I want to stop eating lunch every day with my employee

A reader writes:

I have a direct report, “Dan,” who expects to eat lunch with me and another colleague, “Amy,” every day of the week.

We were friendly and ate together a lot before I became his boss, and I would say are generally still friends. I do work hard to be clear on when the boss/buddy line starts and stops.

At any rate, in the name of variety in my week and keeping the aforementioned line intact, I simply can’t eat with him every day. The other colleague mentioned feels the same, although the reporting structure has nothing to do with it for her. How do I encourage him to reset his expectations about us eating together every day? How can I encourage him to venture out without feeling “ditched”?

More background in case it helps:

We sit on the same floor, but most of the communication before lunch occurs over our instant messaging software. It’s a very quiet environment/culture, one where three of us in the lunchroom causes too much noise (and we eat with the door closed). IM allows us to say things without a “shh” repercussion. Maybe some context is lost in this communication platform.

Sometimes Amy will let me know ahead of time that she is not available for lunch. She’s got other plans, or she’s got a meeting, whatever. She will usually let me know as early in the day as possible, and she usually lets Dan know at least one hour before lunch. Dan will let me know anywhere between 15 and 5 minutes before the expected time (11:30) that “Amy is ditching.”

Since I usually know this in advance, I feel like I can’t “ditch” him too. So, I usually eat with him alone then. There are times where it is reversed and I do the ditching and Amy eats alone with him (although she says he never refers to it as ditching when I am not there). If I do know ahead of time that I have a meeting or something, he will generally offer to wait for me until I am free. Or, if I am for sure not going to be available (last week I had lunch with my mom one day), he says “Ok, have fun!” I think when he knows as far in advance as possible, he doesn’t feel ditched or neglected.

He will ask if I’m ready to eat by a simple “Ready?” question around 11:30. Or sometimes, a “I’m heading in.” I guess I just wish it were more a “Hey, can you eat lunch today?” and less expected that it just happen.

Dan is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Very sweet, very positive. Sometimes even unaware of his own performance (or lack thereof). That’s actually something that I know for me is an underlying cause of why I don’t want to eat with him everyday. Now that he reports to me, and I see more of his performance issues, it’s hard to want to walk in the lunch room and have a pleasant/friendly lunchwhen I know I have to address something with him soon. He’s so nice and friendly with everyone; it surprises me that he doesn’t ask others to lunch.

I suppose I should ultimately be flattered that he enjoys my company so much. And it’s not a huge problem in the grand scheme of things, just one of those things that I would love to feel in control of, and not feel guilty for “ditching.”

I think you’ve actually made this into a bigger problem in your head than it needs to be, although I understand how that’s happened.

It’s hard to change a pattern once it’s established without feeling like you’re somehow slighting the other people who are part of that pattern. But I also suspect you’re reading too much into Dan’s use of “ditching.” I doubt he means “ducking out of a presumed obligation to eat with us”; it’s far more likely that he’s just using it to mean “deviating from what we normally do.”

In any case, this really doesn’t have to be a big deal. You just need to explain to Dan that you’re going to change the pattern and why … and as long as you don’t act like it’s a Huge Serious Deal, it’s pretty unlikely that Dan will take it that way.

So just let Dan know that you’re going to be eating with him and Amy less and give a reason. Anything like this would work:

  • “Hey, I’m going to be eating less with you guys because I’m going to walk during lunch / try to unwind from anything work-related during lunch / eat at my desk while I read over XYZ.”
  • “Hey, I’m going to spend more lunches trying to catch up with other departments because I’m realizing that it’s helpful to me to get to know their work better, so don’t plan on me for lunch for a while.”
  • “I know we’ve gotten in the habit of all eating lunch together, but I’m going to pull back a bit so that you’re not stuck always having lunch with your manager.” And if he protests that he doesn’t mind, you can add, “I’d still love to join sometimes — I’ll let you know on days that I can.” (Or even more candid: “I feel that I need to pull back a bit because of the changed relationship, although I’d still love to join you on occasion” … as long you say it in a way that makes it clear that this is about being thoughtful about your relationship and not you being snobby because you now have a more important job.)

