my boss asks us to pick up his lunch for him

A reader writes:

I am a 27-year-old woman working for a well-known national company. My store manager tends to only hire women, and part of the reason I think is this: He frequently (several times a week) asks one of us to go get lunch for him. He never offers to buy us lunch. All of my other coworkers dutifully do it for him without complaint, because we are all afraid of possible retribution if we refuse (which by the way, might fall under the “quid pro quo” law?). He recently asked me to go get his lunch.

I asked him if he was buying (with a smile on my face, to show him I wasn’t being hostile). He said “Uh, if you want a burger, sure.” I asked where he wanted to go, and he named a place that is easily 2-3 miles away from our place of employment (and can have prices anywhere from $5-15.00!) and said I could get MY lunch wherever I wanted (implying that is, as long as it was as cheap as a burger). I told him we could have the food delivered and then went and asked everyone at the company what they wanted.

However, I am concerned about the legality and safety issues of this. He claims this is “part of our job”, but nowhere in the employee handbook does it detail that particular “job.” Also, since he requires us to stay clocked in while we pick up the lunch, what would happen if we got into a car accident or something and were injured (or God forbid, killed?)

I’m trying to gather some information about this before I call Human Resources so I can be prepared.

There are really four questions to look at here: Is this illegal, is your boss abusing his power, is this something your company’s HR department would care about, and what should you do about it?

1. First, the law. It’s not illegal to require employees to do things they don’t want to do or that fall outside their formal job description. You used the term “quid pro quo,” which I assume you meant in a sexual discrimination or harassment sense, but that term refers to implying that job benefits are contingent upon sexual favors … which isn’t happening here, unless “get his lunch” is some new sexual slang I haven’t heard yet.

Now, if he were asking you to run errands during an off-the-clock lunch break, you’d have a legal issue. But he’s paying you for the time you’re spending on it.

Of course, if you really think he’s discriminating against men in the hiring process, that’s potentially a legal issue — but also isn’t what you’re asking about here.

2. The law aside, is your boss abusing his power or otherwise being a jerk?

It’s hard to say from here. There are workplaces where it’s a normal part of the culture for the boss to ask employees to pick up lunch or coffee, or even run other personal errands, under the theory that part of your job is to help make your boss more productive.  And in this case, your boss is telling you outright that it’s part of of the job, which is often a good indicator that it’s part of the job.

As for it not being in your job description or in the employee manual, job descriptions are rarely exhaustively comprehensive, bosses can alter them at will, and they usually include something like “other duties as assigned” anyway. But certainly the general nature of your job comes into play here. You said this is a store, but I’m not sure what your particular job is. If you’re in a customer service position (or any entry-level position), it’s a lot easier for me to imagine this request being made of you than if you’re, say, a business analyst or the marketing director. So that’s relevant.

And of course, it’s possible that your boss is just kind of a jerk — that your getting his lunch has no discernible impact on his productivity, that it’s not part of a company-wide culture, and that he’s just abusing his power by treating you as his lackey. Again, it’s hard to say from here — but I would say to at least consider the other possibilities before you make up your mind.

3. Is this something your company’s higher-ups would care about? I don’t know. In some companies, this would be considered a bad use of employees’ time and/or at odds with their culture, and the manager might be spoken to. In other companies, no one would blink an eye at the manager’s behavior but would be alarmed at your actions in making a formal complaint about something they consider a normal part of doing business. I don’t know which of these categories your company falls into — and if you’re not sure either, your first step should be to gather more cues about that before you take any action.

But you could ask about the company’s policies on using personal vehicles for work-related business. Something interesting might come of that and at a minimum would answer your question about accidents.

4. All that said, what should you do about it?

If you feel strongly that you don’t want to get your boss’s lunch anymore, you can certainly try pushing back. If it’s interfering with your ability to do other work, say that: “I’m sorry, but I’ve got to get x and y done.” Or sit down with him and ask for clarification about your responsibilities and priorities; tell him you hadn’t realized that getting lunch for him was part of the job and you’re concerned about it cutting into your other duties. Tell him that when he asks you to get lunch, it means you have to neglect x and y, and ask if the company is okay with that.

