employee keeps tagging along on my smoke breaks

A reader writes:

I am a manager of a mid-size team. The team has smokers and non-smokers, and unfortunately I am one of the smokers. I do make an effort to smoke less and my goal is to quit someday, but it has proven to be very difficult for me. One of my employees has the habit of tagging along to my smoke breaks. This can add up to several times a day, since we are both heavy smokers. I am worried about how this looks to the other employees. I have overheard that they wonder what we are talking about during these breaks. I assume that your answer will be to simply stop having smoke breaks with the employee, and to me it’s also the only common-sense thing to do. However, I don’t know how to address this with the employee. This has been going on for quite some time and it would be strange to say that all of a sudden I want to spend my smoke breaks alone, or even with someone else.

You’re right to worry about this. (And actually, you might also need to worry about how the non-smokers feel about these breaks in general, totally aside from the issue you raise, but that’s a different issue.)

Ideally, you’d be straightforward with this employee: “I enjoy talking to you on these breaks, but I don’t think we should take them together so frequently, because I worry about others feeling there’s special access or favoritism.”

Of course, in the real world, this can be awkward to say and hear, so if you can’t bring yourself to do it, you could try bringing work along with you and making it clear you’re going to focus on that (it could be something you need to read or a print-out that you need to mark up, or whatever). Or you could say that you’re going to make a call. Or you could try to make it less obvious when you’re going out for a break.

But ultimately you’ll probably need to just explain, especially since this sounds like it’s become an established habit.

{ 70 comments… read them below }

  1. Stacy*

    Does this remind anyone else of that Friend’s episode where Chandler takes up smoking (again) so that he can be part of the smoker’s conversations that are resulting in business decisions?

    When I worked for a theater company, I seriously used to wonder sometimes about the discussions people were having while on their smoke breaks. I mean, I didn’t spend a lot of time wondering, but god help anyone in that organization who didn’t either smoke or drink. I’m not sure how they ever found out any information.

    Since I live in California, smoking is frowned upon, for the most part, so working for that theater company is the only place I’ve had this be an “issue” really.

        1. Anonymous*

          Me too. And the smoker was indeed getting special treatment. Not intentionally, but they were brainstorming and talking business while smoking, and Rachel was left out. It’s good that this manager is aware of the problem.

    1. M-C*

      I’ve never smoked, but I often join in to smokers’ conversations outside the building. People don’t really stand by the coffee machine, outside is where the loose talk happens. I’m not going to let myself be cheated of that just because I’m not smoking. Not to mention that way I meet a whole group of people I wouldn’t normally have a chance to. And I can just stand upwind so I don’t get gassed out, it’s no big deal to be present while others are indulging.

  2. Joey*

    How does the employee even know the manager is going on smoke breaks? Can’t you just make it less obvious that you’re going to smoke? Or is the employees office right by the exit? Is there somewhere else to smoke?

    Or could there be some reason to justify that people need to stagger their breaks for coverage?

  3. Dawn*

    You could use this as more motivation to quit- get the patch or gum or something, and at the very least use those during work hours. It could be a great chance to provide the little bit of motivation you need to quit!

    1. Andrea*

      Yeah, this was my thought, too. You could just go ahead and quit and avoid that conversation. Along the way, you’d be healthier. And you’d be showing other people that you respect them and care about their health, too.

    2. The Editor*

      That was my thought exactly. If your goal is to quit some day, why not today?

      Good luck! Breaking the pattern isn’t easy, but I wish you the fondest success.

    3. Ex-smoker*

      I can’t imagine this advice would be of any use to the OP, and I very much doubt a comment from Random Internet Person is just the push they need to quit…

      1. Ellie H.*

        Agreed. Yes, smoking is terrible for you (I smoke a bit as well, fortunately not very heavily, and I’ve stopped multiple times) but it’s not really what the question is about, so this is pretty unhelpful advice.

    4. M-C*

      Come on, if the OP could manage to stop smoking they’d probably have done so already. Yes, they’re killing themselves, and possibly others around them. But at least they’re no longer smoking out the coworkers, so let’s give them a bit of privacy on this :-). The question was entirely different, so let’s not get preachy about a side topic.

  4. Emily*

    Did anyone else have visions of Thomas and O’Brien plotting their latest revenge on Bates and Anna while smoking in the courtyard while reading this question?

    I can’t be the only one. :P

  5. Wilton Businessman*

    What’s next, I can’t play golf with anyone from work on the weekends because it might look funny and others might feel left out?

