can my boss require me to interrupt my lunch break?

A reader writes:

I usually spend my breaks walking around the store for exercise. I remove my name tag and stuff it into my pocket, and I don’t wear anything else that would identify me as an employee of the store. If I’m off the clock on a break and a customer stops me and asks me a question, I will politely (although reluctantly) stop and answer that question. I’ve always felt that since I’m off the clock on these occasions, I’m not required (and in fact, policy dictates that I’m not allowed and management cannot ask me) to do any work, including answer questions from customers. But today I was told that this is not quite the case.

As I was walking, one of our regular customers recognized me and started to ask me about an item. I don’t work with merchandise, so I rarely know these questions, but had I been on the clock, I would have stopped and found someone who would have known how to answer his question. Since I was on MY time, I said, “I’m sorry, I’m off the clock and can’t help you right now” and kept walking. I ran into this guy again after I’d clocked in after lunch and asked if he’d found what he needed. He said that he had, but he thought I’d been rude to him. Of course, I apologized and said that wasn’t my intention; we’re simply not allowed to work off the clock. This didn’t satisfy him, as he added that he had talked to my general manager. I still thought I was good but decided to ask my immediate manager just to be sure.

She told me that in these cases, I am expected to stop what I’m doing, either help the customer or find someone else who can, and then adjust my time to get paid for my work when my lunch is over. Again, my company’s policy clearly states that a manager cannot ask an employee to work off the clock, but there are no clear guidelines for this particular scenario (I checked on the company site after this conversation).

I’ll probably wind up asking my general manager or human resources, but I wanted to get your take on this in the meantime. I could have been less abrupt with the customer, but can my managers force me to work during my lunch break by having me fill out a sheet to be paid for that time?

Yes, at least in your state (Alabama). The policy that says that a manager can’t ask you to work off the clock is only about pay; it means that they can’t ask you to work without pay. They can, however, ask you to work during a break period as long as they ensure that you end up getting paid for that time.

The reason for that is this:  No federal law requires that workers be given lunch or other breaks. Some states require breaks, but these laws vary by state. In states that don’t require them — like yours — your employer can interrupt your break because it’s something they’re “giving” to you by choice (as opposed to it being required).

Given that, it’s reasonable that your boss doesn’t want employees telling customers, “Sorry, I’m on my break.” From the customer perspective, this is frustrating, unhelpful, and unfriendly. (It reminds me of the time when I waited in a long grocery store check-out lane, only to get to the front of the line and have the cashier announce that it was time for her break and then walk out of the store, leaving me standing there with all my groceries.)

Anyway, of course your boss doesn’t want you refusing to help customers. If you don’t want to be interrupted by customers on breaks, your best bet is to leave the store during those periods or remain in employees-only areas where customers won’t spot you.

{ 166 comments… read them below }

  1. Holly @ Carousel*

    Great response! I second the recommendation: consider leaving the store on your breaks. That ensures you won’t have interruptions from customers, and you’ll get some fresh air, too, which might help you keep your energy levels up in the afternoons.

    1. Jen M*

      This is exactly what I was going to say.

      If it had been me, I would have just helped the person. You never, ever want to say the words, “I can’t help you” to a customer! It’s always best to at least help them find someone who CAN help them.

      Please consider taking your lunch breaks somewhere else in the future, so that you can avoid this issue.

      1. Tre*

        I was told the same thing when I was in college. There I was, our store was on a corner with a motel nearby and they sure as hell wouldn’t want me hanging out in there lobby 3 times a day and I didn’t have a car… basically in the winter you’re suggesting that I stand somewhere in the freezing cold because someone is a customer and it’s their right to be insensitive when if the shoe was on the other foot they wouldn’t want to be bothered and hope someone would understand like my manager did? I got an interesting worker’s comp settlement from these suggestions.

  2. Anonymous*

    Related and because I’ve always wondered:
    Once when I was on break we had a regular customer come in. There were three people at the cash register, ready to help him. I’m taking off my name tag and apron and heading to restroom and I say “Hi” to him, basically on my way out. He asks specifically for me to make him a drink. I explained that I was on break right now but that ‘Mary’ would be more than happy to make his drink for him. He looked at me like I was being rude as hell and basically never spoke to me again. Was I in the wrong?

    1. Michael*

      Seems that since there were other people ready and willing to help him, you were totally in the clear. If no one was there yet to take over for you, the story would be different, but otherwise you’re fine. He’s just being sour.

    2. KayDay*

      Not at all–I was just about to comment suggesting that a better course of action would be to do basically what you did.

      I worked part time in a store in NY where we were required to have a 30 minute unpaid break if we worked over 6 hours–and this type of think happened all the time. I would usually apologize and find a way to “summon” (intercom, yell across the floor, walk up to the register, etc) another employee to help. (“I’m sorry, I am off the clock right now….Mary, this customer needs help finding Purple Mohican Dark Roast Supercalafragulistic Blend, could you assist her?”) It took no longer than a minute and was a bit more polite.

      1. Nat*

        Problem is, it’s not just one customer that can’t find an item(s). After helping one customer, there is a line up of customers asking questions. Where is your taco sauce, I can’t find the little baking cups, Do you have Ice for sale, etc, etc, etc… 12 minutes later you might have time to use the bathroom and grap something for lunch, maybe…but believe it or not, customers will follow you into the bathroom to find out where the popcorn is. The problem is, if your a cashier and not on the floor you don’t always know where it is. When I try to do my own shopping so I can get to know item placement, it takes 3 times the time to get my own shopping done and I am a nervous wreak afterwards because I didn’t get the items I needed, nor can I shop and browsing is out of the question. I have even had customers step infront of me in the checkout line, entitlement??? Hey, I am a customer too! When all is said and done, a correctly laid out store with merchandise in common sense places, isle numbers, and easy to see and figure out signage for food and other merchandize wouldn’t hurt. This is poor management. Including the fact that there should be enough on the clock employees on the floor for the purpose of customer service. Unfortunately, there is so much cut backs in hours that no one is on the floor. As for leaving the store, where do I go??? Sit on the parking lot with a blanket to eat my lunch…not every one sits in cars, or bus, sure no one will bother me there. Just try and get from your car to the back of store with a full bladder and see how many people try and flag you down with questions. Management, make it easy to find stuff for customers, and allow your employees some rest on their 10 minute break.

    3. Wilton Businessman*

      “He looked at me like I was being rude as hell and basically never spoke to me again.”

      There’s your answer.

      1. Jamie*

        I disagree in this instance. Anonymous sounds like s/he was perfectly pleasant as she was leaving for her break.

        I’ve never worked in food service, but I’ve seen customers get bent out of shape over absolutely nothing.

        Recently I stopped in a local bakery at 5:00 am to pick up some stuff for a breakfast meeting. The “gentleman” in front of me proceeded to humiliate the cashier and threatened to go to her manager because she couldn’t read his mind the way the other cashier usually does.

        This cashier was a sweet woman who appeared to be in her mid-seventies getting screamed at before the sun is up because some asshat is upset that the other “girl” wasn’t there to take care of him.

        Fortunately the manager came out and calmed him down while I left her a huge tip because it was killing me watching her try not to cry.

        Unreasonable customers are out there.

        1. ThatHRGirl*

          That reminds me of a customer in my local grocery store that I saw DEMANDING to speak to a manager because this was the SECOND evening (yes, evening) in a row that he had come to the store and there were NO MORE of the doughnuts left that he liked. I heard the store manager explain that they baked the doughnuts in the morning and yes, typically sold out after 5pm but this was not a good enough answer for the guy!

        2. Nonie*

          Let me tell you, if some guy in line ahead of me was being verbally abusive to a cashier, I wouldn’t just stand there. You’d better believe I’d jump in there, including waiting to make sure the guy didn’t do something worse, as well as to make sure the cashier was ok, and to let the manager know what happened. That’s bullsh*t.

          1. Long Time Admin*

            I totally agree with you, Nonie.

            I don’t like confrontation, but I can be pretty tough when comes to standing up for another person.

            Sometimes it’s the right thing to do.