But be prepared for him to just flatly tell you that yes, getting his lunch is part of the job, and that he doesn’t think it’s impacting your ability to do the rest of your work.

At that point, your options are:
(a) Escalate to someone above him, taking note of the cautions in #3.
(b) Continue nicely resisting and see if you can change his mind. This option comes with the risk that he’s going to start seeing you as a pain in the ass, which may impact your long-term prospects there.
(c) Decide if you’re interested in staying in the job, knowing that this will sometimes be a part of it. It’s your prerogative to decide that it’s not for you.

What do others think?

{ 46 comments… read them below }

  1. Jamie*

    In total agreement with Allison that this kind of thing is almost never detailed in a job description – that’s why that catch-all, “and other duties as assigned” was invented.

    Without the additional information (is he being a jerk or is this part of the culture, etc.) there’s no real way to know if this is even an issue worthy of HR or not.

    If someone is being a jerk then playfully asking them to buy you lunch is a nice way to make a point. If it’s actually the job of certain positions to rotate getting lunch, then he shouldn’t have to buy anyone anything.

    Regarding not clocking out, that’s where it gets sketchier for me. Of course you and your co-workers should be paid for company errands – but in many companies being clocked in or out tracked more than hours. It provides a contemporaneous list of who is in the building at any given time in case of an fire or other emergency. If this is the case with your company you should be clocking out when you leave the premises, but have your time adjusted so you’re paid. If they don’t use the time clock as a security measure then it really doesn’t matter.

    I’ve worked with a lot of people who’ve bristled at being asked to get lunch, make coffee, clean the microwave (I think AAM has a post on the last). The best way to insulate yourself against having to do those type of jobs is to make yourself so valuable, productive, or highly paid that it’s no longer cost effective to have you running errands.

    1. The gold digger*

      The best way to insulate yourself against having to do those type of jobs is to make yourself so valuable, productive, or highly paid that it’s no longer cost effective to have you running errands.

      That’s only if you’re hourly. If you are salaried, they will push the hourly jobs off on you (scanning and storing your expense report receipts) so they can cut T&E staff. Just saying.

  2. Becky*

    Addressing the “what would happen if we were in a car accident or killed?” aspect, because this is part of your job and you are punched in, you would be covered by Workers Compensation coverage, although your personal Auto insurance might also be involved, if you were in an accident. If you think that the parent company doesn’t know about the boss requesting this of you, it is important that they do know, because it can have an effect on the costs for Workers Compensation coverage, as well as some other coverages.

  3. Kyle*

    This was great timing! I was just reminiscing to an employee about the good old days when she was a peer and she’d go get me lunch all the time (while getting her own, on her own time). Once I became her manager I stopped having her get me lunch. I could see how it would be legal if I paid her to do it, but I doubt my company would like that use of an employee unless the employee has an administrative assistant type role. In a previous job I know a Manager got terminated for paying employees to run her errands, including getting lunch.

    As for today, I decided to just invite that employee out to lunch so I didn’t have to eat alone!

  4. Elaine*

    Here’s my two cents’ worth:

    Ask him if you and your vehicle would be covered if there was an accident while you were getting his lunch. If he says no, ask to use his car. Also, check with your own insurance representative about coverage on your vehicle if it’s being used for corporate business. Some companies have very strict policies about this, and employees are not allowed to use their personal vehicles for business.

    You should also think about how long you plan to work there. Is this where you’re going to make your career? Tread carefully and really think about the repercussions if you decide to make any waves. However, if you’re just planning to stay a short time (a year or so), you might just want to suck it up and resolve that you will NEVER treat anyone else like that, no matter how high up the ladder you go.

  5. Cat*

    Maybe I’m just an anal-retentive rule follower but it seems to me that the manager is exposing this “well-known national company” to considerable liability. On the clock = agent of the company, does it not? The OP is, understandably so, concerned about her own well being in the event of an accident during one of these errands; but in the event an employee is involved in an accident and found at fault…lawsuits have been won (or settled) on a lot less.