    MYOFB would be my response.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I do think part of being a good manager is being thoughtful about how things will be perceived by others, and also understanding what human nature is, rational or not. Going off for private, seemingly social conversations several times a day with one particular staff member is likely to create uneasiness among other employees.

      1. Anonymous*

        My manager goes off with his two direct reports, who are his friends outside of work as well. I recently discovered that something that the direct reports were talking about, while sitting right next to me, was actually some performance feedback that my manager was about to deliver to me. In fact one said to the other something like don’t forget to get that XYZ story from insert manager name, becuase it was the funniest thing ever and you simply won’t believe it.. A few days later I got some feedback that I had done XYZ. I bought this up a few days later with my manager, after processing the feedback, never accused him of talking to them, but simply that wanted to be sure seeing I am new to the team that performance issues are solely between me and him, he basically stood up for his smoking buddies, and rehashed the same feedback. Previously I had thought the relationship was a bit too close and should have been played down in work hours, but agree was totally MYOFB terriotry, however I feel it has now crossed the line. I now wonder what they are talking about during those times. It is a very tiny team, he only has 4 direct reports, so he basically excludes the me and the other woman in the team from this extra time.

        1. jmkenrick*

          If he’s talking about you with his other direct reports, then his personal relationships have totally crossed a line. That seems like it’s setting him up for a gossipy/hostile work enviornment.

          I don’t blame you for being upset.

        2. Cassie*

          That’s like my situation – a manager was close friends with two employees – the three of them would go on coffee breaks and have lunch together. They did discuss fellow employees during their gatherings – sometimes they talked about work performance, other times was just gossiping about the rest of us.

          Either way, it’s not good. They were friends before they joined our dept (the manager came first and hired the other two). I don’t care that they hang out sometimes on the weekend. That’s their personal lives. In the workplace, though, I think it would be wise for managers to limit friendships with employees. Though it’s not like the rest of us are getting hot and bothered by it, there are definitely feelings of discontent among the rest of the staff. Not to mention – half hour coffee breaks become an hour breaks, one hour lunches become 1.5 hours or 2 hour lunches. It’s fine, though, because they are with the manager.

          And no, I’m not going to try to get some face time with the manager – even if she was my manager (she’s not), I wouldn’t. My work speaks for itself and I don’t want to get ahead just because I’m BFFs with someone.

      2. Wilton Businessman*

        If I was the excluded participant and I thought it was negatively impacting my work or standing, I would find another way to connect with my boss with some dedicated face time. That might be casual dinners, golf, or even just a once a week lunch.

        You are in control of your own destiny. Demand the best and accept nothing less.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Unless your boss doesn’t golf, eats at her desk, and wants to go home after work rather than having dinner with colleagues (and yes, that would be me).

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Possibly :) But you’ll get a lot of people who want to spend their off time with their kids, or their significant other or their friends, or regrouping alone.

            2. anon.*

              seriously? a mani/pedi or massage? yup, I’m gonna suggest THAT to my boss right now! AWKWARD!

            3. jmkenrick*

              I think I understand where you’re coming from, and I appreciate the ‘stop whining and take action!’ stance, but grabbing one-on-one time outsite the office can be a tricky prospect.

              Personal relationships are so complicated. All my bosses in the past have had small children, so they leave work promptly and are often busy. Additionally, they’ve all been men in their 40s and 50s, and I’m a 24-year old girl, so I have to imagine that asking them to get a massage after work might get some raised eyebrows. :)

              I think the onus should be on the manager to create a positive enviornment for employees where they all get some face-time; not on the employee to book a “date” with the manager.

              1. Charles*

                “I think the onus should be on the manager to create a positive enviornment for employees where they all get some face-time; not on the employee to book a “date” with the manager.”

                Bingo! That is so true; and a good manager would make sure of it. I think the OP by trying to stop her staff member from always tagging along on smoke breaks gets this.

        2. J.B.*

          IMO, some bosses can interact fine with staff, others can’t keep those boundaries straight. I do very good work but have a life and don’t choose to socialize with bosses. If I worked for you and it lowered my standing in your eyes, it would be your loss.

          I also feel for the non smokers because smoke breaks are usually considered fine by management. Breaks for other reasons (for example pumping breastmilk) can be perceived very negatively.

      3. M-C*

        I totally agree with AAM. If you do have a personal relationship with an employee, you should at least make an effort to be discreet about it.

  6. Anonymous*

    I have to admit my first thought was from the employee’s side. “If I take the same breaks as my boss, he won’t be able to complain about how many breaks I take.”

