can I eat at my desk at my first internship?

A reader writes:

I’m a college student headed to my first internship this summer and your blog has been so helpful in the preparation for that. I wrote a great cover letter and resume thanks to your advice, which was so different from our career center, and I know that helped me get the position. Thank you.

My question is about eating lunch or taking breaks at my desk. If I choose to spend some or all of my lunch break at my desk, will it look bad if I’m visibly at my desk not working? You know, eating a sandwich and reading a book or checking Facebook. Or should I opt to eat elsewhere/work through lunch/some other option? All of my past jobs have been retail or the like where there were mandated break times, but I’m not sure how that whole thing works in an office. (If it helps, I’m going to work for a large corporation, being paid hourly).

It very much depends on the culture in your particular office. In some offices, it’s very common for people to eat at their desks. In others, it’s not done, or it’s not done by people without their own offices, or it’s not done by people with desks that are in areas that visitors see when they first walk in (so that visitors to the office don’t see people snacking and Facebooking).

It’s totally okay to just ask your boss or a friendly coworker how this works in your office. On your first day, it’s completely find to say something like, “Can you tell me how lunch works? Is there a specific time I should go, and should I let anyone know I’m leaving the office? And do people typically eat at their desks, or somewhere else?”

On the subject of breaks … breaks in professional jobs don’t usually work the way they do in retail jobs. In retail, it’s common to have official 10-minute breaks and the like. That’s not typical in professional jobs. Instead, you’re expected to manage your own time. If you check your personal email or read a news article for a few minutes, it won’t be a big deal in most jobs — but it’s unlikely to be an official break.

And actually, I wouldn’t even check your gmail or read a random news article until you have a better idea of what your office culture is like and until you’ve established yourself as someone who has a work ethic and doesn’t goof off. Give yourself at least a few weeks to become more of a known quantity and to get a feel for the expectations in the culture you’re working in first.

And as for Facebook — honestly, I’d stay off of Facebook and its ilk altogether while you’re at work, especially since it’s your first professional job. Some managers won’t care if you spend a couple of minutes on it or if you’re on it during lunch, but people walking by your desk won’t necessarily know that you’re taking lunch at that moment and instead will just think you’re surfing Facebook while you should be working. That’s bad for your reputation.

All this is especially true since you’re being paid hourly, which means that there’s more likely to be an expectation that when you’re at work, you’re spending all the minutes that you’re being paid for capital-W Working.

But again, spend some time watching the culture while you’re establishing yourself as a hard worker, and over time you should get a feel for what your office considers reasonable.

{ 124 comments… read them below }

  1. The Cosmic Avenger*

    The only thing I have to add to Alison’s advice is that, if you ask a co-worker, then go ahead and double-check with your boss afterwards, too. Your perfectly nice and helpful coworker may be looking at it from their viewpoint of being a long-term salaried employee, and they might be given a lot more latitude than an intern. (Or they might be trying to sabotage the new guy, as we have learned from reading Senior Blogger Green’s blog. Unlikely, but still possible, and important to consider.) The main thing is that you want to know how your boss feels about it, since they’re the person you ultimately have to answer to at work.

    1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

      Yes. I do not in any way monitor my employees lunches, because it has never, ever been a problem. People use good judgment. We therefore have no articulated rules…but that doesn’t mean there aren’t norms. I just had to tell a pet time intern that taking a daily 1.5 hour lunch is not okay. She saw someone else leave for lunch and return 2.5 hours later. That person had a meeting at lunch with key donors, and it was at a restaurant 20 minutes away. The intern is totally new to the world of professional work, and had no idea that this situation did not apply to her. She though her lunch break was short.

    2. Graciosa*

      Whenever new people join my team, I will get a bunch of questions in their first few months about things that everyone else already knows. I also get an occasional profusive apology for a request to leave an hour early for a medical appointment, or work from home in the morning until the water heater repairman is finished.

      I regard the questions as a really good sign. It means that the individual cares enough about doing a good job to ask – and ask the only person who can speak with authority about what your manager thinks.

  2. Anonymusketeer*

    My manager has advised me not to eat or use my phone at my desk because Big Boss really hates seeing people on their phones at work and might not realize that it’s noon and I’m taking a break rather than goofing off. I keep trying to get comfortable eating in our little cafeteria area, but desk eating is so ingrained in me that I feel totally exposed and uncomfortable.

    1. AnonaMoose*

      Yup. And that goes double for constantly checking your phone for texts, email, etc. People really seem to hate seeing others on their phone. And because you can’t say ‘hey, I’m on ME time’ each time, its easier to just put it away and then find a nice cozy spot elsewhere to check your phone.

      Also, don’t ever online shop while you’re working. As the new intern you will then be deemed a flake. I have seen this happen many times, even when said flake’s boss was totally okay with it. It’s stupid, I know.

  3. Kai*

    Such a good question! OP, I would add that if you eat at your desk, people are likely to come by during your lunch and ask you to run off 30 copies of a document right this minute, or ask you to come to their office to help them with something, or whatever, because they don’t realize that you’re taking a break. If you want to make sure you can have your lunch in peace, I’d take your lunch elsewhere.

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      +a million!

      You could be sinking your teeth into that sandwich, and someone will choose that EXACT moment to say, “I have a question for you!” Then they stand there until you finish the bite, waiting for you to answer.

      This is why I leave my desk for lunch whenEVER possible. If you’re on a budget and need to bring your lunch every day, here’s hoping there’s a break room or other place for you to eat it without being bothered!

