A reader writes:
I recently moved from a lower-level job with a big corporation to a higher-level position at a smaller place. The corporate job put an emphasis on fancy lunches to connect with new people in the industry and allowed each employee a generous expense account. Due to our remote location and budget, it’s clear that lunch meetings will not be part of the networking we’re doing at the small company.
A colleague I used to lunch with has emailed me to say we should get together. Traditionally in our industry, someone in my position should always pay, and the person in her position should be treated–it doesn’t alternate. She works in an expensive part of town; the last lunch I treated her to was $90, not an amount I feel comfortable paying out of pocket (she insisted on a particularly fancy restaurant instead of the ones I’d suggested, citing her dietary restrictions).
Should I suggest we meet for something else (coffee? a drink?) and push for a cheaper location? Or perhaps there’s a graceful way to hint ahead of time that I won’t be able to pick up the tab?
I wrote back to this reader and asked: “Is there a benefit to you to meet with her or would it be purely social? Is there a benefit to your company?” The response:
Yes. She could eventually sell projects to my company, and the lunch is a way to entice her to do so.
Well, first, talk to your manager at your new company. If you’d be having lunch with her as a business development strategy, in the hope that your employer could eventually do business with her, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask if they’d consider a business expense. It’s entirely possible that the answer may be yes; it doesn’t sound like you’ve actually heard of any blanket ban on this sort of thing, just that you’re assuming it’s likely. So ask, and explain why.
If the answer is no but you still want to get together with this woman, then write back and suggest coffee. Don’t make a big deal out of the fact that it’s not lunch. Just say something like, “I’d love to catch up. How’s 3:00 on Tuesday at XYZ Coffee?” (Make sure that you’re suggesting somewhere that her dietary restrictions will allow her to say yes to, if you know what they are.)
If she counters with an expensive restaurant and you’re not up for that, then you’ll have to get more direct. For instance: “I’d love to, but the new job doesn’t have us on expense accounts! (Or, I’m on a tighter budget these days.) But I’d love to see you. Have you ever been to ___? It’s great.” (Name some lower-priced option than what she suggested.)
For whatever it’s worth, though, it sounds like you’ve had multiple expensive lunches with this woman — or rather, she’s had multiple expensive lunches on you — and it might be worth thinking about whether anything is really likely to come of it, professionally. If not, she’s getting a bunch of fancy lunches (where she gets to overrule you and name the location, no less), and you’re getting … what?
If your employer doesn’t value the business contact enough to let you expense it, then you need to ask yourself whether you do. For instance,will she be valuable to you as a networking contact the next time you’re looking for a job? Or is she a resource who allows you to perform your own job better? If so, you might be willing to shoulder the expense in the name of the real networking benefits you derive from the relationship. Or do you simply like her socially? In that case, the rules should change and you should stop paying for everything, because otherwise it’s not really a social relationship. Or are you simply continuing to meet with her out of a vague idea that it’s good to network? In that case, you might ask whether it’s worth it to you to pay to network with someone who insists on more expensive meals than you’re comfortable paying for (if indeed she does, once you redirect her).
I don’t know the answer to that, but I think that’s the place to start with your thinking.