        3. Jen M*

          There SO are. The key, under normal circumstances, is not to CREATE them.

          What that guy did was completely out of line! :(

      2. krzystoff*

        people are often rude, but remember your place, ie. if you are in a sales / service industry and you are anything but courteous, helpful and warm to your customers / clients, you are actively ensuring their business will go elsewhere, and probably a short career. how the customers treat the staff is a side-issue, (provided they haven’t broken any laws), unfortunately in some industries, the customers are more often than not obnoxious, rude, pushy, aggressive, demanding, short-tempered, morons and the like (eg. most jobs involving transportation of any form) — if you are faced with a job like this and you don’t have a thick hide, you should look for another industry to work in (odds are you already know you hate your job anyway); on the other hand, if it’s just an occasional weirdo/grouch/sleaze you should do you best to ignore them and move on.
        Selfridges’s century-old adage ‘the customer is always right’ is not literally correct, but in essence you should treat every customer with respect and don’t loose you cool, or you, your manager and your company will loose the respect of other customers, and possibly their business as well. there is always another business ready to take your customers, (unless you work at WalMart) and the last thing your business wants to see is money walking out the door.

    4. Adam V*

      If there’s someone standing at the register, then asking someone else to help you (especially someone in the process of taking off their apron) is just plain silly. Don’t sweat it and talk to your boss about it if this guy makes a problem out of it.

    5. Anonymous*

      You realize this is because he felt you had some sort of personal flirtation going, and his fantasy came to a jarring halt at that precise moment? “Regular” and “specifically” give it away. He’s probably embarrassed and wanted to avoid you. Nothing more.

      I worked in a checkout line at a grocery store when I was in college. The same handful of men would wait for over 30 minutes in my line, behind carts bursting with a family’s monthly haul, just to buy 1 or 2 items! And I didn’t even have foxy hair back then.

      1. krzystoff*

        This is really nailing the issue for most cases of this kind, pretty much any guy and some girls, I know would go out of their way to return to a given store, merely to preference that attractive staff member that caught their eye. Its not likely chasing their affection, but just enjoying what the staff member adds to their shopping / dining experience, be it looks, personality, style, skills, friendliness, etc. Don’t see it as a negative, but as customers valuing your assets.

    6. Allie M*

      I worked in retail for a bigger corporate chain. They’d work you until you couldn’t work anymore. I had times where I literally couldn’t get away from the register (lane light off, lane closed sign posted) without telling the customer, “I’m sorry but I need to use the restroom. You may either wait here until I return, or go to another lane.”

      To my surprise, many customers would wait. After I moved from a stocking position from a cashier position, I found out that many of the customers would look specifically for me because of the great service I provided them. Perhaps you make drinks better than the other person. If that’s the truth, the customer may have been willing to wait had you given them the option.

  3. Michael*

    Regardless of what’s legally allowed, I’m surprised an employee who wants to keep their job and be respected as a team member would ever walk around their own store and then tell a customer, “I’m sorry, I’m on my break.” That’s makes the manager’s decision very easy when it’s time for raises and promotions. I would prefer to give more hours and pay to the employee who helps out customers whenever they are asked, and then appropriately reconciles the “hours worked” issue later.

    1. Anonymous*

      I agree. This falls in line (IMHO) with how you act with people even when you’re not in the building and nowhere near your work. If you met this same customer at the grocery store, and he said “hey by the way I’ve been meaning to stop in. Do you know if you guys received X in yet?” would you say “uh sorry I’m not at work so I can’t answer that” and walk away?

      1. Jaime*

        There’s also such a thing as reasonable boundaries. If I’m working retail (and have) as an hourly, non-managerial, non-oncall person and I’m recognized by a customer nowhere near my workplace on my own time, then I’m going to smile and say hi. If they are super friendly, then I’ll make small talk. If they, however nicely, ask me “have you guys received X in yet” then I am going to politely tell them I don’t know and would need to look it up to find out. I might give them the store number to call to ask someone on duty. I would do this whether I knew or not, because even in retail/customer service there are boundaries that should be (politely) reinforced with customers/co-workers.

        My responsibility to the store, outside of my shift and out of uniform, is to be polite if recognized by a customer. It is not my responsibility, outside of my shift and off store property, to work unpaid. Frankly, customers shouldn’t ask and managers shouldn’t fault employees for politely reinforcing a separation between their time in and out of work.

        If you want to pay me to be on call, if you explicitly explain this as part of my duties and consider my salary to be appropriate compensation for this and I accept the job as such, then that’s another story.

        1. KellyK*

          Exactly. You should handle it politely, but there’s no reason for you to be on-call unasked and for free. Especially since with some people, answering the question could easily turn into an invitation to answer six more questions, or for them to bug you about work every time they see you.

        2. Anonymous*


          I love your comment. I actually work in a high end retail establishment which I freequently shop in also. One day I’m in my store off the clock, not wearing anything that would identify me as an employee and this woman calls out “excuse me”. I’m not really paying attention, so I keep walking and then I hear EXCUSE ME. I turn around. “I need some help, do you know where such-and-such is?” I help her, finish my own shopping, check out and barely make it to the employee only area to use the restroom and clock in with just barely enough time to not be considered late.

          I sometimes wonder if I should wear a Graucho-marks style pair of glasses with the fake nose and mustache while I do my own shopping. P.S. I’m a female. LOL!

    2. Scott Woode*

      I don’t necessarily see it as wholly an issue of legality or of boundaries. I’ve spent many years (the past 10 or so) working either FT or PT in the Hospitality Industry and use of the word “No” or any of its relatives is strictly forbidden (in some extreme cases, grounds for immediate termination). It’s pretty much unbreakable in hotel management, but in restaurants it’s a little bit more lenient (i.e. “I’m terribly sorry, sir. But we actually just sold the last of X special just a moment ago. If you’re interested in something similar, may I suggest Y or Z?” etc.). It’s also not unheard of, especially in restaurants, for you to work a “double” (both day and night shifts on the same day) and do it without a break, especially when it’s busy.

      Having never really worked retail, I can’t tell you if the same rules apply, although there’s enough of a connection in my mind between the two pre-dominantly customer/guest service-focused professions that makes me think that they do. In a case where you do get caught by a customer while “on your break,” instead of politely saying “Sorry, can’t help you because I’m on break” (which not only reflects badly on you, but on the rest of the staff, the store as a customer-focused entity and also often has the unpleasant result of riling the customer–the result you saw first hand) it’s often best to smile kindly and say “My pleasure” and go about assisting them with their needs. It’s easier on everyone if in these instances you bite the bullet and help when asked (a point AaM brings up nicely with her grocery store anecdote).

      If it’s too unbearable to do, think of how delicious that end of shift martini/julep/smash/beer/wine is going to taste at the bar when you’ve clocked out and assist the customer with that in the back of your mind.

  4. Imran*

    Makes me bit angry and these slackers. I am a software developer. Today my boss asked me to work 2.5 hours earlier. No extra pay. No problem. I’ve stayed late countless nights without overtime over my 12 year career.

    Turning down customer directly like that? Bad.

    1. KayDay*

      If you are a software developer, you are probably exempt (I would guess????), which changes the rules a bit. There recently was an article in Time Magazine, I think, about people getting fired for working off the clock. Companies are worried about getting sued for back pay by employees who worked unpaid overtime.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yes! The key thing here is that you be paid for that time if you’re non-exempt; you can be interrupted but you’ve got to be compensated for it. A lot of companies strictly enforce lunch breaks for non-exempt employees, because they don’t want the person’s total hours for the week to go over 40, which would mean they’d need to pay overtime. The woman in the article was fired for working through lunch — which on its face sounds silly, but in fact it’s because the company can face huge monetary penalties for letting non-exempt employees work unpaid (and apparently she’d been warned about it multiple times).

        1. Jamie*

          This. It does sound silly at first glance, but since hourly personnel must be paid for working through lunch this allowed OT to accumulate.

          A lot of managers have their own performance eval and metrics tied closely to how they manage their labor dollars. Especially those in the OT bucket. This can have a very real impact on the manager.

