who should pay at a networking coffee or lunch?

A reader writes:

After spending my 20s building my career in part by networking, I have now achieved sufficient professional success that I am being “networked with.” Over the past few months, I’ve had several young early-career professionals ask me politely if they can take me for coffee and pick my brain about how I got where I am and about what opportunities there might be in my field for them. (I work from home primarily, so a meeting in the office isn’t generally ideal.)

I’m always happy to meet with these folks and pay it forward, as it were. My question, though, is: who should pay for the coffee/lunch/etc. at these meetings? Generally, the folks I’m meeting with offer to pay, but I normally pick up the tab because I feel bad making someone who’s young and (often) unemployed or underemployed pay for my coffee when my income is significantly higher than theirs. That said, I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable.

What do you think?

Etiquette says that they should pay, because they’ve requested the meeting. Generally, the person who invites pays. (Unless you invite your boss. Your boss always pays, assuming a business context.)

That said, a lot of us do what you do and pick up the check anyway, for exactly the reason that you say — if you’re financially comfortable and they’re not, it seems like the right thing to do.

So in sum: They should come to the meeting fully expecting and prepared to pay, but it’s kind for you to cover the tab anyway.

{ 57 comments… read them below }

  1. Jessa*

    Exactly. The one who makes the invitation always shows up intending and ABLE to pay (this second part is important.) It’s always nice however if the other person offers.

    I got blindsided one time as a new employee, I was taken to lunch by the group and manager, supposedly to introduce me to everyone and was shocked when I was expected to chip in my share, luckily I had money with me. But when you’re the INVITEE, and your boss invites you, you’re not expecting to be paying.

    Just like when *I* invite someone I am not expecting THEM to pay.

    But after that I always make sure that whenever I go on one of those business lunch things I have enough to cover.

    1. Chloe*

      +1 – I’ve been in situations where etiquitte clearly (IMHO) requires the other person to pay all of the bill, but they split it 50/50 anyway, so always be prepared.

    2. Cat*

      I might be in the minority on this, but if the boss doesn’t have a budget for taking new employees out (which companies, you should really have!), I wouldn’t expect her to pay for everyone. I do think, though, that one someone’s first day, everyone should probably just pitch in a bit for the new person, because really.

      1. Jessa*

        Yes, but if the boss doesn’t have such a budget, it would be kind to at least warn the new employee (who may have been out of work for awhile and not been paid yet, and NOT have any money on them,) that they need to pay. Not just suddenly spring “we’re taking you to lunch,” and then expect them to cough up their share with 10 minutes notice. Which was actually what was done to me. Luckily I happened to have a working debit card, and a few dollars in the bank. I never carry cash however. And it would not have ever occurred to me that when 10 people are taking someone new to lunch, where the chip in would be less than $2 per person amongst them, to have paid my sandwich, that I would be expected to pay for it.

        If you’re going to take the new person to an “everyone pays their own,” you need to discreetly find out A: if they actually have money and B: if even if they DO have money, since they are new to the job whether they can actually afford to BLOW this money on this endeavour.

        1. Jessa*

          Addendum, I was not expecting that the boss would pay for everyone btw. I am perfectly on with everyone pays their own meetings. But the new person on the other hand SOMEONE should pay for the first time. If the meal is described as “hey we’re TAKING YOU OUT.”

          Not to mention, I wouldn’t have eaten there. I wouldn’t have wanted to go to lunch with these people in the first place. It ended up making for an awkward mess because I looked stupid, as it was OBVIOUS I expected the etiquette to be the normal “the invited guest does not pay,” and they had no such intention. And it ended up colouring the rest of this boss’ interactions with me in a VERY bad way. I got out of her department very fast because she was nasty and sabotagey because she thought I made her look bad.

          1. Ruffingit*

            I’m guessing she would have been nasty and a saboteur regardless of this lunch incident. People who react that way to such things typically have a personality type that is simply waiting for a trigger. In this case it was lunch, but really it would have been something else had it not been lunch. Glad you got out of that department.

          2. Jamie*

            I agree – “Taking you out” = “I’m buying” and the person being taken out should never have to pay.

            I’m a big believer in always having the money on me, just in case – but that was just ridiculous.

        2. Cat*

          Well, I did say that everyone should pitch in to cover the new person; I agree. My comment was really just that I think the “boss pays” rule only applies when it’s really the company paying.

          1. Jessa*

            OH yes, I am all for companies having money for such. Really, it’s only right that it should be expense-able.

