employee disregards direct instructions, coworker asks where I’m going every single time I leave my desk, and more

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. My coworker asks where I’m going every single time I leave my desk

I am a research analyst at a small research center. I share an office with two other analysts. One of my officemates is part-time and works unusual hours, so we are rarely here at the same time. My other officemate just started a few months ago, and we are both here 9-5, five days a week. She and I don’t work on any of the same projects, so we don’t talk much beyond the usual polite small talk a couple times a day (how was your weekend, can you believe this weather, etc.).

Since she is new, she occasionally asks me a technology question or where to find a document, which I’m more than happy to help her with. But she does one very irritating thing: she asks me where I’m going every. single. time. I get up from my desk. I don’t think it’s an attempt to make conversation since she never asks any follow-up questions. I truly do not know why she wants to be updated every time I go to the bathroom, to a meeting, for a walk, out to lunch. The constant questioning makes feel like she is monitoring every move I make, when there’s really no reason for her to do this. I need her to stop, but I also do not want to be rude or make her feel like I never want her to talk to me. I am pretty introverted and tend to get lost in my work, but I wouldn’t mind having more conversations with her, just not about the frequency of my bathroom breaks. Should I say something?

Yes. I know it can feel awkward to ask someone to stop doing something, especially if it might make them feel awkward, but remember that (a) the awkwardness is likely to be brief, especially if you make a point of helping things be normal afterwards (more on that in a minute) and (b) most people would much rather know that they’re doing something highly annoying than just be stuck annoying you forever.

Some options for what to say:
* “Did you know you ask me where I’m going every time I get up? I will never have an interesting answer to that.”
* “I love sharing an office with you, but I like to be able to leave without announcing where I’m going! But I’ll let you know if I’m leaving for the day or something like that.”
* “It feels a little weird having to tell you whenever I’m going to the bathroom, so can we just say that I’ll make a point of letting you know if I’m leaving for the day so that you aren’t asking where I’m going each time I get up?”

And yes, she might feel a little chastised, but if you make a point of being aggressively normal with her after that (find a reason to make conversation about something else, ask if you can get her a coffee when you go to get yourself one, etc.), any awkwardness shouldn’t last long.

Read an update to this letter here.

2. Employee disregards direct instructions

I took a promotion nearly a year ago that put me in a management position over my previous peers. One of the women who reports to me has been with the company much longer, and commonly disregards requests I make of her (and the team). Recently, I asked my team to begin using our interoffice instant messaging tool to ensure the team is able to contact other team members quickly (for those questions that don’t warrant an email); many of us work remotely from each other, so we don’t have the option to yell over cube walls or walk over to chat.

This woman did not respond to my request and has not implemented it (it’s been a week since I requested implementation). HR has told me that I can’t force her to use it because it isn’t a company policy; however, managers can implement their own requirements, and it sure would be great if she would do what I asked her to do. Any advice for me in this situation? What can I say to her to ensure that she implement, while also letting her have a chance to share any concerns she has? What if she still just won’t implement after we’ve discussed?

HR is totally off-base; the majority of what managers expect from employees aren’t things that are formally enshrined in policies.

But the bigger issue than the instant messages thing is that this employee commonly disregards your requests. That’s not okay, it’s a big deal, and you need to address that forthrightly.

If that weren’t the situation, and it was just about the IM’ing, I’d say to just ask her what’s up, because maybe there’s some reason that she especially hates IM or finds it distracting, and maybe you’d even find it compelling once you heard her reasoning. In that case, I’d recommend saying this: “Is there a reason you haven’t turned on your instant messaging after I asked everyone to start using it last week?” Then, if you weren’t swayed by her response, you’d say this: “I hear you. I do want everyone using it because we need to be able to communicate quickly, especially with so many remote people, so I need you to keep it on.” Depending on the circumstances, you could add, “Let’s try it for the next few weeks and see how it goes — if you’re hating it at that point, we can revisit it then, but I’d like you to give it a shot.”

But this isn’t about IM. This is about an employee who regularly ignores expectations, and that’s really what you need to be taking on. That’s a conversation where you say, “This has become a pattern, and it’s disruptive to our team. I need to be able to rely on you to implement the things I request. That’s a requirement of your position here, and if it continues not happening, it will jeopardize your job.” And you need to mean it when you say that, because you cannot responsibly keep someone on who regularly ignores what you tell her.

3. Coworkers keep interrupting me when I’m on meal breaks

I’ve been working for a new company, less than 90 days. It’s a decent environment, but my team doesn’t seem to disconnect when people are off the clock. We don’t have a cafeteria, so generally people take lunch at their desks. I also arrive early (about 20 minutes) each day to eat breakfast and get situated.

We have an open floor plan. My boss and peers will often talk shop on MY time. My bag isn’t down yet some mornings and I’m being asked about things. They don’t leave me alone during lunch either. Everyone else is working on the clock but they will ask me to jump in.

I’m not the only new employee. I’ve noticed the others take lunch in their cars and don’t come in early. Is this culture normal? How do you respectfully create boundaries? I don’t want to eat lunch in my sweltering car!

Well, if you’re in your office, it’s not outrageous that people are assuming that you’re working. You’re calling it “MY time” and getting annoyed that people aren’t leaving you alone, but they don’t know what your schedule is or that you came in early for non-work purposes.

It sounds like the issue is that there’s no way to tell that you’re not officially working when this happens. Lots of people do eat while they work, so that’s not a sure-fire sign that you want to be left alone. So I think you’re going to have to get comfortable saying “I’m on my lunch break right now but will help you once I’m back to work.” (That won’t really work for breakfast — it’ll be odd to say you’re on a break when you just arrived — so it might make more sense to eat breakfast at home.)

4. Asking my boss to hire a full-time assistant instead of two part-timers

My boss wants to hire two part-time admin assistants, instead of one full-time person, for the end of the year and for tax season. According to my coworkers who have been here longer than I have, they tried this setup before and it was “a total disaster” due to disorganization and things falling through the cracks. I have worked as the full-time admin here and I supervise the current admin’s work, so I have a day-to-day understanding of what the job entails, and I feel very strongly that we need one full-time person in the job. I know I should address this in terms of making our office run smoothly during our busiest time of year, but how can I bring this up to my boss without seeming like I’m overstepping? Or should I not bring it up at all?

No, you should definitely bring it up. This is the kind of thing that good managers want to hear input about. It’s not overstepping to express an opinion about something that you have standing to understand and that will impact the organization’s work. It would be overstepping if you kept bringing it up repeatedly, but that’s not what you’re proposing.

Just be direct: “I’ve been thinking about your plan to hire two part-time assistants rather than one full-time person. I’m concerned about X and Y if we go with two part-time people. Would you be open to one full-time person instead?”

5. I want to tell my company I know my raise is just about the new overtime law

I work full-time for a very small company. I am a salaried employee who makes about $2,500 less than the new threshold for overtime pay. I typically receive a small raise once every two to three years, and no annual bonus.

My company is doing extremely well this year, and my department has gone above and beyond to support that in many ways. One of the reasons I took this (underpaying) job in the first place was because it offered some flexibilities and a predictable workload. Both of those features have eroded considerably in the last year, and are likely to continue to do so.

Come December, I expect I will receive a raise of about $2,500 to get me up to the new overtime threshold … but it will be given in a “congratulations/thanks for all the hard work!” context (and gratitude will be expected) rather than a “this is financially smart for the company but not really for you!” context. I would like to indicate to my supervisors/company’s owners that I know better. I want to do that in order to not participate in what might not be a total lie, but also isn’t the truth, and to at least make them question their usual modus operandi of “everything is fine because we’re saying nice things, and saying nice things costs nothing!” It hasn’t been easy going to company meetings where the owners talk at length about how great all of the new revenue is, when the people who built what they’re selling know we’re not likely to see any of it beyond what the government now requires. Is there a way to do this?

Eh, I don’t think there’s a lot of reason to. It’s going to be very, very normal for companies to raise people’s pay to the new overtime threshold if they’re already pretty close to it. I can see why it grates if they’re pretending that’s not the reason and expecting you to be grateful, but I think the real issue here is that you feel underpaid and the benefits that attracted you to the job have gone away. That’s where I’d focus your attention. (It’s also really normal not to get any of that new revenue earned by the company; pay is generally tied to market rates for the job you do, not to the company’s sales figures. But if you’re not even being paid market rates, that’s a legitimate concern, and it might be time to go somewhere that does pay you at market value.)

If you really want to say something, though, why not ask for a larger raise and fold the overtime bump into that? You could say, “I know this salary bump is to get us to the new overtime threshold. But in light of my work doing X and my accomplishments in Y, I’d like to talk about adjusting my salary to a higher level.”

{ 299 comments… read them below }

  1. Mike*

    I eat breakfast at work quite often. I think it is perfectly fine to say “Sorry, I’m trying to get breakfast down before I get started. Mind if we talk in 10 minutes?” If it is before start time it shouldn’t be an issue.

    That said, if one of the bigger bosses comes in I’ll give them the time (and ask if they mind if I finish breakfast while we talk).

    1. Bookworm*

      Yeah. I also like the phrase OP used: “I generally like to take a few minutes to get situated, I’ll touch base with you in a bit.”

      A lot of my former coworkers ate breakfast at their desks – and barring some sort of giant work emergency – I don’t think anyone would blink an eye at that.

      But only say it if you can pull off saying it calmly and nicely.

    2. AnonMarketer*

      Yup! We also use the old standby of, “Give me a couple of minutes to get coffee in my system and I’ll be right with you.” Yet to see anyone argue with that. Most people won’t be too put off, if at all.

      1. Jen RO*

        Yeah, that’s what I usually do (coupled with ‘four more bites and I’m done’) and it works most of the time.

      2. Kerr*

        Yes indeed! Everyone wants to make sure they’re talking to someone who’s had their coffee. :)

        I step out for lunch, partly because of this, but I’ve heard plenty of people fend off coworkers who approach them during lunch. As long as you say it cheerfully, anything in the vein of “Is it all right if I get back to you in half an hour after I finish lunch?” or “Actually, I’m in the middle of lunch, can I get back to you in about ten minutes?” or “Let me get back to you as soon as I’m done with lunch” all work well. (I know the first two are technically questions, but it’s the rare person who will continue when you’re clearly trying to eat. It’s also more useful if it’s your boss interrupting, vs. a coworker.)

        1. the gold digger*

          Which is much nicer than the response the office manager gave me once when I tracked her down to the break room and asked her a question. She snapped, “I am ON MY LUNCH BREAK!” and I was thinking, Um, yes, but you are here and if someone asked me a question while I was eating lunch, I would just answer it.

          I don’t know if she was hourly and at the time, I didn’t know about the lunch differences between exempt and non-exempt, but sheesh. She could have been nicer.

          1. Erin*

            I mean even if you’re exempt, it’s nice to take a break during lunch. I always preface any questions while one is eating with “I’m sorry to interrupt your lunch, but I had trouble finding you earlier to answer this quick question…”

          2. animaniactoo*

            You were likely the 900th person to track her down – and while she could have been nicer, actually she was pretty well all the way in the right there. You found her in the *break room*. That’s a pretty good indication that person is ON BREAK. And it doesn’t matter whether they’re eating lunch or just taking a 10 or 15 minute break, or exempt or non-exempt. It’s that the standard is that this is a break area. It’s an area where you can go to get *away* from work and being asked work questions. You didn’t respect that boundary at all, and she had the right to be that annoyed by it.

            If the question was urgent or you happened to be taking a break at the same time, it would be different – but from what you’ve said here, you clearly went in only to ask her a question. Which made your disregard of her right to have a break uninterrupted by work matters pretty blatant. Looked at from her POV (vs your “I would have answered the question”) does it make more sense why she snapped? Particularly if you were the recipient of her 900th attempt to get people to stop thinking that it was okay to track her down in the break room?

            1. AnonEMoose*

              I was trying to think of how to say this earlier, and wasn’t coming up with anything that didn’t sound snappish or snarky. So I’ll just say that I agree with this.

