During her tenure as a training manager for Bank of America, Brooke Hodges deliberately took job candidates to lunch and watched.
Did the men pull out chairs for women? Did the candidates say "please" and "thank you"? Did they put their napkins on their laps? Did they wait for everyone to be served before eating?
A business or interview meal can be stressful enough without taking etiquette into account. Manners at the dining table, even in today's relaxed society, are still an important part of making a good impression on a potential employer or business associate.
"It is not only respect, but courtesy," said Hodges, who is now the bank's senior vice president for community affairs. "I think it's a matter of perception. People do business with people. If someone's not showing common courtesy to other people, you're not necessarily going to entrust your financial resources to that person."
Manners and etiquette are not material employees will learn in school, but give workers the extra "polish" they need to succeed, said Marianne Gillette, director of product development for restaurants at McCormick and Co. Inc., based in Sparks.
She hires instructors to teach her staff at least once a year about table manners. The training makes employees more confident, professional and comfortable with clients or associates, Gillette said.
"I don't want to hear that anyone on my staff goes out to see a customer and says, `I didn't know what to say, I didn't know how to act, I wasn't comfortable in a dining setting,'" Gillette said. "It helps with leadership development such as projecting a positive attitude and a professional image. It's hard to be confident if you don't know the rules of engagement."
The key things to keep in mind, experts say, is to not draw attention to yourself, and to make other people feel at ease.
"You're not going to impress someone by knowing good table manners, but you run the risk of turning them off if you don't have good table manners," said Carol Haislip, co-founder of the International School of Protocol in Hunt Valley, which teaches etiquette courses.
Haislip started the school with her business partner, Cathleen Hanson, 10 years ago. They offer more than 30 classes each week on topics such as etiquette, interview skills and conversation.
Peter Handal, president and chief executive of Dale Carnegie & Associates Inc., a New York-based training firm, said many job candidates come to a business dinner unprepared - no talking points, no icebreaker, no knowledge about the other person - which fuels nervousness. His advice is to smile, sustain eye contact and relax.
"The fact that the employer is inviting you to lunch, dinner or breakfast means they want to see how you act in a social setting," Handal said. "But remember that you are not dining with a friend. Remember to maintain the business element; it's not really a social event."
The purpose of going to a business dinner is to conduct some business, usually an exchange of information. Experts emphasize that it's best to focus on the conversation, not the food, but panicking over etiquette mid-meal can ruin rapport.
Haislip said the most common etiquette mistakes she sees are not knowing how to use utensils properly and not knowing what to do with an unwanted piece of food inside the mouth.
Hodges said she notices when people don't cut their food properly or if they over-indulge on hors d'oeuvres.
The worst, she said, is when people drink too much.
"It gets pretty ugly pretty quick - the open bar," Hodges said. "If they're a banker, you can't ever look at them the same way again."
Haislip recalls one student who had earned a doctorate in statistics, but could not land a job after numerous interviews. He finally realized he was making a bad impression during interview lunches - habits such as talking with food in his mouth - so he hired Haislip for pointers.
Bad etiquette is everywhere, Haislip said: People using cell phones during meals, blowing their noses at the table, putting their fingers in their mouths to pick food off their teeth or being rude to the waiters.
She remembers a man who yelled at a waiter for not bringing extra bread for the table.
"People get so demanding," she said.
Most people won't lose a potential job or client because they didn't know which fork to use for salad, but bad table manners are seen as disrespectful.
"Common courtesy, the `pleases' and `thank yous' are always noticed, and when they are omitted, it's noticed even more," Hodges said.
Once a person masters the rules, etiquette becomes second nature, according to Steve Kaiser, president of Baltimore-based public relations firm Kaiser and Associates. Kaiser's etiquette habits were instilled in him by his parents, who insisted on proper decorum at his family's nightly meals together.
Kaiser, who attends five or six business meals a week, said he stands when a woman leaves or returns to the table, he knows what fork to use and he always opens doors for guests.