My office's annual holiday lunch at a nearby Italian restaurant was a loaded affair. Getting face time with senior staff is rare, save for the accidental run-in on my way to the copier. Which is why I spent hours the night before trying on outfits (Does this skirt scream "ready for a promotion"?) and thinking up witty one-liners to wow the bosses with ("I always wanted to be a procrastinator, but I never got around to it"). But I spent most of my prep time agonizing over what to order, because eating with superiors is its own job interview.
Would I look meek if I ordered soup? I wondered, while surveying the menu online beforehand. What would the risotto special say about me: risk-taker or glutton? I finally settled on a salad strategy, which seemed healthy enough to earn kudos but innocuous enough not to upstage me. As it turned out, I wasn't the only one with that game plan. Virtually everyone at the table passed over the restaurant's signature pepperoni pizza (which I'd have killed for) in favor of something leafy. At least no one could accuse me of not being a team player.
Breaking bread with colleagues is an event not to be taken lightly. Go ahead and gorge without remorse in the privacy of your own home. But in the office, laissez-faire eating suggests a laissez-faire work ethic or, worse, immaturity. Not long ago I was lunching on a PB&J sandwich at my desk, when an older coworker remarked that she'd packed the same thing in her kid's lunch box that morning. In effect, she'd compared me to her third-grader — not a good thing. Later that day, she asked me to get her a cup of coffee, a task typically delegated to the college interns. Whether this was conscious on her part or not, I took her point. If I won't show up to work wearing Havaianas flip-flops or an ironic T-shirt for fear of looking too young, shouldn't I extend that thinking to what I put in my mouth?
My boyfriend insists I'm being paranoid. Really? When I snacked on almonds from a Ziploc baggie, my boss was the first to take notice. "What a smart idea! I wish I was that together," she effused. (Little did she know I had pilfered the nuts from my roommate after I'd finished his Cheez-Its.) But it paid off — I think. The boss invited me to tag along on her pitch meeting that afternoon with more senior staffers. In that instant, maybe she viewed me as a thoughtful, plan-ahead kind of gal — exactly the impression I want to make. Hey, if you're gunning for a raise, you've got to eat the part.
Did You Know? Overweight women make 24% less than their leaner cubemates.
THE BOSSES WEIGH IN
"At cocktail parties, pick only single-bite hors d'oeuvres. You don't want to be seen chewing chicken satay off a stick."
—Marilyn Carlson Nelson, chairwoman of Carlson Companies, Inc., which owns Radisson Hotels and T.G.I. Friday's
"If it helps you get more done, eating at your desk is good. But stinking up the office isn't. I once had an employee spray Glade around a lunch offender's desk."
—Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and chairman of HDNet
"Never eat crabs, sloppy joes, or spaghetti at a work function. Your attention should be focused on the other people, not the food."
—Rob McGovern, founder of CareerBuilder
"My early years were like Mad Men — people drank six martinis at lunch. That era is over. Don't make a big deal of it, but don't have a drink at a business luncheon. You want to be in control."
>—Cathie Black, president of Hearst Magazines and author of Basic Black: The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life), now in paperback.
HUNGRY FOR APPROVAL