      1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

        At my summer college job (data entry) I relished the chance to get away from my desk at lunch. It was a cube in the middle of a room, and the break room had no windows, while it was meanwhile beautiful and summery outside. I took to carrying my lunch and a book across the parking lot and sitting under a tree where probably no one ever sat before or since… it baffled me how everyone else seemed content to stay in the cave of a corporate building all day.

        If it had been a job where making connections with other coworkers was important, I would have stayed in the break room in hopes of chatting with people – but this was strictly a way for me to earn some money, not a step along my career path.

        1. the_scientist*

          Agreed, OP. Don’t underestimate the value of getting to step away from your desk for a little while! It’s a great mental refreshment mid-way through the day, although I understand that it’s tricky in offices where there is literally nowhere else to eat. Eating in the servery (if one exists) can also be a great way to meet other people in different departments, even other interns, and you never know who might become a great work friend or mentor :)

        2. Cherry Scary*

          +1 to this! I discovered at my internship that there was a food truck rally every week a few blocks from work. I would head out for lunch, go for a nice walk, and try some awesome food. I invited other interns (and occasionally was joined by some of my other coworkers!) to join me.

    2. AndersonDarling*

      Or if you eat at your desk, have your lunch/empty tupperware in front of you so co-workers can see that you are taking lunch. I keep my tupperware out until my 30 min are over so people understand why I am looking at google news and AAM.

      1. Arjay*

        Our hourly staff has 5×7 laminated cards that say 10 minute break on one side and lunch break on the other. Posted conspicuously near their computer, it’s easier to tell who’s supposed to be working or not.

    3. The Other Dawn*

      I would add, too, that she’s non-exempt and it’s mandated that a non-exempt employee take at least a 30 minute lunch (is that by state or across the board?). So if she’s on an unpaid lunch and is eating at her desk and then someone asks her for help, copies, etc., she could get into a situation where she isn’t truly getting her lunch break, which could create problems for the company.

      1. tesyaa*

        Good point. My company provides training to managers that we have to ensure our non-exempts are taking their 30 minutes.

      2. Natalie*

        20ish states require a meal break in some fashion, but there’s no federal law. That said, some larger companies may have an across the board policy even if some of their operations are in states that don’t require a meal break. Mine does, essentially because it’s easier to have a policy that conforms with the strictest state law than to police compliance with dozens of different states.

      3. kitty*

        Good point. At one of my internships, I was the only person in the department that was hourly and non-exempt, and a lot of (salaried, exempt) people I worked with didn’t think twice before interrupting my mandated break, just because they didn’t realize or it wasn’t at the front of their mind that I legally required a lunch break.

        1. Stranger than fiction*

          Geesh I would think that whether you’re salaried or not people would have the decency to respect your lunch. At least when people come by my office when I’m eating they have the courtesy to say “oh are you at lunch?” And then I say “yes, piss off” (not really I wish) or No if working but just grazing on the remainder of my lunch, in which case of course I ask what they need.

          pS I accidentally put my lunch in the freezer today so I’m waiting for it to thaw at the moment, sigh

      4. Partly Cloudy*

        And regardless of what state she’s in, if she ends up working while off the clock, that’s bad too (for her and for the company). She’s supposed to be paid for all her work time, whether or not a break is required.

    4. Brandy*

      Here we are encouraged to eat at our desk as we don’t have room for a breakroom. But since we’re on a timeclock on the computer (and we each have 2 monitors) its common to have the timeclock on one monitor showing and maybe have a postit or sign on your desk saying on break. If we even think someone is, we ask “are you on break, or luinch” and if so we come back later.

      1. gsa*

        I was thinking about something silimar to a sign/post it.

        When I was at University, most people had a grease board on their dorm room door, I believe this is where Zuckerburg got his idea…

        You could state, in/out, in class, at lunch/ dnfd, etc.

        Other people made pie chart, we we using parchment with ink and quill back then… :D and would push pin their “status”…

    5. Amber Rose*

      I realized pretty fast at my last job that while eating at my desk was fine, if I didn’t actually leave the building, nobody else would answer the phone or take messages.

      I also realized that it sucks to spill mustard on the file you’re working on. There’s just never enough desk space. I could have three desks and still no space.

    6. Mallory Janis Ian*

      OMG, yes! In my old job, my office was in the former break room — as in, they converted the break room into an office immediately before my arrival because it was the only place remaining to put a new hire. So the kitchen, copy machine, and women’s restroom were all accessed through my office door.

      So when I took lunch at my desk, I’d do everything I could to signal that I was on downtime: pull the door mostly to, dim the light, have a plate full of food on my desk, and be reading a book. People would come in and say, “Oh, you’re on lunch, aren’t you?” But they would *still* say, “Well, as long as I’m here, let me just ask you a quick question.”

      A quick question usually leads to about 10 minutes of interaction, so if you get two or three people who do that, it can easily take up half of an hour-long lunch. So, beware the “quick question” trap if you eat at your desk; it could cost you your whole break time.

    7. Elizabeth West*

      Definitely leave your desk during your break. I’ve never been an intern, but I can tell you that if I ate at my desk at Exjob, even off the clock, people would assume I was working. In fact, even when I sat in the break room on my own computer, with headphones on, obviously eating, they would STILL come by and ask me to do stuff! And then get mad when I said I’d take care of it after lunch!

