what should I do when coworkers interrupt me on my lunch break?

A reader writes:

I’m an hourly employee, and our company policy says that I get to have two paid 10-minute breaks and one unpaid half-hour lunch every day. I don’t take my paid breaks because I don’t like the disruption in my routine (I run to the bathroom when I need to, etc, which I think is enough). However, I DO take my lunch breaks.

Because lunch is only half an hour and because our break room reeks, I take my lunch in my office. I typically close my door and stick up a note that says “on lunch,” and I time my lunches on my phone so they are not over half an hour. Sometimes I’m just using this break for a brain break, and other times I’m using that time to squeeze in some studying as, in addition to being a full-time employee, I’m also a full-time grad student.

Whenever I’m not on lunch, my door is open. I answer emails promptly, I don’t take personal calls, and I’m 100% invested in work when I’m at work. However, I’ll still have people popping in and asking me questions during my lunch break. My boss really respects my lunch and has never interrupted me. Her boss, the assistant director, has interrupted me a couple of times, but she will usually say, “Hey, I’m sorry for interrupting your lunch, but I have to ask you something time sensitive”–I don’t mind answering those types of questions. But other people I work with just throw open the door and expect me to drop my lunch/studying to answer questions that could realistically wait.

Is it appropriate for me to say something like, “I’d be happy to look into that as soon as I finish my lunch” or (for student workers) “Hey, I’m actually on lunch right now, but I think so-and-so is the supervisor on shift.”

I know not all states are required to give lunches, and I don’t want to make a big fuss–especially as, other than student workers, I’m low man on the totem pole at my job. But it can be frustrating to be trying to get through a reading for school and have to stop in the middle because of an interruption. I will say that my previous jobs have been as a student worker/intern/RA/etc, and this is really my first full-time job, so I really just don’t know if the protocol/expectation at that level of work is that I will be essentially on call during my lunch breaks, or if I’m within my rights to ask to have those breaks respected. I don’t want to be seen as complaining about time-management issues–I am working full time, and in grad school, and planning a wedding, and I have my life pretty regimented because of all that, but if the expectation is that I will be on call during my lunches I just won’t plan that time for schoolwork. As an undergrad I worked three jobs while going to school full-time, and I’m used to being busy. I just assumed that if I wasn’t getting paid for that time, it was “my” time and I could use it to study. Is that wrong?

It’s true, and it’s also more complicated than that.

It’s definitely true that if you’re not getting paid for that time, it’s your time to use however you want and you can use it to study.

It’s also true that your coworkers are being rude by ignoring the note on your door and barging in with non-time-sensitive work stuff.

However, it’s also true that in some offices, if there’s not a culture of formal breaks, it can come across as overly rigid to insist on protecting your break time — particularly if you’re the only person doing that. The answer to that isn’t “so just accept that you’re going to have to do work on unpaid breaks.” Rather, it’s to change the way you’re managing those breaks so that interruptions become less possible — by eating somewhere other than in your office or by having a clearer sign or by having your boss set clearer expectations to people on your behalf.

In your particular situation, I’d recommend doing three things:

1. Change the sign on your door. People clearly aren’t understanding that “on lunch” means “don’t interrupt me.” So change it to something like “back at 1:00” or “please do not disturb — available again at 1:00.”

2. Talk to your boss. Say this: “How would you like me to handle it when I’m on an unpaid lunch break and people come into my office to ask me work questions? I’ve tried closing my door and putting a sign up indicating I’m at lunch, but that hasn’t worked. I know we can get in trouble if I work while I’m on an unpaid break, but I’m not sure if it’s okay for me to just ask people to come back later or if there’s another way you’d like me to handle it.”

Your boss is very likely to tell you that you should tell people to come back later — which you can then do without any worries. But it’s possible that instead she’ll tell you that she wants you to be responsive to questions from particular people and so you should answer them, charge the time, and extend your break by an equivalent amount. (If your state law doesn’t require breaks and it’s just your company’s own policy, then it’s up to them how to handle this, although they do need to pay you for any time you spend working.)

Either way, this is the kind of thing that it’s good to talk to your boss about so that you can make sure that the two of you are aligned on how you’re handling it.

3. If your boss tells you that it’s fine to send people away when you’re on a break, then start saying this to interrupters: “I’m actually taking lunch right now (point to the sign on your door) so pretend I’m not here, but if you come back at 1:00, I can help you.”

