Business lunch etiquette
April 27, 2012 6:46 AM   Subscribe

Business etiquette question - how to handle a request to chip in for a lunch I did not attend?

A few weeks ago a former thesis advisor of mine from my graduate program (and someone I think very highly of) was invited to give a guest lecture at my current institution. I put together the itinerary, scheduled meetings, made all the plans. The night before she, a few colleagues (including current Boss), and I went out to dinner. I happily picked up the tab, this person has done a lot for me personally and professionally, and it was no big deal. As part of the following day's itinerary, we were scheduled to go out to lunch. Unfortunately, due to an unexpected work situation (and some inner-office snarkiness) I was unable to join them at lunch, and was quite bummed. Current Boss paid the bill for lunch, which included a few other colleagues and some current graduate students. I returned to my desk at then end of the day to find a copy of the lunch receipt as well as my "share" highlighted below (looks like the cost of lunch was to be split up between four of us - I was the only one not in attendance). I was speechless.

Now, I realize I may not be looking at this objectively, since I'm pretty upset that no one in the office offered to help so that I could attend the lunch, and I missed out on hanging out with this awesome person since she had to leave after lunch, so I ask your opinion. Am I over reacting? No discussion was had prior as to who was going to pay for what and the Boss controls the office budget. At institutions where I have worked before, these lunches/dinners would be paid for by the department, but apparently not in this case.

So I figure my options are one of the following:
1. Just pay the Boss what he's asking for my "share" of lunch that I didn't attend (ie bite my tongue and suck it up, be the bigger person, do the right thing, etc. Also, I volunteered to pay for dinner, so I shouldn't be upset by it in hindsight.)
2. Deduct the Boss's portion of the dinner bill from the night before from the receipt that was left on my desk and give the remaining amount to the Boss (two can play at this game approach, but that may just be the anger talking).
3. Ignore the receipt on my desk and see what happens (passive aggressive approach).
4. Other

The amounts we are talking about are not huge, so that's not the deciding factor. I guess its just the principle. Please feel free to let me know if I'm taking this too seriously as well, and should just move on to more important things.

Throwaway email:

Thank you.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Email. "Hey, Boss -- saw this, figured there must be a mistake. I did not attend the lunch. Thanks!"
posted by ellF at 6:48 AM on April 27, 2012 [29 favorites]

I think there's a very good chance that somebody not involved with this lunch was asked to split up the bill, and didn't know you weren't there. The chances of being intentionally asked to pitch in on a meal you weren't at are seem lower than the chances of a mistake. I draw your attention to Hanlon's Razor:

"Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."

If I were you, I'd take it to Boss or shoot off a quick email and say "Hey, boss, I think there's been a mistake here. I wasn't even at that lunch! Lulz. Thanks, anonymous."
posted by Tomorrowful at 6:50 AM on April 27, 2012 [11 favorites]

That's the most bizarre thing I've ever heard.

For starters? This is a person being hosted while they are in town to guest lecture. So who pays for their meals and entertainment? The institution. Does your boss have literally zero expense account?

That aside... Unfortunately you can't do #2, which is the correct act of hostility. But it's just too outrageous, and in the end it would make you look bad.

I think we're all voting for #4: "Oh, sorry for the mixup, I wasn't actually able to attend that lunch!" The follow-up should be... interesting. (That's when you can start ignoring any other request for money.)
posted by RJ Reynolds at 6:53 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

This has happened to me as a grad student - I got an email from a faculty member asking to split the dinner bill for a guest speaker from a few weeks before. I emailed him back to say I hadn't been at the dinner. Turns out he just wasn't able to remember who had actually attended, and emailed anyone who was likely to have been there, by virtue of research overlap with the guest. You should be fine emailing back and saying you weren't at the lunch.
posted by pemberkins at 6:54 AM on April 27, 2012

You volunteered to pay for dinner, not lunch. I would go with the "there must be some mistake" tactic as above. But at a dinner for around six people? I would be a little upset that your boss couldn't remember you weren't there anyway.
posted by demiurge at 6:56 AM on April 27, 2012

So who pays for their meals and entertainment? The institution. Does your boss have literally zero expense account?

Zero expense account is mostly true at my institution. Our department can just about pay for a guest's meals, but anyone who goes out to lunch or dinner with the guest is on the hook for their own share of the bill. It's the norm for any of us who take a guest speaker out to dinner to deal with splitting up the bill later (minus the portion that the department is covering for the guest). I'm not sure if this is the case at the OP's institution as well, but it happens.
posted by pemberkins at 6:58 AM on April 27, 2012

(You might want to quickly check in with a friendly department secretary or whatever admin works on your program about whether you are really expected to chip in and whether it could actually be covered by your program - as a secretary, I would never want a student or postdoc to be out of pocket on any guest expenses and have advocated for reimbursements for people in the past. It might be that there is money for this stuff, but there has been some miscommunication or funny business...And of course, don't pay for the lunch! As far as I'm concerned, you really shouldn't have had to pay for the dinner either; it's exploitative and unprofessional for older, better-compensated academics to let younger, less well-compensated folks pick up a tab like that, although it was nice of you to offer. )
posted by Frowner at 7:03 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think the rule at most institutions I was at is that the guest is covered, and either none or a set amount for anyone else is covered (it varied) so this isn't totally atypical. Anon, are you new to your institution? I'm wondering if perhaps the reason this wasn't discussed is because it's some sort of casual rule. This actually happened to me before. I let the person (an administrator) know that I didn't know about it and that I felt uncomfortable being asked to cover expenses for an event I didn't attend, and that was pretty much that. (I will note that this irked the administrator, for reasons that had little to do with the amount or my approach, and everything to do with me being a young person refusing to obey my elders. But I digressed.)