And then, after that, if Dan IMs you to say he’s heading to lunch, just tell him to enjoy or say “okay” or whatever. If he asks if you’d like to join him, say yes on occasion and the rest of the time say “no thanks, but go on ahead” or “I have plans today but enjoy” or anything else along those lines.

All of this is just about (a) being straightforward with him so that he understands that you’re changing the pattern — as opposed to just changing it without explanation, which is more likely to leave him feeling bad — and then (b) doing him the courtesy of assuming that he won’t be devastated. Because really, he probably won’t be. (And if he is, then you can explain head-on that yes, the relationship does need to change now that you’re his manager. But again, I don’t think you’ll need to.)

{ 68 comments… read them below }

  1. Betsy

    I have been in this exact situation!

    With us, it wasn’t a group of three, it was the entire team. And the expectation was that we’d all eat together unless we were eating at our desk or had plans with someone else.

    When I wanted to stop doing it, I didn’t make a formal statement of “I will be joining you less often,” I just… stopped joining them as often. I made some plans with other people one week, and used that to reset the expectation of people with the group daily.

    If he says, “Ready?” I would just say, “Actually, I’ve got other plans today. Some other day!” If you’re really concerned he needs the advance warning, I’d make early plans, and let him know as you’re heading out. I’d try to phrase it not in a way that sounds like I’m begging off an invitation, but letting him know your schedule: “I’m heading out for lunch. I should be back by 1. Let me know if you’re still on track with XYZ?”

    I think that if you just treat this as a natural change and not a deliberate decision, it will minimize the stress for everyone. This way, it seems like you’re not choosing to eat with him less, you’re just doing other things more.

    1. OP

      Thanks for your insight, Betsy. It helped reading that someone else has been in the situation too. I like the approach and will try it!

  2. KarenT

    I think you’ve identified for yourself why eating lunch with Dan every day is a bad idea–it implies a friend status, but you have to address some performance issues with him. Blurring the lines between friend and direct report make this more complicated.
    Can you eat your desk? I’d just tell him you can’t eat lunch with them everyday but would love to catch up every once in a while.

    1. OP

      Hi KarenT, thanks. Yes-I can eat at my desk. I agree this approach makes sense, while showing that I still do enjoy his company over lunch.

  3. PPK

    In my general experience, things like this ebb and flow. There’s sort of the Golden Age where the event (lunch, snack time, whatever) happens at an expected time with expected people and it’s rather great. Eventually something disrupts it and there might be a period of “Oh no, but that’s just what we do — change is bad” and then things morph into something else. So yes, you might be changing things, but it’s not the end of the world.

    Also, abbreviating, “Hey it’s lunch time, are you ready and interested in eating lunch together like we normally do?” into “Ready?” is super common around my work area (for better or worse). We often walk to another area for ice and one guy commonly just walks past your door and shakes his cup that has the remnants of ice from the last trip. There was a running joke about flattening “Hey, did you go to eat yet?” into “Jeat?” (mush: did you eat? together). I’ve done it with coworkers myself — changing “Hey, would you like to take a break and take a walk with me?” into “Walk?” I think it’s just a natural fall out from seeing and doing the same thing with people everyday.

  4. some1

    I’ve brought this up on the blog before, but I had a sup at an old job who had lunch with one of my counterparts on the regular, but not the rest of us (my sup came from another dept and they had already been friends for years).

    I didn’t really want to eat lunch with either one, but it was one example of how my sup favored that employee. If you have other reports besides Dan, you can point out the perceived favoritism. Even if you don’t have any other reports, your other colleagues will no doubt notice you having lunch all the time and will wonder about the perceived favoritism, too.

    1. jmkenrick

      Sort of on this point – is Amy also one of your reports? Because if so, I’m not sure how appropriate it is to be discussing the lunch issue with her like this.

            1. "Dan"

              What? I’m not sure who you sir or madame or what kind of trickery you intend to pull, but I can assure all of you kind readers that I am in fact, the “Dan” in question.