          She was told repeatedly to not work through lunch and ignored the directive. What else could they do?

          1. ThatHRGirl*

            But according to the comments on that article, “THIS IS WHAT’S WRONG WITH AMERICA” and “THEY SHOULD HAVE GIVEN HER A PROMOTION”. Oyyyyy….

    2. Vicki*

      You stayed late by choice. When you’re exempt, it’s always a choice. You’re not paid for that extra time.
      Admittedly, sometimes the choice is to get a new job but…
      Over a much-longer-than-12-year career as a software developer, I have _rarely_ stayed late. The work will still be there in the morning and your mind will be fresher and more alert then.

      1. Adam V*

        At my previous job, I packed up and was walking out at 5:30 when I noticed no one else was leaving. My boss had just told me “please work on this issue next” and I had assumed he meant “tomorrow”, but when I asked, he told me it was a serious customer issue and needed to be fixed and deployed that night. We all finally left at 2 AM.

        I don’t think “the work will still be there in the morning” is something you should always take as an iron-clad rule. Granted, this was a tiny company, but having that much face-to-face interaction with the owner meant that it was entirely possible I could have come in the next day to a “everyone else stayed late and got this fixed, you didn’t, pack up your stuff” meeting.

        (And yes, this is part of the reason that this is now “my previous job”.)

        1. KellyK*

          Wow. I think that if something requires working til 2 AM, the boss really needs to make that clear. You could easily have just left without his ever communicating to you that it was that urgent.

    3. Anonymous*

      While I applaud your wonderful work ethic, I just can’t stand this line of reasoning. “I’m having a bad time at my job and I’m being taken advantage of, so by golly, others should too!”

      I used to feel the same way until it occured to me one day that you don’t get respect if you let others walk all over you. Things have been easier for me since.

    4. Mike C.*

      Sorry you enjoy being a doormat. Enjoy missing the important things in life because your boss wanted more free labor from you.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Now wait a minute. Some jobs simply require people to sometimes put in extra hours on evenings or weekends. If you’re exempt, this is often the nature of the work. Part of the interviewing process should be an exploration of this, with full disclosure on the part of the employer, but the reality is that that’s how some jobs work and that’s what you’re being compensated for in your salary.

        1. Mike C.*

          But it’s not the nature of the work being done by your letter writer, and thus should not be looked down upon simply because the person I’m responding to has no issues working all sorts of unpaid overtime.

          Now, the doormat comment was a bit far and I take that back, but a contest of who works the most unpaid overtime as a measurement of work ethic is a silly exercise at best. Choosing a job where one is paid for overtime or where the overtime is rare is not a sign of a lazy employee.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            You were responding to Imran, right? There was nothing in his post to indicate whether it was the nature of his work or not. It’s possible that he’s asked to work late because of bad or inconsiderate management, or it’s possible that it’s because there was a software bug that needed to be worked out urgently before it affected the product/client/whoever. We don’t know from the info that’s here.

            I don’t see anything about using unpaid overtime as a measurement of work ethic, or anything calling someone lazy for choosing a job where you don’t have to do that — what am I missing?

            1. VintageLydia*

              I think the fact he referred to people as slackers (it’s not clear but since he’s responding to the post, I’d guess he’s referring to the OP) and then using his own example of coming in early without pay as non-slacker behavior may have been it. The tone of his post made it seem as if people who aren’t willing to work unpaid OT are all slackers regardless of the nature of the work.

    5. Long Time Admin*

      Dear Imran,

      I worked for the world’s largest retailer in their home office for a year. They are INFLEXIBLY strict about working off the clock. There have been several class-action suits from employees about this, and the rules they have now are NOT to be broken, ever.

      I was getting ready to leave the office for the day, and had clocked out. I was putting on my coat when my director started having trouble with the copy machine. I told her I’d be glad to fix it for her, and she would not let me do even that little bit of work because I was off the clock.


      1. Blue Dog*

        Wage and hour rules can be really tough and tricky. Someone saying they were only given 14 minute break, or they had to don and doff a uniform on their own time can be common. As silly as these sound, when you add in the prospect of atty fees and class action litigation, they can be really nasty.

        Once bitten on this, employers can start to do silly things, like develop rigid off the clock protocol, forced breaks, etc.

  5. a.b.*

    I can see how the OP is trying to rationalize this, but bottom line, if you’re in the store and customers know you’re an employee, you can’t flip a switch into “not an employee” mode. That’s a weird thing to ask of the customer, and comes off as really rude (the customer is made to feel like they are ruining your break, unwittingly). Go walk around somewhere else, and then you won’t even have to deal with it.

  6. Anonymous*

    From the employee’s point of view, I can see how this might be reasonable, and in fact when I was younger I worked with many folks who had this point of view.

    However, as a manager, I guarantee this employee would never be promoted, and would be at the top of my layoff list.

    1. Anonymous*

      I’d like to add that those former co-workers are still hourly employees, but I’m a manager making three times what they make. I guess it depends on what you aspire to.

  7. Wilton Businessman*

    Not-my-job-itis is a very contagious disease. A grade 3 infection like this definitely should be stopped at the source.

    1. Laurie*

      Yes, very true. It’s annoying to hear symptoms of not-my-job-itis in any context – desk job workers, exempt workers, non-exempt, whatever.

      If the OP had in fact helped the customer out, while politely and very nicely conveying that she was on break, who knows – the customer might have sought out the manager and told him how awesome she is. Isn’t that better than the 5 uninterrupted minutes of walking the OP was able to get for that day?

    2. KellyK*

      At the same time, hourly employees need to be paid for all work they do. Sometimes it’s *legitimately* “not-my-job.”

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        True, but the company has accounted for that by instructing the OP to add that time to whatever hours are recorded that day. I think there are two different issues here:
        1. Should you get paid for all the time you work if you’re a non-exempt employee? (Answer: yes.)
        2. Can you have your breaks interrupted? (Answer: yes, but you get paid for that time.)

        1. Anon*

          I think the company is at fault here because if she had to ask, she didn’t know the policy. According to her, she thought she was following policy which I wouldn’t consider rude but that is probably because I come from the context of working in an hourly position. It is a learning opportunity after the fact and I personally wouldn’t penalize her for it.

        2. Under Stand*

          But it depends on the culture of the company. Some Big box companies (I will not mention name but the founder is dead) will fire you if you clock in one minute early or clock back one minute late and will fire you if you work off the clock. So, in that case there is no way that employee can do what y’all suggest without putting her job at risk.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Ah, but in that case the employee should simply ask the manager: “How do you want me to handle it if a customer asks me for help while I’m on a break?” Then the manager can decide.

            1. Under Stand*

              but if the manager is not around when the employee has this come up, then what should they do. Because the manager might not have (as apparently was the case here) told the employee what to do in that situation.

        3. KellyK*

          Oh, I agree with your answer to the question. I just don’t agree with Wilton Businessman’s diagnosis of not-my-jobitis.

          1. Anonymous*

            KellyK, I don’t agree with him this time either. And I usually agree with everything he has to say!

      2. Wilton Businessman*

        I respectfully disagree. It’s always your job to help the customer. Whether or not you get paid for helping the customer is something the employee, employer, and big brother have to work out.

        1. KellyK*

          I don’t think that’s true. Is it your job to help the customer if they run into you grocery shopping or taking your kids to the park on your day off? If they call you at home at three in the morning? If they catch you in the parking lot when you’re on your way to a family commitment? If they have a question you don’t know the answer to and have directed them to someone who does, but they want *you* to deal with it?

          1. Natalie*

            Or even better, if you are an employee of Big Pet Store and have run over to Big Hardware Store in your Big Pet uniform, is it your job to help Big Hardware customers that approach you?

            (This happens to a friend of mine regularly. The uniforms in question are very different.)

            1. Wilton Businessman*

              About Big Hardware’s products, no. If somebody in Big Hardware said “Hey do you guys carry Brand XYZ Kitty Litter?”, then yes.