  4. grasshopper*

    I think that it has be mentioned before that internships are often time to be networking, meeting people and getting to know others in the organization outside of your department. Lunch is a great way to do this. If there is a lunch area, eat there to try to strike up conversations with people. Or, try to set up lunch dates with people that you’d like to get to know. A lunch date doesn’t even have to mean spending money to eat out, you can always brown-bag in the park. If it is a large corporation, there might be other interns as well who will often have social lunch activities together or perhaps even company wide social events. It might be outside of your comfort zone if you’re not an extrovert, but now is the time to push yourself and make some new connections.

    1. Future Analyst*

      +1. Missing out on the networking aspect of interning would be a huge loss, OP. If you have the opportunity (if office culture doesn’t dictate that everyone sits quietly for the entire day), use your lunch time to get to know different people in the office. It’s a great way to get to know the office culture too… sometimes things are presented one way during interviews/the first week, but hearing from co-workers when they’re not on the clock will give you great insight into how the company actually treats its people.

      1. Meg Murry*

        Another +1 to networking.

        Also, if there is a group of interns that all eat lunch together, there is nothing wrong with doing that some/most days, but if your boss/mentor/someone else in the company invites you to eat with them, don’t pass it up to eat with the interns instead. Networking with the interns can be somewhat useful, but it’s networking with the full time staff that will help far more in the long run.

  5. SerfinUSA*

    In my work group it is common to have a little sign (like a piece of tagboard folded into a three-sided tube) that says ‘at lunch’ on one side and ‘on break’ on another. People set these on a prominent corner of their desks while eating/facebooking/etc on break. It dispels the assumption that people are randomly goofing off, and also helps cut down on interrupted break times since polite people will come back later instead of butting in with something that can wait.

    1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

      That’s a cool strategy! I don’t know that I’d recommend it for a new intern, though, unless it’s already part of the culture.

      1. AdAgencyChick*

        Yeah, it’s an awesome strategy, but probably one you don’t get to implement unless you’re the boss. If the office culture is that anyone sitting at her desk is fair game, it’s going to be damn near impossible for a worker bee, intern or not, to change that. I’m pretty sure putting up a sign like that would get ignored or lots of huffy responses in my office.

        1. Jennifer*

          We have signs (it’s mandated that we have signs, even), but you will still get interrupted. Especially if you are the only one left in the office and they’re desperate, which is most to all of the time.

          I pretty much only eat at my desk if the weather is too horrible to leave the building for that reason.

          1. LBK*

            That doesn’t solve for the perception issue of when someone walks by your desk, glances at your screen and sees you checking email, unless you’re going to shout “I’m on lunch!” at every person who passes by.

            Now, I’m of the opinion that it’s not anyone else’s business what you’re doing anyway, but I can definitely understand the impulse to want to clarify when you’re on your own time vs slacking off.

            1. Koko*

              I think that’s why I don’t like the signs. It implies that it’s OK for people walking by to be paying attention or caring about what their coworkers are doing, because if it wasn’t, you wouldn’t need to make sure that people passing by know you’re on a break. It seems like it encourages a culture where the office busybody feels entitled to start logging other employees’ arrival and departure times.

          2. Lady H*

            After the 5th person has come up and interrupted that person’s lunch break, for a non-exempt person who is only taking 30 minutes, holy crap is a sign such a better solution than wasting what could be half the lunch break (if you factor in heating up food/bathroom break/etc) to explain over and over, no, I’m at lunch, I’ll be available in 20 minutes or whatever. That adds up, and for us introverts, sometimes lunch is the break we need to recharge.

            Thank god I work from home now, I was the only non-exempt one in my old office and the cafeteria was in another building, so I would eat at my desk to save time. I love to cook and making lunches was fun for me, and I just wanted to enjoy my meal in peace. Though I don’t think a sign would have worked at this place, it would be very obvious I was at lunch (monitor off and literally putting food in my mouth) and often people coming up to me would say, “oh, you’re at lunch” and then proceed to ask “a quick question” or decide I must want someone to chat with me and watch me eat.

            Some days I would just go to my car for 30 minutes just to sit in silence, but now I can go the whole day without talking. Glorious!

            1. Purple Dragon*

              Gah ! I hate the “quick question”. Unfortunately where I work people will walk up to me in the lunch room, in the ladies room, in the lift and even as I’m getting in my car over an hour after I was supposed to leave with a “quick question”. Add to that they usually take longer to actually get to the point and ask the question than for me to answer. I hear “can I ask you a quick question” and feel like screaming. No-where is safe !

          3. Anonsie*

            That doesn’t really help when people keep interrupting and you have to keep explaining it

    2. Connie-Lynne*

      I love this and all the other methods folks have shared. So many places don’t have a protocol in place, and it leads to interrupted lunches, etc.

      It makes me feel good to know that there are places where people can establish personal space like this.

  6. hayling*

    This is a great question and great advice. There are a lot of office norms that people don’t know when they’re first starting out (and that definitely vary by company)

    I agree with grasshopper that lunch is a good time to network and meet your coworkers, so I’d encourage you to do that (although I understand if you need some downtime alone)_.

  7. katamia*

    One other thing to consider with regard to culture is that, if it’s a smallish office (or even if it’s a large office but the department you’ll be working in is tight-knit), people might eat together. For my first job out of college, I worked in an office once where everyone would eat together in the conference room and socialize and such. I ate separately (maybe for a million dollars I would have eaten with them, but I couldn’t stand my coworkers and have Issues around eating food where other people can see me in general), but I had people ask me about it and think it was weird.

