Creative Leadership

How Do I Know When To Pay For Lunch?

Whether you’ve asked someone out for lunch to ask advice, pitch your project, network, or just get to know them, you need to know the rules about who pays. The rules used to be pretty clear, but in the last few years, I’ve seen a growing number of people that don’t seem to have a clue about who picks up the check. So whatever station in life you’re in, listen up:

1. If you invite someone out so you can pitch your project, get advice, or ask for help, always pick up the check.  It doesn’t matter if the other person is richer than you. You’re asking a favor, and they’re being very gracious to help you out. The person who benefits should be the person who pays.

2. If you ask someone to lunch because they’ve already done you a favor, pick up the check.  I went to a lot of trouble recently opening the doors in Hollywood for a young researcher. I introduced him to friends, set up some interviews, and really helped him out. He invited me to lunch to thank me, but left me to pick up the check. Guess what? Next time he calls and needs a favor, I’ll be busy.

3. If the boss asks an employee out, the boss pays.

4. In general, even when the other person starts to pick up the check, at least offer to pay.  Don’t just sit there. Make an effort.

5. If you’re a vendor, always pick up the check.  You pay the tab for your client.

6. If you go out with equals (professionally) or personal friends, and it’s just a social gathering, then you can split it.

7. In general, the person who asked the other to lunch picks up the tab.  (Or at least offers.)

The bottom line? It’s never appropriate to be cheap when someone’s doing you a favor. And when the other person clearly wants to pay, say thank you. Be gracious and grateful.

And as business writer Steve Tobak says:

If nobody picks up the check, you should. If the waiter drops off the check and nobody goes for it, that’s just awkward. The more time passes, the more uncomfortable it gets. At that point, you have two choices: plunk down your credit card or suggest you all split it. I’d do the former, but if you decide to split it, do it evenly. Never get into it over who had what or ask the waiter for separate checks. I don’t care if someone had wine with his entrée and you just had a salad. It’s trivial. Don’t do it.

It may sound insignificant, but your behavior regarding paying for lunch says a lot about your integrity and sense of honor.  Especially if it’s a professional relationship, don’t blow it.  Step up and put down your credit card.

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  1. This makes me smile. So outside the norm of your typical posts. Come to FL and have lunch. We’ll see if I “get it”. Bring your cash just in case.

    1. Not so much “outside” since I write a lot about leadership and how to make media projects happen. (And something this simple could make or break it.) The truth is I’ve been plagued a lot by this lately. It expresses such ingratitude and rudeness.
      And yes – I’ll come to Florida and take you up on that invitation Mike… 🙂

  2. Even more so if you want to do work or make relationships in Asia. How you handle the account will definitely say a lot about you. Richard D

  3. As a certified business etiquette trainer and speaker, I hear of these situations often in my Business Dining Etiquette seminar. Unfortunately, some professionals aren’t savvy about the etiquette for business meals. For business lunches or dinners, no matter what the reason for getting together, the rule is…whoever invites is the one who pays. One of the best ways to alleviate awkwardness is to clarify when you extend the invitation, by saying something like this,”I’d like you to be my guest for lunch.” Also, when you’re the one hosting (paying), it’s always good to arrive early and let the maitre d’ know you’re the host and to bring the check to you rather than place it on the table between you and your guest. Better yet, smart and savvy professionals will arrive early and have their credit card run ahead of time so that no check is ever brought to the table!

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