            2. the gold digger*

              Nope. There were only about ten of us in the office. She spent most of her time with the big boss. I would try and try to talk to her when it wasn’t lunch but could never find her at her desk. She would be in the boss’ office with the door closed. I assure you that she was not being hassled ever and this was maybe one of ten questions I asked her in a year.

              Not to mention, when I am at work, I am – you know – at work. Even if I am in the gym during my lunch, if someone asked me a quick question, I would answer it.

              1. animaniactoo*

                Post-it note on her desk? “I stopped by but haven’t been able to catch you, please give me a call asap.”? Did that not work? Because if so, then I can agree tracking her down even on break is reasonable. If you didn’t, then your not finding another route to getting her attention is not her fault.

                Plus I think you’re still missing a piece here – if she was almost always in with big boss, then she was almost always “on”. For her, being in the “break” room was her place to escape from that. And then you asked her to be “on” again.

                I think most people would answer a question now and then, but would primarily expect being visibly not “at work” despite “being on company premises” as something to be respected. Because even if you are on company premises, your break time is still *yours*, not theirs. Being “at work” doesn’t bind you to giving up your break time just because of the location of it. If it’s urgent, sure, you make accommodations. If it’s not urgent, it’s entirely reasonable to protect your break time as such. No matter how quick the question is.

              2. CrimsonCaller*

                You seem to be confused about what “at work” means. When I am at lunch I am not “at work,” even though it falls during the work day. My work schedule is 9-12:30, 1:30-5pm. That hour that you’re bothering me? It’s unpaid. I am not required to be at work, I am not getting paid.

                There is nothing wrong with not giving up your personal time for work. Don’t develop the attitude that you’re the only one who cares about work/the company simply because you’re the one who improperly values your time off. It’s people like you who respond at 9PM to e-mails and expect it from their team. “What’s the big deal, I would reply, it only takes 2 seconds!”

                1. Bea W*

                  ^This, and paid or unpaid, a break by definition is a break from work, period. Some people don’t mind answering work questions on break, but I feel like the default assumption should always be break = not working, and not working includes listening to and answering work questions.

                  If people do this to me I don’t count it as break time and will, if possible, recoup it. For people with a set break schedule or a full day of meetings, this is not an option, and anyone who interrupts is basically robbing a person of break time they are entitled (or legally required in some states) to take. Not cool.

          3. Amelia*

            Yes, she could have been nicer, but you could have been more respectful of her time. I think you were much more in the wrong here.

          4. KH*

            Where I’ve always worked (as exempt), you are there to get the work done and if you are at your desk, expect to get interrupted. You have some flexibility to say no to less urgent request, but if something is on important, you put down your lunch. Yeah I know, the same expectation is not made of those who eat not in the office.

            Or, what has been my experience, you just eat and work at the same time. If you are lucky enough to have a flexible workplace, you might be able to kick off a little early to make up for the lost personal time.

        2. Elizabeth West*

          Not rare at Exjob.

          If you’re hourly, no, you cannot work while you’re on your lunch break and clocked out. I would get people coming up to me in the break room asking me questions when I was 1) eating, 2) had headphones on, 3) behind my own computer. I would say, “I’m off the clock; send me a quick email, and I’ll get it taken care of as soon as I get back from lunch.”

          “WELL I DON’T KNOW WHY YOU CAN’T DO IT NOW!” *grump grouch grump mumble*

          I do; because then it would be overtime, ya dweeb.

        3. Stranger than fiction*

          Yeah, we have no break room so often eat at our desks as well. Most people will ask if they see you eating though. A few people actually have signs they hang outside their cube ir office “at lunch 12:30-1:30” and that may help the Op too.

      3. Trout 'Waver*

        My favorite: Give me a chance to triage my inbox. I’ll track you down when I’m caught up.

        I’m a morning person and I hate those people that ambush you right when you walk in the door. I can’t imagine how annoying it is to night owls.

        1. KR*

          Same. I practically have to walk through the whole building to get to my office, so people tend to stop me on my way in (sometimes before I even make it in the door!). I’ve had to resort to literally telling people to wait until I’ve had a chance to put my bag down and punch in and then I’ll be glad to help them with whatever. Better yet, I’d just prefer if people called or emailed me instead of waiting until I pass their office to demand I come help them now.

          1. coffeeepoweeerrddddd*

            This is why when the big boss comes in I just say good morning, smile, and allow them to continue walking to their office with their effects, undisturbed.

            Golden Rule applies here!

          2. KH*

            People are generally reasonable and willing to wait. Honestly, if I asked something during someone’s lunch break that wasn’t totally urgent, and they told me they would get back to me after lunch, I would be fine with that without a second thought. I tend to respect people more who protect their time as being able to effectively manage their time and triage/prioritize tasks. They just look more busy and more important somehow. If you always drop everything or stop in your tracks to help someone, they subconsciously presume that you have the time.

        2. AnonEMoose*

          I hate being ambushed like that, too. Let me at least put my bag down, get my coat off, and get logged in to my computer – which I’m likely to need to answer the question, anyway.

          1. Hooptie*

            I had an employee who would ambush me. I firmly believe she waited for me to walk in the door, then slammed me with ‘big stuff’ hoping that I would not be focused enough and would tell her what she wanted to hear…or that I would hear only what she wanted to tell me, if that makes sense.

        3. Purest Green*

          This is partly why I opted for such an early schedule. Being in the office an hour before most people buys me a bit extra zen.

          1. Callietwo*

            Was going to say this- I was able to get my hours changed from 8-4:30 to 7:30 to 4, some of which was just for this reason. Also, my yoga class starts at 4:30 across town so I need to get moving. Luckily, self-care is important to our company and they approved the change for me.

            I need that 30 minutes of quiet to get my day going and I NEED that yoga class desperately after listening to people all around me in this cubicle hell.

        4. LizM*

          It’s awful. I actually have a coworker who, at least once a week, will ambush me and ask something along the lines of “did you see my email, what do you think?” No, I haven’t seen your email, you can see that you stopped me before I could turn my computer on. And no I don’t check email at home in the morning unless I’m going to be late.

          1. irritable vowel*

            Ugh, yes, I have coworkers who do this (one in particular, but others are also guilty). We have flextime where I work, and there are certain people who, because they come in at 7:30 or 8:00, expect that everyone else is online working at that time, too. Even if they can see I’m just on my way into the office at 9:30 when they ask if I’ve read their e-mail. Either that or it’s passive-aggressiveness about people who come in “late,” I can’t tell. (I do generally look at work e-mails on my phone before I leave home, but rarely respond until I get in, unless it’s urgent.)

            1. KH*

              It depends on the industry. In IT, you’d be expected to keep an eye on emails a few times during the evening and in the morning before leaving for office. It really doesn’t take hardly any time (maybe a half hour combined) and makes a big difference in deciding what to prioritize / what accomplishment to go after for any given day, and sure beats getting surprised first thing in the morning. It also makes you look more informed and prepares you to take the best actions / decisions.

              (This assumes you work somewhere that supports remote email / email to smartphone – which they really should if they want to improve results).

      4. Kelly L.*

        I actually told someone once that I was a hologram and the real me would be in at 8, but you reeeeaaallly have to know your audience. ;)

        “Let me just settle in a minute and I’ll be right with you” usually works in most settings, in my experience, if they’re interrupting before you’ve even put your stuff down.

          1. Formica Dinette*

            I gotta remember this and Kelly L.’s hologram comment. I am sure they’ll come in handy.

      5. Pwyll*

        This. My coworkers used to tease me that they learned they can’t speak with me while I still have my coffee mug in my hand. Apparently pre-caffeine me doesn’t put the cup down. But I’ve never had much trouble saying that and following up 10 minutes later (and really, you don’t want to ask pre-caffeine me anything anyway).

    3. Al Lo*

      In my office, it’s even appropriate to say it to the CEO. If it’s really urgent, she’ll let me know. If it’s not, it’s totally fine to say, “Just give me a few minutes to get myself settled and ready for the day.” Know your office, know your hierarchy, but it’s not an uncommon comment to make. People ramp up for the day in different ways and at different times, and what’s still your me-time may be when they have something pressing on their mind. There are times when I don’t mind being bombarded when I walk in (and sometimes taking an hour before I even get to my desk), but other times, I’ll just state it as fact that I need some time.

    4. shep*

      I agree. If I eat before I leave home, I’ll be starving by lunchtime. My commute is pretty long and I get to the office extremely early (we have a generous flex time policy). Luckily, our office culture is such that most people understand eating breakfast = don’t pause to chat, but this script you suggest is also spot-on.

            1. Kelly L.*

              I have this theory that dogs are hobbits.

              They’re low to the ground, they have furry feet, and they want to eat 10 meals a day.

      1. hi.*

        same here! i have to leave my house at 6 am if i want my drive to be 60-75 min. (if i leave at say, 7, it’s usually 2.5 hrs before i get to the office.) i already have to get up at 5 every day, getting up earlier and eating breakfast before commuting would feel like a midnight snack. :)

        1. Elizabeth West*

          Many, many of my coworkers at CurrentJob eat breakfast at work, including me. I don’t know about them, but I can’t eat anything when I first get up. I can have coffee but UGH no food. Bleah. So eating before I leave the house is a no. Plus, it takes me forever to wake up and I like to drink my coffee while web surfing until my brain engages.

          When I get here around 8:30, I clock in, check my inbox, deal with stuff, and then go fix/eat brekkie at 9. Every day. Sometimes 9:30 if there’s a huge fire to put out.

          1. Bea W*

            I have to pretty much put anything in my stomach more substantial than water when I get out of bed. I’m not grumpy in the morning, I’m hangry!

    5. (Another) B*

      It doesn’t bother me now when coworkers talk to me if I eat at my desk at my regular job, but when I worked retail I would clock out and then RUN to the back before a customer could stop me with a question. I’m not getting paid for this!!

      1. Liane*

        It never ceases to amaze me how many people will assume someone with a purse/tote, iPad, drink and a bag of food is on the clock. And considering how rude most of them are when they accost a retail employee on break, I can only imagine the abuse they’d heap on on a coworker (or even client) who dared disturb *their* break.

        1. Michaela T*

          I have probably told this here before, but once I went to use the bathroom at my retail job and a woman waited outside the stall to ask me to help her find something. I asked sarcastically if I could was my hands first and she STOOD AND WATCHED ME.

        2. KR*

          I take off my name tag, put my head down and have my phone and wallet out to avoid customers and they still come for me. It’s never ending.

        3. Noah*

          Yes, I’ve walked into the airport with my messenger bag, sunglasses on, talking on my cell phone and still had passengers stop to ask me “just one question.” It is never just one question and normally the answer requires me to login to the computer and look something up. I will answer the “where is the bathroom” kind of questions but anything else I will tell them to ask an agent at the counter because I’m not clocked in yet.

    6. Karo*

      While I agree with this general idea, I think she needs to be explicit that she’s not on company time yet. Just changing “before I get started” to “before I clock in at 8,” would make that clearer. It may not be anyone’s business, but, given that she’s new and an unknown quantity, she should be cautious of appearing as though she’s refusing to answer questions on work time because she’s not “there” yet.

    7. Koko*

      Yeah, I don’t think it’s weird to say, “I’m actually just wrapping up breakfast before I get started for the day – I can never quite get hungry enough to eat when I first wake up, so I like to come in a little early and eat here once I’m more awake.”

      1. mander*

        Yeah, I think you could combine this with advice above: “I’m actually just finishing breakfast before I clock in at 8, but as soon as I’ve done that we can talk.”

    8. NacSacJack*

      It really comes down to corporate culture. Here, we eat breakfast and lunch at our desk because our meeting schedules are skewed to a different time zone. Hard to get up the appetite for lunch at 11am when you grabbed a fast food breakfast at 930 on your way in after morning meetings. Yes, sometimes we interrupt someone while they are eating and all the suggestions here for making that interruption are valid. We might wait a bit, with a “Let me know when you’re done…”.

    9. Sadsack*

      Yes, this is perfectly normal and shouldn’t be a big deal if you don’t act like it is one. The phrasing Mike used is similar to what my manager and I have said to each other in the mornings and at lunch time.