    It didn’t turn out to be a huge deal because I didn’t stay long (which is a good thing, since they were a terrible employer), but I could easily see it making a difference if it’s in a field you’re interested in and want to keep working in, especially if you decide you want to work for this company after you graduate. I’m not sure how common it is to eat with interns (this company didn’t have any interns, and I didn’t do internships when I was in college), but this is also a possibility. And it’s probably not something people will tell you outright, either–I was told that I could basically do whatever I wanted for lunch as long as I told someone I was leaving and didn’t take too long.

  8. Nanc*

    The answer is great, and you should have this question on a little list of First Day questions along with:
    Where’s the nearest bathroom (that you’re allowed to use–there may a formal or informal “executives only” policy to the nearest)?
    Where’s the drinking fountain?
    Who should you contact and how if you’re ill, delayed/late or have an emergency.
    Where are office supplies? How do you requisition them?
    Where’s the nearest fire extinguisher, fire exit and first aid kit (go ahead and call me Safety Nerd but I’ve needed all of these on the job at one time or another! Ask me about my Parks and Rec career . . . )
    If there’s office coffee/tea, is it free or do you need to contribute?

    Good luck and drop by the open thread on Fridays and let us know how it’s going.

    1. Nanc*

      Left out the all important caveat: these are questions that should be answered during your training/tour on the first day, but in case they’re not, you know what to ask!

    2. AmyNYC*

      If you didn’t already ask in the interviews, what time is lunch and time do people usually leave? (Alison has better wording!)
      My first formal/corporate office job, I showed up at 9, nothing *obvious* happened at lunch time so I quietly ate a granola bar and kept working; again around 6pm I didn’t notice anything and finally asked my supervisor/trainer who shrugged and said “people leave when they leave”

    3. Natalie*

      If you’re planning on using the fridge, are there rules? (Labeling, everything gets thrown out on Friday, the soda on this shelf is for everyone.

    4. Meg Murry*

      Plus – which door is the one nearest the employee parking lot and how do I get there? My first day on a new job I came in the visitor entrance since I didn’t have a badge to get in yet, and when I went to leave from my office (on the far other end of the building) I couldn’t figure out how to find a door out of that building that wasn’t an alarmed emergency exit. I knew there was one, I had seen people going in and out, but I couldn’t figure out how to get there. It was totally not obvious because it involved winding through a cube farm that I hadn’t toured on my first day. I finally found an exit that took me to the far west exit in the building and then I walked to my car in the east parking lot – not a major problem, just amusing more than anything else.

      1. Lady H*

        This is such a good one! (And it reminds me that I’ve always discovered the best shortcuts around town from coworkers who lived near me, so chatting about commute sometimes can come up with useful information and it’s a good small talk chat.) At a job I had in college, I once got trapped in the reception area that I usually entered in (both the front door I was trying leave out of and the door I entered the reception area from the hallway locked for some reason) and I had to drag one of the chairs over to the front desk and climb over the desk to escape. I worried for weeks that there was a security tape of me doing this but thankfully no one ever found out!

    5. Artemesia*

      LOL on fire extinguisher. I have used them 3 times over the course of my life; in each case everyone else stood around saying ‘oh a fire’ while I grabbed an extinguisher and put it out. I have never understood that tendency of people to do nothing when confronted with imminent disaster.

      1. Nanc*

        What drove me nuts is mine always happened in workplaces where we all went through fire extinguisher training! The fire department came out and set all sorts of different fires in our parking lot and we practiced putting them out. It was actually quite a bit of fun!

  9. MaryMary*

    This really does vary office to office. I used to temp in college, and I worked in one office where they insisted I take an hour long lunch break away from my desk. I’ve never run into that again. It only takes me 15 minutes or so to eat, I was bored to tears and would have much rather taken a half hour and left earlier or come in later, but that’s not how it was done at that office.

    People mananging/training interns and new hires: this is a great thing to cover at orientation or on someone’s first day. Eating lunch varies even by office subculture: accounting eats at their desks and perceives anyone who doesn’t as lazy, but marketing goes to lunch as a group and thinks you’re antisocial if you don’t come along. Do the new folks a solid and let them know how it works for your group.

    1. simonthegrey*

      I worked at a place where you got one five minute break, one ten minute break, and one forty-five minute lunch, and you could not change any of those (and I don’t really understand the logic. you were heavily discouraged from using the bathroom unless it was your break, cell phones were forbidden on the premises because we worked with some secure information, and you were not allowed to use the computer for anything but work purposes. That was fine for the lunch and the 10 min break because I would bring a book, but the five minute in the morning? Also you had to sign in and sign out on a paper for each break. It was just a data entry job for me, a temporary thing, and I was so glad to leave!

    2. Nobody*

      Yeah, lunch policies can vary so much that it is a really good idea to ask. At my first internship, the nice admin was showing me around, and when we got to the break room, I asked, “Oh, is this where we eat lunch?” She cringed and explained that the break room is normally only used by the factory workers who don’t have their own desks, and it is considered a major faux pas for someone who has a desk to eat in the break room. She was serious — another new employee did not heed this warning, and the factory workers got very upset about the desk jockey invading their break room.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        At Exjob, most of the desk people went out for lunch. I was one of the very few (mostly the only one) who ate in the break room every day. Well, they got paid more than I did and could afford to go out each day, I guess. Plus I used the time to write a book!

        I had fun eating with the factory people. I’d go in there about fifteen minutes before their break was over and we’d shoot the shit for a while (and they’d take the piss out of me sometimes). But it was fun.