    That these “add up to several times a day” makes me concerned about differing standards for your employees who don’t smoke and presumably aren’t getting several breaks a day. Having been the nonsmoker in that situation I know it can be a real morale killer.

    I recommend you give serious consideration to the expectations you’re communicating and the standard you’re setting.

    1. Anonymous*

      And I forgot to mention, while it could be a different issue as AAM pointed out, my own experience makes me wonder if it isn’t the underlying issue. What is being talked about being is easier to mention than the number of breaks the boss takes.

    2. Another Emily*

      Maybe she takes a ten minute lunch and no other breaks apart from these smoke breaks. She didn’t mention how much the total smokers’ breaks are in length, maybe they all cut other breaks short. Or maybe not, but we don’t know.

      If you do use this awkwardness as motivation to quit (or cut down more) then all the best of luck to you! If not, I think AAM’s advice is spot on.

    3. bob*

      Oh hell yea THIS. I’ve worked with people who take their 10 minute smoke breaks at the top of every hour and the math is pretty simple to do for lost productivity. It’s pretty irritating that smokers seem to get a bunch of extra breaks during the day because they usually end up gabbing or something else distracting on the way to and from their smoke breaks which just adds to more lost work time and the rest of the employees don’t get the same breaks.

      1. Long Time Admin*

        Double hell yes!!

        And they wait for each other at their respective desks, so that the 10-minute-every-hour break turns into a 15-minute-break-every-hour.

        This does end up causing serious morale issues, because the non-smokers don’t really want to pick up their slack.

    4. Erica B*

      yes! as a non-smoker, I felt this way at my last job. My boss was always going for smoke breaks, while I was left inside doing all the work (we worked in a deli/grocery store) all the while I wasn’t really allowed to take a quick break.

      1. Nikki*

        A two coworkers (not managers, one a former smoker) go on various smoke breaks together. I believe others quit smoking before I started.
        My idea is, if they can take smoke breaks, I can take snack runs/afternoon walks.

    5. M-C*

      I’m with anonymous – sounds like the boss is taking too many breaks, and frowning on others taking as much to boot. I have worked with a couple of heavy smokers who saw to it that no meeting went over an hour, that was good :-). But it’s much less good when it just means they are perceived to spend 25% or more of their time gossiping outside instead of working. and don’t get me wrong, I think breaks are good, but when they’re really a break, ie clear your head for more, I don’t think much smoking-and-gossip qualifies for that.

  7. Just Me*

    A while back before companies banned smoking from buildings and even on the property I worked for a company that made aerosol products. So the no smoking was more for the issue of the building blowing up more than health.
    Many of the workers would go out away from the building and smoke on breaks and lunch totalling about 3 times a day. I do not smoke and nor did I take breaks.
    One day I decided I wanted a break and go out to chat with the group. Just needed a break from work.

    My manager told me I could NOT go out on break because… I DIDN’T smoke. Really? It was a break. If I wanted to do back flips down the parking lot or smoke why did it matter what I did. I needed to smoke in order to go on break?
    She only associated the break with people’s need to smoke as opposed to taking a break and doing whatever.

    I did end up taking a break after asking her why it mattered what I did.
    That was more than 20 years ago and I will never forget that. I should have asked her if the smoking would have helped the pneumona I had just got over…..

  8. Anonymous*

    Before I quit smoking nearly seven years ago (holy hell it was hard…I wouldn’t wish such misery on anyone, which leads me to say, don’t ever start) I worked in an office of smokers who took smoke breaks. I chose to not join them because a) I didn’t want to be associated at work with the habit b) I didn’t want to return to my desk reeking of cigarettes and talk to people with my nasty dragon breath c) I just thought it was unprofessional to smoke at work. The only con to this decision is that upon returning home I would smoke almost twelve to fifteen cigarettes between the hours of 6pm and midnight. I suppose it was my addict way of making up for the day. My advice is quit smoking immediately or slap a patch on yourself to get through the day. Just stop smoking at work. It never looks good. Especially from a manager. P.S. I chose cold turkey style quitting, after eleven years of smoking, and even though I wanted to ram sharp objects in my face I eventually made it through. I hope you can also. N.O.P.E. (Not One Puff Ever)

  9. Martin*

    Just go take a toilet break beforehand. I doubt he will tag along into the restroom as well.

    If this co-worker does, there might be more to it, than *just* the smoking.

  10. Jamie*

    I would bet that the employee is doing it because he can smoke more often and not get reprimanded.

