Leftovers: The Career Killer

Dear Helena,

This coworker of mine, who is above me in the company hierarchy, usually brings her lunch to work—leftovers in Tupperware. The other day she asked me, somewhat seriously, whether it didn’t make her look less “successful” to bring her lunch, and whether it might hurt her in climbing the corporate ladder. I’d never thought about it before that moment, but then I wondered—did it? Don’t you have to look successful to be successful? —Concerned About My Friend’s Climb Through Middle Management

Dear Concerned About My Friend,

Bringing leftovers in Tupperware is like wearing an old cardigan to work: There’s nothing wrong with it, but it doesn’t project power and success. What you eat can send a subliminal message about who you are, just as much as what you wear. As Beverly Langford, author of The Etiquette Edge: The Unspoken Rules for Business Success, says: “Your lunch is part of your nonverbal communication, just like your jewelry.”

So what kind of meal says “management material”? The ideal lunch is expensive. “Having sushi delivered to the office reeks of power—and wasabi,” says Stan McElrae, creative director in a San Antonio advertising firm. By contrast, a Tupperware of last night’s lasagne makes it look like you’re struggling. “Those who pack a lunch are … typically crunched for cash,” claims Rupert, a legislative aide to a senator in Washington, DC, who did not want his real name used.

Your lunch should also be easy to consume. Langford recommends a sandwich, explaining: “You can eat it quickly; it makes you look like you’re a go-getter and you want to save time.” You shouldn’t bring lunch, because that could suggest you’re not completely focused on your work. People will know that you chose to spoon chicken fricassee into a container rather than get to the office five minutes earlier. Says McElrae: “I don’t think about that kind of thing when I get up in the morning; I’m thinking about whether I’ll get to Starbucks and what work I have to do that day.”

Another reason not to bring your own lunch is that it sets you apart. “It means you can never go to lunch with anyone,” Langford says. “It sends a signal: ‘Don’t invite me to go out with you.’” Even if your colleagues bring their food back and eat with you in the office, you’re still isolating yourself by eating separate food. Langford remembers: “I had a colleague once who was vegetarian and always brought her lunch. It was like a statement, ‘I’m different.’ It was tiresome.”

Most important of all, never bring anything smelly. Langford says, “One of the biggest complaints about working together is smells.” Sam, a legislative aide in Washington, DC, who asked that his last name not be used, particularly cautions against nuking fish leftovers in the microwave. “How do you contain the stench? If you close the kitchen door, the room will be foul for days.”

Put simply, if you bring the rest of last night’s fish curry, you risk losing the position to the guy who’s using pizza as a networking tool. As McElrae says, “There is nothing like ordering a pizza to unite everyone in the office.”

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.

Published August 7, 2007