  10. Turanga Leela*

    I second Alison’s advice to stay off of Facebook entirely until you know the office environment better. I’d also stay away from gossip blogs and avoid shopping, instant messaging, chatting, or playing on your phone (to avoid the “those millennials and their phones” thing). Some employers will also monitor your internet use or have access to information that you reach through their computers, so be careful before you access your personal email, bank account, or any social networking site. Many people do these things on their work computers, but it’s worth thinking through this decision.

    For at least your first few weeks, I’d limit your non-work internet use to very grown-up-seeming, work-appropriate sites, like news websites or blogs about the industry you’re working in. Check them only when you’re clearly taking a break (like during lunch) or have no other work to do. It’s easy to relax this policy later if your workplace culture allows for it, but I’d err on the side of being very conservative at first.

    1. Future Analyst*

      Completely agreed about avoiding anything that might paint you as unprofessional– like Alison and others have said, it’s hard to repair your reputation once you’re known as the person who’s “always on facebook” (regardless of how true that statement is).

    2. Chinook*

      “I’d also stay away from gossip blogs and avoid shopping, instant messaging, chatting, or playing on your phone”

      On the same vein, don’t stream music or radio stations through your internet connection. (Atleast in Canada), it eats up bandwidth and can get you a very interesting conversation with either your manager or someone in IT. You wouldn’t be in trouble but… Instead, if you need music, bring in your own source (MP3, phone, clock radio) and pay attention to how others listen to music in your space.

      1. Turanga Leela*

        This definitely applies in the US too.

        Also, clear your browser history, cookies, and other saved information before you leave your job at the end of the summer. I inherited my work computer from a former employee, and when I started using it, I was still signed into her accounts on Facebook, LinkedIn, Amazon, and a bunch of other sites.

        1. Connie-Lynne*

          Ugh, how awful for you! Just reformat your hard drive before you turn your machine in. Best way to avoid accidentally sharing private / personal info!

        2. Elizabeth the Ginger*

          Lucky for her you’re not crazy or a thief. (At least, you don’t seem like one from what I can tell!) You could have wrought much havoc.

          1. Turanga Leela*

            I’m glad I don’t seem like one! I thought about this too—it was such a security risk for her.

        3. Koko*

          Did you not have a personal company login? On most computers cookies will only be stored to a unique browser profile, so by logging in as a different Windows or Mac user, none of the browser logins persist.

          Still a good practice to clear things, but in most cases you’re probably protected as long as IT doesn’t give your login identity to a new employee.

          1. Turanga Leela*

            Nope, no personal login. I think most companies are better about this, but we just had several computers and a generic company login for each one. People didn’t use each other’s computers, and apparently my predecessor didn’t think to clear hers before she left.

    3. Connie-Lynne*

      This. I make this rule for myself the first few weeks at *any* job, and I’ve reached the Director level at various places.

      I stay away from all non-work websites (even news and industry blogs) while at the office during the first couple weeks not only because it’s not “putting my best foot forward,” should someone notice at an inopportune time, but also because it forces me to fill my downtime with work-related investigation and web browsing instead. I even enforce this discipline on myself during WFH days — it helps me to stay focused on work.

    4. Nobody*

      Most companies can track your internet usage. They typically don’t unless they suspect a problem, but my rule of thumb is to pretend that the boss is looking over my shoulder whenever my browser is open. Would I want my boss to see me checking Facebook or shopping for a new swimsuit on company time?

      Be prepared to get really bored sometimes. People can have a tendency to forget about the interns, so there may be times when you have nothing to do. It may be tempting to surf the Internet in those circumstances, but I would advise against it. Try to find something work-related to do, like checking with other employees to see if there’s anything you can do to help them, researching a project or looking at past projects, or just asking another employee if you can shadow him or her for the day.

  11. MaryMary*

    OP, I’d also be careful about checking Facebook or email or whatnot on your phone the first few weeks. You know how “those millennials” are always on their phones (shakes first at cloud/get off my lawn). People who wouldn’t be phased if you sent a quick personal email will be unreasonably annoyed if you shoot off a quick text. See what the office norms are there too.

    My office also has the Facebook Police (much like the PTO Police or Calendar Police) who complain about their coworkers posting on Facebook during the day. So be cautious around who you friend, and how much you’re on the site.

    1. jmkenrick*

      > See what the office norms are there too.

      As a follow-up, if you discover the office norms there are generous (lots of downtime is acceptable, etc.) just…be careful with that. Think to yourself about what seems reasonable. You don’t want to develop bad habits at one role that will be harder to transition away from when you move on.

      And the norms for one level of the hierarchy (for lack of a better word) are going to be different than what’s higher up. Just because some of your colleagues get away with FB doesn’t mean that you should too. It might be impacting their reputation more than they realize.

    2. my two cents*

      commented below as well, but…

      do not connect your phone to the company’s wifi.

      1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

        Yes. We had to make our password secret because the interns were eating all our bandwidth streaming music.

    3. Elizabeth the Ginger*

      “So be cautious around who you friend”

      If you friend co-workers, even other interns, then I’d advise either a) keep your Facebook postings entirely stuff you’d be totally okay with your boss reading or b) make sure your privacy settings are adjusted so that personal things are only visible to friends who aren’t co-workers. Not just complaints-about-work stuff, though of course that, but also other personal-life stuff. There’s nothing inherently wrong with, for example, posting a mopey message about getting dumped and eating Haagen-Daaz for dinner so your close friends can leave you supportive comments… but it’s not very professional to show that side of yourself at work. I’ve felt really awkward in the past when I became Facebook friends with a co-worker and suddenly, whoa, now I know all about their medical history, taste in significant others, etc. etc.

