my employer banned books in the break room

A reader writes:

I work for a retail business based in the deep south, although the store where I am employed is in Washington state.

I was recently informed that NO books or magazines can be left in the employee break area. I was told that our district/regional manager was concerned about exposing younger employees to questionable material.

You must be over 18 to work at our store. The current staff is aged 40 to 60 plus. No minors can work at our store.

The magazines previously left in the break room were women’s general interest such as Family Circle and Woman’s Day. The books left were primarily mysteries featuring women sleuths.

Can an employer restrict what you are allowed to read on your unpaid lunch or break in the employee break area?

This is bizarre.

They can certainly control what’s in the break room, since they own that space. They can say that you can’t leave books, food, plants, mugs, or anything else in there if they decide to; it’s their property.

But as long as you don’t leave your materials in the room, they shouldn’t be able to control what you actually read while you’re on an unpaid break. (Within reason — obviously, if you’re openly reading an X-rated magazine on company property, they can prohibit that.)

In any case, I doubt the concern is Family Circle. I’d bet money that someone left something inappropriate in the break room, and rather than simply dealing with that directly, they chose a blanket ban instead and explained it really ineptly.

{ 76 comments… read them below }

  1. Anon*

    “In any case, I doubt the concern is Family Circle. I’d bet money that someone left something inappropriate in the break room, and rather than simply dealing with that directly, they chose a blanket ban instead and explained it really ineptly.”

    That’s what I’m thinking too: someone at another store may have left something like “50 Shades of Grey” in the break room. Seems like a blanket rule across all stores would be the easy way to prevent questionable reading material from being left in the break room.

    1. Jenn*

      Some employee probably picked it up and exclaimed, “‘Fifty Shades of Grey’……I love reading books about decorating!”

      And days later, this dumb policy was born. ;-)

    2. Kathryn T.*

      I read this question and my first thought was “I bet you a million dollars someone left 50 Shades of Grey lying around.” It’s porn that mysteriously flies under the radar! And terrible porn at that!

      1. Kelly O*

        Not to mention blatant Twilight fan-fic porn, which makes it even worse.

        I thought about this more yesterday and I would be willing to bet five whole American dollars this is what happened.

        1. Jamie*

          “Not to mention blatant Twilight fan-fic porn, which makes it even worse. ”

          The OP mentioned all the employees there being women between 40-60. Is that really the demographic for steamy reading about Twilight? I would have thought Bella and Edward skewed a little younger?

          Then again, I’m in that demographic and know way more about Harry Potter than I should…so what do I know?

          1. Laura L*

            Well, it’s based on Twilight fanfic, but all references to Twilight were changed to avoid copyright infringement when it was published. Although, I’m not sure a copyright case would make sense legally, I’m sure Stephanie Myer or someone would sue.

          2. JDH*

            Of course it is. Most twitards are either preteens or desperate soccer moms. Not much in between. Just goes toward the dumbing down of the American populace. More of this garbage, less actual literature.

  2. KellyK*

    That sounds about right. Easier to make rules affecting a huge group of people than to deal with one individual problem.

    If I were in your shoes, I’d keep my reading material in my purse outside of breaks. (I know that’s less useful to guys, or to women who carry itty bitty purses.)

    1. Anonymous*

      men could put in in their (inner) jacket pocket. my dad does that all the time. stupid, crazy rule though!

      1. KellyK*

        Yeah, it is a dumb rule (unless it’s about clutter–if people are leaving the break area messy, they need to knock that off).

        Good idea as far as the jacket pocket. (Between business casual and the heat wave, I totally forgot that jackets are standard work attire for a lot of men.)

  3. Tara B.*

    As a former retail employee, I’m also wondering if the store has a problem with unpaid merchandise being taken in the break room to be read on someone’s break or lunch. That might also explain the ban as well.

  4. Siobhan*

    I can see this being a rule within reason. For example, I work as a care provider for a mental health organization. The population I serve are children. We can’t have magazines like Glamore or Cosmo just laying around in our break area either, this is on the off chance a magazine gets out into that patient population. I am a Glamore lady and occasionally like to read this on my break. So, I go to my car for break and read there.