    3. The IT Manager*

      I will disagree somewhat. I have taken new co-workers to lunch before and I never paid for them. Although I did offer them the option to decline the lunch, I hope. It just seems polite if you are showing the new guy around that you show him somewhere to find lunch. Especially since its pretty rare on the first day to bring your own lunch not knowing if there’s a fridge to store your food or a microwave to warm things up, etc.

      1. Ellie H.*

        Sure, I would agree. I think the difference here is in phrasing; there’s a difference between “I’d like to take you out to lunch (with this group of people)” and “Would you like to come out to lunch (with me/with the group)?” The way it is phrased signals who is expected to pay. I don’t think there’s an etiquette problem with inviting someone out to have lunch either as part of a group or one-on-one, and not offering to pay for the person you are inviting (if it’s in keeping with the dynamics of the department, and if it’s not a manager inviting the managed employee out for a one-on-one lunch). But it would be normal to signal this in the invitation. “Taking someone out” is generally taken to mean that you are thereby offering to pay. If you wanted to indicate that the person would be expected to pay, you could ask them to “come out to lunch.”

      2. Jessa*

        There is a difference between “let me show you where the places to eat are, I’d like to go to lunch with you today,” and “we all wanted to take you out to lunch to welcome you to the team.” I am sure when you made that invitation you made it clear you were not “TAKING them to lunch, but going WITH them to lunch.” Which is a horse of an entirely different colour. Green in fact, if one is in Oz.

        The first one, signals “we each pay our own way,” the second, if properly meant “we are all going to pitch in and pay for you, even if we all pay our OWN way today.”

        There is a language issue here. TAKING someone to lunch, infers that the taker is paying. Going WITH someone to lunch infers that both are paying their own way, unless otherwise stated. And one can show someone where the good food is on a map for instance. Or on a walk around town if they do that sort of thing. If the idea is to show someone where the good food is, one normally asks “what do you like to eat? I’ll show you all the places that carry that,” or “these are all the places we have accounts with for taking customers.”

    4. Zed*

      While I don’t argue that it is thoughtful for the new boss or new coworkers to cover the new person’s lunch, I admit I am a bit baffled by this. I would never, EVER step foot in a restaurant without having enough money (or a debit/credit card) to pay for what I ordered. I always expect to pay my own way.

        1. Zed*

          True. I’m not sure what I would say if I had packed myself a sandwich on my first day of a new job and was invited out to lunch with the team (and had to pay). Or if $3 in my pocket for McD and not much else. It is an uncomfortable position, definitely.

        2. Jamie*

          I hate the whole take the new person to lunch on the first day thing.

          A hundred years ago after my first big promotion I moved to corporate and my new horrible boss told me he was taking me to lunch. It was a lousy morning and I was SO looking forward to an hour to myself to process things, reboot my brain, and just try to calm myself as I had already realized I had moved into a horrible work environment. I felt the happy anticipation of lunch flood out of me.

          For some people, and I’m one of them, even if it’s not a day from one of Dante’s 9 circles, being around new people with constant interaction is a lot to take in and a few minutes mid-day to kind of process alone is really helpful.

          But some people love it and would feel abandoned if not given someone to eat with on day one. This is a case by case thing – and it’s important to remember that no offense is intended if people would prefer a quiet lunch going over their notes.

          That said – if it happened again I’d always say yes…because I wouldn’t feel it was okay to decline lunch on day 1.

      1. Jessa*

        Honestly nowadays, I would also. But this was back around 1985 and honestly back then it would NOT have been remotely understood that anyone invited by a large group of people to a luncheon as the ONLY invitee by the group, would be expected to pay, except by this group of people. Particularly (I was being over generous saying it would be $2 a head.) The meal would have been less than $1 per person extra. There was no reason for anyone in that department to expect that I had ANY money to my name (we had not yet been paid.) If one wishes to take someone to lunch and expects them to pay one at least waits til payday to do it.

        But the culture NOW is so vastly different than it was 30 years ago. Everyone I mentioned it to when it happened was like “HUH? What? They did WHAT?” There was not the slightest consideration that I was crazy to think that I should have presumed that I was to pay for my share.

        And I still maintain that if the language is one of group INVITING one person then the group is paying. And regrettably there’s no darned etiquette that lets the invitee ask either. You just have to hope what you learnt via Emily Post and Miss Manners is right.

  2. KarenT*

    I’m with Alison and the OP 100%.
    I get a lot of people asking to go out for coffee to talk about my industry (in an informational interview sort if way). I can’t always say yes, but when I do I always pay. I would think it was weird if they didn’t offer, but most of the people I meet are recent grads (many with student loans) who are doing unpaid internships. It does seem like the right thing to do!