    4. zora*

      I think this is basically good advice, but I’m going to caveat it a little bit.

      If the place you work has a dedicated break time and a dedicated break space, feel free to be on your phone *during* your lunch time *in* the lunch room. There is nothing wrong with that, everyone should know you are on lunch and you are allowed to do whatever you want during that time. And these days most everyone is on their phones during personal time as well.

      But definitely don’t have your phone out or check it when you are at your desk. Even if you think it’s just really quickly. That does look bad. And even in my situation where it’s really ok for me to be on my phone once in a while, it still is inevitable that the exact second I look at my phone, even if it’s the first time all day, is when some higher up will walk by, and now that only thing that person knows about me is seeing me on my phone. Every. Time. So yes, make sure you put it away when at your desk, and only get it out if you are actually in a clearly non-work area and clearly on your break.

      1. Graciosa*

        I will also add my voice to the chorus saying the OP really needs to be careful about technology and social media use at work. The first time I saw an intern sitting at her desk wearing earplugs and connected to her phone, it was a major culture shock for me. I still have a bit of a visceral reaction to sights like this – as if it’s a sign that I’m supposed to apologize for interrupting her music if I need to give her a work assignment, or shout to be heard through the earphones.

        This did not create a good impression.

        I would never have dreamed of doing this at work – and she never dreamed anyone would object!

        The OP needs to remember that more senior people at work – who are currently in positions of authority – did not grow up with the same relationship to technology and social media as recent graduates. My first reaction when someone is looking at a personal phone at work, listening to music, or browsing Facebook is that they are making it clear that they don’t think anything in the work environment is worth their attention.

        I realize that the message I’m receiving is unlikely to be the one that was intended, but communication is interpreted through the filter of our culture and personal experiences – and those filters are very hard to set aside.

        1. Pennalynn Lott*

          If it were me, I’d work really hard to set those filters aside. Just as my generation (GenX) complained about the Baby Boomers (and older) who rate butts-in-seats higher than quality and quantity of work, it would suck to let your own generational hangups get in the way of seeing if quality work is being accomplished despite (or possibly because of!) the earplugs.

          1. Graciosa*

            I do work very hard to set some aside – but this one is generally rude. I allow earphones where the employee is using it to stay on task in a noisy environment (yes, I understand that listening to music can make some people in some roles more productive).

            However, most of our function is servicing our internal clients – meaning that they need to feel that they can come and ask for our advice at any time, and we need to present as welcoming. So no earplugs.

            I agree that impact to the business is the right way to assess these things rather than generational filters – but the habits of a generation don’t override business impact.

  12. Rebecca*

    For what it’s worth, I never bring my lunch on the first day of work for this reason! It gives me a chance to see how lunch works in the new place, plus most times your new team will want to take you out to lunch. If not, it’s still nice to leave the building to decompress after a morning of new-hire paperwork and training.

    1. Judy*

      But always have snack bars or something to get you through the day. Sometimes everyone eats in because there is nothing affordable close. About half the times, I’ve been invited to lunch my first day, and about half the time, no one has mentioned a thing.

    2. Cath in Canada*

      I always take a sandwich or something simple as a back-up plan – something I don’t mind throwing out if I end up going out for lunch instead. I’ve worked in a couple of places where there was literally nowhere to buy food within walking distance, and everyone brought their own lunch.

      (Also: bring some cash, in case you get invited out to a food truck or hole-in-the-wall type place that doesn’t have a debit machine)

  13. SlothLovesChunk*

    I had a big culture shock when I started a govt. contract job a few months ago. Lunch is at 12:30, breaks are at 10 and 2:30. This is a high paying, professional office job.
    I feel like I’m back working the seasonal jobs I had during college.

    1. Amber Rose*

      Oh, that would be hard to deal with. I haven’t done 15 minute breaks since retail, and my lunch is whenever I’m done my last morning task.

  14. Toad*

    Just ask your boss. They should tell you the lunch etiquette of the office, and observe how other people do it. Good luck :)

  15. LizNYC*

    I’m going to chime in and remind the OP that unless this is a “every minute needs to be accounted for” job, to not be afraid to get up and get some water/coffee or to go to the bathroom. In my first internship, I was SO conscious of the time I took that I drove myself crazy. Now that I’m older, I see how silly that was.

    1. Maisie*

      I got a bladder infection (or was it a UTI?) at my first summer internship because I had so much work to do and simply forgot to go to the bathroom during the day. Delightful.

  16. Treena Kravm*

    Taking cues from others about the culture is one thing, but be careful to go on the conservative side until you’re -really, really- sure. As others have mentioned, the rules might be different for an exempt person with a strong reputation. Additionally, be sure your cues are coming from the respected/high-performers of the office. If you see/emulate the one slacker/person currently on a PIP, you may inadvertently be setting yourself up for failure.

    1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

      Yes. Many of my exempt people work super random schedules because they want to, for whatever reason. If they want to come in at 11 and leave at 7, and there is nothing specific happening in the morning, who cares. They can also work at home as they please, since they are good at deciding when this works and when it doesn’t. Interns, on the other hand, generally need to be around when there are people around to support, supervise, answer questions etc. People have to build trust and gain experience before it makes sense to give them a ton of freedom scheduling wise.

  17. Jennifer*

    Our 15-minute breaks mostly boil down to “the time I specifically spent out of the office.” Unless you are obviously doing something that is non-work related, like my coworker who’s playing games. Otherwise if you are on your computer say, reading, it’s not that big of a deal as long as your work gets done.