  5. B*

    “I was recently informed that NO books or magazines can be left in the employee break area. ”

    To me, this states they are not banning what you can read but to not leave what you are reading behind. My guess is they do not want to keep cleaning up after people.

    1. fposte*

      That’s how I read it based on the OP’s phraseology. And I know we have a problem with people leaving stuff in our kitchen in hope it finds a home, so I can certainly understand a ban on that kind of thing.

      So if the phrasing of the rule is accurate, it’s possible the OP is jumping to conclusions here about what’s actually being forbidden.

  6. COT*

    Could they also be concerned about break room clutter from people leaving stuff behind? I know our break room gets cluttered easily. Of course, this explanation only makes sense if they also try to control dishes, food, and other such items.

    Otherwise, yeah, it’s silly.

  7. Lee*

    At some of the retail box stores children can wander in. I took my son to the restroom at a larger hardware store, which was right next to the employee break room. I turned around to have a drink of water and my nine year old had wandered into the break room (the door was open at the time). I quickly told him that area was for employees only and he was not allowed in there.

    I agree the book/reading rule seems odd at first but as a parent, I also understand where the corporate office is coming from. Some other employee or protective parent probably threatened to sue.

  8. Anonymous*

    Personally, I never really understood the mentality of leaving your own property in the break room anyway. If the company subscribes to a few trade-related magazines and leaves them in the break room, that’s nice. If you’re regularly bringing in your own magazines because you think other people will be fascinated by them, that seems like you’re making a mess that someone else needs to clean up out of narcissism (or you’re trying to run a side-business at work hawking beauty products). Read your own stuff on break and then take it back to your desk.

    This reminds me of an incident from a few years back, and I wonder if it’s related. One of my friends took a job as a replacement for a guy who was all-around skeevy. My friend ended up getting so many calls for this skeevy former employee that he had to ask to get the office number changed. One of the calls that prompted this request for a phone-number-change was from a porn company. Apparently, the company had been paying this guy every month to leave a few of their magazines around the men’s bathrooms. Once they found out Mr. Skeevy no longer worked there, they asked my friend to take up the “business” instead (he turned them down). If something like this happened, I could see the company deciding to set a policy against leaving magazines in the break room.

    1. Emily*

      Retail workers almost definitely don’t have desks, and the break room is probably where they store their purses, coats, and other personal effects while they’re out on the floor.

      1. Anna*

        In which case, I’d think the ban probably applies to stuff left where others can easily get at it. Assuming said retail employees have lockers, they’d probably come off as more than a bit nuts for enforcing a ban on something an employee left in their purse which was in turn kept in their locker. (That said, I’m not suggesting that such overzealous enforcement would be illegal.)

        1. Anonymous*

          Barring that, they usually would have a locked cabinet where people can store their handbags and such.

          1. Marie*

            At most of the stores I worked at we had no lockers… the backstore is not always big enought

        2. Spiny*

          I worked for a national clothing chain (they sponsor a parade every year) and no lockers. Just a coatroom where we had to accept responsibility for any loss.
          Plus they required that we use clear purses to help guard against pilferage.
          Clear plastic nicely highlight’s one’s wallet, I think.

      2. Anonymous*

        When I worked in retail, we had lockers. No sensible business large enough to have a corporate headquarters expects a bunch of employees to leave their purses unattended in a break room. Come on now. Even small businesses on tight budgets have more common sense than that.

        1. John Quincy Adding Machine*

          “Even small businesses on tight budgets have more common sense than that.”

          You’d think so, no? But we don’t have lockers, even though we’ve asked for them multiple times (and even offered to pay for them). As it is now, every few weeks or so there’s a notice on the staff washroom door (where we have to keep our bags/coats) saying something like, “Someone stole Jeff’s new headphones! I hope you enjoy them, jerk!”.

          1. KellyK*

            Wow, that’s pretty crappy!

            Can you leave your personal belongings in the car and keep just your keys in your pocket?

