what do I say when an employee assumes they can do something that they shouldn’t?

A reader writes:

I work for a software startup, typical “relaxed workplace” vibe. I’ve noticed lately that I suck at managing people who behave in a particular way — presuming that it’s okay to do something without asking me, and where it actually isn’t okay. For example, if someone asks if they can take a break when it’s not appropriate, I can easily correct them and set expectations. But if they announce that they’re taking a break and then walk off, I freeze and have no idea how to respond.

As these are not always situations that I’ve anticipated, I want to make sure I’m addressing them fairly while thinking on my feet. I also don’t want to say something publicly that could be considered passive aggressive. Any tips on how to manage these situations better?

Just be matter-of-fact and assert what you need — which as the manager you have standing to do, so you don’t need to feel weird about it.

If you don’t speak up when something is a problem, you’re not really doing your job. (That doesn’t mean that you always need to get it exactly right in the moment; most normal people can’t do that every time, and it’s fine to address it later if you miss it in the moment, as long as you do it reasonably soon afterwards.)

But the flip side of that is that you don’t want to come down on people inappropriately hard either. What you want is to be comfortable simply stating what you need in a confident, straightforward way.

Some examples:

* If someone announces that they’re taking a break when you can’t actually let them leave exactly then, you just calmly say, “Actually, I need you to finish up X before you go, so maybe in half an hour instead? Thanks!”

* If someone interrupts you in a meeting, you can simply say, “I’d like to finish what I’m saying and then we’ll come back to you.”

* If someone says “I’m letting the printer know we’re going to need an extra day before we send the file” and that will throw you off schedule, you can say, “I’d like to stick to our original mail date. Tell me what hold-up you’re running into, and let’s see if we can solve it in a way that doesn’t delay things.”

The key is to not make your “actually, no” into a big, fraught thing. You’re just calmly asserting appropriate authority. You can be perfectly kind and friendly while doing it, as long as you’re clear (and, if needed, firm).

Also, and this is important: Keep in mind that in many contexts it should be okay for people to simply let their manager know what they’re doing … so be sure that when you object, it’s in cases where you really do need to, and not just because you’re annoyed on principle that they didn’t check with you first. You want to encourage independent judgment and decision-making in your people, and you want them to be autonomous to whatever extent their jobs and their professional maturity allow for — so if by chance you feel yourself wanting to step in just on principle, resist that urge! (I have no reason to believe that you do, but it’s not an uncommon thing.)

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 97 comments… read them below }

  1. Katie the Fed*

    I just got a new deputy and it’s been a little bumpy because she was used to a much more hands-off manager. I’m not a micromanager, but there are things I do need to have a say in. We were having a lot of issues because she would take too much initiative on some things and not enough on others.

    I finally just told her “these are the types things I want you to run by me: x, y and z. These are the types of things you have the discretion to make decisions about without running by me: a, b and c.”

    It’s helped a lot.

    1. Carrie in Scotland*

      Excellent suggestion (as ever, Katie!). Thay way both you as the manager and your employee know the boundaries.

    2. Green*

      The context of prior managers is important and can often be pretty easily remedied with the communication you suggested. For example, I don’t ask for vacation days. I have my vacation days blocked on my calendar and add them whenever I want. It wouldn’t be a problem for me for my manager to say “Oh, I need you to run vacation days by me before booking travel.” I just don’t have any indication that that’s what she wants from me, because me announcing “Oh, I am off on one of my vacation days Friday” has been OK so far.

      1. Vicki*

        In my first job, I asked about vacations and my manager said “Your’e an adult and salaried exempt. I trust tou to manage your schedule.”

        At my second job, it was a new company and I asked about vacations and my manager said “You’re an adult and salaried exempt. I trust you to manage your schedule.”

        If, in my thord job, a manager had said “I need you to clear all vacations with me” I would have looked at him like he was from Mars.

        OP – you say you’re working at a software startup. What kind of (I assume non-exempt?) employees are you managing who need to ask you about breaks? Software starups don;t usually have call centers and call centers are the only software thing I’m familiar with that have to ask for breaks.

        (If they’re exempt, on the other hand, I think you’re making a bad mistake here).

        So I’ll ask what Alison didn’t ask: WHY is it important that they ask you for permission? When you have a good answer to that, bring that answer to a meeting and get the group to understand the reason. If the reason is “I’ve always required this in past jobs”, make Very Certain that you’re not asking something that is contrary to the culture at this startup.

  2. TootsNYC*

    I understand the urge to say, “actually, you don’t get to just announce that you’re taking a break; I am the manager, and you need to ask me. I need you to respect my authority, and the simplest way to do that is to remember that you have to ask permission.”

    The times when that urge is high can often be times when:
    -the manager feels a little weak in terms of asserting authority in the moment (like you)
    -the specific employee in question seems to push the boundaries too much, too frequently, too casually.

    So if you’re having that urge, look to see what’s behind it, and see if you can fix that problem some other way.

    By speaking up more “in the moment,” and saying, “Actually, please finish this thing before you do that,” you’re making a better work environment, because you’re removing the motivation to say, “You can’t do anything without my permission” and “because I’m the manager, that’s why.”