  18. Visiting*

    Don’t get caught up in what the other interns do. Our interns group together and don’t break out of the pack, so they don’t get to see other workings of the office. When an intern finds a mentor in the office, they really stand out in a great way and they really gain a lot of experience because we trust them to do more than scan piles of documents.

  19. Gandalf the Nude*

    As far as desk vs. break room goes, you might also check the employee handbook because it may be spelled out there. We actually have a(n unenforced) policy that lunch breaks should be taken away from the desk. I think the concern was that non-exempt employees might be into work (answer phone, assist colleague, check email) during their unpaid lunch break, and so they put a blanket ban on desk lunches years ago. As the new kid in town, if there’s a policy, you may be best served by following it until someone tells you not to bother.

  20. Allison*

    In general, you should err on the side of caution every time you start a new job, especially if you’re young – and that includes asking your manager lots of questions about office norms and about what’s expected of you. No one is going to expect you to “just know” how everything works right away, especially if you’re an intern! It might feel a little silly at first, but most people appreciate it when the new person makes an attempt to get it right.

  21. my two cents*

    also, don’t connect your personal cell phone to the company wifi. just, don’t. it’s one thing to peek at an article or your facebook once in a while on your phone, but you don’t need that being monitored by the company’s IT as well.

    1. Apollo Warbucks*

      It depends on the net work, my last couple of offices have and guest net that isn’t looked at closely.

    2. LBK*

      As long as you aren’t doing anything that you wouldn’t be doing on your work computer, I’m not sure I understand the issue here. They can’t get at your phone activity beyond web traffic just by having your phone on their network.

      1. my two cents*

        when you connect to our password protected wifi, there’s a lovely disclaimer that you should expect no privacy while connected.

        1. LBK*

          That’s all well and good but the technology just doesn’t work the way you seem to be implying, ie that they’d be able to access anything private that you have on your phone. Realistically, that disclaimer means they can see the web traffic you send over their network. It doesn’t mean they’re hacking into your phone to steal your photos or something.

          1. Mints*

            I’m just curious – does this mean they can see all of the browser history (website history?), and that’s it? I thought they’d be able to see all app usage (.5 mb on facebook, .5 on browser). But that’s based on gut feelings and nothing, so I’m curious any IT folks have actual answers

            1. Fleur*

              They can see anything sent over the wifi network, except encrypted traffic like your banking stuff. Technically that can be stolen too if you are on an unsecured network and someone unscrupulous forges the SSL certificates, but I assume your company WiFi is protected.

              So that means emails downloaded by your phone’s email app and emails sent out, messages transmitted by any unencrypted messaging apps (I don’t know if Facebook messenger or WhatsApp fall under that category), sites you visit, etc.

              I keep my personal email account on my phone, so for that reason alone, I’d never connect to the company WiFi.

            2. LBK*

              They’d be able to see anything you actively send over their network – so that would include anything done via the browser or apps (and with iMessage that might include texts). But they wouldn’t have full access to whatever was on your phone that wasn’t being sent on the network (like past browser history or other personal things on your phone).

          2. my two cents*

            i of course meant the traffic, not that they’d have access to your stuff. though, it’s really easy to have your google account linked when you log into gmail once from your computer…which also links your browser history and bookmarks.

              1. my two cents*

                it’s when you accidentally link google chrome to your google+/gmail account. it’s really great for linking your phone and your personal computer. it’s really obnoxious when you accidentally link your work computer’s google chrome as well. it’s a small detail to miss on the login screen, but it differentiates between the ‘linking’ and just checking your email.

                if you have google chrome installed on your work computer, you can quickly check to see if you’re a ‘guest’ or if you’re logging in with your gmail/google+ account. go under ‘settings’ and then scroll down to the “people” section. it’ll either say “person x” or it’ll show your account name.

                1. LBK*

                  Oh, okay, so if you (unintentionally or not) select the option to access that information from your phone while on your company wifi, yes, they’ll have it. That aligns with what I was saying before – that anything you access on their wifi is visible. But just logging into your Gmail won’t give them access to anything you aren’t actively viewing there.

  22. Dasha*

    Can I just say that I work for a really small company with NO break room, kitchen, coffee, water fountain, fridge, microwave, basically anything really. I bought my own mini fridge and microwave and eat lunch at my desk 99% of the time (I only go out if I forget my lunch at home) and it makes the day sooooooo long. I’d say I take 10-15 minutes to eat and end up taking a lot more AAM breaks than I should during the day :-/

    OP- I implore you to utilize a breakroom and check FB on your phone during your lunch break or if you can just get out of the office for a bit!

  23. Cath in Canada*

    OP, if you do end up following the excellent advice to use your lunch breaks to get to know your colleagues, don’t do what one of our interns once did and alienate everyone on the first day!

    (This student listened to about five minutes worth of our usual lunch room sport & TV conversation before announcing that those topics didn’t interest her, and that we should all talk about classical music instead. “Do any of you know who Beethoven is?”, she asked, in a very condescending manner. Don’t do that. Get a feel for the room first!).

    1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

      Yipes. Though I don’t think that would have gone over any better on the thousandth day than the first – there’s putting your foot in it conversationally because you’ve made assumptions about people (like making a political joke because you assume everyone shares your views), and then there’s being openly and directly insulting.

      1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

        I’m also baffled about how she expected that to go down. “Oh, man, you’re right. Our interests are very low-brow, and actually we don’t know much about Beethoven. Could you share your wisdom with us? What? You wrote a paper last semester about his fourth symphony? Wow, I’d love to read that! Yes, please bring it it!”