  2. Bookworm*

    I like Alison’s suggestion of “I will never have an interesting answer to that”. It switches the lens away from her behavior a little bit, while making her aware that she’s asking a lot. If you feel comfortable, you could also be a little goofy about it, like “Ah, just that top-secret meeting I’m not supposed to mention,” or “Not home, unfortunately.”

    I also find that a simple “Why do you ask?” can work wonders.

    Definitely try to phase out telling her. She should get used to not knowing. If it had been only a few weeks, I would have suggested that maybe she’s worried there are meetings or office customs (lunch? afternoon coffee?) that she might know about. Months in, it’s starting to be weird behavior.

    1. Sara*

      I like your suggestions :) maybe the person is asking in case someone comes looking for the OP. On the other hand, maybe the person is just trying to acknowledge that the OP’s presence is leaving. I’d suggest just giving vague ‘hey, I’ll be back in an hour, see you’. If the person asks where you are going at that point, you could ignore it if you’re walking out.

      1. Shabu Shabu*

        I’m a fan of “be right back” or “be back later” if I need to answer my own office version of Ms. Ask A Lot. I’ll say it before she even asks.
        I don’t even say anything 70% of the time.
        Silence :)

    2. MillersSpring*

      Due to your introversion, you might feign deafness a few times…would she jump up and follow you down the hall to keep asking or ascertain your destination? You could claim that you thought she was talking to someone on the phone.

      Or you could try wearing headphones at your desk and walk away still wearing them.

      Or you could start answering with a single word while you keep walking: “Meeting.” “Restroom.” “Walk.” “Lunch.” If she does waylay you, a quizzical look each time also could be helpful.

        1. The Cosmic Avenger*

          Those start to sound a little hostile, it would probably be hard to pull off without alienating the coworker more than talking to them directly. I was thinking something along the lines of making a joke of it, sort of like Evergreen said below: “If I ever go out for [some silly/outlandish reason or “anything even remotely interesting”], I promise to tell you!”

          1. Apollo Warbucks*

            Yeah I’m wondering why people are suggesting all these hostile or passive aggressive responses.

              1. MillersSpring*

                It was her comment about being an introvert that prompted my suggestions. Personally, I’d much rather state, “Sorry, but it doesn’t make sense for me to stop and let you know that I’m going to the restroom or lunch or a meeting; in the course of each day, I’m going to leave my desk many times.”

            1. The Cosmic Avenger*

              Well, I understand the impulse to drop hints first, and that might be reasonable to try sometimes as a first step, but it also requires more savvy and subtlety, so the direct approach can often be easier, despite any concerns about making it confrontational.

            2. Not the Droid You are Looking For*

              I concur. I do think this is a perfect opportunity for, “Why do you ask?”

              Based on the coworker’s answer, the OP can offer a straightforward response.

            3. Rachael*

              Yes. I agree. I had an ex who would look up from the couch while I got up during a commercial break to ask me where I was going. I was either going one of two places, the kitchen or the bathroom. At first is was annoying but then i realized that he just did it automatically to satisfy some kind of need just to know what I’m up to. Nothing nefarious. I just started letting him know. I think it gave him reassurance that I would be back soon.

              1. Preux*

                I suspect some people are just raised in families/communities where this is typical, and haven’t realized that the rest of us find it strange. I know someone who informs everyone of where she’s going even if she’ll only be out of the room for a minute – and likewise wants to know where anyone else is going any time they exit the room.

          2. Sadsack*

            I agree about the hostility. I also like Drew’s suggestion below to just give her an idea of when you’ll be back instead if answering where you are going.

    3. Drew*

      This is good. Equally good is to answer a related question that might be at least theoretically this person’s business: “I’ll be back in a couple of minutes/ten minutes/an hour/a little while/tomorrow.” Treat it as though the question was “In case someone asks, how long will you be gone?”

      Yes, it’s annoying behavior, but I (perhaps optimistically) think the OP’s coworker is just trying to be friendly, not intrusive.

      1. Dynamic Beige*

        Also, if the coworker is still kind of new, they may want to know in case something comes up. Whether it’s someone else asking for OP, or coworker has a question about something. It might also be a thing of trying to figure out how long OP will be gone because of coverage or planning her own bathroom breaks.

        Depending on my mood, I might also do the wacky answer.
        “I could tell you… but then I’d have to kill you.”
        “I’ve been pining for the fjords…”
        “I am going to inspect this incredible new invention, the Porcelain Convenience! Have you heard about it? Apparently, it takes all your bodily wastes and sends them away somewhere. Amazing! No more chamber pots!”
        “My handler won’t allow me to discuss details of our rendez-vous.”
        “I have to go and adjust the sundial for Daylight Savings Time.”
        “I have to go and let out Schrodinger’s cat.”
        “If I’m not in front of the coffee pot in exactly 23 seconds, I will miss my daily update from Alpha Centauri.”

        I would probably spend time inventing all kinds of things, just to mess with coworker.

        1. L N*

          I was going to suggest saying things like “Narnia” which is probably why I don’t have an advice column.

    4. Evergreen*

      I like this idea. You could also come up with increasingly outlandish responses until it becomes a running office joke.

    5. addlady*

      My favorite:
      “Where are you going?”
      Although I have only tried this with relatives.

      1. addlady*

        Actually, do not try this at work. I use it to train certain relatives, and usually follow it up with something more direct or lighthearted.

      2. Karen K*

        “What are you going to do?”
        “When are you coming back?”

        That about covers it.

        Seriously, there’s no reason why her coworker needs to know where the OP is. They share an office. They’re not responsible for each other. If someone comes looking for her, the appropriate answer to the question, “Where is OP?”, following the above convention, is “Gone.”

    6. UsuallyALurker*

      I agree, especially with the “why do you ask?”

      The idea that the coworker might be worried she should be going somewhere, too occurred to me as well. It’s not normal months in, but it could be some kind of anxiety or bad habit, especially if she’s new to the workforce, so it makes sense for the OP to reinforce that they don’t need to ask.

    7. Elizabeth West*

      I like that too; it’s hilarious.

      The letter said she’s only been there a few months. Depending on the complexity of the job, maybe she’s nervous because when OP steps away, she’s on her own and is afraid something will happen that she can’t handle before OP gets back.

      I once had a receptionist job where it took SIX MONTHS to learn all the intricacies. It was in a materials lab; I had to receive samples and follow chain-of-custody procedures, among other weird things. I would have panicked if they left me alone in the front for any length of time during those first few months.

    8. Stranger than fiction*

      Or she may have come from a job where people were watched closely on how often they left their desks.

    9. Chaordic One*

      I find that “Why do you ask?” never works and people will have some ridiculously addlepated reason for needing to know.

      1. TootsNYC*

        But then you just say, “Oh.” And walk off.

        You’ve responded to their first question by saying, “Why do you ask?”

        And if their answer isn’t good enough, you don’t actually tell them. Just say, “Oh,” in a “that’s interesting” tone of voice, and walk off. Because you didn’t end the conversation on a question.

  3. JessaB*

    I agree with the breakfast thing. If you’re not due to start til 8 and you’re in at 7:30 there’s no reason not to do the same thing you’d do at lunch. “I’m sorry, I’m not on the clock right now. We can certainly talk later when I’m clocked in.”

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think that can come across oddly when you’re not in a “clock-y” job — if you’re in a professional and exempt job, sometimes there isn’t really such a thing as clocking in. I don’t know if the OP’s workplace is like that or not, but I wouldn’t have been comfortable saying “I’m not on the clock” in most exempt office jobs.

      1. Gaia*

        I agree. I tend to eat breakfast at my desk (because I’m never hungry before then) and there is no way I would feel comfortable telling someone I’m not on the clock then. I don’t clock in and out. Now, if I were taking my lunch I feel like I’d be more comfortable asking if they mind if I get back to them after I’m finished…but even then it might depend. Again, because I’m exempt. If you are hourly or non-exempt this is entirely different.

      2. RobM*

        This can feel odd (though we’re pretty chilled about it where I work). I think if people see you at your desk its entirely reasonable for them to ask if you’re available. Now the people who come up and talk at you when you’re clearly in the middle of something (whether a business phonecall or a bowl of cereal) are another thing.

      3. Perse's Mom*

        The OP specifically mentions “off the clock” and “working on the clock,” though. Maybe she didn’t mean that to be taken as actually clocking-in-clocking-out, but that’s how I read it. Based on that, I’m assuming she’s non-exempt.

        1. Stranger than fiction*

          I assumed that too. It may just be the culture there and that’s why some people go to their cars to escape.

      4. hi.*

        I’d probably just say something like “Happy to catch up with you once I’ve started working for the day, maybe 30 min or so? I came in early to grab breakfast and sort my emails, let’s chat at 8.”

        1. Koko*

          Yeah, I’m not sure I understand what’s so different about eating breakfast before work vs eating lunch in the middle of the workday. As long as you explain the situation I don’t see why it would be frowned upon because OP is coming in early. It’s not like she’s “starting work” at 9 but spending the first 20 minutes eating breakfast. She came in before her scheduled start time so that she can eat after her commute instead of before it. I don’t see why she has to be at home to eat breakfast without interruption when she doesn’t have to be at home to eat lunch without interruption, provided she’s working a full day and available during regular working hours. An explanation (I can’t eat when I first wake up, I can’t last until lunch if I eat before I leave my house, etc., but I’ll be able to take a look at this when I get started at 9 unless it’s very urgent) should be enough for any reasonable person.

      5. Lucky*

        I worked with a legal assistant who had a sign she would post on her cubicle counter when she was taking her lunch break. Also, if she knew that there was a filing deadline coming, she would email to let you know when she planned to take lunch and that it was okay to interrupt her for that filing. It was a bit odd, but it certainly worked, and made all of us aware of how we often interrupted staff during their lunches.

    2. Kai*

      This reminds me of an hourly temp we had for a few months at my old job. She would stay at her desk during her lunch hour, which was a customer-facing desk. Then she’d get annoyed when customers came up to ask her a question or when her boss came by to talk about a project. Yes, she was hourly and perfectly entitled to not work during lunch, but there was no way to tell that she was on a break.

      I think that, hourly or not, it comes across as odd if you stay at your desk during lunch (or before really starting your day) but won’t talk business with your coworkers. Generally the only way to avoid it is to eat somewhere else.

      1. Joseph*

        “Yes, she was hourly and perfectly entitled to not work during lunch, but there was no way to tell that she was on a break.”
        This is exactly the issue with eating at your desk. To you, it seems pretty obvious – you’re on lunch break eating a sandwich, how could people not realize that?
        But on the other side of the desk, I can see you’re eating a sandwich, but don’t really know what that might mean. Maybe you’re doing a working lunch – either today specifically because you need to leave early or as a regular thing to stay on top of stuff. Maybe you’re just having a quick snack while waiting on something (running some calculations, call-back from a service rep, upcoming conference call). Maybe you’re one of those people who like to do several small snacks instead of a massive meal so I’m always going to see you with some kind of food.
        “Generally the only way to avoid it is to eat somewhere else.”
        Exactly. Eat in the break room, outside, even in your car if you’d like, just not at your actual desk.

        1. Bob Barker*

          I used to work at a client-facing desk, in an organization with a staff of 100, that had no break room. I was hourly. (And did not have a car, and it’s too cold a climate to eat outside most of the time.) The only place to eat your lunch was public, and people — both colleagues and clients — did approach me to try to do work while I was obviously not able to do work beyond demolishing a plate of meatballs. It was actually less hassle to eat at my desk and field interruptions than it was to have some shmuck walk up to me and get annoyed because I couldn’t type a query directly into the meatballs and provide an answer.

          Was I bitter? SO BITTER. I am not gonna hide in the stairwell just to get an uninterrupted moment with my meatballs! I ate at my desk every day, and almost never got an uninterrupted lunch hour.

          1. Koko*

            to have some shmuck walk up to me and get annoyed because I couldn’t type a query directly into the meatballs and provide an answer

            Thank you for this, it made me laugh!

        2. MsChanandlerBong*

          I agree to an extent, but I’ve had several employers that did not have break rooms. It’s not all that reasonable to expect an employee to go sit in her car when it’s 100 degrees or 20 degrees out.

      2. Anon on Occasion*

        That would be assuming there’s somewhere else to eat! (We have no break room in our office. At all. You eat at your desk or you go out to eat.)