                1. Jessa

                  Thank you all so much for making me snork Pepsi both up my nose and over my keyboard. This is hilarious.

    2. Colette

      Another option would be to tell Dan that you want to open up the lunch to anyone else on the team who wants to join. That would minimize the suspicions of favoritism, and would also make it less noticeable when you aren’t able to make it.

  5. Yup

    Couple of thoughts:

    Some people are creatures of habit and just easily slip into a groove. Dan might enjoy the familiarity but that doesn’t mean he’ll be upset if you change it up. If he’s a routine-minded guy, he’ll just develop another one that suits.

    There might be elements of everyone being overly polite and considerate here. Amy’s IMing so her absence isn’t unexpected, Dan is stopping by so you don’t feel forgotten, you’re worried about declining and leaving him solo. This might be a group of exceptionally considerate people accidentally stuck a politeness spiral that needs a little shake for everyone to realize, Oh hey, it’s all cool, no one minds if I do X instead.

    I’ve worked with a couple of people for whom lunch planning took on inordinate significance because they were… well, kind of bored during the day. Seriously, they’d start asking people at 9 am “what are we doing for lunch today” because that was the highlight. If this is Dan, make sure he’s got enough interesting work and interaction with others to keep the energy up.

    1. The IT Manager

      Ha! I worked at a place in the lieteral middle of nowhere where the only place to eat lunch was the cafeteria. People would start planning, when to eat lunch first thing in the morning.

      It was a boredom/only thing to look forward to during the day kind of thing.

      1. Judy

        My husband worked in a group that had a list of restaurants, and they rolled dice right before leaving to decide where to go. 2D6 and a list of 12 restaurants and you’re good to go.

        1. Mystic

          But wait! Each restaurant doesn’t have an equal chance with 2D6! There are 36 different ways the dice could land, only one of them equals 2, one equals 12, and six of them result in 7! You are much more likely to roll a 7 than a 2 or 12, and 1 is impossible!

          You are much better off using a 1D12 to randomly decide between twelve options :)

          1. Jessa

            You beat me to it, about the odds thing, and the you can’t roll a one on 2d6.

            Honestly though I have a nice random number thing/dice roller on my android phone. I’m sure you can get one if you have an iFruit product too. You can plug in how many on your list and it will pick a number from that range. The dice roller was a free programme and has a FULL set of dice from d3 all the way up to d100. So you don’t even have to have a physical dice set, although you can practically get them in any superstore now, you don’t have to go to a fancy gaming store to find them. Heck I found some in Walmart.

    2. Jessa

      And I know this is possibly weird, but you may find out that Dan thinks he has to eat with you since he started doing that, and doesn’t realise it’s optional to spend time with the boss.

      1. Leslie Yep

        Yes! Exactly what I was coming here to write. I would feel a little awkward telling my boss I didn’t want to sit with her at lunch, if that’s what we’d been doing.

        Maybe it would be possible to institute one team social lunch a week that EVERYONE commits to. We have done that on my team (when I worked in a place with most of my colleagues) and it was a blast to have a specific time to connect instead of a bunch of 5 minute conversations.

    3. OP

      Yup, you are muy insightful. I definitely think we all are trying to be overly polite and considerate. Part of that is the nature of our company’s business. Our product (service) really boils down to a way of treating people with the utmost respect. So, we try to live the brand every day.

      I also think that lunch could be the highlight of Dan’s day. We are currently restructuring his position, so hopefully the amount of interesting work and interaction with others will increase.

      If we are both unavailable, he does just eat at his desk. Considering he knows several people throughout the organization and has no problem socializing with them, I guess I’m mostly befuddled that he wouldn’t ask others to lunch from time to time. But, again, as you noted, Yup, it could just be routine.

      1. Jazzy Red

        You could also ask others to join you. Then when you’re not there, Dan still has someone to eat with. (Why does this remind me of passing the baby around at family functions?)