    As a parent (sometimes I see parallels), I find giving the reason behind a “no” means my kid has a chance to learn what things HE needs to consider before making his own decisions.

    1. LQ*

      I also think if you more clearly understand it you’ll feel better about speaking up about it. I know this is a bad time to take a break and you can’t just walk away like that is different from “We just had a major push and need all hands on deck for the next hour until we know it is stable.”

      It also creates restraint around it. I would guess at sometimes it is ok for people to just take breaks* and so you don’t want to be saying, “You always have to ask me before you take a break.” Because that would frustrate your staff and give you way to much unneeded work.

      *If you do work in a place/environment that isn’t ok for staff to take breaks whenever (aka a call center or the like) then you want to step back and look at things like break schedules, or coverage solutions so that you aren’t constantly micromanaging it.

      1. JessaB*

        And also make sure that the break taking isn’t connected to protected activity – for instance someone with disability or medical problem where they MUST take breaks (for instance urgent need to use the bathroom or need to take medicine or something,) even if your company is small and doesn’t trigger certain protections, it makes you look pretty lousy if you get in their way. You might want to ask WHY they’re taking the breaks before you react to the “I am taking a break,” thing.

        I know for instance that in no circumstance except the direst emergency would I take a manager getting in my face for saying “I am taking a break,” in order for instance to use the bathroom (I am on diuretics,) will go over well. For years urologists have been telling people that holding it is a sure way to medical problems. If however the boss doesn’t realise why I’m taking that break and not asking for one (even in a call centre, but in that case I warn them first and provide a medical note,) then I hope the boss has the sense to ask. Grown up people don’t actually have to raise their hands to go to the loo.

        On the other hand if the break is something else (IE food, and not a diabetic or hypoglycaemic) that’s a different issue. But before you address the “I am taking a break now,” please ask why.

        1. Rat in the Sugar*

          I sometimes have to make quick sprints to the bathroom too (IBS and other gastric issues) but I would be totally okay with Alison’s wording, and wouldn’t expect my boss to ask what for . If I said I was taking a break and got up to leave, and my boss responded with “Actually, I need you to wait another hour”, I would just say “Sorry, just gotta run to the bathroom real quick!” and duck out. It’s only if they pushed after that that I would get miffed.

          I feel that since most people don’t have to go nearly as often or urgently as some of us do, it’s okay for the boss not to ask about it as long as they are accommodating after you let them know. Now, if you tell them you have to go to the bathroom and then they start trying to tell you you have to wait, I would absolutely be PO’ed. My boss doesn’t get to monitor my bathroom breaks, but I think she should also be able to tell me it’s not okay to take breaks at certain times, and to trust me to tell her when my “break” is actually a call of nature and therefore cannot be delayed.

        2. LQ*

          Be careful about asking why. You don’t want to ask why in a big open cube space. This might be time to pull someone into an office so they can feel comfortable saying: I have to take diuretics or need to pump or whatever.

          I do think the first step is to ask yourself why. Even in a call center (thought it would be a good idea to warn them) they have plans for backups and dealing with phone coverage. It can help to know Suzy needs a half hour every day at 10:30. But if Joe needs extra bathroom breaks they can just go, ok we can adjust around that too. If it is smaller than that and is say one phone line maybe the trick is there is always 1+ and you have an IM system that shows if people are available and you check, hey is my backup around, or did the primary take a break? If not them I’m good to take a quick break. Or saying, hey I always want to take an early break to go for a walk so I’ll do that before 10 and the other person does it after 10. There are ways to handle these things without it always having to go through the boss.

          1. LQ*

            Yourself being the boss here, not the staff. I assume the staff person knows why they need to take a break. The boss should know why the breaks need to be monitored.

            I think I’m not being all that clear today.

        3. fposte*

          Yeah, I wouldn’t ask why, as a boss. I would assume in my workplace that it was clear that was a work-needed situation and not a lockdown, and that somebody with a medical need to walk out would let me know.

    2. Katie the Fed*

      This is really hard. I REALLY wanted to have the “you need to start respecting me/my position” talk with my new person, but I don’t think her behavior came from a lack of respect. Just a lack of understanding about what decisions we were each responsible for. But it FEELS so disrespectful in the moment, doesn’t it?

      1. TootsNYC*

        And, I think there is a certain validity to “respect my authority” as a concept. You just don’t want to be leaping to that when you can get what you need in a more organic way.

        1. aebhel*

          It really depends on the person, though. The fastest way for a manager to lose my respect is by insisting on it as a principle. ‘You need to run this by me before submitting it’ or ‘Actually, we need coverage so I need you to ask permission before you take breaks’ is one thing, but ‘I am the manager and you will respect my authority’ or any variation thereof without some kind of serious disrespect preceding it would leave me with the impression that the manager in question was insecure, controlling, and petty.

          1. fposte*

            I think Toots is talking about the concept, though, not about saying it. It’s one of those ironic situations where having to say it makes it less likely to be true.

        2. Vicki*

          >> nd, I think there is a certain validity to “respect my authority” as a concept.

          Not in most software startups. In fact, in most software startups, the concept is about 180 degrees away from that.