              1. KM*

                It would be friendly to answer the question in that case, but it’s not obligatory. People talk to customers because they’re getting paid, not because it’s their calling in life to answer questions 24/7.

            1. KellyK*

              That’s completely unreasonable and leads to a) people being burned out and b) customers with an irrational sense of entitlement.

              1. KellyK*

                I’m also curious about “it depends.” If the customer owns 100% of your life, what could possibly excuse you not dropping what you’re doing to help them? A funeral, but only if it’s for an immediate family member?

              2. Piper*

                I agree. This is ridiculous. Boundaries have to be drawn. Customers are not entitled to rule the lives of sales people at all hours of the day, any day of the week.

              3. Wilton Businessman*

                The customer at Big Hardware is not asking for a dissertation on the benefits of shock training vs. reward training. He want’s to know if you’re open till 6 on Saturday. Sheesh.

              4. KellyK*

                Maybe, maybe not. Certainly there are people with no sense of boundaries who will talk at you for hours without caring that they’re interrupting something.

                And if you’ve already established that there’s no time or situation when it’s not your job to help the customer, then if they *do* want a dissertation on the benefits of shock versus reward training, how do you say no to them?

            2. Ask a Manager* Post author

              KellyK, I think in that case, after it becomes clear that they want a dissertation and not a quick answer, then you can politely say, “You know what, I’m actually supposed to be on a break right now although I’m happy to try to help you. Let me grab someone from you who can tell you more about this.” And then you get them someone. That’s very different from just, “Sorry, I’m on a break” and walking on.

              1. KellyK*

                Sure, that’s very reasonable. I think that you always need to be polite, whether you’re working or not.

                My comment was related to Wilton Businessman’s statement that it’s your job to answer customer questions not just when you’re on a break, but if they run into you at the grocery store or call your house at random hours, and his comment that that’s not a big deal because they’re not asking for a dissertation.

                Personally, I think randomly interrupting you when you’re nowhere near work *is* a big deal no matter how long it takes, but also that someone who disrespects your time enough to interrupt you when you’re clearly not working or at work is just as likely to disrespect half an hour of your time as 30 seconds of it.

              2. Ask a Manager* Post author

                Oh yeah, I agree there. In those cases, if it would take more than a minute or two, I’d say something like, “Hmmm, I don’t know off the top of my head. When I’m back at the store, I’ll find out for you.” Or if it’s something where it would be obvious that you DID know off the top of your head, I might say really apologetically, “You know what, I’m so out of work mode now that I can’t even think of it! Let me find out for you on Tuesday, when I’m back there.” It’s all in how you say it — if you’re friendly and nice, this will be fine.

                But I do think something that’s just a minute or two is fine. These are the people who keep your company able to pay you.

              3. KellyK*

                I think that’s reasonable, and those are really polite responses. I’d be inclined to pull them out after the second or third quick question too, just because I wouldn’t want to give the impression that I was always on duty. It’s less that I mind a minute or two and more that I don’t want to encourage that as a habit.

      3. The gold digger*

        I don’t care if it’s not your job to do the thing I asked, but it is your job to advance the interests of the company by helping customers. Sometimes that means finding the person who can help.

        When I worked at Macy’s one Christmas, I always removed my name tag as soon as I started my break and left the store. But if someone asked me a question before I could get out, I sure was not going to blow her off. It makes the company look bad and it would have made me look bad.

  8. Anonymous*

    I have to say, I don’t like the OP’s attitude towards their job. If you don’t want customers approaching you with questions, don’t make yourself “appear” available – move to an area where customers cannot see you, i.e. off the sales floor. Whether or not you’re wearing your name tag doesn’t matter. A name tag does not automatically indicate “I am now on duty”.

  9. Lils*

    For both the OP and Anonymous: you need to think of the bigger picture here. If you’re in retail, you’re not in the “selling X product” or “making drinks” business, you’re in the relationship business. Making and keeping those relationships with customers– **especially** regulars–is crucial for your career and your paycheck. Think about it–the guy who wanted you to make his drink was going to tip YOU…now all his tips will be going elsewhere. Helping out when you don’t have to is the chief way that managers like me identify the folks we want to give money/shifts/promotions to. Let your manager worry about when you’re breaking federal law–maybe if you go above and beyond a bit more now, someday you’ll make the big bucks to worry about it yourself.

    1. Anonymous*

      Anon who didn’t make the drink- we aren’t allowed to accept tips. So that wasn’t a factor at all. I’ve definitely questioned the decision not to- and honestly it would have taken me 2 minutes, but I just didn’t understand why someone else couldn’t make the same drink. I don’t know. He was clearly upset about it and in the service industry that is probably how I know I was in the wrong.

      1. Lils*

        I spent years in the service industry, and I think you’re right–you get pretty good at reading the vibes from customers and this is the sense in which they’re “always right” (their perception is reality). But I think my argument still stands, tip or no tip–in this case what you want those customers pulling the manager over to tell them that you made their day. Or the manager noticing your good work for themselves. That said, don’t worry if you make a mistake–you can’t be “on” 100% of the time. Just keep on trying: you obviously care about your job performance. :)

      2. Anonymous*

        The customer sounds a little prissy to me. I wouldn’t worry so much about it. I frequent a coffee shop where there are a few baristas I know and like but if one was on break and referred me to another, I would not be the least bit annoyed. In fact, I would be pretty embarassed with myself if I was since that is beyond petty. I wonder how ultra sensitive people like that get through life!

    2. KellyK*

      I think “let your manager worry about whether you’re breaking federal law” is a really bad idea. Both because it’s saying “work without being paid” and because if you do more than is allowed, if the company gets in trouble for it, that will fall on you. Like the woman who was fired for working through her lunch break. I’m sure she got lots of advice to “take one for the team” and “go the extra mile” and that that would be rewarded. Yeah, not so much.

      1. Lils*

        No, you’re right, you probably should not trust your manager blindly. As always, documenting a manager’s requests would be a good idea to CYA. However, it’s the manager’s responsibility to enforce compliance with rules and laws. The case of the woman who was fired for working through lunch doesn’t really apply–she was warned repeatedly not to work through lunch. The OP’s situation is different, in that his/her manager is asking for extra work and is also looking out for the OP by making sure the time is paid.

        1. KellyK*

          Because I’m a cynical type, I wonder if the woman who worked through lunch was given more to do than she could accomplish in an eight-hour day, and “don’t work through lunch” really meant “don’t get caught working for free but do what you have to do to finish the 10 hours of work we’re giving you today.”

          While I agree with you that the OP’s situation is different than that of the woman who was fired for working through lunch, I think that it’s your own responsibility to verify whether what you’re asked to do is legal.

  10. anon-2*

    Where I work – saying “It’s not my job” is a terminable offense.

    It’s easy enough to answer the question — and if you’re off-duty — you can say that, or refer the customer to someone else.

  11. Dawn*

    Make it easy on yourself and take your breaks in the break room or leave the store. Otherwise, be prepared to be stopped by customers.

  12. The Right Side*

    Cops are in the service industry… could you imagine if you knew your neighbor was a cop and an intruder comes into your home and murders your entire family – you run next door for help and he says “Whoopsies, don’t have my nametag on, I can’t help you.”


    1. Under Stand*

      OK, but knowing your neighbor is a cop, would you go to his door at 2 in the morning and pound on his door, wake him up, and ask him if he can tell you the speed limit on main st between 50 and 60 aves? Of course not, because you know he is off duty. How is it any more right demanding the store employee wait on you hand and foot when they are off duty and not getting paid. If she was polite in saying “I’m sorry, I am off the clock and am not allowed to work right now” I would not take offense to it. Instead I would be apologizing for bothering her.

      1. Jamie*

        THIS! If a neighbor hears a strange noise and asks my husband to take a look around, he’s more than happy to do that. He’s also going to respond to any emergency, that goes with the job.

        But just because he’s in uniform getting gas on the way to work doesn’t mean he has to walk you through the legal process of evicting your cheating boyfriend, or speculate on the noise laws of your suburb and if it’s legal or not for your neighbor to mow his lawn before 7 am on a Sunday.