        1. OP #2/Amy

          Good idea. We’ve done this in the past, whether organizing a bunch of folks to go out to lunch or just huddle in the tiny lunchroom, but lately have lapsed on this because it seems one or the other of us is always the organizer–never Dan. Dan just doesn’t get groups together himself, or even just ask one new person to join in or go somewhere. It’s us, or desk-eating, it seems.

          Might just be the nature of the department or company as a whole that most of us stay in our ruts unless someone makes a concerted effort to herd cats. Or our trio is perceived as an invite-only clique, which would suck.

          Back to making a concerted effort (no dropping the baby)! I’ve shot myself in the foot by staying isolated at previous jobs, so I do like to get to know people in other departments anyway. Though as the OP stated in another comment, I’m an introvert too, so I’m deliberately coming out of my shell for this. I guess it can get tiring having the onus of expectations and arranging things most of the time.

  6. Ann O'Nemity

    “I simply can’t eat with him every day. The other colleague mentioned feels the same, although the reporting structure has nothing to do with it for her.” Does this mean Amy doesn’t want to eat with Dan either?

    If so, I think it will be more difficult for the OP and Amy to cut Dan out of the lunch routine while they continue without him. The supervisor / perceived favoritism justification may be a good solution.

    1. Ruffingit

      It doesn’t appear to me that Amy and the OP want to cut Dan out so they can eat together without him, I think it’s just more a sense of not wanting to feel like they have to eat as a group every single day.

      1. OP#2/Amy

        Yes, this is correct.

        Included is the sense that I’m perceived as “ditching” when I sometimes have other things to do. Perhaps I should never have found that out, but I have, and it bugs.

        1. OP

          Yes, OP #2 and I do not simply wish to cut Dan out of it. And, OP #2, public apology to you for sharing “ditched.” Based on the insights from the community here, you should not let it bug. And, insights from Ask a Manager herself, we are both making a bigger deal out of it than necessary. :)

          1. OP#2/Amy

            All’s well–in the end it’s better to know so we know how to address things, including that we’re overthinking these same things!

  7. The IT Manager

    … where three of us in the lunchroom causes too much noise (and we eat with the door closed).

    Unfortunately it sounds like the enviroment makes this a bigger issue. Small lunchroom, usually no one else in the lunchroom to sit with instead, etc. But I agree that you should consider making it about avoiding the appearance of favoritism and asking Dan to go ahead without you on some days and decline. Or perhaps make plans in advance to eat together only one or two days a week.

  8. Another English Major

    I had a similar situation, but with a peer (I don’t manage anybody). When an acquaintance from old job started working at new job, she wanted to eat lunch together everyday.. I didn’t mind the first week while she got her bearings but then I realized she wanted to lunch together all the time. I’m introverted and like to lunch alone at work and was agonizing over how to explain it without her thinking it was personal.

    Once I told her though it was no big deal and she understood. Now we go out for lunch occasionally and get together for happy hours after work. Alison is right that many times we make this a bigger deal in our heads. If you explain to your report that you’re nut as free anymore for lunch and that you have to be careful about the appearance of favoritism, he will most likely understand.

  9. Jamie

    I also think this is probably a much bigger deal in the OPs head – which isn’t a shot since I tend to over think things so I totally get it.

    It’s hard to break patterns, but sometimes when they are broken everyone is kind of relieved…but a lot of people just go with the status quo until someone else changes it up.

    1. OP

      Thanks, Jamie. Here’s to the over-thinkers! After reading all this, I am definitely shifting my mindset to this not being as big of a deal as I made it out to be. Thank you to you, Alison, and everyone for helping shift my reality back to center.

  10. BW

    OP, just be straightforward with Dan like others have suggested. Who knows, maybe Dan will actually be relieved (“Once, just once, I would sooooo like to eat my lunch sitting on a park bench quietly by myself, but Amy and my new manager always expect me to go with them!”)

  11. Elaine

    I couldn’t even eat lunch every day with my husband, let alone a colleague/subordinate. Yikes! But then, I like my alone time.