      3. LizM*

        This conversation is making me realize how important it is for employee morale to have a breakroom. I know it’s not practical in every office, but I hope managers who have employees in cubicle land are reading this, and take this into account if they have an opportunity to design office-space.

        A lot of research shows that employees really do need to get away from their desks during the day, and are more productive if they get real breaks.

        1. Mallory Janis Ian*

          A break room that is recognized as such is the thing. At one place I worked, some of the faculty ruined the break room for the staff because they wouldn’t recognize that people in the break room were on break. Sure, each one had “only a quick question” that taken alone wasn’t a big deal, but five or six people having a “quick question” takes up a good chunk of one’s lunch break. The room didn’t feel like a break room any more; it felt like a place to get cornered by oblivious coworkers. Most of the staff ended up abandoning that break room and taking our lunches at the student union.

  4. Elizabeth the Ginger*

    #1 mentioned the coworker is sometimes asking for help as she gets settled in her new job – maybe she’s asking where the OP is going because she’s (subconsciously, perhaps) mentally keeping track of “if I get stuck, how soon will I be able to get help from OP? What if I need something and OP isn’t there?”

    If that seems to be the case, OP could try letting the coworker know when they’ll be gone for a while, like a preemptive “I have a meeting all afternoon; see you tomorrow if you’re gone by the time I get back.” That would create the reassuring default of the coworker not being left unassisted.

  5. Amy*

    A better idea than lunch in your sweltering car: bring shorts and a tshirt, change in the john, and go for a walk. If you’re in one of those industrial-park hells not built for creatures with legs, find a stairwell in your building and walk up and down. Put some music on, get some exercise, do something to rescue your metabolism and cardiovascular system. If you’re sitting most of the day you need it; you don’t need to sit and eat for an hour. When you get back to your desk, have a bagel or meal bar or whatever while you work, and when you get home, have a real dinner.

    1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

      Different people’s bodies have different needs. I absolutely need a real meal in the middle of the day, not just a bar of some kind – I’m ravenous by 10:45am! And we don’t know that the OP’s job is a super sedentary one of whether they move around a lot during the workday already. I think we can trust them to know if they need to eat lunch.

      1. Jeanne*

        I agree. If OP wants or needs lunch, that’s totally normal. I feel sad though for those who eat in their cars. It’s too bad the company doesn’t want to put aside a small area for meals. But the more you tell coworkers that you’ll get back to them after lunch, the more they’ll respect your lunch time.

        1. NK*

          I actually used to love eating lunch in my car at my old job (though I agree with you that meal areas should still be provided so people have another place to go if they choose). My local NPR station had great lunchtime programming, and I could fully get away from my coworkers. I now live in a city where everyone takes public transportation, and while that certainly has its advantages I kind of miss my quiet time in the car.

        2. Lady Bug*

          I also love eating in my car, especially when its sweltering, I can defrost from the office.

          1. Chloe Silverado*

            Agreed! I don’t do it all the time, but if I need some private time, I’m having a bad day or it’s extra cold in the office, I’ll go eat in the car. It gives me some alone time to decompress, listen to some music or a podcast, and thaw out from the freezing office. I can see how someone who enjoys eating with others or really likes to be seated at a table for meals might find this depressing, but I really enjoy it in the right context!

        3. Bend & Snap*

          My company has a lot of eating areas, but sometimes I want to be ALONE and I eat in my car. I’ll even drive off campus just to feel like there are no eyes on me.

          I get so little alone time and eating with hundreds of people in the cafeteria is…not relaxing.

          1. Koko*

            There are days I’ve debated building a sleeping cubby underneath my desk like George Costanza, just to get a little bit of alone-ness.

      2. Bea W*

        Same. My biggest meal of the day is lunch. I also can’t function without at least one breakfast. I’m baffled by people who can skip or barely eat either meal while I may only have a light supper. Bars are a quick pick-me-up snack food for me, not a meal substitute.

        The stairwells in my building are suffocating, especially in summer. I’m lucky we have a cafeteria and plenty of places to go outside. The thought of having to eat in a sweltering car or suffocating but busy stairwell is cringe-worthy.

        1. Koko*

          For me, I’m small enough that I can really only eat those bars on days I lift, because three normal-sized meals (400-500 calories) + one of those bars (350 calories) exceeds my daily burn on non-lifting days! I’m often envious of larger people who have a larger daily allotment because so many “snacks” are close to a meal’s worth of calories for me.

          On lifting days because I eat lunch so early (around 11 or 11:30 am) I usually have one of those bars around 4 pm so that I have some fuel left in me when I hit the gym after work. It’s basically like adding a fourth meal to my day.

          1. Bea W.*

            I’m also small, but I’m also a calorie black hole. :-/ My normal day intake is more than your lifting day intake. If it’s a gym day (and I don’t even lift!), yeh…just hand me the box of 350 calorie bars.

          2. Anxa*

            I’m the opposite!

            I’m so glad I don’t need to eat that much as I’m fairly inactive and on the small side. My brother is tall and works out and his grocery bill dwarfs mine.

            Also, I’m lucky enough that I don’t have to take a lunch break so I choose not to. Instead I can graze. Fortunately, I can get a lot of calories and mileage out of a quick banana, boiled egg, avocado, cheese, etc. without having to take more than a few minutes to eat.

            I did have a lifting phase earlier this year, but I wasn’t trying to put on a lot of muscle so I didn’t have to drag lunch out very long.

    2. Nervous Accountant*

      Wait what? Am I missing something? I thought the OP asked about being asked about work while eating, not how to get exercise during work and what kind of diet to have? I’m confused.

      1. Artemesia*

        Yes I had to chuckle at the notion that instead of lunch the OP should go climb stairs. But in a public space like this, it is common for a question to lead to tangential advice because it isn’t just the OP who may have such issues but many people and so alternative ways to deal might be useful to some reader.

        1. BWooster*

          I kinda feel that diet advice is almost never useful to anyone not looking for it. And, a cynical soul that I am, I am not convinced that, when offered unasked, it is offered in a spirit of helpfulness rather than judgment.

          1. OhNo*

            Agreed. Plus this is just way off topic here. OP had a very straightforward question – I can’t see any way of interpreting it as a request for this kind of “helpful” advice.

        2. Nervous Accountant*

          Now that I’ve had a few more hours of sleep (just barely), I understand this much more clearly now. This is the rare time that I will have to disagree with you. Unsolicited diet advice sucks and I never know what runs through people’s minds when they ask one question but diet advice when it’s irrelevant.

      2. Anon13*

        Maybe this is TMI, but, on a side note, I always assume people who give this kind of advice just don’t sweat as much as I do. If I did aerobic activity during my lunch break, I would come back all sweaty, and that’s certainly not professional.

        1. MashaKasha*

          That thought has crossed my mind too. Especially now, in 90-degree, humid summer weather, if a building doesn’t have a locker room with a shower (and most don’t), forget it, I’m not going outside to exercise at lunch and I certainly hope my coworkers won’t either, otherwise our office will have an, um, interesting smell to it after lunch.

        2. Koko*

          I don’t even sweat that much to the point it’s a problem (seriously, I’m constantly overheating at the gym unless I have a fan pointed directly at me on High the entire time I’m working out), and I still won’t do any strenuous activity on my lunch break unless there’s an opportunity to shower before returning to work. The bar for “how sweaty is too sweaty to go back to work” is exceedingly low.

        3. Simonthegrey*

          I don’t sweat enough (at all, ever) and I wouldn’t do this. Not sweating means I overheat and am prone to heat-related issues if it is at all warm and muggy outside. I can’t come in from a walk, drop in my chair, and zone out for the next 4 hours. I work with students and when it is busy I have to be ON when I’m at my desk. Also, I have literally never worked a job where an hour lunch is normal, and neither have my parents (point of reference for when I was younger) or any of my friends (point of reference now that we are all in professional jobs). In one job I had, we were permitted to group one of our 15 min breaks with our lunch if we had to run an errand (our 15 min breaks were unpaid there) but anywhere else, you had to have a reason to take a longer lunch. One friend is allowed to go in early some days, take an hour lunch when she needs to make a dental appointment, and come back (correcting some tooth issues) but it is NOT the norm.

      3. HRish Dude*

        All I can figure is it might be a misplaced reply. Otherwise, I’m at a total loss since it has nothing to do with the question of how to get people to stop bugging you when you’re off the clock.

    3. MK*

      Maybe the OP has back or knee issues and cann’t excersize by going up and down stairs. Maybe she goes tonthe gym seven days a week and realy doesn’t need more excerisize. Maybe she hates excersize and is willing to take the potential bad effects of never getting any. Oh, and “have a snac for lunch and and a big dinner” goes against every single dietary advice I heard from doctors and nutritionists, and it’s how I personally gained 15 kilos. I am sure the regiment you describe is beneficial for a lot of people who should adopg it, IF they are actually interested in getting more excersize. But pushing it on someone who only asked advice on how to stop people bothering them on their lunch break is presumptuous.

      The only thing I agree with is that the OP should consider if there isn’t some other place to eat lunch. I am guessing a nearby park is not available, but maybe a bench by the parking lot?

      1. Marcela*

        Or, just to give an alternative situation, OP could come from a culture like mine, where lunch is the main meal of the day, and we do not eat dinner but have tea and sandwiches. My brain would just stop without lunch.

        1. MashaKasha*

          I really don’t know many people who could survive an entire workday, plus the lunch break, plus commute and any after-work errands they may have (which would add up to 10-12 hours), on a bagel or a granola bar. I am certainly not one of those people.

    4. Ask a Manager* Post author

      This is really giving the OP advice on something different than what she’s asking about, and I don’t want it to derail the thread. Thanks.

    5. Kelly L.*

      The one kernel of usefulness in this rant is that yeah, it doesn’t always take me the full hour to literally eat, even a full meal (maybe I just eat fast?), and the time between running out of food and my lunch break actually ending is the biggest time for interruptions. People sometimes are able to process the sight of eating and go “Oh, I’ll come back later,” but they won’t remember you’re still on break when there are no more visual cues. And some days, I really want the rest of that hour of downtime. It’s figured into my pay structure, too, so I might as well take it!

      The only thing that really works, in my experience, is to leave the scene. Depending on where I work and what’s nearby, this has sometimes meant going to the library, playing Pokemon, browsing a store, or just finding a quiet corner that’s not my office and reading.

    6. Sadsack*

      I get what you are saying, but this doesn’t really help OP that much. If she wants to enjoy a meal at her desk, she just has to ask for a few minutes to finish up.

  6. LiptonTeaForMe*

    #3 If you work in cubicle land, just put up a sign saying you will be at lunch from this time to that time. I eat lunch at my desk all the time and thankfully no one bothers me. Both my lead and manager do the same thing as they are as entitled to an uninterrupted lunch as I am.

    #1 My response to that question would probably be rather blunt as I am generally very direct. But my instant reaction to reading that was to turn right back around and ask her what she could possibly need that information for every fricking time I stood up from my chair! Then depending on her answer, she would either be told to stop it or I’d turn around and start asking her some asinine question as well.

    1. Artemesia*

      No need to go to the nuclear option the first time you mention it. The gentler but pointed responses Alison suggested are the way to go first. I would immediately assume she was inappropriately monitoring my time but I might be wrong; people do dumb things and it isn’t always hostile. Better to pretend it isn’t at least until it persists after clear but gentle responses don’t work.

    2. Trout 'Waver*

      Putting up a sign seems a bit passive aggressive to me. Also, lunch is flexible in many jobs. I personally can’t predict what time I’ll take lunch each day in advance.

      1. Wednesday*

        This must be a work-culture (or culture-culture) thing.
        In my office, if you’re eating at your desk, you’re expected to put up a sign stating you’re at lunch and when you’ll be back so people know that you’re technically not available. (Lunch elsewhere isn’t always an option)

        You’re also still expected to answer quick questions (“Where’s the thing?” “Please see me when you’re done”, etc), but anything more than a single sentence answer should be met with “Let me get with you when I’m back from lunch.”

        My boss is extremely adamant that all hourly workers do not work on lunch.