        Both true. Seriously, the whole word needs to come to agreement on the definition of “emergency” when it comes to bothering people.

      2. Anonymous*

        I had to LOL at whoopsies! This isn’t 2am door-pounding, this is equivalent to a cop walking around in uniform when off duty and snapping at people for asking questions “I don’t have my name tag on, help yourself across the street you old bag!”

    2. jmkenrick*

      I could be wrong, but I think there are actually some laws regarding this. Kind of like, if you lived next door to a teacher, and your child knocked on her door and reported child abuse, the teacher would be legally obligated to respond, but if your child knocked on her door and asked for homework help, the teacher would be within her rights to decline.

      I think UnderStand’s point below is well made.

  13. Anonymous*

    Lol OP, this is awful.

    I work in a grocery store, in a specialized department where every department has some hard to find stuff. Even when I’m off the clock, if I feel like traversing the store, I do realize it’s going to be my responsibility to help customers if they need help, even if it’s finding someone who CAN help them (which honestly takes little time at all)! Just last night I helped someone find peanut butter while I was shopping myself, after I clocked out to go home. My grocery store is very competitive, and customer service is one of those things that distinguishes us from other stores in the area that offer similar products. There are plenty of days where I don’t feel like talking, and in that case, I go sit alone in the break room or upstairs where there is no shopping. Saying, “I’m on my break,” looks terrible to a manager, and the people who get the most accolades at our store are people who go above and beyond when it comes to customer service.

  14. Lindsay H.*

    Oh, this brings back memories from my days working in HR for Target. I feel the pain of both sides, so I’m not automatically going to jump to the side of the store. I would have guests AND team members ask me questions when I wasn’t on the clock. There was a time I had stopped in and was in street clothes when a team member asked an HR question.

    In this instance, the OP wrote in:

    “She told me that in these cases, I am expected to stop what I’m doing, either help the customer or find someone else who can, and then adjust my time to get paid for my work when my lunch is over. Again, my company’s policy clearly states that a manager cannot ask an employee to work off the clock, but there are no clear guidelines for this particular scenario (I checked on the company site after this conversation).”

    The manager didn’t technically tell the OP to work off the clock. She told the OP to help and adjust her lunch period to ensure she would be paid for it to so there would no unpaid time. If the manager had said, “Just help the guest and don’t worry about it.” there would be more of a case of policy violation/legal hijinks.

  15. shawn*

    On my initial read through I took this to be more a question of making sure the OP is following the company policy (of only working when on the clock) and not necessarily an indication of poor attitude. I didn’t come away with the impression that the OP absolutely refuses to help when off the clock, but that he/she wasn’t really sure about what he/she was supposed to do in that situation. Yes, common sense should probably dictate helping the customer (or simply finding someone else to help), but if it hasn’t been spelled out I could understand how someone could make the wrong choice in good faith.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I agree. The OP sounded to me like someone very concerned with / conscientious about following company policy, more than someone with a bad attitude.

      1. jmkenrick*

        Agreed. And it also sounds like they didn’t realize they would have been paid for that time, which definitely is a good reason to politely decline to help.

      2. Jamie*

        I think the person with the bad attitude is the customer.

        Who goes to the general manager for something like this? If they thought you were rude, they can roll their eyes and move on…live everybody else does.

        Seriously, who does that?

        1. jmkenrick*

          Oh God, having worked in customer service…98% of people are totally reasonable, but then there’s this extremely loud minority of people who are totally off their rocker.

          I had a template e-mail that I used for a particular question that started with “I’m sorry you had trouble finding [feature] on our website!” and then proceeded to go through the steps the user needed to follow to get what they needed.

          After using that template on hundreds of users for six months – I get back a four-paragraph e-mail from a guy telling me that he needs to speak to my manager because the e-mail was so offensive. He took issue with the opening line, which he felt was my way of implying it was his fault he couldn’t find what he needed. I put him in touch with my manager, and he called several times, telling her that I was intentionally implying that he was stupid.

          1. Jamie*

            Ah…the old “you are insulting me by daring to explain something computer related that I don’t understand” meme.

            I’m familiar with that one. For some people even if you communicated this with gentle whispers, some good wine, and a massage they will still think you were being condescending. It’s a special anger that comes from the resentment of having to learn anything technical. These are the people who would have us all chuck our computers and go back to pencils and notebooks.

            Or even pencils and slates…it was good enough for Mary and Laura Ingalls, so it’s good enough for them.

            1. Anonymous*

              No no dear Jaime and fellow techie, it is the techies who are the most irate. And I don’t ever mention ID 10 T errors!

        2. Heather B*

          I work in a library. I once had someone come to the reference desk to complain to me that the previous evening she had found a piece of paper lying on the ground and thought it might be something important someone had lost, so she brought it to the circulation desk. One of my coworkers had put the paper in the recycling bin. This patron felt that that was very rude.

          They do exist…

    2. Anonymous*

      I agree, but it’s probably just a poor choice on OP’s part to walk around the store. Perhaps, walk around the outside of the store. Or the back of the store. Walking around inside the store makes you fair game. Heck, I get asked where stuff is at Fry’s all the time. I don’t work there and I never have. I suppose I just look like I do. Like Sheldon in the computer store, I am happy to help folks out.

      1. Jamie*

        YAY for the Sheldon in the computer store reference!

        “What kind of computer you have, and please don’t say “a white one.””

        If I go into Sheldon mode at CompUSA they let me…if I do it at the Apple store I think it moves me up the queue faster. You don’t want PC girl mingling with the Apple civilians for too long :).

      2. Under Stand*

        OK, but if you tell someone that you are off the clock at the Fry’s, would it be right for them to go fuss to the manager about the rude cashier? Seriously, I cannot tell you how offensive I find all the “Go to the back and do not walk in the store” comments are. Just because you are an employee there does not make you so inferior that you are only allowed to show your face when you are serving them. When you are not on the clock, you are a client just like everyone else. If the employee had taken off their stuff that identified them as an employee, I see no harm in them walking around the store. And if the customer recognized her as an employee because the customer was a regular there, it just makes the complaint even more offensive, not less.

        1. Anonymous*

          Seriously, people complain about everything, so why take offense. Too much wasted energy. A friend is a store manager at Target, someone just complained (and sued) because she wore flip flops and tripped on her stupid shoes. Its retail, that stuff happens.

    3. Anonymous*

      I used to work in a specialty retail store and our company policy stated that if we were on break, then we needed to either stay in the brake room, or leave the store. I always wondered about that policy, but I think now I get it! I’m sure they didn’t want you mulling around the store looking like you weren’t working, even though you really weren’t supposed to be working because you were on your state mandated 30 minute break!

  16. Anonymous*

    I think there are two sides to this. It was poor customer service, and it would be really easy to say, “Gee, I’m sorry, I’m not on the clock and I don’t know the answer. Tell you what, let me find someone who does.” I think that’s probably the appropriate response.

    At the same time, I think employees in the service industry — especially retail (at least non managers) are paid really poorly and that management generally doesn’t have the employees best interests in mind. I’ve worked retail and I’ve worked jobs that are cushier than retail. The retail was harder work and paid far worse. If retail was my main source of income, I could see myself with the case of “not-my-problem” too. It’s craptastic work.

    1. Andrea*

      “I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you right now,” is always my response in these situations.

  17. Anonymous*

    Why are you walking around the store and expecting customers to figure out whether you are on break or not? Rudeness is an easy litmus test in just about any situation. You were rude from both a social and work standpoint, and you did walk away from a stunned customer. I’m guessing this is now in the past, but the best thing you can do (if it’s not too late) is proactively go to your general manager and explain that you were flustered and uncertain, and acted far too abruptly, but you understand now how to handle this in the future.

