Meeting seating can be as informal as choosing to sit in the first available seat to making a highly structured seating plan. Most of the meetings I take part in don’t have hierarchical seating orders, but there surely are times when who sits where really matters.
What are the considerations for seating when it isn’t every person for him or herself?
1. The most important seat is typically reserved for the host, chairperson, or most senior individual. That seat is at the head of the table. At a rectangular table, the head of the table is at the end that looks toward the entrance. Interestingly, this seat commands a direct view of everyone at the table, as well as everyone entering the room, making it a position of strength in conducting and participating in the meeting.
2. The second most important seat is the position at the opposite end of the table. Likewise this person has a view of everyone at the table. Sometimes there is no seat available at this position, which, of course, enhances the position of the head of the table.
3. The seat to the right of the head of the table is also a premium position. In social situations, it is the position given to the guest of honor. In business meetings, it is considered valuable because the occupant has the ear of the person at the head of the table. The person seated to the right may be a key adviser.
4. Similarly, the person to the left of the head of the table is also in a strong position, as are the people seated to either side of the person at the opposite end of the table.
5. Those who fill the seats along the side are in the less favorable spots. They cannot see the other people at the table as easily and their influence with key decision makers is diminished by not being near them.
All that said, people can get too wrapped up in the symbolism. More important is that you are a contributor. Your goal should be to leave the impression with the host, your boss, or the organizer that your presence positively affected the meeting, convincing them to want you at the next one. Do that and your particular seat at the table is of much less importance.
E-mail questions about business etiquette to firstname.lastname@example.org.