  6. clobbered*

    I am confused, the first time I read it, it sounded like the boss was getting the employees to buy him lunch with their own money, but on second reading I don’t think that is the case – right?

    The subtext here is “if I was a male employee he wouldn’t ask me to do this”, but since no male employees are there, you can’t really prove it.

    Since your coworkers don’t mind this (and I can see that the flip side is “hey I get to leave the office on the company clock”), ask them if they would agree to go in your stead, and say to your boss “I am finishing task X, but Mary was going to pop out anyway, I’ll ask her”.

    1. Ask a Manager*

      Yes, I think the boss is paying for his lunch, just asking others to pick it up for him.

      I love your idea about letting the coworkers who don’t mind it do it.

      1. Jamie*

        You know who wants to go pick up lunch? The smoker who doesn’t take a cigarette break.

        Not saying all the time, but there will be days where someone is just dying for a couple of minutes out of the office and will be happy to run an errand.

        Trust me on this. As a matter of fact, after the kind of morning I’ve had I’d be happy to go out and get this guy lunch…and I don’t even work with them!

  7. steve*

    One very important question I have is, if the lunch locations require driving, are you getting reimbursed for the mileage? If yes (and you are getting paid for the time while you are getting the lunch), then yes, it is legal/proper/etc.

    What is suspect is going on here is that people are not getting reimbursed for the mileage, and that makes this very sketchy.

    1. Jamie*

      Steve has a point where a company really shouldn’t ask someone to do something with their own car without compensation – but I can just see the accounting department crying now having to mileage for these micro-jaunts. Each day would be less than $1 per employee…and they rotate? It’s not worth the spreadsheets they are recorded in.

      Personally, if it was part of the gig the company should toss those who do it a gas card for $20-$25 once a month (or whatever would be a little more than the cost to the employee). They’ll have more willing volunteers.

  8. Grateful Employee*

    Am I the only one who read “The Devil Wears Prada?” There could be a lot worse things that the boss could (legally) ask of you than just fetching lunch. Time out of the office, running an errand on the clock, I would consider a perk.

    1. Anonymous*

      I saw the movie too, but her job was an “assistant.” I’m not sure what job title the OP has.

    2. Anonymous*

      It reminds me of the scene where she gets the steak, and Ms. Priestly says, “What’s that? I don’t want that. I’m having lunch with Herb.”

  9. Josh S*

    If possible, I’d suggest giving an informal call to HR, inasmuch as such a thing is possible. Ask about the car/insurance/workers comp issues (since that will likely be the biggest concern to the HR rep), and follow it up with questions about whether they perceive it as an issue.

    Be clear that you don’t want to get your boss in trouble–heck, stay anonymous if you can–and that you aren’t looking to file a formal complaint. If the HR Rep indicates that such actions are a significant violation of company procedures/policies/culture, then START DOCUMENTING. Don’t file a complaint right away. Keep a notepad with you and jot down time & date of any requests, and what was requested of you. Also note if he requests action of others, and their responses.

    This way, if/when you do file a formal complaint, you have specific examples and documentation of what occurred and when. It makes it much more difficult for upper management to write it off as a disgruntled employee, and establishes a pattern of behavior in the boss.

    Consider also that there may be repercussions to such actions–you might become persona non grata or find your employment terminated as a result of bringing this to the attention of the powers-that-be…

    Good luck!

    1. Ask a Manager*

      I agree with Josh that informally inquiring about the vehicle policy is a good way to do it … but I’m going to disagree on the documentation thing, which I think is overkill for something like this. If HR indicates there’s a significant violation going on here, then ask them the best way to proceed — I don’t think you need to start a big documentation project unless they suggest it. Presumably if they consider it a violation, at that point they’re going to step in and handle it.

  10. Anonymous*

    Subordinates do not win… if getting lunch is objectionable, then I would suggest that you seek a transfer to another department where that is not an issue or in a more extreme measure – find employment elsewhere. HR is not your advocate, they exist to protect the employer. And, if you are perceived as not being a “team player, ” you might find yourself out of a job.