  18. Andrea*

    When I was in college, I worked as a deposit counselor/financial sales rep at a bank. The branch I worked in was an in-store branch–inside a huge discount/grocery store (you know the one). When we did not have a customer, we were required to stand outside of the entrance to our bank and say hello to shoppers and give out pens and brochures about checking accounts. And every day, we were required to spend at least a few minutes walking around the store, telling people about CD specials and savings accounts and home loan rates and giving out promotional items. And because the store was just a few feet away from our bank, my coworkers and I often shopped during lunch breaks or bought groceries on our way home. I was recognized EVERY DAY as someone who worked there, even though I worked at the bank, not the store, and people were always asking me where things were. I always helped them, even if I was done for the day and buying my own groceries and dog treats and light bulbs on the way home. Hell, I had shopped enough in that store to know where things were, so I could always direct people to the right place. And if they were nice and reasonable, even if I was off the clock, I’d just say that it was my pleasure to help them and that I’d be glad to help them with their banking, too, and I’d give them one of my cards so they could see that I actually worked at the bank. Once in a while, I’d get someone cranky who wanted to know why I would not get the ladder out and climb up and get something of a high shelf for them, even though I would find an employee of the store to do it instead. Sometimes people are unreasonable, even if you go far out of your way to help them. But I did pretty well at that job. It wasn’t a career, but it was kind of fun sometimes, and people really did come in and open accounts and ask for me by name (and others, too–a few of my coworkers had the same attitude that I did, but some felt very strongly that it was not their job to help shoppers). In fact, I often was thanked for pitching in by the store employees, and many of them opened accounts with me at the bank. Being professional and helpful, even when it wasn’t technically required, was the nice thing to do, and it paid off for me. (Literally–we got bonuses for opening new accounts.)

    …sorry for the tangent, but I do feel strongly that being so concerned about company policy is not good for your future at that job, OP. And customers will not notice if you’re wearing your name tag or not–just as they usually didn’t notice that mine said the name of the bank–they just know your face and think that you’re there to help them. If you’re not willing to help people when you are off the clock, then you’d better not be visible then. Find another place to walk.

    1. Wilton Businessman*

      Just for my own edification, what is the difference between a “deposit counselor/financial sales rep” and a teller?

      1. Andrea*

        I opened accounts with people–checking, savings, CDs, etc., etc.–and took loan applications. I would conduct interviews with them and help them to determine what kinds of accounts and investments would be best for them, their families, and their businesses. I did not have a cash drawer or take money/checks for deposit or conduct transactions for customers. Tellers take deposits and conduct other transactions like making cashier’s checks and cashing checks and doing transfers. As far as I know, tellers do not open accounts or sell financial products.

  19. Natalie*

    OP, you might have better luck not being stopped if you change your shirt, assuming you are wearing a company shirt and have enough time to throw a different colored t-shirt on over it. In my experience, most retail customers don’t really notice whether or not you’re wearing a name tag – they just look for that bright red or blue shirt or orange smock or whatever and assume that person is working.

    Walking outside is also a good idea, although depending on the layout of the parking lot you might be stopped anyway.

      1. Natalie*

        I used to have a short red peacoat and accidentally wore it to Target with khakis. At least I could take the coat off!

  20. Sigma6*

    I can say for sure… that if you work in retail and expect to have “YOUR” time, you need to either sit in the break room, or leave the store.

    Guests do not know you are on break, they know you are an employee in the store they recognize. They now know that you a rude and gave the store (and yourself) a customer satisfaction black eye.

    Next time leave the store or help the customer. If I was your manager I would have told you the same thing. The guest does not know what hours you work.

    1. Anonymous*

      I remember I used to shop at Weinstock’s before it went under. The sales people there were always acted like they were doing you a favor to ring up a purchase. Eventually I stopped going, as it was always unpleasant. Then, one day, just as the chain was declaring bankruptcy, I was at a cocktail party. One of the women at the party worked there, and she was saying how the customers just somehow disappeared, she couldn’t imagine why, and how disloyal it was of them. I SO wanted to say something, but I just walked away. For the second time.

  21. Scott M*

    I think the OP was trying to walk a fine line. The OP just probably could have used a better tone when dealing with the customer. Also, I think it’s a bit naive to walk around your workplace on your break and not expect to be interrupted. But then, you live and learn. And the clarification about being paid for your time, regardless of when you work (during a break or not), was a good answer.

    However I just wanted to give my 2 cents to those who decry the “it’s not my job” attitude. I would say that, more often than not, this is a defense mechanism. There are many employees who accumulate responsibilities like a sponge, simply because they DON’T say “that’s not my job” and then end up overwhelmed because management isn’t creating clear roles and responsibilities. I never thought I would be that kind of employee. But I’m finding myself saying that (albeit in a much more polite way) more and more often these days.

    1. Sigma6*

      I think the OP should understand how a sales environment works even if you don’t work the floor.

      All it takes is one bad incident to have a rolling effect. You make this person mad, then he tells his family, they tell their family, and your InsertStoreNameHere #160 just lost 30 guests that spend on average 1k$ a year on products you sale.

      Sales is a tricky, business and it’s not meant for everyone. That guest interrupting your power walk might just possibly be a secret shopper as well.

    2. Jamie*

      You’re absolutely right that people need to set boundaries, or some people will just bury themselves under the weight of every additional task that comes their way.

      But those people need to differentiate themselves from the people who are married to their job description because more work cuts into their slack time. It’s basically just comes down to never saying the words, “it’s not my job.”

      It’s worth the time to do the verbal gymnastics to diplomatically shuffle the request to the person whose job it is. You’re still being helpful, because you’re making sure it’s getting taken care of.

      It’s important to be protective of your own time and responsibilities – but you want to make sure people don’t lump you in with the others.

      1. Sigma6*

        When I was a manager of an unnamed retail big box store, there were plenty of times I was approached by store regulars and asked questions.

        They didn’t care I was eating lunch in a deli…
        They didn’t care I was at the movie theater about to watch a movie…
        They didn’t care I was changing a flat tire on the side of the road (ok the last one is in jest, but you get the point).

        They just knew I was the neighborhood box store manager they were used to dealing with. Actions outside the four walls carry on to effect the sales on the inside.

        Like I said, sales is a beast not meant for all.

        I now sell jerk chicken and conch shells on the seashore to tourists in Bermuda ;)

      2. KellyK*

        “It’s worth the time to do the verbal gymnastics to diplomatically shuffle the request to the person whose job it is. You’re still being helpful, because you’re making sure it’s getting taken care of.”

        I agree with this completely. Making sure it gets taken care of doesn’t always have to mean doing it yourself. If someone asks you a random question outside of work, making sure it gets taken care of could mean giving them the number to call (and who to ask for if you know that info) and going on about your day. It shouldn’t have to mean that you spend a half hour answering their detailed questions while the ice cream in your cart melts and your kids are approaching a meltdown of their own.

          1. Jamie*

            Another good move is asking them to send an email with specifics. Because you totally want to help – so the more detail you have the more helpful you’ll be.

            Get the email > hit forward > it’s now in the inbox of the appropriate person, you’ve spent very little energy, and you get a reputation for being very helpful. Win-win.

  22. mishsmom*

    at my current job i used to have my breaks in the break room. this meant that anyone walking in would ask me questions or ask for something they needed (all starting with “i’m sorry to bother you on your break, but…”). were there other people who could help them? sure, but i couldn’t come up with a polite way of saying “bug off, i’m on break, go ask someone else” so i just ended up going outside for my breaks. it solved the problem completely :)

  23. Anonymous*

    Something like this just happened to me today. I work in a department of a store with register. I had entered the department and put my stuff away, but I had not punched in yet. And my policy is I don’t do anything until I have punched in. I might direct a customer to where they need to go if they ask, but I limit to just that if anything. So, a customer had come up to the counter, and was obviously wanting to pay for something. She was staring at me like “are you going to help me?” And I turned to my boss who was right there and said “I’m not on the clock yet.” He said ok, and all I said to the customer was “Someone will be right with you.” Then I walked out of the department to use the bathroom and punch in. A coworker was there so my boss wasn’t the only one. But I was not about to touch the register while off the clock. No no.

    1. Under Stand*

      Exactly. You work off the clock, it is the fastest way to get fired. And you should not have to hide to actually get to use your time.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        But the OP wasn’t being told to work off the clock; she was being told to add the time.