      2. Lana Kane*

        I can totally see some people taking it in a passive-aggressive way, but in my office we’re actually asked to put up a sign when we’re taking a break at our desks. So I don’t think it’s inherently PA, but one should still consider the office culture before doing it precisely because it can be construed that way by some.

      3. Rusty Shackelford*

        Actually, putting up a sign that says you’re at lunch is quite assertive, perhaps even bordering on aggressive. What do you find passive aggressive about a sign that says you are not available at the moment? A passive aggressive move would be something like sighing loudly, putting your sandwich down, and saying “Oh, I’m sorry, I guess this is more important than my lunch break.

        (I find a lot of people use “passive aggressive” to describe things that aren’t passive aggressive at all.)

        1. Lana Kane*

          Usually delivering a message through a note, rather than talking directly to someone, is a passive way of addressing a situation. With the right intentions, I could definitely see this situation falling under the scope of passive aggressive. If not, the website passiveaggressivenotes.com wouldn’t have much of a premise!

          1. Rusty Shackelford*

            A sign is not a note. And the fact that something is delivered in writing does not make it passive.

    3. Pwyll*

      Back when I worked in a cubicle farm, we had one coworker who had constructed himself a door to his cube. It was a piece of string, with a piece of paper stapled to it, that said “DOOR”. When he extended it over the entryway to his cube, he would literally refuse to answer anyone unless they knocked first and he “opened” the door. (He basically only did this when he wanted to focus.)

      I’m not really a big fan of putting a sign up when a simple, “I’m just finishing up my lunch, let me get back to you in x.” will do, but if the interruptions are constant when you’re eating I suppose that works.

      1. Purest Green*

        I no longer work in one either, but I’ve always thought cubes should come with curtains or some way to indicate “focused, only accepting emergency interruptions.” If it’s not a faux-pas to close an office door then I think a sign or something similar in a cubicle is OK.

        1. themmases*

          I think headphones work that way for a lot of people. I went from a shared office to a cube a few years ago and I definitely use my headphones the same way: either I really need to concentrate or I’m confident no one will be coming by so it’s a little bit of a treat.

          1. afiendishthingy*

            unfortunately, some people define “emergency interruption” a bit more broadly than others.

          2. Perse's Mom*

            I should really invest in over-the-ear headphones, because the number of people who just start chatting away at me while I’m wearing earbuds is kind of astonishing, particularly when I’m facing them and they can see the cord but just… think I’m wearing them for show or something?

            1. MashaKasha*

              Haha, yes, people would do it. That awkward moment when you’re in the middle of working on something and you suddenly discover there’s a coworker standing in your cube, behind your back, who has apparently been talking at you for a while!

            2. Lemon Zinger*

              Ugh, this is so true. Generally my coworkers leave me alone when I have earbuds in, but one of them seems to think that means I’m NOT busy, and might like to chat about what I did this weekend…

            3. Lana Kane*

              I’m switching to over-the-ear headphones precisely for that reason. I used to like earbuds for being unobtrusive, but they sometimes do the job too well!

          3. Elizabeth West*

            Unless you have people who sneak up behind you. My coworker came up behind me a few months back and touched me and scared me so badly she nearly got smacked!

            I did hang a sign outside my cube that says, “Speak friend and enter,” with the Gates of Moria on it. And the addendum, “Or knock if I’m wearing headphones.”

            1. lfi*

              i have a little rear view mirror positioned on my bigger monitor – it helps anticipate when people might be coming over and shouldn’t be privy to any sensitive HR data I have!

            2. Soupspoon McGee*

              I have rearranged every office I’ve been in so that I can see the door. I’ve inadvertantly shrieked at quite a few coworkers before, and word spread fast that I have an overactive startle reflex.

          4. Bea W*

            In my office if you are wearing your phone headset people assume you are on a call with someone or in a meeting and leave you alone. At worst, they might stop and whisper “are you on a call? I’ll come back later.” then quickly move on.

            1. Mallory Janis Ian*

              That’s how headphones were interpreted in my old telephone order-taker job. I used to leave my headphones on even when not taking a phone order because of the temporary peace and quiet it bought me.

        2. IT_Guy*

          I’m in cube land, and a lot of folks put “Do not Disturb” signs on their chairs. When people interrupt, unless they are a boss or and a grand-boss, they point to their sign and go back to work.

          1. Dynamic Beige*

            That makes a lot of sense to me. Kind of like how on Lucy’s psychiatric advice stand, she has “The Doctor is” in/out on a little hanging sign.

            If I saw someone at their desk eating cereal, I wouldn’t disturb them because they’re obviously eating. But maybe OP needs a little “On Break” sign somewhere to show to people that they’re busy? I’m sure in the beginning, there will be pushback and it will be thought of as “weird” or whatever but eventually, people can be trained to respect it if the OP is consistent.

            Also, poor coworkers that the only place they have to get away from other people is eating lunch in their cars. Ick.

          2. LizM*

            You have to know your audience. This would be taken as extremely passive aggressive in my office. You may get peace during your breaks, but it would color how people see you.

            1. Anon on Occasion*

              And in our office, we’re required to put up break and lunch signs so people know we’re not goofing off. (Because we’re 5, or something.

              1. Lana Kane*

                In my previous office, the request to put up “On Break” signs came up because management got tired of employees complaining to managers that “so and so is on the internet”, or “so and so makes personal calls”.

          1. starsaphire*

            Well, he was a five-time winner of the Buckeye News Hawk Award… not to mention the Silver Sow award! ;)

        1. Seal*

          I was just going to post that very comment! I wonder if people stomp their foot like Arthur Carlson when they knock on his door.

      2. Callietwo*

        I have high walls to my cubicle with a full sized door. Currently taking classes for work so I’ve been shutting the door more than is typical for me. I’ve been putting a ‘Training, do not disturb” sign up at the suggestion of the manager AND I’m wearing white over-the ear Bose headphones, so it’s glaring obvious that I’m involved in what I’m doing. But people have ignored it all summer long. “Oh sorry, this will just take a minute”. Most annoying of all is that without exception, the discussion would’ve been better via email as we need paper trails for our work, even if the paper trail is electronic. So frustrating.

    4. themmases*

      Both of these sound very passive aggressive to me. I would find someone quite odd if they put a sign on their desk and refused to talk to someone standing right there.

      It’s just childish and rude to imitate someone or do their annoying behavior back at them. Most of the time people don’t realize they’re being annoying and just need a reminder that they have a bad habit– not for someone to escalate and get hostile.

      1. Kyrielle*

        I don’t think the sign itself is a bad idea. Getting hostile (with or without the sign) probably is. But just setting out a “lunch break” sign – as a coworker, I’d be glad for the cue that OP was ‘on break’ vs ‘eating while working’. I wouldn’t find that at all inappropriate.

        Now if I walked up and started talking, and OP pointed to the sign without a word, I would find that disconcerting. But I wouldn’t find it at all upsetting if OP turned and asked me politely whether this was an emergency or could wait until after their break – I’d either say it was an emergency or apologize, embarrassed, for interrupting their break. (In the latter case, it would mean I missed spotting the sign entirely – but if the OP handled it by pointing wordlessly to the sign, it would feel way more aggressive than talking to me about it would.)

        1. nonegiven*

          >but if the OP handled it by pointing wordlessly to the sign, it would feel way more aggressive than talking to me about it would.)

          What if they were chewing? Do you want them to talk instead of point if they are chewing?

    5. Jennifer*

      In my experience in my office, if you are there to be found, whether you are on lunch or not, people WILL ask you questions. Some office cultures are just like that. Yes, it’s okay to say “I’m at lunch, please don’t bother me until 1,” but that won’t stop the questions and it may or may not get the person to go away. If you’re literally the only warm body here that they can find from 12-1, it won’t. Honestly, I just don’t think it’s worth the time and effort to try to get people to stop asking (you try getting 20 rotating employees to all learn not to), so I just physically get the heck out of there so people can’t ask. If it’s pouring rain I actually go hide in a stairwell.

  7. Nervous Accountant*

    Maybe its just my own hang up in play here but I just find it so extremely…odd? To disturb others while they’re eating. I know this is more of a office culture thing–maybe it’s also just my Hangup of not wanting someone to stare at me while I eat. (Different when it’s lunchtime and sitting in the employee lounge). I try not to bother anyone about work while they’re eating.

    1. KR*

      God bless you. I’m in IT so I can’t sit in the break room without someone telling me about their new phone or this weird thing their printer does that they think I must care about off the clock because I work in technology.

    2. Koko*

      You’ll find there’s a wide range in the degree of observation that people have. Some people are very sensitive and conscientious and notice the slightest changes in an environment, facial expression shifts, cues on how to act from things present (such as noticing lunch on a desk).

      Other people can look right at something and because it’s not what they’re looking for, they won’t see it unless it’s pointed out to them. (See: My boyfriend and toast crumbs on the counter.)

      If you are in the former group it can seem almost unbelievable that people in the latter group aren’t intentionally ignoring signs, but their brains just don’t work that way. (This kind of environmental perception tends to be linked to introversion, so it all works out because the people who lack this skill have other strengths that introverts lack!)

      1. Nunya*

        I’ve also found that some people are genuinely surprised that the sign is actually meant for them too, to the point where it doesn’t even register as communication.

  8. Jack the Treacle Eater*

    #1, have you considered this may just be insecurity on the part of a new employee, rather than anything busybody or sinister? Appreciate it rubs you up the wrong way, but perhaps that might be worth factoring into your approach? Be emollient, see if she does have concerns? (Still aks her to stop though – just kindly)

    #3, as someone who used to eat on the go or at a desk I would always establish the urgency of an interruption and, if non-urgent, ask the interrupter to give me however long it was until the end of my break; it never caused a problem or any friction.

    Having said that, I’m increasingly convinced of the need to establish clear divisions between work and break for your own health as much as anything else; if there isn’t a cafeteria, is there somewhere else you can get away from the desk, even take a short walk to a park or similar (I know this isn’t always possible)?

    I’d also echo Alison about it not being unreasonable to think if someone’s at their desk they might be ready for work, and there is a slight suggestion of clock watching in the question. If you are very strict about the 9 – 5 (or whatever time), then you’ll have to find an obvious way to demarcate it. If it’s just that you’ve just come in the door and haven’t got your bag down yet or are still getting yourself organised, why not just say “I’m sorry, I’ve just arrived, let me get myself organised and I’ll come and speak to you / have the answer about that as soon as I can”?

    #5, there’s something going on here that’s bigger than this question. If they’re going to spin a cost saving measure as a benefit to you (even if it isn’t), then so be it; it’s not really a hill to die on. If they then use that as an excuse not to give you a raise you’d otherwise be due, well, that’s more of an issue, but again possibly not a great deal you can say about it unless you’re ending up in a worse position, in which case that’s something you may be able to raise at the appropriate time.

    However, it seems as though the real issue is that the company takes its employees somewhat for granted, while portraying themselves as benevolent, and it’s maybe starting to make you a bit bitter and twisted. I’ve been there and it does rankle, but if you niggle and making a point of ‘letting them know’ about things like this it’s likely to rebound on you. They’re not going to change; the best thing you can do is realise that and decide if you’re happy with your lot or not; if not, start looking for the exit.

    1. themmases*

      I agree with all of this.

      Having some division between work and break is really mentally healthy. Personally I think it keeps me more on task as well rather than making my desk sometimes a break space, sometimes not.

      This OP is on the new side, they should ask a few coworkers where they like to go when they need to get away from their desk. There may not be a space that’s conducive to bringing your lunch, but there could be other areas that are relaxing to hang out after they’ve finished eating. Many people are “on the clock” when they eat at their desk specifically so they can spend the full break at that other place.

      1. OhBehave*

        I can totally understand that people think you are ‘at work’ when they see you at your desk first thing in the morning despite the time. We don’t know why you chose to eat breakfast at your desk, perhaps, commute, not hungry, etc. But once you start implementing some boundaries, you will get your respite. If interrupting people while they are having lunch seems to be the norm in your office, it may take some effort to change that assumption in your case. Other comments have suggested earphones (not just buds), signs, etc. I often ate in my car with the windows down when the weather allowed. It was great to ‘get away’ and breathe some fresh air. Whatever solution you choose, know that you deserve to have that time to yourself.