  11. Joey*

    Are you really worried about the legality and safety of running errands for your boss or do you just want someone to confirm that it’s demeaning?

    1. Jamie*

      I think there are very few (legal) tasks that are demeaning, in and of themselves – it’s all about the attitude.

      I do think it’s weird though – I’ve worked with some pretty important people (to the respective companies, not like Bill Gates or Steven Tyler or anything) and I’ve never known anyone who was so insulated they needed to orchestrate someone getting their lunch every single day.

      In my office it’s an unwritten rule that if you’re going out to grab lunch to bring back you should ask whomever is in the office at the time if they would like anything. (Just offering to be the courier – not paying for everyone).

  12. Lexy*

    Meh… this is pretty hard for me to get worked up about. I mean I guess there could be some subtext to these interactions that isn’t coming through the letter but, ehhh.

    Exhibit 1) When I was a receptionist many years ago the owner of the business used to have me fill his parking meter throughout the day. It was slightly obnoxious but really, the value of my time vs. his time made the maths pretty easy to figure. Also sometimes I got to move his super nice sports car, so that was fun.

    Exhibit 2) All my friends in public accounting spent their first year (sometimes two) getting lunch AND dinner for their teams when working 14 hour days at client sites. Although the dinners are paid for (by the client, natch) but still, they have to go out and find food in often unfamiliar territory, like cave men in cheap suits.

    So I guess if the author is in some sort of management position where expecting her to run errands is completely innappropriate or if the boss is being a total dick about this, then maybe do something. Otherwise, it’s a paid break, calm down.

  13. Melissa*

    In my last job, I was told up-front during the interview that I would ocassionally be required to pick up lunch for the boss and then I was asked if I okay with that. Yeah, sure, fine. I needed the job. Ocassionally, my a@@! This was an every day event. Once in a while, the office manager would do it, but for the last six months of the job, this was an every day event. It got to the point that I was required to anticipate what time the boss would want lunch, call in the order, and have it back in the office just before he finished with his last client of the morning, or he would be “Mr. Pissy”. He always claimed that I had to get his lunch for “health reasons”, meaning he was diabetic. Of course, he was also 100 pounds overweight! I never had to pay for the lunch, I did not “clock out”, yes, I used my own car to get the food, and no, I did not write down my mileage (although I should have and could have been reimbursed). I hated this job (getting lunch AND the job itself). Absolutely hated it. I’m one of those gals who packs lunch every day and prefers to sit at my desk and read Ask A Manager. I don’t enjoy leaving the office. Sadly, this was the least of my troubles. The boss also couldn’t pay his bills — the rent check bounced, the phones would get cut off every few months, he was embezzling from clients, and even the paychecks bounced. I hung on for exactly one year, simply because I wanted a full year of employment on my resume. (I did not quit and/or look for a new job because I already knew my family was moving at the end of the year, the job market in the town was beyond horrible, and I needed to work. It was just easier to suck it up, always knowing there was an end in sight, thanks to my husband’s job transfer. I never told anyone that I knew we were leaving in a year and I gave 3 weeks notice). I never once let on that I hated my job, resented getting him lunch every day, or told him I thought he was a crook and a loser. I left with a glowing recommendation letter and hugs from the boss.

  14. Erin*

    I guess I don’t see the big deal unless the mileage is really an issue, but even then, I can’t see getting worked up about using my car to drive a total of 2-4 miles every couple of weeks.

    At my first real job at a bank working in the marketing department I had to get my boss lunch (and sometimes dessert, breakfast, coffee and dinner too) and I wasn’t even her admin assistant! Even though my position was technically senior to the admin assistant’s position, I just wasn’t as “valuable” to my boss at that time, and I knew and understood that. She could do without me for a half hour while I went and arranged lunch, she could not do without her admin assistant that long. I stayed in the job two years, paid my dues, and moved on and I’ve never been asked to pickup lunch for a manager again.