              1. Kelly O*

                And that you work in an area where it’s reasonably safe to leave things locked in the trunk…

          2. Emily*

            Yep, I worked at a major retail clothing chain in a mall, a major national sandwich shop, and two locations of a major national pizza chain, and in no instance was there any locked place to put our things. My favorite hoodie was stolen from one of the pizza places. I put up signs pleading its return to no avail. It’s been like 8 years and I still miss it.

            1. twentymilehike*

              Ugh I know the feeling!

              I briefly worked at a bank in college. It was the kind of bank that had the thick Lexan and locked doors separating the tellers from the public. I left a sweater once on the teller side overnight … never to be seen again. Sad when you can’t even trust the staff at a BANK. I still miss that sweater, too!

              1. Sandrine*

                This is exactly why I always go to work with as little clothing as can be allowed (weather permitting, of course, I always stay decent :D ) … and the smallest bag possible. ID, phone, travel pass, money, work pass, keys.

                At my current job, it’s good because I do have a desk and I’m in a corner anyway, so anyone not from our team going through the desks would look very very suspicious and would be caught right away :D .

                1. John Quincy Adding Machine*

                  Yes, I do the same. I live close enough to work to walk, so the only things I ever carry are, pretty much, keys and cellphone. I don’t even bring a change of clothes, since I once had my favourite pair of jeans stolen from a staff room. :(

    2. Kelly*

      My sister works at a restaurant part of a hotel. The wait staff is usually the best paid hotel employees because of tips. One night her and some friends were going out. One friend bought her bag in but forgot to clean out her wallet. She found over a hundred dollars in cash missing. They don’t have lockers to put their bags in, so they think one of the housecleaning people opened the friend’s purse and stole her cash. There’s no way to prove it because there weren’t any cameras there.

  9. RJ*

    Most employee breakrooms have lockers to protect the employees’ personal belongings. That’s where reading material should be stored at non-break times.

  10. KT*

    I think most of the posters have hit the nail on the head when they say there was probably one isolated incident. However, in this case, it probably is easier to ban everything then to pick and choose (could you imagine having to show your book/magazine to your boss before entering the breakroom). “Offensive material” is so subjective. Some people would find Harry Potter offensive, and some people think pornography is fine art.

    I do find the fact they are “protecting” younger employees to be very bizarre. If, as you mention, all employees are over 18 then all should be treated equally–as adults.

    Also, as Tara B. also mentioned, if you are working in retail the concern might actually be theft. I used to work in a retail store and they banned magazines and books in the lunchroom simply because there was no way to identify what people brought in from home and what was “borrowed” from the store.

    1. jmkenrick*

      One of the perks of working at Borders was that they would let us borrow books. (Of course, you had to sign them out and return them in pristine condition, but still. Loved it.)

        1. jmkenrick*

          Aside from shelving, working at Borders was one of my favorite jobs. Especially working behind the info counter. You would be surprised how many people would just come in and annouce they needed a book for a flight and do I have any recommendations?

          But shelving sucks. It requires *just enough* thinking so that you can’t just zone out and daydream the whole time, but not enough to actually be interesting.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Ooooh, I want to hear more about this! When people asked for recommendations, was it hard to figure what they would like, or did you just suggest books you personally liked?

            1. De Minimis*

              We usually would pay attention to book coverage in the newspapers and especially NPR, because most of the time people would come in asking for those titles.

              I was an English major so I was able to point people to certain titles, also after working there a while I became more familiar with a lot of titles so I could point people to certain types of books even if they weren’t things I’d read myself.

              1. LPBB*

                That’s the approach I usually took. I also tried to stay up on what was hot on the book clubs circuit. My bookstore was right below a women’s gym, so we would get a lot of soccer moms come in and ask for recommendations. Usually if you asked what they had read before, they’d generally run down a list of generic book club titles. I’d usually suggest one of the book club books they hadn’t mentioned.

                I read widely, but for some reason a lot of the book club books were never ones I wanted to read. Very rarely was I ever able to get one of those kinds of customers to venture off the “safe” path. I *hate* experimental fiction, so it’s not like I was suggesting Finngegan’s Wake, just something that wasn’t being read by every single book club in town!