        Once you have established some boundaries, your coworkers will get it and leave you alone. It may just encourage others to set their own rules. I would try to avoid allowing interruptions for quick questions. People have varying definitions of a quick question!

  9. Emma*

    The fact that IM lady has a history of ignoring requests makes it more complicated, but if that wasn’t the case I’d probably approach the situation as if I were assuming that they were a competent professional, who does what their manager asks unless something prevents them from doing so (or they have serious concerns, in which case they raise them). So I’d be saying something like,

    “I’ve noticed that you haven’t set up IM, as I asked everyone to do last week. It’s going to be the new default communication channel for the department, so I’d like to get to the bottom of why you’re finding it difficult to get set up, so that I can help you with that. So, what’s the problem?”

    The point of this is that, I suspect, when confronted with two options – make up a legitimate problem (possibly something like “oh, I’ve been busy… I’ll do it tomorrow!”, and you can push for a date/time period if she doesn’t volunteer one), or openly admit to being stubborn and unprofessional – she’ll choose the former. And having done so, to your face, she’ll tie herself into a position where she either has to keep making up excuse after excuse, which is exhausting and makes her look bad, or just start using the damn IM like she knew she ought to have done all along.

    1. Artemesia*

      I would agree but for one thing. The HR and perhaps her own manager doesn’t support actual management. For HR to say ‘oh your employee can ignore your direction as long as it isn’t in contradiction of the policy manual’ is the statement ‘you are not a manager, and don’t you forget it.’

      This situation is a crisis for the OP and she needs to deal with it as a crisis of authority. Either she is the manager or she isn’t. This can’t end well if an employee is allowed to behave as her insubordinate employee is. And ‘insubordination’ is what we are dealing with here. That and a totally incompetent HR.

      1. finman*

        I worked in an office that was officially business casual (polo and slacks for men) was officially appropriate when not interacting with external visitors. One VP set his own rule that any manager/director on his team was to wear ties 4 days a week. While he couldn’t “technically” enforce it, it was understood that you should follow his preference. You can follow the law to a T, but it can hurt you in other ways in the future if you don’t please your boss on things like IM and dress.

  10. Joanna*

    Re #1, how about trolling them with ridiculous answers like “Oh, just off to deal with the alien infestation on the front lawn followed by unjamming the photocopier” or “just need to step out to take a call from Oprah who wants my Ukranian-rap-techno-fusion band to perform on her show.” Enough bafflingly nonsensical arguments and they might give up.

    1. Fish Microwaver*

      When I had a job that required a uniform, my housemates would see me dressed thus, with my little brown bag lunch and ask where I was going. I always told them “a nightclub “.

      1. Dynamic Beige*

        [Stephon voice] This season’s hottest spot is Wendy McBurger’s. It has *everything*! Random people who walk in off the street and try to buy something, people wearing outfits made of nothing but small condiment packets, machines that go ‘ding’ and sesame seed buns. [/Stephon voice]

    2. EmilyG*

      I like this idea, but I have to warn that I once did this with a humor-impaired college roommate who not only believed my outrageous answer but passed it on to various people as the gospel truth. I only found out about it a few years later and was totally baffled that anyone had ever lent it credence.

  11. Wakeen Teapots, Ltd.*


    My people are fantabulous, but I’d probably die of a heart attack if every single person implemented a change the *first* time a significant change was put forward. Like, has it ever happened?

    We’re so used to it, we rarely bat an eye. We have an informal “phase” sort of thing on changes, like phase one put it forward & sell it, phase two check to see how many people implemented, phase 3 remind & sell again, phase 4 speak to people who aren’t implementing asking them why, etc.

    I don’t mean to excuse the employee in #2 but this is so a thing that happens, I’m not thrown by her. We have stragglers. If they are good in all other ways, we can work with that. If they aren’t, they’ll be moved out for other reasons and that would be one on a long list.

    1. Wakeen Teapots, Ltd.*

      oh and PS I’m sorry your HR dept sucks. They couldn’t be more wrong and at least you’ve learned never to go to them for help on anything but health insurance questions again.

    2. Purest Green*

      Yes, this is so true! I used to be surprised when changes that actually made people’s jobs easier were implemented, but some people still didn’t follow through. It’s almost as if we need an advertising department to “sell” people on things that are legitimately good for them.

      1. the gold digger*

        People hate change. :) Even when it’s good change, it’s usually useful to have some kind of change management program that includes “selling” people on the change.


        The person who got into a huge argument with a German engineer over a new program where he thought the logical approach was just to tell people that they had to do it and shut up

        1. Marcela*

          Well, you can’t fight that he was right in that that is the logical approach :D His problem was that people are not logical!

    3. Rat Racer*

      Yes, totally, people often need multiple reminders. And it’s not clear whether the OP has sent a second reminder that was ignored.

      However, it seems like the OP believes that her employee is deliberately ignoring her instructions because the Employee resents the fact that she and the OP were once peers, but now the OP is the manager. The OP doesn’t state this explicitly, but sounds like the OP ascribes the non-compliance to the change in power structure.

      The tricky thing is that now you (OP) have a narrative going, which may be true, but you can’t discern when your employee is just slow on the uptake vs. practicing passive resistance. This is why Alison’s advice, to address the broader issue of non-compliance, is a good one.

      1. hbc*

        Of course, a “pattern” of not doing what she’s told could be a result of just this kind of situation. There’s probably plenty of things I haven’t done the first time because I ranked them as low priority…until someone came and made clear it was important and/or nagged me. So I’d be careful about assigning motives when it could just be that she needs the extra nudge.

        Not that needing to be reminded is a good thing, but it’s a far cry from resentful and deliberately insubordinate.

        1. TootsNYC*

          I instituted a procedure, and the two people who work for me kind of blew it off. I checked in with them, but truthfully wasn’t tyhat interested in “why not,” esp. when the reason given was “I forget” or “I don’t think it’s important.”

          Finally, I sent them each an email that said: “You didn’t do this on these three files. I don’t ever want to find this again.” It felt really stern–but I’d already reminded them twoice.

          Then months later, the one who’d said it wasn’t important said, “I’ve been doing it now that I know you’re serious about it [what?!?], and I see what you mean. I’m a convert.”

  12. aelle*

    #1 – Have you asked your colleague why she needs to know? I used to do the same thing at my first job, because I would routinely receive visits or phone calls for my coworker when she stepped out, and when they would ask “Where is Jane?” I felt very uncomfortable replying “I have no clue” (although in retrospect there was no reason to!) I just wanted to be able to say “She will be back in a minute / she is in a meeting and can’t be reached until 3 / she is out of office, you can try her mobile.” If your coworker is new to the working world or to the company culture, she may just need to know how to reach you when you are away, or to be told that she won’t be incompetent for not knowing.

    1. Tomato Frog*

      Yeah, the coworker may have an actual reason for asking. Personally, I would want to have a sense of how long I might have the office to myself.

      1. AD*


        This is a workplace, not your living room. The OP’s coworker lacks tact (and OP mentioned their work does not overlap, so it’s likely not impacting her work at all if OP steps out momentarily).

        1. Tomato Frog*


          We talk all the time here about having office space to yourself. Obviously it makes a difference to people, psychologically if nothing else. Even if you’re just doing work-appropriate things, there are times when you may want to know the space is yours — perhaps you have a phone call to make and don’t want to irritate your neighbor, perhaps you like to put on your headphones and rock out while doing data entry, perhaps you just get jumpy when you’re typing and someone enters the room unexpectedly.

          Not saying the OP’s coworker isn’t being irritating, just saying that it’s kind & intelligent to ask why she’s asking.

    2. Lindsay (Not a Temp Anymore)*

      Yeah, I’ve always felt it thoughtful to let people that you share a space with know where you’re going, and/or how long you might be gone. Roommates, office-mates, whatever. I get that it can be ruffling to feel like you’re being watched, but I think it’s totally justifiable that someone you share a space with would want to know when to expect you back or where to find you when they/someone looking for you needs something. As someone’s assistant, who is hardly ever in the office, doesn’t keep a very managed calendar, and routinely has to answer “where is he/when will he be in” with “I have no idea…”, it can get REALLY tiresome to just feel stupid all the time. And as a college-kid’s adult sister and roommate, I’m not trying to keep tabs or pass judgement, it would just be nice to know that I shouldn’t be concerned if you don’t come home for a day or two…

      Rather than being upset that she keeps asking, is there a reason you can’t just give her a few words when you step out? “I’ll be in a meeting for the afternoon. See you tomorrow!” “Headed to the breakroom. Need anything?” “Need to stretch my legs. Be back in a few.”…

      1. Joseph*

        I think the issue here is just that co-worker is going over the top in asking *every single time*.
        If it’s a long absence, then yeah, it’s good practice to say “Hey, I’m out for a few hours to visit BigClient” or “I’m leaving early for a doctor’s appointment” or whatever.
        But you really shouldn’t need to say every single time you get up for a 5-minute restroom trip, walk to the copy room, or grab coffee from the break room. Heck, even mentioning that you’re leaving for lunch is probably unnecessary unless you’re taking lunch outside the typical “around noon” time frame.

        1. Tomato Frog*

          Yes, that would be maddening. But if she does have a specific reason for asking, you can address that — “Hey, I’ll give you a heads-up if I’m going to a meeting or leaving early for the day. You don’t need to keep asking in the future.”

        2. Lindsay (Not a Temp Anymore)*

          It just seems completely odd to me to stand up and leave a shared space without saying anything…but that’s just me I guess.

          1. Janice in Accounting*

            I would be irritated if my coworker in a shared space felt the need to broadcast her every move. I’d consider it an interruption to my own work.

    3. Rusty Shackelford*

      See, that’s funny, because if I were you, I would HATE feeling like I had to be Jane’s assistant or admin and know where she was at all times. I’d want to be able to say “I’m sorry, I don’t know, did you see if she has a meeting on her calendar/did you check with the admin?”

  13. Stellaaaaa*

    OP1: I think your coworker is uneasy about being left alone in the office. You mention it’s a small firm. Is it technically a small business? Did any of her training fall through the cracks? Has anyone ever laid out a procedure for what to do when she’s left alone for an extended period of time? That’s an issue with the company’s training process, not the employee.

  14. Rebecca*

    #2 – as someone saddled with not one, but 2 IM systems, I feel your employee’s pain. It’s frustrating to be concentrating on something, and both message boxes pop up, 2 people, 2 problems, and it can be very distracting. But, I agree with Alison – she needs to do this, you need to enforce the rule, but I’d also sit down with her and ask her what’s up. At my job, there were people who couldn’t figure out how to use one of the IM’s properly, so it might be a technology issue.

    #3 – if there is a culture of everyone eating at their desks because you don’t have a lunch room, could you take your 1/2 hour or hour break by physically leaving your desk and going someplace else? You could eat your lunch when you come back, or before you leave. That way, if people interrupt you while you’re eating, you’re actually working…and you still get a break to decompress. I do this at my office, and find it easy to pick at a sandwich, carrots, apples, that type of thing, while I’m reading emails or working on spreadsheets.

    1. Rafe*

      Ha! Ugh, my coworker insists on picking away at soup, carrots, apples while at the desk (and we have a cafeteria!) — probably comfort food while doing spreadsheets but truly awful to listen to near-daily.

      1. Rebecca*

        We don’t even have a break room, so the only alternative is to take food outside to a warped picnic table under a pine tree. It’s really unpleasant. I try to chew quietly :)

    2. The Cosmic Avenger*

      We have THREE IM systems used by various divisions (MS Lync, Skype, and Slack), all of which I need to use if I want to communicate efficiently with coworkers, and we had used Yammer in the past. I guess I should just be grateful that we never used AOHell.

      Can anyone top that? :D

      1. Rebecca*

        Nope, but I have to use AOL Instant Messenger, and SKYPE. The worst part of AOL is the picture option. Many of my coworkers think it’s fun to have moving gifs as their profile picture, so if I keep the IM list open, there’s a distracting movement all. day. long.

