boss bans coworkers from eating lunch together

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A reader writes:

My sister works in a local government office. Most of the time, she eats lunch alone at her own desk, but sometimes she will eat with some of her coworkers in one of their cubicles.

Recently, one of the coworker’s supervisor came to them during lunch and told them that her supervisor (“Betty”) asked her to come tell them that they can’t eat lunch together (i.e., they can’t eat with other people).

No real reason was given, other than “I’m sorry I have to tell you this, but Betty asked me to…” The general consensus amongst my sister and her friends is that Betty feels left out. Though Betty eats lunch with a friend every day, she doesn’t socialize much with the staff. (There are some days the office orders takeout or if it’s someone’s birthday – where everyone in the office eats together).

Just based on what my sister told me (I don’t personally know anyone else in her office), it seems a bit like Betty is afraid other workers will think my sister and her friends are being clique-ish. They are all of the same race and when they chat, they sometimes switch back and forth between English and their native (foreign) language. My guess is that if it were a group of racially or ethnically diverse workers, no one would care if they were eating together or not – but that’s a different story. In general, there are groups of people who eat lunch together, and there are some people who eat by themselves.

Does an employer have the right to dictate who you eat lunch with, and more importantly, should they? The lunch break is 30 minutes, unpaid. There is an area with a fridge and microwave, but no chairs/tables to eat at so everyone eats inside their cubicles (no rule forbidding this).

On the one hand, I guess they can make rules about this because you are on company property. And cliques in the workplace are bad. I hate them. On the other hand, I think this is silly. It’s one thing to tell workers to limit their congregating during work hours. But this is a lunch break and it’s unpaid.

I think I would ask management to clarify the policy regarding lunch. How am I supposed to follow rules/policies, when we aren’t told until we “break” them? (At least, these “rules” on lunch are not written down – they have official policies on dress code, work hours, etc).

Can they do this, legally? Yes. But that’s a very different question than whether they should.

I’d be interested in knowing the reasoning for this rule. If you’re all in cubicles and there’s no other place to eat, it’s possible that having a group lunch in someone’s cubicle is disruptive to people nearby who are trying to focus on work.

But if this is the case, that should be explained to you, so that you’re not left thinking that it’s some arbitrary edict imposed for no good reason. In fact, the bigger problem than the rule itself is that it was just dumped on you with no explanation, so it made it seem heavy-handed and obnoxious.

It’s also possible that Betty did explain the reason to the supervisor who approached you, and that supervisor is the one who erred when she didn’t share it with you.  So until you know otherwise, I’d be wary of assuming that the rule was made because Betty feels left out. That would be so over-the-top petty for a manager that unless you truly have reason to believe this, I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion.

Why not simply ask? Sometimes people get so caught up in this sense of “us versus them” when it comes to dealing with their managers that they make things a lot harder (and more dramatic) than they need to be. Just ask:  “Hey, ___ mentioned to us that we shouldn’t eat lunch with each other, and that surprised me, so I was wondering what was behind that request.”

Then come back and tell us what she says.

{ 11 comments… read them below }

  1. Amy

    I agree with AAM – even 2 people at a cubicle can seem disruptive to those around them, let alone a group eating lunch together. OP mentioned there was a lunch room but no chairs. Maybe rolling their desk chairs to and from the lunch room could be an option?

  2. Anonymous

    We have recently had to ask employees to refrain from congregating in their cubicles for lunch. These groups were being very loud and disruptive. It was very inconsiderate to those still working around them.

    Our company provides a large, well furnished lunch room, as well as a nice patio with several patio tables and chairs, for the purpose of eating lunch and/or taking breaks. There is no need to eat lunch at our desks.

  3. Thebe

    Maybe the coworkers could take their lunches outside somewhere when the weather's nice. It's always good to get out of the cube farm for a while.

  4. Anonymous

    Amy (8:55am) – Wouldn't rolling the desk chairs be just as disruptive as coworkers eating and chatting at their cubicles? Even if it's carpeted, the hussle and bussle would just disrupt.

  5. Anonymous

    If Betty eats with a friend, I think its unlikely that she is feeling left out of the clique. I would think its more likely that the group is making too much noise, or too much mess.

    Its also possible that OTHER people feel left out of the clique and went to Betty to ask that the clique be broken up.

    Even if there's no chairs in the lunchroom, you could probably find some other way to share lunch. Go to a restaurant/cafe. Reserve a conference room. Eat outside. In the building lobby. There are options.

  6. Anonymous

    I'm the original question poster. It's not my office (it's my sis's) so I don't know exactly what kind of layout they have, but there is no lunch room. It's a small room with a fridge and microwave – so people can't eat in there – especially because a lot of people are waiting in line to heat up food.

    Everyone in the office has the same half hour lunch block.

    Though I am surprised that one should be able to expect quiet time – in my office, I regularly work through lunch and I never expect peace and quiet. I can't even get peace during non-lunch hours! (But that is a different story for a different time).

    I've suggested that my sister (or actually, her friends – who work under those supervisors) ask for clarification. As AAM advised, that would be the best way to clear up the confusion. Hopefully my sis will take the advice!

  7. Amy

    Anon 6:06 – I'd rather deal with a minute or two of rolling chairs than a full lunch period of disruption.

    Obviously this is a non-issue based on OP's comment but just wanted to respond…

  8. Sandy

    Hi, I have a related question(s)….
    I work in a small private prep school. Can the President of the organization force me to eat with employees of HIS/HER choice and force me not to eat with employees of my choice. I am a salaried employee and get a half an hour break. Thanks

  9. Karin

    I agree, they should stop speculating and simply (and respectfully) ask the question. I find it odd that the Supervisor asked a different Supervisor to pass on her demand. Why not simply do so herself and explain why? Is this one of those “we don’t understand the how to have effective communications” workplace cultures?

    As for the slipping in and out of a language that only those 4 understand, it may be that others (not the Supervisor) have complained that they feel excluded (not left out-excluded) deliberatley. It would not be the first time this has happened in a multi-cultural workplace and suggests other communications and interpersonal skills issues may be present. It would make more sense to actually have some great discussions about it-or people can just keep guessing and imagining the situation to be something it isn’t. Great communication skills can solve a lot of stuff-but it takes work.

  10. Kasytes

    I work in a very friendly co-worker office, and we like to go for a walk during lunch break or sometimes go out to eat for lunch. Lunch is 1 hour long, unpaid.

    My boss gave me a lecture about how I shoud be friendly but not too frienldy, basically, he strongly discourages me from having lunch or a walks with any of my coworkers. Some of it made sense since I am in HR/Accounting, and he’s afraid there is a danger of confidential information disclosure or people befriending me and using me. However, I found out that he had a talk with my other two coworkers for just talking outside office during lunch break. Those coworkers are working closely together, and there is no confidentail information to disclose! His reason was – he is afraid of gossiping…

    This situation is very odd to me, I have never heard of a company forbidding coworkers going to luch together so I googled to see if anyone else has the same problem.

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