            2. Emily, admin extraordinaire*

              When I worked in a bookstore and was asked for recommendations, I’d ask what books the person had already read and liked, then went from there. Usually people were asking for gifts, i.e. “I have a 10-year-old daughter who loves to read, what should I buy her?” and I’d ask if she liked fantasy or mysteries or, etc., and if she’d already read Harry Potter, had she tried Robin McKinley or Eva Ibbotson, etc. I also kept up on new publications and bestseller lists, and made sure to read Publisher’s Weekly’s reviews. And then, of course, I read a lot myself (but I always did, so that was no chore :), but my store allowed us to check books out as well which made it easier), and I tried to do it widely across the store, so I could handsell books for kids, books for young adults, books for grandmothers, books for sports fans, whatever .

              One of my favorite things was when a customer would come in and let me know how much they’d enjoyed a book I’d recommended. Absolutely made my day!

            3. JT*

              Giving recommendations of books is an area of practice for librarians called (in the jargon) “reader’s advisory.” And there are resources for helping with that, such as the reviews in Library Journal. Good e-commerce sites such as are also a resource (though not one that might be allowed in a Borders) – they pull together recommendations based on buying patterns of large numbers of people.

              1. LPBB*

                Heh, I was so frustrated by dealing with customers that I wrote a small screed about reader’s advisory for one of my first assignments in the gateway class for my MLS. It’s amazing how many people seem to have no idea of how to choose a book for themselves or even just assess a book. My screed was about how librarians should be coaching patrons to learn to fish, rather than handing fish to them.

                As the bookstore job recedes into the distant path, I’ve relaxed a bit on that. But I still think that it would be helpful, if only to take some pressure off of bookstore staff who actually have lives outside the bookstore, some are even going to grad school and don’t have time for pleasure reading, and have not actually read every single title in the store and cannot give you an impromptu book report so you can decide whether or not it’s for you.

    2. -X-*

      @KT Part of being a boss, or being a good employee is making subjective decisions. Not every workplace needs to be governed by explicit black/white rules and treating people as adults can mean that we use some degree of subjectivity – “Don’t leave material that is likely offensive to other employees in the break room. Some examples are sexually explicit fiction and partisan political materials.”

      This might not work in a retail environment with low wage staff, but in an organization mainly of professionals this could work fine.

      1. Laura L*

        Why do you think this policy would work better in a professional setting than in ” retail environment with low wage staff”?

        1. JT*

          Because professionals in many fields have to exercise greater judgement or make complex decisions.

  11. De Minimis*

    Another former Borders employee here.

    I didn’t mind shelving except for the Art/Photography books–they were often oversizd so it was hard to manage them and shift them around on the shelves. The best part was definitely working the info desk since that was where I was really able to shine as far as finding books and other things for people. Working the register was my least favorite since that was usually where you had to deal with upset or angry people.

    I worked at two different stores in two different cities, I enjoyed the first one for the most part because the customers were more likely to be “book people.” The second store was one where books were more of an afterthought and the focus was on media, the inventory people did not seem to do a good job of keeping things stocked to where we could locate them for customers. Most of the time we would have to special order items even if our system said something was available in the store. The store was just a mess and it was hard to enjoy working there due to the lack of support.

    But I loved the discounts and the policy about borrowing books. I also remember that if we brought a book to work we had to have a supervisor put a sticker on it and had to show it to them upon arriving or leaving the store so they could verify that it wasn’t a book from the store.

    1. Anon2*

      “Working the register was my least favorite since that was usually where you had to deal with upset or angry people.”

      I worked at Borders for a Christmas season once and I enjoyed just doing the register. My best day was when the next guy in line came up and said he was happy he got me because he’d been watching and I was the fastest. LOL

      I was just working there p/t for a few months, so take this with a grain of salt, but I never encountered any angry or upset people.

      1. De Minimis*

        I think during the holidays the register is probably different since it’s just people making their purchases and wanting to get out of there. The rest of the time the register was the main point of contact for returns, and that is usually where a lot of the conflict would occur, due to people trying to return things that we couldn’t accept [especially books in poor condition.] It was also where most of the various scams would be attempted, and that wasn’t fun to deal with either. The register person was the store’s only real line of defense in a lot of those areas, so that made it tough. I always disliked working there for that reason, it seemed to be the focal point for the more stressful parts of retail work.