    As a smoker myself, I think several times a day is excessive. I do smoke to and from work – and if I feel the need during the day I’ll take a short lunch break to run an errand.

    I’ve worked with smokers who took the break once an hour and even as a smoker I resented it, because I was too busy to do that.

    To be fair, I also know non-smokers who waste more time than an hourly smoke break wandering around the office and annoying people with small talk…so it’s the perception of wasting time that’s the issue.

    Although, there seems to be more resentment for wasting time with a cigarette than without – that’s the stigma associated which is admittedly a horrible habit.

    I’ve been at my present job almost four years and about a month ago one of my co-workers mentioned to the others that I smoke and they were all shocked. There were definitely some well meaning comments about how I should quit, after that, but to be honest I don’t have health insurance through work and I’m not taking smoke breaks so I can’t see how it’s a work place issue.

    And to those who are offended about the smell when people come back from breaks…people I’ve worked closely with for years had no idea I smoked – even though a couple times a week I go out at lunch to have one or two…even people with whom I shared an office before I got my own. It’s not always an issue.

    1. Natalie*

      “people I’ve worked closely with for years had no idea I smoked – even though a couple times a week I go out at lunch to have one or two…even people with whom I shared an office before I got my own. It’s not always an issue.”

      I’ve wondered about that myself. I don’t smoke at work anymore, but I used to, and no one I worked with knew about it until one of them saw me outside smoking. Apparently I never smelled that strongly of it, but I’ve met some people in the elevator, etc, that could almost be holding a cigarette in their hand.

      1. Long Time Admin*

        Oh, believe me, some of us with allergies can smell a cigarette across the street. And we can certainly smell the stench on your clothes as you walk by. For a long time afterward.

        1. Andrea*

          +1. I’m sure that some people can’t smell it, but to me it just reeks. And my eyes itch and I wheeze and can’t get enough air. My allergies and asthma (bad enough on their own, but well-managed almost all of the time) are all very much aggravated by smoking and from even just being around people after they have smoked. I’m not trying to start a big snit here or anything, but some people can indeed smell it and do indeed suffer just from being around people who have smoked recently. I think this gets forgotten when people say that they don’t smoke around others or that their choice doesn’t affect other people. Second hand smoke is bad enough, but third hand smoke poses real dangers, and some people aren’t even aware of that (and if you don’t have allergies like me, it’s difficult to even know that you’ve been exposed to those toxins).

        2. Natalie*

          Right, an allergic person is definitely going to notice it because they’re going to react.

          For whatever it’s worth, I can smell a cigarette across the street, too. But I worked with a bunch of people with pretty strong senses of smell, and they never knew I smoked. Of course, none of them were actually allergic or I’m sure they would have noticed.

        3. Under Stand*

          +1. The older I get the more that I can smell smoke on people, even those who claim that nobody can smell it on them.

        4. Andrew*

          Ex-smokers ( of which I am one–coming up on 15 years) can always smell it as well. We can even smell it if we’re in the car behind yours and all the windows are open.

        5. mh_76*

          Makes my eyes, lips, mouth, & nose *hurt* to smell the even the faintest stench of cigarette smoke. Cigarettes are more polluting than tailpipes and industrial smokestacks. Years ago, I saw a list of more than 100 harmful chemicals (arsenic, benzene, carbon monoxide, many others) that are added, yes added, to cigarettes by manufacturers. Please don’t get me started about the harmful effects of cigarette smoke on your pets or your children.

          If my now-late grandparents could quit cold turkey (ok, chewing gum), anybody can. It won’t be easy but it will be easier than giving your beloved dog lung cancer…at least humans can talk and children will understand what caused their cancer or yours.

          Also, why should smokers be treated differently than any other drug addicts? Should alcoholics be allowed to take drink breaks? Should illegal-drug addicts be able to take breaks to shoot up / use their drugs of choice?

          *I do know that caffeine is technically a drug but it doesn’t harm anyone except the user…but only if used in very extreme excess…and yes, I do need my one morning cup of coffee.

          1. Ellie H.*

            Having your eyes, lips, mouth and nose literally hurt at a faint whiff of smoke is not normal. You should consult a doctor if this negatively impacts your life.

      2. Jamie*

        I know – it’s weird, I was really surprised they were so shocked since they complain about the other smoker and how they can smell it on him when he comes back in.

        I don’t do anything unusual except that I keep it out the window of my car and brush my teeth when I’m done. I have known people who hold it in their right hand and use the ashtray – so maybe that gives it more chance to saturate your clothes? I don’t know.