      2. NJ Anon*

        I am having a similar issue with my bookkeeper. I felt like a parent because she just kept going round and round on an issue. I felt like saying “because I’m the boss, that’s why!” I wouldn’t do that of course but I felt that no matter how or what I said to her regardless of the issue, she just kept going back to her original stance. Makes me crazy.

        1. LD*

          Alison has addressed this situation, the employee who won’t let go of an idea/issue/complaint. If I recall, her advice is that you need to address the pattern of bringing up something that has been decided. That you understand the employee is not satisfied with the decision but it is no longer up for discussion and if the employee brings it up again, the consequences will be…. discipline, note in the file, up to and including termination if the behavior continues, or whatever consequences you can appropriately choose. It can be addressed. It just feels like you need to convince them. You don’t have to get them to agree, just stop bringing up. And you can say that to them “You don’t have to agree with this decision. You just have to abide by it and stop bringing it up.”

    3. OP*

      Toots, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Both of those factors apply in this situation, although for me I think the second factor leads to the first.

      The particular situations that prompted my questions weren’t bathroom breaks or any sort of medical issue. They’re usually extended coffee breaks, or situations where they disappear with their laptop to “check email” for an hour.

      It’s more of a learning opportunity for me about how to deal with staff behaviour that I haven’t anticipated and are unsure how to react to, and also balancing the relaxed culture with the need for accountability.

      Hope that gives more context.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I am not sure if you don’t know where they are or if you don’t know if they are doing a fair day’s work.

        If you don’t know where they are, I did something with my group that worked very well. I said, that we worked a large place with some safety hazards, “because of this tell SOMEONE that you are taking ‘five’ or whatever. If you don’t bubble to the surface in a period of time, we can look for you, to see if you are laying in a pile at the bottom of the stairs”. I went on to say, that they did not have to tell ME, they had to tell someone so we knew they were alright. Likewise, I would do the same, I would tell them where I was going. I related a story of a cohort who fell and laid there with a broken bone in EACH leg for a looong time before it occurred to anyone to go looking for him.

        I think it’s just courtesy to say to someone that you will be back in x time AND it could save your neck.
        A coworker saved my butt, when my car broke down less than 3/4 mile away from work. The wind chill was minus 80. I was young and never going to die, so I started to walk that 3/4 mile. I think I got about 1/4 mile away from my car and I KNEW I was in trouble. My coworker pulled up beside me and said “GET IN THIS CAR, NOW!” I did not argue.

        Stuff happens, people make bad judgement calls, their foot slips, their car breaks, or any number of unforeseens. Talk about safety and keeping an eye out for everyone’s safety.

        1. JessaB*

          Yes, when I worked as a night manager, my reports knew that I am pathologically early (what my sister calls me,) and one night when I didn’t show up at 20 to, they called my husband and asked if I was okay. I had gotten delayed – tail lamp went out, cop pulled me over and let me know, I had no idea, handed me a warning ticket and off I went, except that it took like 20 minutes because whoever was on the other end of the radio just could NOT input my license properly. It took like 6 tries for the poor guy to read the number and the other side to confirm that no, I am not a fleeing felon with a raft of warrants. The Sgt pulled in to see if there was some huge problem when they realised we were parked for so long.

          But knowing where people are, and what their patterns of behaviour are is critical in a security kinda way. The more dangerous/secure the workplace is, the more you need to know where people are in the moment.

  3. BananaPants*

    OP, just make sure you’re doing this because there’s a legitimate business need, not because you want to exert your authority as a manager. Especially in an informal start up culture, the folks working for you may not react well to a more authoritarian management style. If you really do need someone to not take a break, fine – but you could be going against established company culture.

    I’m an individual contributor with a very hands-off manager (but my work environment is pretty much the opposite of a start up in terms of culture). I’m mostly autonomous in my work and am expected to use independent judgment and manage most issues on my own, so for a hypothetical new manager to get pissy with me on something as silly as when I take my lunch break (for example) would really raise my hackles. From my standpoint, as long as my work gets done and I’m attending meetings that I need to attend, why should my boss care if I have lunch at 11 or noon? If she could explain a rationale for it, fine, but otherwise I’m going to assume she’s being a jerk to prove some sort of point.

    1. stazatup*

      I’ve always worked at technology start-ups and have had tremendous autonomy. How long do these breaks last? Maybe the IC just needs to run to the bathroom or grab some coffee or has been staring at a problem for the past two hours and needs to step away for ten minutes. In my (limited) experience, when there’s a major problem like a bad deploy is causing serious problems with the site, everyone knows it’s all hands on deck, but even then, if someone needs a bathroom break or a quick snack from the kitchen to avoid feeling sick, it’s not a problem.

    2. INTP*

      Good point about making sure that there is business need. I’d also add that if you are changing things from the way a previous manager did it, or going to start enforcing expectations that haven’t been made clear, for break times especially, you need to tell your employees right now what is or isn’t okay and not as they’re out the door. I’d be very annoyed if I had planned an appointment or workout or just my eating times (I get hangry!) around the assumption that I get to select my own break times and then was informed that I couldn’t go at that time for a totally foreseeable reason (versus a true last minute all-hands-on-deck emergency). Besides inconveniencing your employees, it will still make you look like a wimpy manager to wait until they’re out the door because they’ll see that clearly it was a rule in your mind and you just didn’t want to exercise the authority to state it as a rule unless necessary.

