Business Meeting Etiquette Where and When

June 1, 1998
Paula Corbin Jones says she met Governor Bill Clinton in a business suite at the Excelsior Hotel where she alleges he sexually harassed her. The room was furnished as a business suite, not as a hotel room and had no bed. As an employee, should she have agreed to meet her boss’s boss in a private hotel room? Should hotel-room meetings be banned because of their potentially questionable setting?

According to Monica Ballard, president of Parallax Education, a Santa Monica, California-based firm that helps companies avoid liability in employment litigation, these are important questions. "If a boss asked me to meet him in a hotel room, that would raise my eyebrows," says Ballard. Agreeing to such a meeting could mean an uncomfortable, and potentially dangerous, situation for an employee. Ballard suggests companies educate employees about offsite business etiquette, and let subordinates, co-workers and bosses know they have choices in where and when to hold business meetings. Employees should never be made to feel uncomfortable because of a meeting’s location and time, and they shouldn’t be responsible for insubordination be-cause of a refusal to meet a boss in a place they consider questionable.

For instance, Ballard says Jones might have suggested meeting Clinton over lunch in the hotel restaurant, meeting in the lobby or even in the bar—which is still a public place. "Or, a woman can say, ‘Can I bring my husband and kids?’" she adds. While obviously tongue in cheek, this type of rebuttal will quickly turn a situation around. It’s important to educate employees about ways to get out of situations that make them uncomfortable, while still fulfilling specific requests from managers for meetings.

In another situation, if one employee insists on carrying another employee’s luggage to his or her room, the recipient might consider this a romantic advance. Walking another person to his or her hotel room at night might also be considered an advance, particularly if the escort is a manager. While there may be safety in numbers, employees should realize that they can have a bellperson or security guard walk them to their room if they’re uncomfortable having a boss as an escort.

HR managers should make sure policies about travel etiquette, business meetings and entertaining are written. And employees should understand their options. Perhaps a little training in the art of negotiation wouldn’t hurt either.

Workforce, June 1998, Vol. 77, No. 6, p. 40.