        The info desk was the best place for sure, I would have to deal with the occasional strange person, but that usually at least made for an interesting story. I worked there during an election year and we did sometimes have people wanting to yell or complain about some of the political books, but that too was entertaining in limited doses.

        1. Anonymous*

          Another former book store employee here! I loved checking out books and enjoyed cleaning up the shelves. . . remember faceouts and endcaps? Did not enjoy how many books were trashed – too expensive to send them back to the distributors, so oftentimes they had to be destroyed.

  12. Liz in the City*

    I worked in Borders for a few months myself. Overall, it was a good experience, though I never did the “borrow from us” policy (too worried I’d end up ruining the book and having to pay for it). I liked taking the free galleys that would never be sold though.

    As for recommendations, that’s where it helped to know what every employee in the store liked to read AND what the most popular releases were, so if a customer came in and said, “I like fantasy,” you could point them in the right direction. I turned a few people on to my favorite syndicated humorist, plus I read a ton of YA lit while I worked there.

  13. Anonymous*

    I worked in an independent (but HUGE) bookstore for a couple months, and it was so much fun. I did events, though, so I got to meet tons of authors and did less customer interactions – though I was always on the floor, so I learned the basics, like looking up books and taking customers to this section. Sometimes people would stop me in the middle of setting up chairs to ask for book recs.
    My big take-away was don’t ever host an event for knitters.

      1. Anonymous*

        Knitters, you see, don’t stand. If there are about 150 people, and one person working the event (we slightly underestimated the size and my coworker was late) they will ask multiple people for more chairs and then 5 minutes later, not seeing more, walk downstairs to complain at the greet desk (this happened twice). We finally had to announce that no more chairs will be put out because FIRE HAZARD and they glared.

        It was partly our fault because we had NO IDEA this event would be so huge, mind you, but it was the grumpiest crowd I’ve ever seen. And we wouldn’t have been able to change the space or the number of chairs had we known.

        One knitter sat down right behind me and complained about a store policy I had just explained (and offered to bend for her), which was the only time something like that happened to me there.

        They were also a little bit fanatical about the author, which was kind of a good thing – energetic crowd! – and also kind of a hassle – they didn’t want to stand in line, they were upset about the space, they were very, very hard to organize, and they seemed to take it personally every time I made an announcement. Nearly everyone was just a bit short with me if I had a request for them (please don’t block walkways, may I flap your book, would you like a chair while you wait?). To top it off, the author was a little late due to bad directions. And they all wanted to share personal stories with the author, so the signing took forever. (We try to shorten author interactions if we can – 5 minx 150 people is a lot of minutes! – for both ours’ and the author’s sake. )

        Ug. There was one really awesome British lady there, who was the epitome of eminently practical and very cheerful. She made my day.

        1. Emily, admin extraordinaire*

          Was it for the Yarn Harlot? If so, I’m surprised. Usually we knitters are much more civilized. :)

          1. Anonymous*

            It was for Yarn Harlot! :D She’s hilarious, by the way. I keep hearing knitters are generally civilized, so it may have just been antsy energy about meeting their favorite author.

            1. Anonymous*

              You guys might have fun checking out Knittah Please!, SPUN (Society for the Prevention of Unfinished Needlework) or Rachelle Vasquez. Though you couldn’t leave their work in your break room, you could think about it all day!

          2. Rana*

            That seems to run par for the course with Stephanie’s visits: waaaaaay more people show up than expected, and, yes, they do like to be chatty in the line. As for the standing/sitting thing, I think it might be because it’s harder to knit when you’re standing, and a lot of folks knit at her readings. (Me, I just plop on the ground, but I’m still reasonably flexible and have no shame.)

        2. Spreadsheet Monkey*

          “Knitters, you see, don’t stand.”

          Ha! I just started a part-time job at a national hardware retail store, and Monday night a couple was walking around getting stuff, and the woman was knitting the entire time. She had the skein tucked under her arm. I commented that I was impressed that she could walk and knit at the same time, and she replied, “Oh, yeah, but I can’t chew gum, too. I can only do two things at once.”