      1. JessaB*

        Any time you’re changing the level of autonomy people have in the office, they deserve notice before it becomes an issue and should get a pass on behaviour prior to getting in trouble. This includes not just breaks, but if someone is not doing the job properly and you want to check their work. If they don’t know what they’re doing is wrong, especially if they’ve been doing it for awhile, they need to be told.

    3. AnotherAlison*

      I’m also wondering about this. Was the breaks thing just a generic example? I hope so because I, too, would find having to ask for approval to take a break a little insulting.

      I can see having an issue with things like working overtime without approval or having a conversation with a client that the manager should have been included in, but not breaks.

      1. JessaB*

        Yeh, absent a culture where there are scheduled breaks, being able to determine when you go away from your desk is a pretty normal thing to do. You know when you’re at a stopping point in your work, or when you need a mental stop so you can get back to something complicated.

        1. alter_ego*

          Yeah, when I was switching to my first office job, after working retail all through high school and college, I would inform the lead engineer every time I had to leave my desk. After about a week, he was like “alter_ego, you don’t need to tell me when you’re taking a break. We’re on salary. I don’t care. Just get your stuff done on time”. Now that I’m used to that, I would find any reduction in that level of autonomy incredibly restrictive.

          1. KR*

            When I first started working for supervisor, he told me that I could take a lunch break. He never did, but he didn’t mind if I did. For years I never took a lunch break until I realized he really didn’t mind. Now I am 100% not shy about stepping out to take a snack break when I need to, especially since I get sick quickly if I don’t eat or drink regularly.

            1. A Cita*

              Yeah, I don’t need food breaks (I’m one of those weird sorts who can go HOURS without food intake and not get hangry, shakey, loose concentration, etc) and I am nocturnal so have a tendency to get my best work done between midnight and 3 am. But I’ve tried to make it clear to past reports that: 1. just because I don’t take breaks, doesn’t mean you can’t, and 2. (more importantly in academia), I may send emails at undogly hours, but there is zero expectation of response outside of normal hours (unless, of course, we’re on the same level–then yeah, we’re all working nearly 24/7).

                1. Revanche*

                  Undogly hours: when not even the dogs will put up with your nonsense. Our dog has set hours between 11p-5a where you leave him alone unless someone is sick :)

  4. Ad Astra*

    A lot of people have learned that it’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission, so make sure not to interpret this way of operating as a challenge to your authority. If they were trying to get away with something, they likely wouldn’t bother telling you what they were up to at all. (Or if it’s non-negotiable, like going to the bathroom, I’m not going to bother informing anyone because their input won’t be heeded anyway.) In most cases, Alison’s scripts should work just fine. If it helps, pretend every statement of intent is followed by “…if that’s ok with you.”

    “I’m taking a lunch break now… if that’s ok with you.”
    “I’m going to adjust the deadline for this project… if that’s ok with you.”

    You have the authority here, and you may be surprised to find that your employees are totally fine with you asserting that authority.

    1. A Cita*

      A lot of people have learned that it’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission

      Or as I like to say: Proceed until apprehended.

  5. Wehaf*

    Since you tend to freeze up and be at a loss for words, it will probably help a lot if you practice your new responses. Get a friend to role-play with you, and run scenarios over and over until you are comfortable with your responses and your ability to think on your feet. You can also practice on your own – in that case I suggest actually saying what you want to say out loud, and not just in your head – it makes a big difference!

    1. TootsNYC*

      Also remember that if you act before you’re mad, and if you assume that it’s simple lack of information, and not rebellion, it will be easier for you to just say, “Oh, please finish this before you take a break. Tom’s waiting.”

    2. KR*

      I agree with this. If I have to coach an employee or talk to them about something serious I usually need to rehearse it to myself three or four times before I’m even remotely ready to do it.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      And that is good advice for any recurring scenario. It does not have to be a boss talking to employees. Employees can use these practice drills for dealing with over-bearing cohorts, or bosses that are leaving them speechless.

      Autopsy what went wrong. Go over the conversation and line up one or two things you WILL say the next time. Notice, “WILL”. It’s fun to have that snappy comeback or the ultimate put down, but try to move beyond that and find things that you will actually use.

      Start seriously thinking about by asking, “What do I want this person to do, that they are not doing?” Honestly, sometimes my answer are, “get a personality transplant” or “move to another planet”. But I try to push myself beyond that and find something that I will use the next time I hear that question or remark. Once I figure out what I actually want, my next step is “how do I say it terms that they will hear and be motivated to make a change?” The answer to this question involves thinking about what it is like to be the other person.

  6. INTP*

    With things like when it’s okay to take a break, how closely arrival/departure time is monitored, when to ask permission versus take initiative, or other general workplace habits, it would be beneficial to lay out your expectations for new employees right when they start. (Or for new employees, to meet with them and acknowledge that expectations haven’t been as clear as they should and discuss it.)