    So OP, if you’re getting something valuable out of the position (like meaningful experience) perhaps you can just look at this as a temporary duty that you’ll grow out of as you advance your career.

  15. The OP*

    Here’s an update:

    My manager realized he was being a jerk due to another employee wanting to transfer to her other store. She was a low level manager, and since no one else is apparently qualified to take her position within the company, my manager offered it to me. This position offers a raise as well as having to stay in the store at all times (except for my own break) since I’ll be a department head.

    The manager apologized for how he’d been acting, and with me taking the new position, I’ll most likely NOT have to go get his lunch anymore! So, problem solved, and it worked out well for me! As for other employees having to be the gopher, well, I’ll mind my own business and let them do as they will.

    So, thanks, AAM, for being my sounding board! :)

    1. Anonymous*

      Interesting update. I’m glad things worked out for you! It was interesting to read about though.

    2. Anonymous*

      I feel that the OP left out a part of the story as I read anything about the manager being a jerk to a particular employee.

      But it’s also interesting that now the OP doesn’t have to get lunch due to the new promotion, she doesn’t care if someone else has to play gopher and worry about any of the questions she asked here. Funny how things work out.

    3. Anonymous*

      I don’t understand how the issue is resolved. The OP got a promotion by doing what they were asked to do, but complained publicly about. Now the same gopher task they complained about will shift to the person taking their old job, and that’s okay because now the OP is the department head?

      Not so fast. If you head the department, who’s ultimately responsible for this task? If it was an issue when it was your job, the issue didn’t change, just the players. Now that you’ve moved up, have power, you have a role to play in the change.

      I’m concerned about the depth of response from the OP on this situation. A brush off or drive through answer isn’t a proper response for a department leader. You’ve got work to do, and this item qualifies for the 1st official act.

      1. Kathy*

        Ditto – well said. OP’s flip response to someone else now having to take over the lunch duty makes me think that the OP’s issue was more about him/her feeling demeaned–not that it was a legal/hr concern.

  16. Anonymous*

    This reminds of my worst temp job….and the reason temp jobs are great work experience. I landed a “cool” job at a movie studio. I was the secretary’s second assistant. I got sent out to get lunch on my 9th day there. Mr. Big threw a fit when his egg salad turned out to have mayo (honest to god aren’t they supposed to?). I declined to return for day 10, having learned this was not the work environment for me.

    1. anonymous J*

      Sorry to say it, but in that particular industry, at that level, that’s no unusual.

      It’s a job I’d gladly do, wanting as I do to get into media.

  17. MLHD*

    Poor use of company man hours? Yes. Something to complain about? No, not unless it’s keeping you from doing your own important job duties.

    In fact, if anyone wants to pay me to go get their lunch, I’m available.

  18. The Woman Rebellious*

    I love when there are legal issues present! I have a JD, and maybe I can offer some extra insight:

    Regarding the legal issues surrounding the facts that a) this is in your job description, and b) you’re required to use a personal car; one issue I didn’t see any other readers bring up is that if anything should happen during one of these errands/trips, your company would be financially liable for whatever injury/damages were caused to a third party.

    It’s across-the-board tort law that establishes that where any damages/injury are caused by an agent (employee) of a principal (company/employer) during the course of the agent performing a duty (which in this case was established by your boss’s including this in your/another’s job description), the principal (company) could be held liable. It’s standard agency/tort law, and short of small tweaks here and there in various states, this is regardless of where you/your company are based. This is also regardless of whether the person is using their own car or a company car.

    So while I’m not saying that you should immediately bring this to HR/any other higher ups’ attention, it is definitely something to keep in mind as long as your boss is still having others pick up his lunch.

  19. Rachel*

    I get my boss lunch, and gum, and other random, little things without a whole lot of fuss primarily because I never see the guy take a lunch break and I know he gets to work early every single day and is constantly so inundated with his responsibilities that it would literally be impossible for him to break away for these little things without hindering his productivity. And I’m not entry level – in fact I’m probably runner-up in terms of my position to him in that department. While he would never ask outright, I can see a situation where another manager with similar responsibilities would be justified in asking.