    1. jmkenrick*

      I’m so glad my comment prompted a former-bookstore-employee discussussion. Clearly AAM attracts bibliophiles!

  14. Yup*

    My indie bookstore employee story:

    I was taking a phone order and the customer had a first name that was unusual to me. I said, “Oh, spelled like Author So-and-So?” There was a pause and the customer said, “Yes, spelled just like that.” My boss was nearby and asked about the call. Turns out the customer actually *was* Famous Author with Tricky First Name, who lived in a nearby city and ordered all his books from our local shop. (This was in the pre-Amazon days.)

    1. Anonymous*

      One of my coworkers caught a guy casually looking at his favorite series and jumped right in with his “You should read these awesome books!” spiel – then the guy turned around it and it was the author of said series. (I was completely jealous because I, too, love that series!)

  15. Blue Dog*

    Ha! Boss probably got uncomfortable when he walked in and saw someone reading “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

  16. Anonymous*

    The “no books or magazines left in the break room” rule made perfect sense to me when I read the OP, but that’s probably just because every place I’ve ever worked where leaving reading material behind for others was allowed (or at least tolerated) seemed to become a dumping ground. Publications of a particular genre accumulated WAY more quickly than they were removed (if that ever happened) — in my experience, that was usually romance novels and old _Good Housekeeping_-type mags (with a smattering of Amway or other MLM catalogs thrown in), but YMMV.

    In theory, the idea of passing on a book or magazine that you liked but don’t need to hang onto is a good one, and I’m sure some people did benefit (I know I did occasionally). Unfortunately, the ratio of books with broad appeal that get picked up and taken away quickly to those no one wants to be caught reading that sit around for months was pretty low.

  17. Anonymous*

    I am the retail employee who posed the initial question about being told NOT to leave reading materials in the break room. The store is NOT a bookstore. Customers do NOT have access to the store bathrooms. And customers do NOT have access to the break room which is in our stockroom. It’s highly unlikely a customer would access the break room area. One member of the mgt team was leaving general interest women’s magazines in the break room—not Cosmo, not Glamour. Only one magazine was ever left in the break room so it was NOT a clutter issue. And yes, I do think they over reacted to some unknown “incident” at another location. Yes, I do work in a “retail environment with low wage staff”. But there are college grads who work in retail “who can make complex decisions”.

    1. fposte*

      Okay, but was it that you can’t read magazines in the break room or you can’t leave magazines in the breakroom? The former is crazy, but the latter really isn’t.

    2. Anonymous*

      Well now I am confused. You say one general manager was leaving general interest women’s magazines but then say only one was ever left. Are they leaving one or more than one? Either way leaving one can start to someone leaving one and then another leaving one. Before you know it there is a clutter issue. Either there was an incident or they are trying to get ahead of something.
      I do not see the big issue in not leaving your magazine behind for someone else to clean up.

    3. Jamie*

      “And yes, I do think they over reacted to some unknown “incident” at another location. ”

      That’s what this sounds like to me.

      If I had to guess (and what is the internet for except to speculate wildly) I’d say someone at another store left something inappropriate – perhaps it was obscene, a MLM catalog, religious or political literature…whatever…and someone was offended in let’s say Nebraska so logically that means someone in Hawaii can no longer leave a copy of Woman’s Day on a table.

      My Grams used to read Woman’s Day – and even kept a copy by her chair with her crochet. It’s hard to believe that set off a firestorm.

  18. Anonymous*

    Yep, only one magazine left in breakroom at time….Usually left by store mgr. or another member of mgt. team. Also usually taken home by another employee in less than a week. NEVER heard any complaint about “clutter”……
    Turned out the REAL issue was a “racy” TEXT sent to a 18 year old at a DIFFERENT location by another employee…. NOT suppose to have cell phone on sales floor.
    So corporate decided to make ONE general interest women’s magazine left in breakroom as well as one employee leaving a book (usually mystery or sci-fi) in break room to read at lunch an issue……
    Oddly enough, I previously worked at another store with LOTS of 16 year old employees. And the store’s break room was stocked with various DVD’s as well as magazines like People.

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