    Those “laid-back” tech environments have a way of working so hard to portray the culture as relaxed and permissive and “fun” that it becomes confusing for employees – those that take everything at face value assume it really is that relaxed and take liberties they shouldn’t, and those who suspect hidden rules are then confused and stressed about what they can and can’t do since the culture clearly discourages acknowledging the existence of the rules out loud (i.e. by asking what they are). It’s not the cool startuppy thing, but a little more structure would probably help with this problem and make things easier on your employees too.

    1. olives*

      “Those that take everything at face value assume it really is that relaxed and take liberties they shouldn’t, and those who suspect hidden rules are then confused and stressed about what they can and can’t do since the culture clearly discourages acknowledging the existence of the rules out loud (i.e. by asking what they are).”

      THIS. I went a little bit nuts in my last startup-y environment, because I could clearly see some people taking as many liberties as possible, and other people behaving as though it were a relatively normal work environment, and yet there was not even a differential in treatment by what passed for “management”. In fact, many of the managers seemed to like better the people who looked to me like they were most abusing the system.

      In the meantime, promotions were invisible (no title change, very little announcement, no real hierarchy), so there was no other way to detect status and use that as a proxy for what was okay. And if I ever looked concerned about whether I was skirting the line, my manager looked confused that I even thought it was worth bringing up – despite the fact that obviously *something* must be guiding decisions.

      Upon leaving the company I still wasn’t really clear what behavior was and was not rewarded. It was so inconsistent as to be random. In theory I’m okay with that, but in practice it doesn’t really work for me very well and causes me a lot of stress about what I should be doing.

      1. martinij*

        +1,000,000. My manager praised the hell out of a systems-abuser, who would admit to leaving at 3 every Friday when there was work to be done (and I would be in the office til 7 p.m.), and who was very open about not straying from our template for client deliverables, so she would only be delivering the bare minimum. Meanwhile, those who made effort look like, well, effort, were criticized out the door.

  7. Me2*

    My employee is just the opposite, she won’t even take a bathroom break without asking beforehand. I’ve tried to tell her she has autonomy to make decisions about anything relating to customer service, breaks, and certainly about her own body, but she still feels she has to ask me. It’s not even simply letting me know, it’s actually asking permission. She’s very unsure of herself due to some problems in her personal life so I try to let it slide with periodic reminders that she doesn’t need to ask and when she does do things “without permission,” I try to positively reinforce that behavior.

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      Sounds like she came from a culture with really rigid scheduled times for everything, like a call center.

      1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

        Or she’s very new to the working world and still used to school where you have to ask (and take the hall pass!)

    2. Wehaf*

      You could certainly take a harder line with her on this, given that you’ve made your point several times. Something like “I’ve told you before that you shouldn’t* ask me for permission to take breaks. I need you to stop interrupting me by doing this.” *I say “shouldn’t” here instead of “don’t need to” because there is a very real difference.

  8. Jubilance*

    I’m really curious about the “you can’t take a break right now” thing – I’ve never been in a job (other than retail) where I couldn’t go to the bathroom/get a drink/take a moment to clear my head. That seems overly authoritarian to me, can anyone explain? Is it super crucial in software?

    1. Ad Astra*

      This might make sense if OP is referring to a relatively long break, like leaving for lunch or something. The mention of employees announcing that they’re taking a break rather than just walking off to go to the bathroom or get a drink makes me think these are longer breaks. But if the break we’re talking about is less than 10 minutes, I’m just as puzzled as you about why the timing matters.

      1. Bookworm*

        I assumed the same. I also think it might just be a more straightforward example, assuming other examples might be more specific to OP’s work place and then require background.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I assume it’s a less white collar environment, since in most offices (except perhaps something like call centers) that wouldn’t normally be a thing the manager would care about/be involved in. But there are lots of non-office jobs where it’s a thing.

          1. Dan*

            Assuming we’re still talking directly about the OP and the conversation hasn’t wandered…

            I’m having a hard time imagining a “software startup” that’s “a less white collar environment” where break times would need to be monitored.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              I totally forgot the OP said it was a software startup. Ignore that comment.

              Then yes, I too wonder about the breaks thing, unless it’s something like people are leaving for a break mid-meeting (which would be pretty weird).

              1. animaniactoo*

                I can see it. I have a new co-worker who has been having some bumps settling in, and my boss sometimes questions his judgment. Like it will take 10 minutes to make a revision to something, in order to hand it off to someone else who needs it to finalize their presentation and hand that off to someone else for review and tweaking before EOD. But, he’ll go to lunch before finishing that, or go downstairs for 15 to 20 minutes to finish something else that has an EOD deadline and that’s the final step on it so it really doesn’t matter if it’s done now or in 2 hours. But not taking the 10 minutes to finish the other thing and hand it off creates a rolling process that can set everybody else back by a couple of hours and feel rushed, etc.

                1. animaniactoo*

                  Which is also to say – my sister does code work, and her piece of the string is often only one part of something that someone else is working on, so I can see how the same kind of dynamic might be in play.