  3. Felicia*

    I was just in this situation from the other side, and i’m glad i seem to have handled it right as the recent grad inviting the older more experienced person. I could have paid and said i would but she insisted on paying so I accepted. I did worry about if i should have insisted on paying anyways, but she offered so I might as well accept!

    At my last barely paid internship (much much less than minimum wage) I was invited to a staff lunch by the boss and everyone was expected to chip in, which I didn’t know before and I didn’t have money and felt weird about being expected to pay, since I don’t normally go to restaurants for lunch so not like i would have bought lunch otherwise. Luckily a co worker paid for me but I felt really embarrassed saying i didn’t have money.

  4. Anonymous*

    Go half-way– ask for separate bills and everyone picks up her own. makes OP comfortable and fair to him.

    1. fposte*

      The problem with that is when you’ve invited somebody out for coffee it’s ungracious to stick them with the check even for their own. And frankly, you’re asking somebody for their time and assistance–it would seem awfully self-focused to ask them for something worth considerably more than a coffee and then not even offer to pay for the coffee.

        1. fposte*

          That’s somewhat better, but I still think the invitor should offer to pay, preferably before the invitee has a chance to say “separate checks.” (And I actually would just go ahead and treat the junior anyway, because it’s paying it forward from when people did it for me.)

              1. Jessa*

                I think what Anon is saying to fposte is that we know what fposte is saying, but the whole point of the thread is that the invitOR is NOT doing that, that people are being stuck with the bill when they didn’t expect it. And that Anon is saying fposte is missing that point by stating the obvious.

              2. Ellie H.*

                Eh, I don’t really understand it either. I’m not sure if Anonymous is arguing that invitees should always ask for separate checks in order to preclude an awkward conversation about who is paying. If the inviter is going to pay, it could create weirdness. (I realize this is what fposte said.) Anyway, the question is about who should pay, which people seem to all agree on. If someone breaches etiquette by inviting you but not offering to pay for you, the correct thing to do is, you know, to pay for yourself. I don’t think that’s called into question.

          1. Jamie*

            This – pay it forward.

            If one of my kids college friends had an interest in IT I’d be happy to talk with them – but I’d feel ridiculous if they bought my coffee…because if I can’t spring for a couple of cups of coffee more easily than a broke college student working part time while going to school…then no one should be asking me for career advice.

            Although in my fictitious scenario (since apparently no one they know wants to learn about IT – sigh) it would most likely be around my dining room table with coffee made by me and some homemade brownies. And for that I’d expect them to kick in a couple of bucks …flour and Maxwell House are not free.

  5. the_scientist*

    I have no relevant advice or opinion on this, but I’d just like to take a moment to thank the OP for being willing to take time out of his/her schedule to talk to recent grads/early career professionals and share knowledge with them. I am soon-to-be finishing grad school (I hope, my thesis might kill me, ha) and I have already lined up two job interviews in my field because senior researchers were willing to go to bat for me and/or connect me with other researchers. So, from an early career professional: thank you for being willing to help!

    1. Networking OP*

      You’re welcome. :) Some of the folks I meet with are finishing grad school in the field in which I hold a graduate degree, and it is always such a pleasure to be able to help. I got a lot of support from mentors and it’s a lot of fun to be on the other side.

  6. JNYC*

    I agree with AAM. Whenever I have asked someone to meet me for coffee so I can ask for their advice/opinion, I have always expected to pay. And every time, they have paid. It’s very thoughtful of them, and I always appreciated it.

  7. QualityControlFreak*

    I have had “everyone at the program review goes to lunch together” type lunches (separate checks) and “boss wanted to pick my brain over lunch” working lunches where I was not given the option of paying, but if I requested a lunch or coffee meeting as well as a block of someone’s time for my own professional development I would expect to pay.

  8. Erin O'Brien*

    Great advice!

    I work for a City department (library). A fellow City employee, who works in another department, asked if I could offer some social media tips over lunch some day. I assumed that she would pay for my meal — a deli sandwich and a drink — but I didn’t know 100%. In that awkward moment before ordering (will she pay, will she not?), I let her order first. To my surprise (and even dismay), she paid for her meal, and told me where she’d be sitting. After reading your post, I’m glad to know that I wasn’t wrong in assuming that she would be paying for my meal. I know she holds a fairly high position (and I’m part-time), and I was offering my expertise. Hmmm…

    1. KarenT*

      That’s awkward! She definitely should have paid for you– she was asking you to offer work advice on your lunch break!

      1. LV*

        What if it had been a coworker in the same department? I understand where Erin was coming from with her expectation that the other person would pay and I’m not saying she was wrong, but at the same time I think it’s a bit odd that a coworker saying, “Hey, want to grab lunch together today? We can talk a bit about XYZ work issues” automatically creates this assumption that they have the obligation of paying.