        And I do think it’s reasonable for an employer to say, “Some of our customers recognize our employees, so when you’re taking a break, you shouldn’t take it on the floor if you don’t want to be bothered. But if you choose to, we ask that you answer their questions or help them find someone who can.” Again, the break is not required by law; the employer is choosing to offer it as a benefit and so they can structure it this way if they want to. And it’s really not unreasonable to — employees who don’t want to do that can just go somewhere other than the sales floor.

        1. Under Stand*

          I think it is unreasonable. Because as Anonymous above me (who my off the clock comment was pointed toward) had rung the person up, they would have been in trouble.
          If you are not working, you are an employee. I take this as a lunch break, not a 15 min. break. If you are off the clock, you are off the clock. If you are on the clock, you are on the clock. I have no problem being asked to do stuff if I am getting paid to do it, but when I am on my time, I do not do work. I value my time too much to just give it away. Now if the manager had told her before that they would pay her if this happened, then by all means do the work and put in for the time. but if they are going to cut her hours later because she worked through lunch, you are being penalized for helping!

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            You are still an employee during breaks. These aren’t “off hours.” No law requires them to give breaks, so they’re saying “go relax, with the understanding that if a customer approaches you, you will get them some help and we’ll pay you for that time.” Otherwise, they could just not offer the break.

            But this would all be moot if the OP didn’t walk around amongst customers during the break. If you want an uninterrupted break, you take it where you won’t be interrupted. Easy solution.

            1. Anonymous*

              There might not be laws, depending on the state, but there are unions. And apparently they can give managers a lot of grief if they see an employee not getting x amount of off the clock breaks. Forget it if the employee wants to break or earn that extra half hour of pay. The manager can then come down on the employee. In my store, I would help a customer and keep it under the radar if it didn’t take too long (10 minutes + then I might say something).

          2. Anonymous*

            I am the one who wrote in about the register here:

            I was coming into work, and the majority of the time I walk in about 10 minutes early. The OP was on break. But even then, I refuse to work the register when I’m not being paid (on my half-hour break). I’m in a union, and not knowing exactly where the boundaries are, I do not need to be reprimanded or potentially fired if I work on a “union mandated break.” It would be too much to explain why my time needs to be adjusted; all I know is that I must have a half hour off the clock if I work beyond 5 hours. Yes, if I’m walking the floor, I will help a customer if they know I work there, but usually that would be pointing them to someone I know who would know the answer. I only work in one department and I’m not overly knowledgeable on things in the rest of the store.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              That’s completely reasonable though — you’d find someone who could help them. That would have been fine for the OP to to do — the idea is that you just shouldn’t say “I’m on a break” and then nothing else.

        2. Long Time Admin*

          It takes one minute to politely direct a customer to the salesperson who can help, but it takes ten minutes to fill out all the paperwork explaining why you worked on your break. And you’ll probably just get scolded in the end.

          I would help the customer and keep it under the radar.

        3. Phyllis*

          The issue here is, she was not told she had the option to adjust her time until after the incident. It seems to me that when this store does training for new employees this should be addressed and the employees told how to handle this.

          Granted, she could have been less abrupt, but since it said in her employee handbook that this was FORBIDDEN we can’t fault her for trying to adhere to company policy.

    2. Joey*

      Here’s the thing. You’re really talking about two separate issues, working outside of your scheduled hours and getting paid for that time. There’s nothing that pisses a customer off faster than hearing it’s not my job. If you’re standing around customers you’re fair game-they don’t care if youre clocked in or not. Either help or don’t be around customers until you’re clocked in. If your boss doesn’t want to pay you in this type of situation don’t hang out around customers until you’re clocked in. What’s so difficult about that?

      1. Anonymous*

        It could just be a simple matter of walking from the front of the store where your station is to the back of the store where the break room is. There is no way to get around it and you’ll have to pass customers.

  24. P*

    I haven’t read all the comments on this post, but I really don’t agree with the perspective that the OP should have interrupted her break to wait on the customer! I think it’s important to acknowledge that people in customer-facing roles are, indeed, human beings as well and deserve refreshing, uninterrupted breaks. I detest interrupting people on their breaks, especially in situations when I know I can get help elsewhere.

    I do agree that it would help to avoid people who don’t share my perspective by leaving the store when you’re on break.

      1. Anonymous*

        It’s funny you say that, Wilton Businessman. I once had a professor say that about students. And he was serious and not at all a research professor.

  25. Anonymous*

    Although I understand why you aren’t supposed to just say “I’m on break”, I remember when I worked in retail in high school how absolutely annoying it was to have people walk up to you while you were on break. There were even instances when I just walked out of the break room after punching out for the day, JACKET ON, holding my purse, clearly leaving the building/not working, and people would stalk me down and ask some ridiculous question when it was clear I was leaving. Oh, the retail nightmare… shudder. My job was to set-up displays and new merchandise— I’d be on top of a very high ladder, leaning over the edge, carrying very heavy things ( and I clock in at 110 5’2″), and someone would come to the bottom of the ladder screaming “Excuse me! Excuse me!” when there were plenty of other people they could direct their question to. I’d have to carry such heavy things back down the ladder (and in the end right back up again) and then the customer would proceed to make me search through walls full of jeans for a specific size and style because our computers said we had one left in the entire store (1 size could be ANYWHERE! Stolen, being tried on, being held up front for someone to come back and purchase, but they just NEEDED this pair NOW and 30 minutes of searching didn’t make them say, “You know what, NVM. When is your next shipment coming in?” despite my pleas of saying “When it says one pair left and we can’t find it where it belongs, it probably isn’t here!”). The funniest is after endless searching they’d act like I had wasted their time, hahaha. UGHHHHHHH. I’m getting stressed and angry just thinking about it now! Oh, desk job, how I love thee!

  26. Jamie*

    If nothing else I think this thread is a great reminder to be aware of our own demands on others.

    Yesterday I went into the kitchen to get a soda and a co-worker was eating. I opened my mouth to ask her to see me after she was done with lunch, but because of this discussion I just said hi and sent an email.

    I was consciously avoiding any risk of hijacking her lunch.

    There has been a lot of discussion about asking retail workers questions when off duty and off the premises and I just think it’s so rude that anyone would put them in the position to have to nicely deflect an answer. I’ve seen my kids’ teachers in the grocery store, I say hello…it would never occur to me to have an impromptu parent teacher conference.

    I think it’s especially tough for those of us who have a hard time shutting work off. I don’t mind talking about work through lunch, or pretty much anytime, because I love talking about work. Just ask my family, who have become masters at the glassy stare until I realize I’m boring them to death. I have to make a conscious effort to adjust expectations based on normal, healthy people – not others like me.

    Now, I may send copious emails on the weekends…but I don’t expect a reply until Monday morning. And those who I worry will feel obligated to reply…that’s what delayed sending is for. I don’t want to infect others with my somewhat myopic view.

    1. Anonymous*

      I agree with you and then I don’t. While it is unreasonable of customers to expect they will always be first in a salesperson’s thoughts, it is also unreasonable of salespeople to think that a customer will recognize a break when they see it. Specifically, what should I look for? Do all salespeople everywhere wear name tags? Maybe they should, and it would be nice if all salespeople everywhere dressed the same. I suggest the Target uniform. A&F staffers in red/khaki. Yes. The point it, we all need to be nice, and understanding of others. If it’s tough, maybe something about this job just isn’t right for you, right now. What can you change in your life to make it better?

      Gagh I sound like the Balloon Color book.

    2. Esra*

      I was consciously avoiding any risk of hijacking her lunch.

      I wish my manager felt that way! He constantly interrupts people’s lunch with “Oh. Sorry, are you eating lunch? /launches into work spiel regardless of answer”

      1. Anonymous*

        Wow, this reminds me of one of my ASMs. The guy will make you do everyone else’s job during your shift, until your dead tired. Then on your UNPAID lunch break, he comes in trying to tell you what you are going to do once you get back on the clock. Just let me enjoy my lunch! I have do deal with you for a couple more hours, let me eat in peace!