                2. AnotherAlison*

                  Similarly, our drafting/design staff are mostly non-exempt, and there are a few who will stop 5 minutes from being done with something that and go home, because officially, you aren’t allowed to work unapproved OT. So I guess for the OP, I can see where if someone behaving as if lunch time is at 12, no matter what’s happening, and staying at there desk until 12:15 would make a difference in getting something out the door. To me, though, that doesn’t mean ask your boss when you can go to lunch; it means use common sense and understand your deadlines.

              2. Elizabeth the Ginger*

                Though if I’m in a meeting with 5+ people and one slips away for a break, I assume it’s for an unforeseen and necessary reason, like a bathroom emergency or a desperate need to go grab an Advil for a headache. Though in that context I wouldn’t necessarily expect anyone to say “I’m taking a break.” Maybe, “Sorry, I’ll be right back!”

              3. OP*

                All – yes that was a generic example. Sorry for the confusion!

                I trust the team and generally don’t enforce time management as long as they’re getting their work done, however some team members push the boundaries (either knowingly or unknowingly). E.g. I’ve had an employee arrive late and then announce to the team that they’re going to the coffee shop to check email – returning an hour later.

                I was so shocked that I had no idea what to say, and was unsure if I should talk to them immediately in front of everyone or wait until later.

                These situations don’t come up regularly but when they do I’m not sure how to respond. I kept it generic as I think it’s a learning opportunity to handle employees who push boundaries rather than a specific problem.

                1. NoTurnover*

                  Since no one else has responded directly here, just wanted to say that I agree this specific example is out of the range of what’s acceptable (and I would probably also choke up a bit). There IS a line on time management even for exempt people, and arriving late and then disappearing for an hour right away (presumably making the person at least somewhat unavailable for morning check ins, etc.?) is over it. Smacks of someone trying to get away with something rather than “I’m a professional who makes my own choices.”

                2. Polka Dot Bird*

                  It sounds like this problem is less “I’m going on a break” and more “I’m just going to wander off and do my own thing regardless of what else is happening in the workplace”, which is a different problem.

    2. LQ*

      I could see it right after something launches perhaps? Having a window of holding your breath and waiting for everything to break in a giant spectacular way.
      Or if something needs to get done -now- before next steps can be taken maybe?
      It might also be a support thing in that someone needs to be answering a support line and if that person takes a break there is no one there (but in that case some kind of coverage plan should be worked out as I mentioned above) so that one person going on a break isn’t a problem.

      (In addition to the long break thing Ad Astra mentioned.)

    3. LabTech*

      This stood out to me too. The possibilities I’m thinking is if the employee takes excessively long or frequent breaks, or does so during busy periods combined with productivity issues or a history of missing deadlines.

    4. B.*

      The only way I could imagine it mattering is if they’re up against a schedule, and long unexpected breaks interrupt that schedule. This would be particularly important if there are several moving parts that the manager is aware of but the individual contributor isn’t. In which case, the breaks are more the symptom of the issue, rather than the cause (time management and a more complete/contextual understanding of the work).

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Kind of what I’m thinking.
        Like Op needs X number of big fixes fixed or updated before noon so he can let the CEO know or something like that.

    5. Katie the Fed*

      not entirely related, but I was picking up sandwiches the other night (at the Italian Store, for DC people) and the kid making my sandwich took a break right in the middle of making it. Another guy had to finish it but didn’t know what we’d ordered or that I didn’t want peppers, etc. It was super weird. Kid, come on – wait 30 more seconds and finish my sandwich.

      1. IvyGirl*

        OMG the Italian Store. It’s rare that a 45+ minute wait for a sandwich is worth it (yes, on the weekends). But theirs is a sandwich that is worth the wait.

          1. VolunteerCoordinatorinNOVA*

            I’m from Philly so I love their sandwiches but their staff is a hot mess. They are lucky that their food is so good otherwise I think they would have to close based on their service.

            1. IvyGirl*

              We are terribly spoiled here in Philly with sandwich richness/abundance. I mean, a John’s roast pork with b. rabe and sharp provolone? Divine.

              My best friend used to live in Arlington – the Italian Store was a ritual when I would visit. :-)

              1. VolunteerCoordinatorinNOVA*

                My parents still live in Philly so whenever I’m visiting, I almost always take a trip to John’s Roast Pork. I mean even their cheesesteak is amazing so really it’s a win all around. When I moved farther south in VA, I found out there was a wawa a few miles from my house and I almost cried with excitement. They don’t have herr chips but it still gives me a small taste of home.

          2. Authoria*

            If you can easily get to Georgetown, the Italian grinder at Stachowski’s Market is incredible and feeds two. No waiting.

            1. VolunteerCoordinatorinNOVA*

              I don’t usually go to Georgetown but I do want to go to Warby parker so I’ll stop by there to try it. Thanks for the suggestions!

        1. Elizabeth West*

          Off topic but when I lived in Delaware, there was a cheese steak place that delivered and we often had to wait up to TWO HOURS for a sandwich because they were so busy. Totally worth it, though. Best cheese steaks I ever ate, mmmm.

      2. Stranger than fiction*

        Ha, similarly, we had ATT out over the weekend because our service kept disconnecting (tv) and the poor tech called in to his support team at one point and in the middle of them helping they had to go home! Just like that.

