opportunity to gain from this meeting, splitting the tab seems appropriate.

The exception that proves the rule:
“If there is a gigantic discrepancy in age or income of the two parties, the person who has more income — or a steadier income — should treat,” Oliver says. “Similarly, if there is a huge difference in age between the two people, the younger person should generally treat — unless it’s a new grad or someone who’s unemployed.”

No matter what, say “Thank you”:
No matter who ends up paying or buying, everyone should say “Thank you.” If you are buying, chances are you offered because you wanted to learn more or get information or expertise from someone and are showing your appreciation. If your lunch was bought for you, say thanks for the free meal and the opportunity to give your opinion in a setting where you know someone’s really listening.

“Expressing thanks is a lost art. Master it and you will stand out in this competitive world,” Oliver says. And she’s right. No matter if you send an appreciative email or even a handwritten note, taking the extra time to be appreciative will go a long way for you, not only professionally, but personally as well.

What other tips or questions do you have about lunchtime etiquette?

15 Comments
    • Thanks Wendy! Fixed it. Having a ‘faux pas’ within a ‘faux pas.’ We’re talking “Inception” levels of crazy here.

  1. If I invite one co-worker to lunch, it is my treat. If the lunch is about work and not of a personal nature, then I agree that the manager or senior colleague who is “running” the discussion should have a plan to pay for the lunch. With regards to an informal lunch with a group of co-workers, the “even split” across the tab is only fair if everyone has basically ordered items of similar cost. This is more critical at a dinner situation but can arise at lunch as well. I’ve known many people who like to roll in their appetizer, drinks and dessert into the meal and then cover it across their colleagues’ wallets. In this situation, it is appropriate to simply pay for your own meal and tactfully inform those who indulged that their tab is “a bit more” than others. Don’t give any sympathy to snarky responses, and always offer your thanks to all.

  2. Given the ability of most restaurants to split the bills, I have never had an problems with splitting work group lunches or having to cover the costs of costlier lunches. As for supervisors covering the meal, as this never happens in my field of work, there is never any awkward billfold shuffling, as everyone pays their own way, perhaps that occurs in more rarefied fields than mine. For large groups, if the restaurant doesn’t have a minimum gratuity for large groups, it never hurts to tip a little better.

    If being treated, in just about any situation, I always offer to cover the tip (Well, thank you, but let me get the tip.). Even if it isn’t accepted after a couple of offers (although mostly it is), it is generally appreciated. And I know I always appreciate it myself.

  3. I do not agree about item #1: Co-worker’s Lunch. I am very frugal. If I order a $6 and have water, I surely DO NOT want to pay for someone’s expensive appetite. Let’s all bring cash, keep track of your own charges, figure in a mutually agreed upon tip %, and the bill is fairly paid.

  4. i do not care. i will never pay for someones else’s food. if you invite, you pay. because i normally do not go out to eat and when i do, i never tip.

    •  @javiernmail I feel sad about this on many levels. Servers count on tips for their wages. Not tipping is breaking the social contract. I’m guessing you don’t get invited out to eat much, either. It’s a fun think to do with friends and co-workers, with splitting the cost.

  5. I agree with everything in this article. I want to share that I once worked with a woman who clearly took advantage of the others and ordered a top entree while the others ordered more modest entrees. If I was taking everyone to lunch, it wasn’t a problem for me. If we were going to lunch at a moments notice, I learned to speak up and say that since “Mary” preferred an entree from the premium menu it doesn’t seem fair to split the check evenly. I’m good at math and would estimate a few dollars extra for Mary and suggest a lesser amount for the others. Years later when there was a promotional opportunity, Mary’s name was on the list. When my boss insisted she be scratched from the list, I asked why he felt so strongly about it. He replied that in his experience she was more of a taker than a giver and this position requires something different. I scratched her name off the list of consideration and thanked my boss for being so candid.

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  7. For “co-worker lunch”, this is vague. Do you split it evenly, as the first 2 paragraphs say, or “Usually the person with the higher title or position will pay.” There are many cases when people will have different titles but work for the same boss. Who pays?

    • In instances like that where you are more equals, you can typically split or someone just offers up to pay this time and perhaps next month the other person pays. If that’s uncommon to have lunch together, just split the bill.

  8. Nice read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing some research on that. And he actually bought me lunch since I found it for him smile Thus let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch!

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