At any rate, I'd definitely question it. You already paid for dinner, you did not attend the lunch, and you didn't know you'd be on the hook for any portion of it.

I'd be interested in a follow-up on this, Anon.
posted by sm1tten at 7:07 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you want to soften it a little, follow up the excellent first few suggestions of "but I wasn't there" with a sentence asking (since Boss paid) "do I make the check out to Boss or to Boss's department?" This can let you lead into "If I'm reimbursing the department, I need to submit my receipt for dinner the night before so everyone can pitch in to reimburse the department for their share" etc.
posted by resurrexit at 7:46 AM on April 27, 2012

How about none of the above? Go ask your boss what's up.

You're a professional and this is a business relationship. If your boss is playing games, well, I think you'd know up-front whether he's the type. But if you don't then I guess you can make your own decision about whether you're willing/have to play along with coy nonsense.

I made the decision long ago that I wasn't going to engage in nonsense or be mistreated at work but I'm not under the illusion that other people don't necessarily have that liberty. But I don't see any reason why, in an office that isn't dysfunctional, you can't simply walk into the boss's office and say "Hey boss, I'm confused by this request."
posted by phearlez at 7:56 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Why was there a 4th party on the bill/receipt if you werent there? Was this catered or pre-arranged? If so, you should pay your share.
If not, who ate the 4th meal?
posted by KogeLiz at 8:03 AM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

If there is no department budget for these things, could it be some unspoken rule (that you are unaware of) that everyone splits the bill for things like this, regardless of attendance?
posted by Thorzdad at 8:23 AM on April 27, 2012

If the lunch bill is just a restaurant receipt showing three people's menu choices then no, none of that was yours.
If the lunch bill was for "4 lunches" as in a catered thing, then yes, you had a lunch even if you weren't there to eat it. You should pay for it.

I would actually go with a variant on your option 2, and just say you were hoping that lunch and dinner would cancel each other out. Be chatty and dispense with aggressive note-leaving.

Hey, boss, I saw that receipt on my desk from the lunch with Guest - how'd that go, I'm sorry to have missed it? (blahblah) So, was that a fixed-price thing? Why did you want me to cover part of it? (well, blahblah prepaid (or "what? no, that's a mistake") ) Ah, prepaid, that makes sense. I had kind of hoped that since I paid for dinner that someone else would pick up lunch, but if that's not the way you'd planned it, I can totally chip in on lunch. (blahblah so nice of you) Should I be submitting my dinner receipt, then?
... And even if boss says no to your dinner reimbursal, at least you now have a pretty good handle on how the department handles guest hosting.
posted by aimedwander at 8:43 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Why was there a 4th party on the bill/receipt if you werent there? Was this catered or pre-arranged? If so, you should pay your share.
If not, who ate the 4th meal?

It sounds to me like there were more than 4 people in attendance - "Current Boss paid the bill for lunch, which included a few other colleagues and some current graduate students."

So I'm guessing 4 people were assumed to be paying for the whole group, not necessarily an equal split between diners.
posted by lwb at 10:45 AM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hey boss, I think there's been a mistake. I didn't attend that lunch -- i had to return to work to XYZ -- and I picked up the full tab the night before.
posted by vitabellosi at 12:09 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

In academic institutions I have handled billing at, the cost of food is shared by the PIs/lab leaders/faculty. If you are a PI and two of your grad students, one of your postdocs, and one of the junior faculty in your lab attended the lunch, you pay 4 shares. This stood even if the PI chose not to attend. Could your department do something similar with spreading out the cost of the grad students' meals?
posted by holyrood at 6:12 PM on April 27, 2012

In my institution there is no expense account (and that's the same in most of academia that I know of). And guest speakers usually don't pay for their own lunch, so the whole bill gets split by the number of people who were there minus the guest - i.e. everyone pays a little more than their share. This generally includes grad students, people who came but only had a salad, people who really can't afford it, etc. So I usually just don't attend.

I have never ever heard of someone who did not attend a function having to pay for a share of the food unless it was pre-ordered and they pulled out at the last minute. Even as organiser of the guest's itinerary, you shouldn't be paying if you didn't eat.

As other people have suggested, I'm guessing whoever left the receipt for you forgot you weren't there.

I think aimedwander's strategy for handling it is the best approach.
posted by lollusc at 2:12 AM on April 28, 2012

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