      3. Not So NewReader*

        Some customer facing jobs like that if you do not go at your assigned time you lose your place in the rotation. Unfortunately, it can work out that there is no other slot for you so you get no break. Not exactly legal and totally miserable, but some places work this way.

        1. Saturn9*

          Most states don’t have any mandatory breaks, so breaks are up to the company. A lot of high-turnover industries have a break policy that makes breaks dependent on coverage. Legal: yes. Miserable: also yes.

  9. Bookworm*

    Also, if any of this is stuff that is notable enough that you might address it during their reviews: you absolutely have to bring it up as it’s happening.

    Few things are more maddening than sitting down and being told that something you’ve been doing for months (and thought was OK) is actually unacceptable and will be reflected on your review.

    1. Meg Murry*

      +1 to this.

      Although there it a place for it between saying something in the moment vs waiting for the review. For instance, in the example of announcing a break, it would be perfectly reasonable for OP to talk the employee later that day or early the next day and explain to them that just announcing they were taking a break instead of asking wasn’t ok because [insert business reason here]. As long as there really is a business reason for that scenario, or even if the boss wants to say “You know, most of the time you scheduling your breaks yourself as you see fit is fine, but in the middle of a meeting, I would really prefer it if you would say something like ‘I’m going to take a break now, is that ok?’ or ‘Can we break for 10 minutes?’ instead of just taking a break – because sometimes we are almost done, and non-emergency breaks really interupt the flow of the meeting/drag things out/etc”.

      But I am also with everyone else that you need to check to make sure that things like just taking a break instead of asking permission aren’t a symptom of other issues going on with this employee, or if you are just having trouble feeling disrespected by that employee and if it is more than just the break times.

      FWIW, at one of my past jobs where I had a very laid back manager, he had told us it was perfectly fine to send him an email saying “I’m planning to take a vacation day on Friday” – because he knew that before we said that we would have all checked the group calendar to make sure there weren’t a bunch of other people already off, there weren’t any customer or vendor visits scheduled for that day, we had days of PTO available and we’d already traded off with our teammates to make sure critical tasks would be covered. When we got a new boss who was used to dealing with new hires, at first he was frustrated by our group’s way of asking, not telling, until he learned that we had already covered all our bases – his previous group he was leading was all entry level, so he was used to having to walk them through making sure there was coverage, no meetings scheduled, PTO was available etc and then giving them permission.

      So yes, letting your team know that you prefer to be asked rather than told until you all get to know each other better is the way to go, rather than letting them assume that what was ok under the previous manager is ok with you, when it seems not to be.

      1. LQ*

        After reading a whole bunch of posts on here about time off and such I sat down and had a conversation with my boss about time off, I did all the things you mentioned, even when I was sick I’d do all that. He said I could just assume he’d approve it and go forward with my planning, or in the case of a sick day, go back to bed and not wait to speak to him (as is “required” around here) it is so much better. But I’m very aware that when I do get a new boss I likely won’t get to do that.

  10. Anon for this one*

    When I was in my mid-twenties, I had an incident like this. We had mandatory 50-hr weeks for 6 weeks, and I had a 4 month old baby, so I assumed it would be okay to work my extra 10 hrs on the weekend. I DID clear it with my project manager first, but I had assumed it would be fine. I was surprised when he said no. I ended up giving up BF’ing my baby because of it. . .12 hrs away (commute, work, lunch) was too much for me to maintain my milk supply.

    So, all I have to say is make sure that what you’re requiring of the employees is truly necessary. No one wants to say, “Hey, I can’t work 10s because my milk will dry up.” Do you know why employees want to take breaks when they want to take them? In my situation, I had work unsupervised OT many times before in my 5 years at the company, but this manager claimed it was policy and that he would have to come in on the weekend if I did.

    1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

      Ugh, yet another way our country makes it hard to be a working parent. :-(

      (Typed that, then realized I assumed you were in the US like me based on only he fact that you were poorly/thoughtlessly treated as a working mom….)

  11. Lily Rowan*

    It depends a lot on the kind of work going on, but I find I need a break more when I am the most busy, paradoxically enough. If I’m trying to write something, and it’s not coming, a quick walk around the block can clear my mind enough to get back to it and be productive. Or if I’m going to be working late, grabbing a snack or something mid-afternoon makes me less frantic about missing dinner.

    I would be glad to talk about that with my boss, but would much prefer that she look at my productivity at the end of the day.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      I am the same way, when I have a stack of ten things that need to be done immediately and simultaneously, I need five minutes. When I get back from my five minutes, I can fly through the stack. But I really need that five minutes. I think I organize the work in my mind while it is NOT in front of me.

  12. Ellen Ripley*

    Not trying to pile on, but OP, what other kinds of incidents, other than breaks, have made you want to be able to push back on the fly? And have you checked that your expectations about manager input are in line with the rest of the company’s and your reports?