      3. M-C*

        Smokers always think they don’t reek of smoke for a very simple reason: smoking kills your sense of smell.

        1. Jamie*

          I do understand that – I agree with your logic. Which is why I was really surprised when people at work were so shocked when they were told recently, since I’ve worked here for years. Apparently, Natalie had the same experience.

          Neither one of us is claiming that no one in the world could ever smell it – we’re just saying that it was surprising that we’ve both worked in a place where they didn’t. And I work with some militant anti-smokers who would definitely have said something had they known…because believe me, they do now.

          It was just a (to me) interesting aside that people didn’t know – I wasn’t defending the habit, nor claiming that the laws of physics don’t apply to me. Maybe Natalie and I both work (have worked) with people who have notoriously bad senses of smell…that’s entirely possible.

  11. Charles*

    “I enjoy talking to you on these breaks, but I don’t think we should take them together so frequently, because I worry about others feeling there’s special access or favoritism.”

    Bingo! While this is true is almost any situation, such as lunch or whatever, this is more true with smoking breaks because the smoking together is clearly one group (smokers) vs the “others” (non-smokers).

    It would be different if this were something like lunch, in which case almost anyone could join or at least be invited. (Or golf, if one wanted to take up a hobby.) But, TV sitcoms and teen years aside, few folks take up bad habits, or are invited, just to be a part of the “in crowd.” And at work, it is the manager who is the leader of the in crowd.

  12. Interviewer*

    I think you should have the conversation with him. Be courageous. Don’t you think he would want to know? Wouldn’t he assume the worst if you didn’t tell him anything but started avoiding him – i.e., maybe he’s going to be fired, so you’re distancing yourself now? Do you think he’s capable of understanding what’s going on, if you explain it to him now? Be a courageous manager and address it.

    Good luck.

  13. Anonymous*

    my boss has 5 direct reports. she gets her eyebrows threaded with one lady every two weeks, has daily coffee breaks with another, and goes shopping with the third. needless to say, I’m quite paranoid about what goes on during these things. please do your best to avoid the perception it gives to those direct reports not quite good enough to be part of the in crowd

  14. Laura L*

    I can’t tell if the OP is annoyed by the employee tagging along or not, but that’s what aggravates me most about this situation. Sometimes I want to take a break by myself. People don’t always get that.

    1. M-C*

      Excellent point Laura L. Sometimes a break is to get away from the office, and everyone in it :-). Most times, for me, actually.

  15. Talyssa*

    for those non-smokers who are not smoke-sensitive you could offer to have them accompany you on your smoking trips to discuss work (assuming its the kind of environment where 10 minute chats with employees are useful and normal?). I had a boss that used to do this – a few people just can’t be around it but I’m fine with it.

    Uh on the bad hand, he actually caused a LOT of people to *start* (or smoking (or at least smoke more often or give up on quitting) because htey were out there and figured why not.

  16. Chris*

    You are the manager – they are the employee. The employee is taking several breaks seemingly with your consent – which will breed suspicion, resentment and a very real disconnect with your at work, non-several breaks employees.

    Lead by example and curb your own breaks, then use your authority to make sure the employee has something to do (other than watch when you come and go), feigning a ‘need ASAP’ assignment. You can be friendly about it, set a timeline when you need it back and wean them off your break time gradually.

    Bottom line, there’s no nice way to say get lost. You could be someone they view as more than a boss. But you are the boss, and this issue isn’t just about breaks, it’s also about perception.

    If you use work emergencies and separate gradually you can lessen the tag along events without damaging the relationship or having the employee talk trash about your sudden change of break friends.

  17. KB*

    Related to this topic, I am sick and tired of people on my team going outside for up to 5-6 ten to fifteen minute smoke breaks per day, in addition to their regular break. This makes it impossible for me to complete some work assignments on time, as many of them require 2-3 people. I work in a nursing facility and the nursing supervisor as well as the nurse smoke. They glare at me if I search for the missing workers on the terrace, which is normally reserved for the patients but seems to constantly host a group of smokers. It’s a disgusting habit which has gotten many of our patients there in the first place, and I don’t feel that I should have my work performance suffer because these people have an addiction they are not willing to deal with.

  18. Anonymous*

    I once freelanced at a puzzle company, I drew all day, as I am an artist. There were employees that smoked, I never wondered about WHAT they were talking about. But I did wonder why I would be hassled for taking a quick break to seek out more resource material to draw from and yet people breaking throughout the day to smoke were never hassled.

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