    2. Artemesia*

      LOL. Beethoven has been my favorite composer since I was 16 — I have probably heard the 9th live 20 times and never tire of it. But you know what, never once in over 40 years in the workplace have we talked about Beethoven at lunch. I am not even sure how that would work outside a music school where people might be talking technical matters. But I lived in a graduate dorm that had about 500 people from the music school as well as other grads so we were crawing in musicians and even there we didn’t mostly talk music in the lunchroom.

  24. Colorado*

    OP – great question! Good luck, sounds like you are on the right track! One quick piece of advice from me…don’t be so quick to friend co-workers on FB, even fellow interns. It might seem like a great camaraderie or feeling part of the group thing, which I understand, but down the road you really don’t want your coworkers to see the goofy things you “like” and posts of your dog/sig other/friends (even ones your tagged in) doing something silly or your gripe about a bad day. And in the same token, you don’t necessarily want to be connected to someone else’s if they are inappropriate. It’s much easier to not friend someone than unfriending them down the road. One last thing, follow the advice about not falling into the intern pack and doing some of your own networking – great!

  25. Artemesia*

    The best advice for this intern or anyone just starting a new job at any level is to lay low for a couple of weeks and observe. What are the norms of the office; who are the ‘important people’ as well as who are the people with formal authority. What behaviors are frowned on subtly and what behaviors seem to be those of people who are clearly viewed as leaders or top employees.

    That means you never open facebook at work probably ever and certainly not the first month and that you see how other people manage these things. Same with dress. Same with managing breaks. Be an anthropologist and figure out the culture before you do anything that stands out at all.

    Some of this can be discussed as in Alison’s suggestion about ‘what do people do here about lunch.’ But some things are unspoken or people will say ‘oh that is fine’ but it won’t really be fine and will make you look bad. Many people are reluctant to say no to coworkers — or heck anyone — so the question ‘would it be okay if I put my ‘My little kitty collection’ on my desk might be met with ‘oh people display things, so it is fine.’ You would then be ‘My little kitty’ for the next decade when people talked about interns. See what people actually do not just what they say is ‘okay.’

  26. Disposable men, lost.*

    How timely! Today was the Official Summer Intern Welcome Day for my division!

    I don’t know that I have much to add to the advice that’s been given, but here’s what I think is important:

    1. Pay attention to the company culture. If you’re puzzled about something, ask around. It’s not a bad idea if you can find a full-time employee who will be your informal ‘mentor’ – it might take awhile, but eventually you’ll probably identify someone who you can count on for a straight answer if you have a question.

    2. People at my company will tend to go to lunch in groups. In general, if you’re asked to lunch by one or more full-time employees, you should accept. If you’re asked to lunch with full-time employees including management and/or other VIPs, definitely accept.

    3. Re cell phones and texting and stuff, here’s the thing: many of the full-time employees you’re working with are probably parents. Anything you do with a cell phone that pisses off your parents? Don’t do it at work.

    4. Facebook / tumblr / social media in general: in my group (which is very software / development / design intensive), the big thing is Get Your Work Done. If you fail to Get Your Work Done – you may catch some grief re Facebook etc. And in general, people who spend too much time on social media tend to get talked about: “Yeah, s/he’s always on tumblr” – you don’t wanna be that person.

    5. Social media: really, the big mistake you want to avoid is posting work stuff to social media. No, you’re probably not working on something that’s MAX CONFIDENTIAL – but still, don’t post details of your work on Facebook. If you’re a developer and you’re used to using Stack Overflow, you should probably talk to your supervisor and work out a policy.

  27. Artemesia*

    Another warning. Remember that your email can be read by management and it is not unlikely that it will be monitored occasionally. One internship disaster I am aware of started when an intern sent highly inappropriate emails to friends around town ridiculing the place he was working and talking about clients. He not only got fired, all the other interns from his school were dismissed at the same time. The organization refused to work further with that college.

    And of course your facebook is open to the world too, so now remarks about your internship at all or if any, then only very bland ‘I am so happy to be working at Teapots R Us.’

  28. Erin*

    Thank you for writing this OP. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve been in the professional work world for nearly 10 years, and still wonder about exactly this situation.

    I used to work for a place where I was sorta/kinda/not really the first person you saw coming in, but I wasn’t the receptionist. I would use Facebook for work purposes, so never thought anything of eating/Facebooking/blatantly reading a book at my desk. There were only four people in the office and we knew each other and our work habits very well.

    Now, I’m in a much, much different culture. I’m a receptionist for part of the day (oddly enough), and I used to take lunches at my desk, but now I don’t anymore. I really don’t think my boss would care if I was on Facebook while on lunch, but as Alison alluded to, it feels weird and look unprofessional if someone comes in and I’m at my desk Facebooking. Also, then I feel obligated to answer questions or answer the phone, when in my head I’m like, I’m on my break! Second half off of the day I’m in a cubicle, and that’s a bit of a different story.

    OP, of course go ahead and feel out the work environment, see if your coworkers are visibly Facebooking. But, to make a blanket suggestion: Take it on a day-by-day basis. Eat at your desk if you don’t mind being interrupted and asked questions. Maybe you’re kind of in the work groove so you’re eating and working and maybe also checking personal email during that designated lunch break. But if you really need a Break, step away.

  29. Lurker*

    Also, if you do end up bringing your lunch, don’t bring stinky food – and don’t microwave fish! There are many posts on Askamanager that address this issue.

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