    In my various startup and startup-adjacent jobs, and indeed in almost all of my office jobs, I wouldn’t even think to /tell/ my manager or anyone else that I was taking a break, unless it was something unusual like I was taking the rest of the day off to go to the doctor or a couple hours to go run an errand that had to be done during business hours. Obviously there are a few roles that are different – the receptionist usually has an arrangement with someone like the office manager to have coverage for the front desk and phones while s/he takes lunch – but generally you’re expected to manage your own time and tasks. Software culture is pretty individualistic, as much as it’s a collaborative effort, and your manager and indeed the company isn’t expected to have a say in the specifics of your schedule as long as you’re getting your work done and coordinating satisfactorily with your coworkers. So if you do start telling your reports that they need to run this kind of stuff by you, don’t be surprised if they’re unhappy and indeed a little insulted that they can’t manage their own time.

    (If the breaks thing is less about breaks and more about coverage during crises or around deadlines, then that’s actually a different conversation. That’s setting up a support structure, some sort of reliable communication system and expectations about coverage so no matter who is around or not around, someone can take point and everyone knows what’s going on.)

  13. mander*

    What kind of breaks are we talking about? If the employee is going to the bathroom, refilling their water bottle/coffee mug, getting a snack from the vending machine, etc. I can’t imagine it being a big deal (unless they are supposed to be on the phone or in the middle of a meeting, etc.). Longer breaks like going outside to smoke, taking lunch, going to the coffee shop two blocks away, and so on I can see being more problematic.

    1. Windchime*

      I can’t even see those being problematic, honestly. I have worked in IT for over 15 years and I’ve never had to ask to go to Starbucks or take a lunch. We are all exempt here, so we usually eat at our desks, but we can also take a lunch out of the office; either way, my boss doesn’t care. He trusts me to manage my time. If I’m in the middle of a deployment or some other big task, then obviously I wouldn’t leave for a long, leisurely lunch. But I could run next door and grab fast food or down the block to Starbucks while I’m waiting for something to run.

      If the OP’s employees are exempt, I find it totally weird that they even have to tell her that they are taking a break at all. Even if I’m in a long meeting, people will sometimes slip out and back in for a quick restroom break. Nobody thinks anything about it.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        I’m non-exempt in a software environment and I don’t announce breaks either–though I do set my IM to be right back or away so people know I’m not at my desk. If I have something I need to finish, my break gets put on hold until I’m done.

        My old boss was fine with us saying we needed to go out for the afternoon–doc appointment, etc.–or go home sick. New boss seems okay with that too, but I’m erring on the side of making sure my calendar is up to date. I still make certain I’m caught up before I go home sick. Probably a leftover from jobs where things weren’t so flexible.

  14. animaniactoo*

    If it’s a question of your reaction timing, there are classes that you can work with for that. I’ve seen Toastmasters recommended a lot for people who have issues speaking up/speaking clearly/reacting on the spot. A less traditional route but possibly useful one might be improv comedy classes where you *have* to think on your feet, and *have* to give a response in the moment to something you don’t necessarily know is coming.

    On the other hand, one of the things I did a lot of work on in therapy was learning how to change my responses to a situation that kept happening over and over again. The key was to figure out *exactly* what I wanted to say in advance. Because I knew that the moment would come back around again. Having a prepared reaction gave me something to reach for to put in place of my previous go-to reaction. I might not get it out the first couple of times that I was faced with that situation again; but eventually, it would happen. Once I’d done it and it had worked better than what I’d done before, it became easier to automatically go there. What therapy gave me was a place to review whether I’d pulled it off, and a place to check in about it. If you have a friend that you can bounce that off of, I found the review process really helped me reinforce what I was trying to do.

    1. animaniactoo*

      Eventually I became good enough at it that I could work this process outside of therapy, but starting off in therapy was invaluable. So if you try it on your own and are struggling, that’s where I’m suggesting having a friend that can help you with the review part might help.

  15. Barefoot Librarian*

    Thank you, Alison. This type of frank, practical managerial advise is of huge help to me as a new-ish manager and I’m sure to many others who have been doing it a while. I did want to add (and I apologize if anyone else has done so already) that it’s not always the best thing to confront your employee in the moment in front of their coworkers. If their action is immediately determental in some way, then by all means let them know. However, if it’s merely an annoyance that you’d like to see stop, then try and speak with them afterwards in private. I’ve had managers lecture me in front of coworkers in the past, sometimes aggressively, and it greatly undermined my trust in them. I felt like a naughty child with my hand in the cookie jar instead of an adult who made a minor error. In one case, I wasn’t actually doing anything wrong, but the manager would not give me a moment to explain because she had clearly screwed herself up to confront me and was on a roll. Employees are adults not naughty children and, while you should correct and guide them as needed, public scolding can easily become public humiliation.

  16. junipergreen*

    Another thanks to Alison for these scripts. They’re very helpful, and I agree that practicing them aloud (whether alone or with a friend) is key to making sure you’re comfortable with the language.

  17. Argh!*

    There have been circumstances when something outrageously out-there happens and I was so shocked I had no idea what to say. A couple of other times I was too angry to respond appropriately. This hasn’t happened in awhile, so this post is a good reminder. I need to rehearse some stock phrases for these circumstances. Maybe “This is not appropriate. We’ll discuss it later.” (i.e. when I come up with language that will be bombproof in the eyes of H.R.)

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