  27. Anonymous*

    Customer service/retail is about building relationships, even if you’re the grunt at the bottom end of the food chain. I figured that out quick at some of my previous lines of employment, and quite frankly, got some nice raises, tons of overtime, and in general a great QOL on the job because of it. (Worked midnights… could have sucked real bad if the boss wanted to make it that way. Instead, she left us alone, and we got to slack off when there weren’t any customers. Never once — in 3 years — got a surprise inspection to make sure we weren’t screwing around.)

    That strategy works particularly well if you have clients who are known to be pains in the arse, but whom speak highly of you in particular.

    These days, I have an affinity for a particular grocery store. While there’s usually plenty of staff in the produce/meat/deli/bakery area, there aren’t many in the packaged goods aisles. If I need to find something, it’s hard to find an employee. If I do see one, and they are on break/off the clock/how should I know, I fully expect them to at least find someone who can assist me. Leaving me hanging to find someone else is just going to piss me off.

    If anybody at Walmart did that, I could just go shop on Amazon instead :)

  28. Walker (original querier [?])*

    After reading Alison’s response and doing a little research on my own, I decided that I would just spend all of my lunch time in the break room where, as we all know, I should be safe from customer intrusion. I’ll exercise on my breaks, and if I’m stopped by someone, I’ll hide my annoyance and do my job. My immediate supervisor thinks our manager was wrong in her answer, but of course, I’ll go with what the ranking officer says until an even higher-ranked officer says something different.

    My problem with this situation is in my company and my store’s lack of appreciation for their workers (and, obviously, me in particular). I clock in when I’m supposed to clock in, do my work, and constantly look for more work to do for two reasons. One, I’m being paid to be there and do the things I’m expected to do (and I do like getting my paycheck). Two, staying busy passes the time until I can clock out, head home, and do the things I want to do. I goof off occasionally and make mistakes like any other worker, but I’m efficient and productive enough that I’m often left to pick up a co-worker’s slack. The main reason I’m reluctant to work off the clock is that so much of my work ON THE CLOCK is taken for granted (management knows how irresponsible my co-worker is and lets it go on). One time, I was woken up early in the morning on my vacation by a phone call asking me to cover for someone who’d called in. When I said I was on vacation and refused, the same manager called me BACK and asked again. I show up on time, do my job (and often someone else’s as well), and generally respect customers and co-workers, and I think my company should respect me and my time in return. I believe that’s part of the contract between employer and employee. And since this will likely be brought up, I don’t carry these concerns to management because of negative experiences in doing so with other problems in the past. None of this should affect customers, nor does it excuse what I did, but for all you managers on here, let me tell you that if you leave your workers in frustrating situations long enough, they WILL act out. That’s human nature. However, if you treat your people well, they’ll generally treat you and your customers well in return.

    As a further epilogue, management has not pursued any disciplinary action or said anything else to me about this incident, and I don’t expect them to do so at this point. I saw that same customer in the store again today and smiled and nodded hello at him. He gave me a little wave (all five fingers, not just the one) in response, so either he’s forgiven me or he’s moved on. Maybe I should do the same.

    1. Jen M*

      I know how you are feeling. I have been there.

      Sadly, it’s pretty common in retail.

      I’m glad things turned out better than they could have.

    2. Anonymous*

      I totally agree with you about how certain factors on the job can make you feel worthless and you in turn “act out.” I totally understand, especially, how you feel when coworkers are allowed to get away with everything, leaving you to pick up all the slack. You’re not alone, as much as it’s hard to believe. But trust me, the manager is not doing your coworkers any favors by letting them get away with things. It may not be now, and you may never see it – but it’ll come back to bite them someday. Down the road, if they get a new job and start trying to pull the same stuff, those managers may put them out at the curb. Do you what you have to do to get the paycheck and hope to move forward in your career path.

      As for the vacation – Do you have caller ID? If so, don’t answer the phone while on vacation. Don’t become available every time they need you. I’m learning this slowly too. Yes, working those hours means more money on your paycheck, but you need a break and to enjoy your vacation. Otherwise, you’ll lose your sanity. Trust me. I’m there.

      1. krzystoff*

        if your employer doesn’t pay for your phone, and if you don’t work in an ‘on-call’ / managerial position, you have the right and ability to either not supply your contact details, or change them and not update your employers’ database, thus ensuring you’ll avoid being called on vacation or outside business hours for work. this is the smart and ethical thing to do, although some employers won’t appreciate it, they have no real option but just suck it up.

  29. Jen M*

    Aside from my day job, I run my own business. People are starting to realize this locally. What does that mean? Pretty much, it means I am always available. If I’m out shopping and someone recognizes me and wants to talk about whether I can make their cousin/daughter/father/friend a custom “whojeewhatsis” or photograph their [INSERT EVENT HERE], then I talk to them about that, and I take all the time they need for it. What I might do if I truly don’t have enough time for them right then is give them my card WITH my phone number on it and ask them to call me.

    My business will survive or fail based on how I treat my customers, and as a small business owner, I don’t punch a clock. I am my business.

    I would never tell a customer “I can’t talk about this right now,” unless I was at a funeral or on the way to the hospital or something. Scale this to a large company. Their employees ARE the business, and how the employees conduct themselves can have a huge impact on the business.

    I just think it is really, really important for these companies to make it crystal, crystal clear to employees what the rules are and WHY, so that situations like this do not occur. When I was younger and working in retail, I came up against similar situations, and I made a mistake here and there, too.

  30. Joanna Reichert*

    How odd! Of course someone doesn’t want to be interrupted on their lunch break – but staying within and indeed wandering about the store, where they’re bound to be recognized by some customers, and expecting to brush off a customer, is a bit much.

    I’ve worked retail for years, and it it comes down to it, I’ll stay with a customer if there is no one else available to help them, time be damned. If your manager is worth his/her salt, they’ll adjust your timesheet and give thanks that you have your priorities straight.

    Of course, if you’ve heated your food and are rushing back to it, it’s perfectly acceptable to say, “I just clocked out and heated up my lunch, so let’s find another associate who can help you” and then find someone else. If everyone else is tied up, then ask the customer if they’d mind waiting 10 minutes for you to eat, and then come back after you’ve eaten. In most industries, you can take the rest of your break later.

    In the case of a regular break (non-lunch) you can simply tell the customer that you’ll be with them momentarily and have to clock back in first. Most won’t push beyond that, and whether it’s a few seconds or 3 minutes, they’ll feel better because they at least talked to someone. If they DO push, you can simply say, laced with sympathy, “I do understand you’re in a hurry. However, I get negative points if I clock in late, so I’ll do that and be right back with you.” White lie or not, that’s enough to hush up even abrasive folks.

    In a service industry, you cannot afford to do a disservice to someone. Just imagine yourself on the other end of this exchange – do you want to feel slighted without knowing why you’re being slighted? Get some fresh air outside and don’t set yourself up for awkward situations in-store.

  31. missy*

    Hello i was just hoping to get some answers to these questions ~ Is my boss legally allowed to make me stay after my ten hour shift to write me up? or shouldn’t he have to do so within the ten hours that i am on the floor? also is he allowed talk to me during my unpaid break times about work related issues?

  32. Tim*

    I feel if you are in a job that you really do not like, you should, maybe, really be aiming to leave it and head towards a job that is more suited to your requirements, in the of near or not so far future, maybe ever by training towards it, or applying for a suitable jobs that is to your requirements.

    If you are doing your best, but a customer is not happy and their are going “else where”, you are just going to have to learn to deal with the disappointment. If your aiming higher, then you are leaving anyway too (don’t say this stuff out loud, keep it to yourself). But as long as you doing your best, then there is nothing you can do and you can’t aim to keep everyone happy, as that’s probably just setting your self up for failure.

    Regarding customers during your break, maybe all you can do is make sure you have you uniform covered up and your off the shop floor as much as you can, maybe go for a walk outside.

    I found the most important training I have put my self though is my coping strategies, and the way I see other people. I feel, maybe the most important thing to you when you are dealing with difficult people or other people is your mental health and well being.

Comments are closed.