      2. Gaia*

        We also have 3 (one of which you cannot silence even when you mute your entire freaking system). Why do we have 3? Because no matter how many times we tell employees to get on Company Preferred IM System, they still want to use their favorites and IT refuses to shut the others down until everyone is on the one we wan them one.

        This is me, banging my head into my desk.

        1. Joseph*

          Frankly, the craziest thing about that whole philosophy is that it’s not like you’re talking about moving mountains – you could solve that problem in like 45 minutes:
          1.) IT sends out an office/company wide email discussing the “New IM Policy”. Mention “security risks of having multiple IM clients”, “difficulty and costs of supporting multiple platforms”, and other similarly reasonable concerns to minimize the grumbling.
          2.) Install Preferred IM on everyone’s computer.
          3.) Shut down the other IM systems.

          1. SusanIvanova*

            Unless, as is very common, step 2 is impossible. The system they tried to impose on us didn’t work on Linux, didn’t work well on Macs, and attempts to point that out to them failed. The very idea that there were people without Windows seemed to whoosh over their heads.

      3. Mockingjay*

        Can you look into a universal chat client, like Pidgin, which pulls multiple chat types into one box? Pidgin usually acceptable to IT, and I’ve worked in places with very stringent IT protocols.

        I don’t think it pulls in Skype, but there might be other universal programs out there that do.

        1. The Cosmic Avenger*

          I used to use Trillian for that back when I was on IRC, AOL, Yahoo! Messenger, and probably others, but I believe Skype discontinued its support for outside protocols or something. I’ll check out Pidgin.

          Oh! I also use Google Talk, and one of my coworkers knows that that’s the best way to get my attention, because he’s one of the few people who ever contacts me there! (I really don’t mind, he knows when to IM me about something and when to email.) So now I’m up to 4 clients! O.O

        2. KR*

          I used to use Pidgin! My dad didn’t trust AOL at all when I was younger, so the only way I could use AOL instant messenger (which everyone was using) was to use Pidgin.

        3. AFT123*

          I use Pidgin at work. Not sure if it’s just our setup, but I pretty much hate it. I miss Lync. Before that though, I missed Sametime. I seriously just want an IM client that lets me paste pictures and Snipping Tool grabs into the box.

  15. Mary*

    #3. I stopped coming in too early because the second I’d walk through the door my colleagues were asking me basic questions that could be answered by looking at materials that are accessible to everyone (‘Is this meeting happening today?’ ‘What does the schedule say?’ ‘That it’s happening’ ‘Okay then’). I’ll take calls during lunch if they’re important, but sometimes I find myself so wound up after the phone rings several times, that after I scarf down my food I’ll go out and take a walk or go sit in a room that doesn’t have a phone line and read a book. By the way, everyone in my organization is non-exempt with unpaid lunch breaks.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      I rarely take a lunch break–I eat at my desk (also non-exempt). I worked it that way because it meant more to me to avoid rush hour coming in and leaving. My old boss didn’t give two hoots–rarely does anything urgent come in before I get here or leave, but I do make it a point to deal with emails or messages right off. New boss hasn’t said anything about it.

      Sometimes, though, I want to get the hell out of here or a coworker will want to go to lunch together. Then I clock out.

  16. vickyjs*

    I had a coworker who would ask me “How was your break?”, “How was your lunch?” every single day. Also, on Mondays “How was your weekend?” I would always answer “Fine”. One day she said “Well, one day it won’t be fine and you’ll tell me all about it!” That just strengthened my resolve!

    1. Myrin*

      One would think that thinking that (that you’ll tell her all about it should there be something “not fine” going on) would actually make her not ask this question since apparently you wouldn’t be able to hold it in and absolutely tell her (and immediately, probably!) if there was anything wrong. Some people.

    2. B*

      Ugh I have a coworker like this and while they think they are being nice it’s very frustrating. Especially when you are trying to get settled in.

    3. Clever Name*

      Ugh. My (thankfully former) office mate did this. I used to give a bit on innocuous detail, and she’d always respond with some complaint about her weekend accompanied by a long-suffering sigh. I can only take lot ending to so much complaining, and that is reserved for my family and friends, so I started just saying “fine”.

  17. F.*

    #5: Pointing out that your raise is due only to the change in the OT law is going to been seen an ungrateful and unnecessarily snarky and will only hurt you in the long run. They do not have to raise your salary. They can choose to adjust your hourly rate of pay so that your total annual pay (including estimated OT) stays at the level it is now. So take the money and say “thank you.”

    By the way, alternative legislation has been introduced that will make the increased wage floor for exempt employees phase in at a much slower rate, so it is possible that you would not see a raise this year at all.

    1. neverjaunty*

      It’s almost September. Even assuming the legislation you mention will get further than being “introduced”, it isn’t going to affect anything this year.

      It’s true that the OP shouldn’t come in confrontational, but it seems a little odd to paint it as “ungrateful” or suggest that OP is behaving badly for being anything but thrilled, when she is being told that she got a discretionary gift when it’s really a salary increase that is actually a legal requirement.

      1. AMT*

        Exactly. They don’t have to give OP a raise, and they could make OP dance around in a reindeer costume, but OP doesn’t have to keep working there, either.

      2. Rafe*

        In a half-empty-cup world, yes, the OP would make a stink and ignore the fact that it’s a $2,500 increase in wages, however and for whatever reason. OP can still negotiate for more. I’m not sure why OP didn’t negotiate for more or start looking for other work and instead waited for a raise only every 2-3 years and then gets upset when a big one is coming.

        1. hbc*

          I think the issue is not with the raise itself, but the anticipated smoke-blowing. Give the raise and say, “This is unusual for us, but we’re giving larger raises than usual to some people because of the new ruling.” Don’t try to sell it as some magnanimous, benevolent favor.

    2. Pwyll*

      There’s a sub-10% chance of the legislation passing this session. Congress comes back next week from their summer recess, during which time the focus will almost entirely be on the budget (the fiscal year ends September 30). IIRC, Obama has already stated he won’t sign a budget that changes the regulations.

      I do think being snarky is not the path forward, though. For better or worse (definitely worse) many companies DO believe that any raise they offer is some kind of magnanimous gift. Challenging this by pointing out the new regulations seems counter-productive to me. Much better to position yourself for a larger raise based on your performance, and the value you’re providing the company, rather than attacking their rationale behind the raise.

    3. Apollo Warbucks*

      I’d be pissed If a company tried to pass of a raise that was mainly for their own benefit as a reward or performance related.

      The company are doing it as it is cheaper than having employees lose their exempt status, and that’s fine just dont miss sell it to me.

    4. NicoleK*

      I’ve worked primarily in small or smaller non profits. Most of my “raises” have been 2-3%. I will gladly accept $2500 (employer can call it whatever they want; bonus, raise, cola, and etc). The pay no longer works for OP, she is well within her right to get a new job.

  18. Gandalf the Nude*

    OP#3, I’ve always found “Oh, can this wait until I’ve finished eating?” said as sweetly or matter-of-factly as possible, works just fine. If the answer is yes, I say, “Okay, I’ll come find you in a bit.” If the answer is no, break time’s over. I’ll take it later.

    Also, don’t underestimate the potential of “LUNCH BREAK” printed over a clip art meal.

    1. Lindsay (Not a Temp Anymore)*

      It’s pretty common in our cubicle farm that most employees have a file folder with “Lunch” printed on one side and “Break” printed on the other. That way, whether they take the time at or away from their desk, there’s no question, and no one bats an eye. They just come back later.

  19. Allison*

    1) I wonder why she’s doing this. Either she’s entry level and doesn’t know better, or she’s picked up this habit in other workplaces. Or she’s used to people telling her where they’re going. Maybe she’s used to being in an admin role where she needed to know where people were and when they’d be back so they can relay it to others, or she was in a supervisory role where she (rightly or wrongly) made it her business to know where people were going. Either way, she’s not used to being in a role where she’s not privy to where people are going and why.

    3) If people want to talk shop with you while you’re eating, you can ask “can this wait, I wanna finish this first.” But it may also be the case that your people in your office not only work through meal breaks, but it’s normal to put down the food when someone wants to talk to you. Have you been able to observe how others handle this situation? It’s reasonable to want to finish your food first, but as you said, you’re 90 days in, you don’t want to be the only person putting people on hold for food if you’re new.

  20. DCompliance*

    #2 I know many employees avoid IM because it says how long you have been away and people feel like they are being clock-watched. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the employee’s reason for not following the instruction.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      Ooh good point. Maybe she makes numerous trips to the loo (maybe for something she can’t help), and she’s afraid it will look like she’s slacking. Or maybe she IS slacking.

      OP needs to talk to her about this, though.

    2. mistersquawk*

      Yes. I had a coworker who wouldn’t use IM because she would only average 5-6 hours in the office a day (supposed to be 8), and it made it really obvious.

    3. Rusty Shackelford*

      But how d0 they determine “away?” Sometimes it just means you haven’t used your keyboard in a certain amount of time, but not every desk job requires 100% of your time on the keyboard.

    4. Shortie*

      I stopped using IM at work (and I’m a manager, ha!) because of this. If I take a customer phone call or get caught unexpectedly dealing with a management issue, it says “away”. Sure, most people get that it’s normal to be away for things like that, but enough are “IM-status-watchers” that I find it less stressful just to never sign in.

      Plus it is super-distracting to have unimportant questions popping up all the time when I’m trying to focus. People have very different opinions on when it’s appropriate to use IM versus email versus phone. And it puts things in yet another location, which makes filing/searching info annoying.

    5. mistersquawk*

      On ours it shows you as there if you’ve so much as nudged your mouse in the past however-long-you-set-it-for. You can set it for up to an hour, so as long as you nudge your computer once an hour, you’re always there.

      Or you can set it to “busy”, and your icon will turn red for “stay away”.

  21. Part time full time*

    #4 You should definitely present your case, but be aware that management may have many reasons for the choice. They may want to create schedule overlap of two people. They may want greater assurance of coverage if someone is sick. They may find that new trainees can be very supportive of each other in the training process. If they need more than 40 hours some weeks, that is easier to accomplish with two people than one. They may find they get more candidates when they hire part-time than full-time for seasonal work. Cost of benefits, overtime, and potential unemployment claims may be a factor as well.

    1. Rat Racer*

      Yes, I immediately went to the idea that the company wants to hire two part-time EE’s to avoid paying benefits. But I am cynical.

        1. Rat Racer*

          Part Time Full Time cites need for overlap and greater assurance of coverage – which seems like it could be plausible? I have no idea – totally not my wheelhouse.

          1. Emily, admin extraordinaire*

            If they’re just a temp, though, you wouldn’t have to pay those benefits either way.

            1. Lindsay (Not a Temp Anymore)*

              They would need to be provided comparable benefits by the Temp agency if they were full time, which my affect the cost of having said temp…

      1. EmilyG*

        I assumed this too and was scrolling down to see if anyone else thought so. But I don’t think that changes Allison’s answer, even if OP does suspect it, because it would seem confrontational
        /accusatory to ask in those terms.

  22. bored*

    OP#1 I’m rather immature this morning so id suggest outrageous responses like “vacation” “ive got to deliver a letter to santa”

  23. Barefoot Librarian*


    “Did you know you ask me where I’m going every time I get up? I will never have an interesting answer to that.” – I particularly liked this suggested wording. Delivered with a bit of humor this seems like a great way to bring this to her attention without making her feel bad. Chances are she doesn’t even realize she’s asking you every time.

    1. AnitaJ*

      Really? I actually found that on the rude side. I know AAM meant it as a lighthearted response, but if someone said that to me, it would seem condescending. I think I’d prefer one of the other responses.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        I saw it as humorous. As in, “I wish I could tell you I’m going to the Oscars with Hot Movie Star, but I’m really only going to the coffeemaker!” It’s all in the delivery.

      2. Ife*

        Really depends on the delivery. If I said it, it would come off as snotty no matter how hard I tried to make it funny, but I can imagine some of my friends or coworkers saying it and getting a laugh.

  24. B*

    #3 Unfortunately, in that type of office setting (which is most that I have encountered) it is very hard to have those boundaries unless your office has a door you can shut. I would suggest asking people if you can stop by when you are finished eating, have something in your system, taken care of your first thing in the morning emails, etc. When you come in early it’s also assumed you are ready to go – I eat breakfast at my desk and that’s just the way it is. Also, even if you did have a cafeteria colleagues would still stop by or sit down with questions. It is the nature of the beast unless you are truly able to get outside of the office.