        1. Cat*

          Especially government employees where it’s understood the individual isn’t going to be making extra money from the advice they get.

        2. KarenT*

          If it’s someone you eat with in a regular basis and the discussion was of mutual benefit it would be okay to not pay, IMO. If I eat lunch with Bob three times a week and one day I ask him his opinion on a project I’m working on, it might not occur to me to pay.

        3. Erin O'Brien*

          Hi LV, would like to clarify she is not a coworker. She is somebody I had met at a City event – she works for Parks and Rec, I’m at the Library. I have spoken to her twice total and never work directly with her.

          1. Cat*

            Oh, well that explains it; everyone knows that the Parks and Rec folks HATE everyone from the library. :-)

  9. Anonymous*

    i think “over lunch” and “take me for…” are two different things.
    the first indicating that it’s lunch time and might as well talk about work related stuff. the second is an invitation.

    1. The IT Manager*

      Agree. If a group (or even one other person) is going to lunch and I’m invited I still expect we’ll all pay our own way. The only exception is a farewell lunch where the guest of honor does not pay.

      That’s not the same as a networking lunch though. In this case etiquette dictates that the invited pays, but it is nice for the senior, more well off person to offer to pay especially for someone who may be struggling a bit.

      1. Chocolate Teapot*

        Exactly. There is a difference between group work lunches (everyone pays for theirs or Big Boss gets out the company credit card), individual work lunches (you and Big Boss at Chez Posh, or you and Boss at Bistrot Next Door) and networking brain picking (you and networker either at Bistrot Next Door, Cafe Across the Road or the Bar in Town).

  10. Ali*

    This post came just in time for me! I am meeting with a networking contact on Tuesday (we have been talking for a while, but we will just now be meeting in person) and I wasn’t sure who should pay. I now know to come with money and the offer to pay. Thanks!

    1. Ali*

      Oops, forgot to add that I am the one who asked if we wanted to meet when I was in the area. So that solves it!

  11. Brandy*

    I think the inviter should ALWAYS offer to pay. On a slightly different note I had an interview for a receptionist position for a physician’s office scheduled one afternoon. On the morning of the interview the office manager called and asked if we could meet at a coffee shop to be away from the interruptions of the office. Given that I was unemployed and invited for the interview I expected the woman would at least offer to pay. I waited and let her order first, at which time she paid and took a seat. I got my coffee and joined her but I definitely felt a faux pas had just taken place.

    1. some1*

      Yup, that interviewer was in the wrong. She requested that the interview take place somewhere that basically has a “cover” charge; and social norms dictate that you purchase something in a coffee shop if you are sitting there.

    2. bo bessi*

      I had a similar interview situation. It was a full day sort of “shadowing” someone in the field, where they would make a recommendation about hiring me to the boss when we got back. He asked where I wanted to go for lunch and then brought something from home into the restaurant and asked to use their microwave while I awkwardly ordered something. That was just one piece of a lot of dysfunction, and I did not end up taking their offer.

  12. Chocolate Teapot*

    Years ago, I applied for a well-paid job where there were tests and during which, I was asked whether I would like a coffee. I said yes, and was pointed in the direction of the canteen and left to find it. It then transpired that I had to pay (admittedly less than in a normal cafe) but it did make me think that they would not be a good employer.

  13. Anonymous*

    In many government jobs you are not allowed to pay for another’s meal, or accept a meal from another. So, I might pay for your lunch, but it would come out of my own pocket. (yes, we are straight arrows, but really, isn’t that what you want your government to be?)

  14. Networking OP*

    Thanks so much, Alison, for answering my question!

    To clarify, I don’t have an “office budget” for taking people out; I run my own (small but growing) company and so any budget for this sort of thing comes out of the company’s, and therefore my, pocket.

    I’m glad to know that my instincts were correct on this. I have a tendency towards overgenerosity so I wanted to make sure I wasn’t doing something silly by paying for coffee and/or lunch. (That said, if someone invited me to an expensive lunch place, I’d probably at least allow them to pick up their half of the tab…)

  15. The Biblo-Bride-to-Be*

    Just food for thought (pun intended ;) )…. If we are mostly talking coffee and a pastry and you can afford to, one potential benefit of paying for the under- or unemployed recent grad is that later on, when they are further in their career, they’ll be likely to fondly remember your meeting and how generous you were to them (both in advice and in picking up the tab). If interpersonal relationships and networking count a lot in your field this can be a really good thing later on down the road.

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