    1. Ruffingit

      I do too. I use my lunch hours to recharge myself for the afternoon. I need to have some alone time to just breathe, read, surf the Internet, maybe catch a quick nap. I can’t be with people all the time, it wears me out.

      1. KJR

        So glad to hear others say this…I thought there was something wrong with me! I usually head to the gym by myself, work up a good sweat, then come back refreshed. Even on the days when I don’t go to the gym, I do something by myself, even if it’s just walk around the mall or Target or something. I just need that hour to decompress. Being with people can wear me out too!

        1. Ann Furthermore

          Oh, I’m right there with you. I’ve traveled quite a bit this year, and one of the challenges is how to tell people, in a polite way, “No, I really don’t want to have dinner with you. I just spent 10 hours trapped with you in a conference room.” By the end of the day, I’m longing for alone time — because that’s my personality, and also because living in a house with a husband, 2 kids, and a mother-in-law pretty much ensures that I’m never alone. Don’t get me wrong — I love them all dearly, and I wouldn’t change anything about the situation, but sometimes it hits me that I’m never, ever, alone in my own house. So if I have a whole hotel room to myself for a week, I want to take advantage of that.

          1. Pam

            If you ever figure this out, let me know. The conversation is a lot more difficult if you’re traveling with a group (i.e. just 1 rental car for multiple people). I love checking out quirky small places that aren’t good for groups when I travel alone.

        2. Elizabeth West

          If I’m working on a book, I write on my lunch, so I have to be by myself. At Exjob, I also enjoyed sitting with the shop guys so I would compromise by taking my computer to the break room about ten or fifteen minutes before they went back to work. Then I got to talk with them a little while fixing my lunch, and by the time it was ready, they were leaving. I’d sit down and plug in the headphones and write until lunch was over, then go back to work.

          It also helped me decompress from being on the phone all the time (front desk).

    2. OP

      Awesome point, Elaine and others. I like my alone time too. I actually think the three of us do (me, Dan and Amy) since we’re all a bit introverted.

  12. Joey

    I’m worried for you. If you can’t figure out how to address something as benign as breaking your lunch routine I worry about your ability to address much more important issues that require tough discussions

    1. Kelly L.

      Seems unnecessarily snarky, especially as the OP is being upbeat and rational throughout the comments.

    2. Cath@VWXYNot?

      I have to admit that I had (a milder version of) the same reaction at first. However, after reading further into the comments, I changed my mind – it sounds like the OP might be fairly new to management, and I think asking for advice on a small issue bodes well for his/her ability to grow into the job and handle the bigger issues well later.

  13. Blue Dog

    I believe in being direct about certain things at work — expectations, feedback, performance reviews. However, I don’t believe confession is good for the soul when it involves personal matters, relationships, and issues of tact.

    Accordingly, I would not have an official discussion with them or set a policy about not joining them or anything of that nature. I would just do a slow, gentle drift (i.e., can’t today, joining my wife/husband/roommate, gotta hit the bank, gonna go later – I had a big breakfast, standing plans on Tuesdays and Thursdays, etc.).

    No reason to pick that scab if you don’t have to.

    1. Anonymous

      I agree with the above – no need for a pronouncement which will make it a bigger deal than it needs to be — change by doing. Pick a day and let both Amy and Dan know that morning: “I’m eating at my desk today, gotta plow thru some work”. Repeat as needed and also try: “I’m having lunch with X today, we have to chat about the Smith project”.

      the only issue I see is if you and Amy want to eat without Dan because you would prefer to not have him there. That seems like it would be kinda awkward and I could see where he;d feel a little hurt about that.

  14. Working Girl

    Email them both and let them know you have added responsibilities you need to tend to on lunch so you won’t be able to join them for lunch everyday. Make sure you don’t point to just Dan. No need to tell them what it is you are doing as Dan might offer to go with you to help you. You should also let Dan know ways he can improve before you have to fire him.

    1. OP

      Thanks for your thoughts, Working Girl. I continue to work with Dan regularly and often on non-lunch related issues to help him improve and succeed in his role.

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