  25. Katie*

    For #1, I would start saying “Oh, just stepping out” or “I’ll be back in a few minutes/in about an hour/etc.” I have a feeling the coworker doesn’t actually want to know where OP is going, but they want to know if/when OP will be back. Maybe coworker has a personal phone call to make and figures she can do it if she knows OP is at lunch, or when OP is gone people frequently step in and ask for OP and she wants to be able to tell them when they’ll be back.

  26. ThatGirl*

    In my office we have a mixture of people who work through lunch at their desks, eat at their desks but are truly taking a break, and eat away from their desks. One of my department managers has a little sign she puts up while she’s eating – “On lunch, come back later”. She’ll still answer quick/urgent questions, but that way people get the idea and don’t harass her about being on Facebook. :)

  27. Laura*

    1. I’ve had coworkers frequently ask if I knew where the coworkers who sit near me are if they aren’t at their desk for the moment. She may have had that frequently in the past and is trying to make sure she has an answer if asked.
    5. They don’t have to give a raise. They could let you become an hourly employee and let you lose the flexibility you have. I would play nice about it.

    1. Apollo Warbucks*

      I assume the OP won’t lose their exempt status as the cost of over time is likely more than the cost of the one off raise and that’s the reason company are going to increase salaries.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        They get around that by not allowing overtime. You just have to finish your work during your 40 hours. But that usually depends on the job. For example, I wouldn’t need to be exempt to do my job; I almost never have to stay late. My coworkers, however, often work far more hours than I because what they do is different.

        Perhaps OP’s company knows there will be more times than not when people have to work late, and they don’t want to mess with overtime. Hence the increase.

  28. Cookie*

    For the big questioner…just ask her if she needs something…never answer the question. Also ignore her and keep walking.

  29. Not Karen*

    #1: Throwing this out there: Because she’s new, I wonder if she’s trying to get a sense of when/for what reasons it’s okay for her to leave her desk. For instance, if you got up every hour and answered her with, “Taking a quick break,” she’d know it’s okay for her to take a break every hour as well.

    1. KR*

      Yeah, this strikes me as her being nervous either because she doesn’t know when it’s okay to leave her work area, people coming and looking for OP after they leave, or trying to make sure any questions are answered if OP will be away for an extended period of time.
      Of course, she is going about it the wrong way. But I don’t think she’s purposefully trying to be annoying.

  30. hbc*

    OP1: “I don’t think it’s an attempt to make conversation since she never asks any follow-up questions.”

    I dunno, I wouldn’t dismiss it immediately. She might be awkwardly trying to start a conversation and not really have the tools to follow through. If she’s only ever interrupting you with work stuff, she might be seeing you getting up as the signal that she’s not interrupting, but she doesn’t really know what to do. You could experiment with initiating a few pleasantries as you get up and see if that cuts off her monitoring. You: “Have you heard New Song? Total earworm, can’t get it out.” Her: “No, who’s it by?” You: “Band. Consider yourself warned. Anyway, I’m off for a bit.”

    If she still questions, then you can call her on it, but now it’ll be easier for the questioning to be replaced with quick pleasantries rather than uncomfortable silence.

  31. LizM*

    #1, do people ever stop by your desk looking for you? My old regional director was famous for wandering the halls looking for people, and if their neighbors didn’t know where they were, he would ask us specific questions about their work, even if it wasn’t our program. It was super uncomfortable and usually lead to a 10 minute exchange where he asked question, we said “I don’t know” and he got frustrated his questions weren’t being asked.

    It was much easier to be able to say, “Fergus stepped out for a meeting but I think he’ll be back around 1.” She may be asking because she thinks she may be asked if someone stops by for you. I like responding with something like, “why do you ask?”

    1. Jennifer*

      Yup. I have to notify my office-sharing coworkers if I’m going to be out longer than a bathroom trip, pretty much, because people are always looking for you here. But I only notify anyone if I’m going to the bathroom when I am “on call” and can’t hold it for the entire three hours I’m on call, so the people with questions will hopefully wait two dang minutes for me to come back.

  32. Chaordic One*

    #2 In my old job at Toxic Teapots, Inc. I was required to be away from my desk, mostly at other work stations and locations in the office, but sometimes out-of-the-office for extended periods of time. Sometimes I wouldn’t get back to my desk for 2 to 4 hours. IM really didn’t work for me a lot of the time.

    I disagree about Alicen’s saying to the OP that, “Depending on the circumstances, you could add, “Let’s try it for the next few weeks and see how it goes — if you’re hating it at that point, we can revisit it then, but I’d like you to give it a shot.”

    In a case like that, the OP needs to be prepared for: “You said to try it for the next few weeks and see how it goes. We tried it and it sucks! It creates extra work, it creates extra stress and we really don’t have time for it. We still hate it! We gave it a shot and it really doesn’t work. What are you going to do to support us?”

    At Toxic Teapots, Inc., the old-timers still complain about the new, less-efficient, custom-designed business software that was foisted on them 3 years ago, and how, after all this time, I.T. (which was supposed to be working out the bugs) really hasn’t accomplished very much in getting the system to work as well as the one it replaced. But between firings and people quitting there aren’t really all that many old-timers left who remember the old system.

    1. Jennifer*

      Well, “inactive” could just mean “in a meeting” or “someone just waylaid me at my desk chatting for 20 minutes.”

  33. Bee Eye LL*

    #2, do we work together? Just kidding…

    I am dealing with a similar situation at work. Our director issued some department directives and is not enforcing them equally since one person openly objects. It’s creating a lot of issues for me as a secondary manager. I actually sent Allison a question seeking advice because for me to complain would be to say my boss isn’t doing their job, which can be dangerous.

  34. INFJ*

    Oh #5…. I feel your pain. LastJob made it a habit of making big decisions based on money that were either unfavorable for the employees and/or detrimental to the quality of the product. They would always try to “spin” these decisions as changes they made in order to make processes better or make everyone happy. You really need to play along and not call them out every time you figure out their ulterior motive. Nobody is going to think you’re smart or savvy for figuring it out (even if you are); you’re just going to get branded a trouble maker.

  35. designbot*

    Regarding #2, I often find Alison gives advice that boils down to threatening someone’s job, but in any place I’ve worked everyone has 10 different people that they need to listen to who don’t have the power to fire them. I both have a direct report and am the direct report of someone who has zero power to fire–the worst either of us could do is go to someone who does have the power to fire and make a complaint, which would be the start of likely a very long period of making the case for firing the person in question. In this sort of situation, what would the advice be? “If you can’t comply, I’m going to have to speak with the partners about your attitude towards my instructions?” which is basically the equivalent of “I’ll tell your mom!”

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I give that advice because there are a lot of questions here about people who aren’t meeting the expectations of their role, and managers have to be able to move people out who aren’t doing what they need. It’s not callousness, for the record; it’s about meeting the obligations that come with managing a team. You’re highly unlikely to avoid having to fire people in the course of your career if you’re a manager. (But of course, you should do it kindly and fairly — which means giving clear feedback when someone is falling short, followed by clear warnings if that doesn’t change things, so that people have the chance to know what the issues are and to improve if possible, and so they aren’t blindsided if it ultimately doesn’t work out.)

      Anyway, to your question — no, in the situation you describe, you’d talk to the partners first, get aligned with them about how you’re going to proceed, and then talk to the employee so that when you do, you’re able to speak with confidence about the consequences you’re discussing, once it’s at that stage.

      1. designbot*

        Thanks! I didn’t mean to imply you were being callous, I have just been noticing the frequency of this advice and banging my head against a wall a little bit going “argh, everyone would know I was bluffing if i said that!” Similarly, another favorite advice columnist consistently says to take things to HR, and most of my career has been in firms too small to have HR departments (sidenote: I appreciate how nuanced you typically are on that issue!). Thanks for the adjusted approach for those of us who don’t wield the power to take big actions like that.

    2. DragoCucina (formerly Library Director)*

      There can be progressive corrective procedures. Either I or the board have the authority to fire. But, department heads have the authority to document discussions and corrective actions (retraining, mandating a timeline for calling “customers”). I’m kept in the loop, but we don’t start with the nuclear option of meeting with me. It also doesn’t undermine the immediate supervisor by implying only my word counts. If someone is fired we’ve honestly done what we can to correct the problem.

      Perhaps this would be beneficial. “I need you to be using the IM by Friday.” Then, “You were to be on the IM system two weeks ago. Please sign this memo acknowledging that it will be done by the end of today.”

  36. Jady*

    #5 – This would infuriate me too. I think you can make a point of it without burning relationships.

    “That’s great, thank you. I’m glad to see the company is adjusting the salaries for the new law instead of going another direction. While we’re talking about salary/benefits, I’d like to discuss an increase of %/$ due to [reasons].”

    I think a structure like this allows you to show ‘necessary’ gratitude, lets the employer save face, and gives you grounds to ask for more.

    And keep in mind that you can ask for other things besides salary, if things like your schedule are more important. It may even be easier to negotiate that back instead, since from a financial perspective these increases are a big hit to their profits. Doing something like flex hours costs them nothing really.

  37. I'm Not Phyllis*

    I agree with many of the responses above … if you’re eating your breakfast or lunch it’s fine to say “just let me finish up here and I’ll be right over” or something of the sort. It won’t necessarily stop all the requests, but hopefully it’ll help. I know even sometimes when my office door is shut and people can see that I’m eating they’ll still come in … sometimes it’s easier to go out for a break even if you don’t really need or want to!

  38. Chris*

    OP4, like some commentators above, I’m guessing it’s a purely financial decision. On that note, I’d like to particularly rage at people who institute that kind of policy. Deliberately removing the ability of your employees to have a living wage is just scum policy, and the reason that unions are needed.

    “Oh, it’s for schedule coverage”. Funny, my dad’s factory doesn’t have part time workers, and their schedule gets covered just fine. Also funny that we don’t need part time executives “for schedule coverage.” Stop with the B.S. and, I can’t stress this enough, STOP saying “our employees are our greatest asset” or “we love supporting our people!” or whatever the nonsense du jour is, while deliberately obstructing their careers and ability to make ends meet.

  39. afiendishthingy*

    #3- It seems like OP is pretty frustrated about this situation, but I’d guess the question-askers have no idea because OP just answers the questions while fuming silently? I had a part-time report who invariably responded to unexpected requests (Can we do our check-in meeting this week on Thursday instead of Wednesday?) with panic and a long explanation of why that wouldn’t work (…and I TOLD my other job I would ALWAYS HAVE Thursdays free, and on Friday I have a doctor’s appointment and I scheduled it three months ago, I’m really really sorry but I CAN’T…) and I would have to cut her off and say that was not a problem, we’d just figure something else out. I found it fairly exhausting, though. Moral: when someone, even your boss, is asking you to do something at a specific time, it doesn’t mean they’re going to be angry if you say no. As many others have said, most people are totally fine with hearing “Can we talk about that in 15 minutes after I’m done with my lunch?” It sounds like OP really feels her time is being disrespected, and I know it can be annoying to be bombarded with questions before you’ve even sat down. But more than likely the coworkers are just blurting out questions when they see OP so they don’t forget, and won’t take offense to needing to wait.

  40. lonestarbrooklyn*

    On LW1, is there a chance that she’s asking because someone else might come looking for you? I hate it when people come asking about a coworker and I can’t give them an answer (esp. regarding how long one might be gone). So whether or not it’s about that, consider giving a time range when you leave.

  41. ECB~*

    OP#1 I have a technique to deal with overly-nosey questions. Sometimes people are unaware they are being annoying, sometimes they have malicious intent, and you may not be able to tell where they coming from.

    When asked where you are going, stop, “Why? (confused), (switch to concerned voice) Did you need me for something? (add emphasis)Right now?” Never answer their question, even if it is repeated.

    Answer a nosey question with a question about why they need to know. Usually stops busybodies simply because they don’t have an answer. I’m not being confrontational, but if they actually don’t need to know, they probably won’t ask many more times.

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