Alcohol, Business Meals, and Expense Reports

By Juanita Ecker

Recently a friend contacted me about a sticky situation: Her employer has decided to no longer cover alcohol on company expense reports. I suspect this drastic measure was implemented because employees were taking advantage of the situation by, say, ordering a $90 bottle of wine because they knew the company would cover it.

My friend expressed concern, as she was recently out with one of her clients and the client wanted to order a beer with her dinner. What should she do if this happened again under the new policy? My friend felt it would have been rude to tell the client the expense was no longer covered, but wondered if she should pay for the beer herself in order to keep the client happy.

None of us would be happy covering other people’s alcohol expenses for business meals, yet we would not want to offend our clients by refusing to let them put a glass of wine on our tab. So what’s the right way to handle a ban or limit on company alcohol expenses?

The simplest way to avoid the situation is to schedule meetings over breakfast or lunch. That way there is less of a chance that people will want to order a drink. If dinner is a must, opt for a restaurant that doesn’t have a separate bar or extensive martini list, which might prove too tempting. 

If a client does order a drink, it’s probably better to go ahead and let it slide. If they ask why you aren’t drinking, you can say that you have a lot of work to do later, or feel a cold coming on. You don’t want them to feel guilty about drinking, nor do you want them to feel like you are judging them. It will be easier to pay the check and (hopefully) convince your employer to cover the costs later on. And if you’re really worried, skip dessert or order a less expensive entrée to keep your food costs below budget.

You should also talk to your employer and ask what they recommend you do so as not to offend your company’s prospect or client. Let upper management decide how the situation should be handled. Will exceptions be made for major clients?

Some companies may implement a spending limit on alcohol rather than an outright ban, but even that can be tricky. Say your company will only allow you to expense $40 on alcohol per meal. Rather than announcing to the waiter that you can only order a bottle of wine that costs less than $40, take this approach: Open your wine menu and point to a bottle of wine in the appropriate price range. Say to the waiter, “We would like a wine comparable to this one. What can you recommend?” Your guests will assume you are pointing to a certain kind of wine and not the exact price. 

Another suggestion for staying within your corporate budget is for you to choose the wine. I once had a VP tell me he was entertaining one of his very best clients. This VP was from Ireland and turned to his guest and said, “I don’t really know American wines, so why don’t you pick the wine for dinner?” My client was shocked when the bill came and he discovered that his guest had ordered a $300 bottle of wine! It was a costly lesson to be learned. As the host, you need to be in control of those things.

It’s understandable for a company to want to trim costs by not expensing alcohol, but it’s up to your employers to determine how to handle that situation with clients smoothly. A glass of wine is not worth embarrassing or offending a client, in my opinion!

©2011 Professional Image Management If you would like to use this article in your newsletter or blog, you may do so. Please include our credit information: Written by Juanita Ecker, Professional Image Management. © Copyright 2011. I would also appreciate it if you would send us a copy for our files.

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