    If the guy is eating at his desk I vote for he’s just too damned busy to do it himself and, as AAM suggested, his employees may be contributing to his productivity.

  20. anon*

    It’s been decades since I had a job where I was at one location all day. Not being stuck at one jobsite was a major factor in my career choice. But I still remember how euphoric it was to be asked to run an errand that allowed me to leave the facility on company time. I got to leave! And see the sun! and get fresh air! and drive! and get paid for it!
    If the gopher is on the clock for bringing lunch, and the manager is paying for his lunch, consider yourself favored to be trusted with this errand. (I realize this isn’t an issue anymore for the OP.)

  21. Anonymous*

    My work is extremely high maintenance and needy – she can’t look up for phone number, and god forbids if she has to dial herself. So I’m constantly doing stuff for her and everything has to be done RIGHT NOW. But in the middl of it all, she’ll ask me to get her water, coffee, water again, coffee again, you name it. Oh, and and top of that I need to help out her 3 groups as well, totalling to 112 people. I eat at my desk everyday, and get interrupted like 10 times during my meal. Forget about 15 minutes break twice a day that I am entitled to being an non-exempt.
    But of course I’m well aware that this is just a temporary job for me, just because the job market is still lousy out there. And I don’t want to jump into another shitty job/boss.

  22. Anonymous*

    I think the answer lies in either the attitude of the request or job location. If you work outside of a city, it may be expected that someone will be the food runner so ya’ll don’t starve. It’s like that where I work, but it’s done more in a “Hey, I was thinking of going to Red Robin, do you want anything?” manner, with varying people taking on the task.

    The boss is cool, they occasionally buy but mostly extend the runners lunch to make up for the time spent picking up the food and bringing it back. The boss may or may not order with the group, but it’s not that big a deal. Again, based on location, we don’t really view this as a chore, more a way to eat.

    I get the vibe the OP’s issue is about attitude or perception more so than the actual request. Maybe they feel it’s demeaning to pick something up for the boss? They don’t like being ordered to get it? Get over it. Have fun with it. Make suggestions for lunch as other duties as assigned’ is all encompassing and never goes away.

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  24. Anonymous*

    Does she have to buy her bosses lunch? If that’s the case then I say’d say no way! If I had to buy my bosses lunch I’d count it as a business expense!

  25. Angie*

    I have something similar going on. I work in an office with just myself and my boss. Everytime I go out to get myself some lunch, I dread it because I know asking him if he’d like something is the polite thing to do, but I resent it. I am annoyed to have to make separate orders…. (He never buys mine) and recently he has started eating at my desk with me. I have to deal with him 8 hours a day. I do not get paid for my 30 min lunch break, so I don’t want to deal with him on my lunch break too. I hate to sound like a B**** but I’d like to enjoy my break and eat in peace. I have even had the thought to just go out and eat at a restaurant during my 30 min but he will still ask me to bring something back. At least that way I don’t have to listen to him jabber through my lunch break, but it still irritates me. He never offers to go pick it up, I am not an assistant, and I feel it is demeaning for him to expect that everytime I go out I should lug his lunch back here too using my car and gas. Am I being unreasonable?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Just go to lunch without asking him if he wants something, and if he asks you to pick something up, say you’re running errands and aren’t sure if you’ll have time to stop for food.

  26. Jude*

    Restatement [Second] of Agency §229. It is the word “furtherance” that matters here. Edwards & Edwards, 2004), states, “An employee will be considered to be doing this as long as he is intending to further his employer’s business purpose. Even if choices are indirect or foolish, or a combination serving his employer and meeting his personal needs, he will be viewed as acting “within the scope and furtherance of his employment.” (pg. 395-396).

  27. MICHELLE*

    is it against the labour law to refuse an employee to receive private phonecalls during his/her lunch break to the office phone?
    this is an urgent matter as someone just treatend me with labourlaw if
    i refuse to call this person to the phone.

    what must i do?

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