And if anyone keeps doing it after you’ve explained that to them, then say this to them: “Hey, I’ve noticed you sometimes walk in when my door is closed and my sign is up. I’m actually supposed to take unpaid lunch breaks and not work during them, so can I ask you to not come in if you see a closed door with that sign? You can always email me and let me know to find you once I’m back to work.”

That said, I’d continue doing what you’re doing with your boss’s boss, the one who apologizes for interrupting your lunch and has a time-sensitive question. It makes sense to be flexible with her, although of course if you end up spending a significant amount of time helping her, you shouldn’t count that as break time.

{ 146 comments… read them below }

  1. DMC*

    And, if it keeps happening, I’d recommend seeing if there is somewhere really close by you could go, that is comfortable and quiet, for your lunch break (though I know that you get the full 30 minutes in your office without having travel eat into those precious minutes).

    But I also really like Alison’s sign suggestions! I think more specific signs would be quite helpful!

    1. Dot Warner*

      I agree! People probably think you’re working while you eat since you’re in your office. If you can spend the time somewhere else, you might get more peace and quiet.

    2. Anonymous Educator*

      Every day, I go outside to eat. Now, I know that’s a luxury I have living in a warmer climate (can’t really do that in Minneapolis in the winter, for example), but the idea is definitely to go elsewhere and not be reachable. If you have a car, eat in your car. Be away.

      Also, in addition to Alison’s suggestion of stronger wording in the door note, would it be horrible to even lock the office door and cover up the door window with the sign?

    3. Vicki*

      Does your door open into the office space or out? If inward, invest in a door stop. :-)

      If outward, invest in a small motion-sensng alarm. ;-)

  2. ZSD*

    Is there a window on your office door? If not, is it possible for you to just not respond when people knock on your door during lunch? That could make them think you’re really gone.
    You could make this strategy more effective by taking DMC’s advice and taking lunch somewhere outside your office, say, two days a week, not always on the same two days. If you still close your door and put up the sign, regardless of whether you’re taking lunch in or out of your office, then you’ll train people to expect that you might really be out of your office during the lunch break. Voila – fewer lunchtime interruptions.

      1. OhNo*

        Or wear visible headphones. I’ve had good luck with that in the past when I was visible but not working – headphones generally send a pretty clear “do not disturb” message at the places I’ve worked.

          1. OhNo*

            Well that certainly explains why people keep propositioning me whenever I pull out my ipod on the bus. If only I’d known!

        1. Wendy Darling*

          At my last job I had a coworker who had DO NOT DISTURB written across the top of his headphones. He wore them when he really needed to concentrate.

      2. ChrysantheMumsTheWord*

        I have a coworker that has a long strip of paper she uses to cover her window. Easy on, easy off…and it works!

        1. AMT*

          How about those removable window decals? I’ve seen some large ones with patterns that could provide privacy.

  3. Gaia*

    OP, while you didn’t ask about this I want to pipe in regarding your comment that you don’t take your paid 10 minute breaks.

    9 states require paid breaks. In each of these states (Washington, Oregon, California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada and Vermont) this is not something you can waive. In other words, not taking your paid breaks could get your employer in serious hot water.

    You may not live in one of those states so it may not apply, but it felt worth mentioning for those that do.

    1. ZSD*

      True, but I think those laws actually are written to allow for things like bathroom breaks. If the OP is using the restroom during the day, then I think they’re legally taking the breaks.

      1. Koko*

        Actually this is somewhat related to a question I had about what Alison suggested: charge the time and extend your break by the same number of minutes. But in states that require a half hour unpaid lunch, isn’t it specified that it has to be an uninterrupted half hour? Otherwise I would think an employer could just give you a 5 minute break every hour for 6 hours and then claim they had satisfied the legally mandated lunch requirement.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Right, that’s what I was getting at with my parenthetical right after that about state laws. If the state law requires a half-hour breaks, it can’t be in pieces like that. If the state law doesn’t, then it’s up the company’s own policy.

      2. neverjaunty*

        No, those laws are written to allow actual breaks after specified chunks of time working. An employer that argues “we didn’t give the paid breaks, but we allowed our employees to use the restroom instead of forbidding it!” is…. not making a winning argument.

        1. ZSD*

          Well, I think those laws come about because of workplaces that *do* try to forbid it. My understanding is that they’re written with blue-collar employees in mind, not office workers. So in a workplace where they might have made you clock in and then not leave the factory floor until lunch, they instead have to allow you to leave one time to go to the bathroom.

          1. neverjaunty*

            The laws are written with many different workers in mind – cashiers, say, who are not factory workers or office workers.

          2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            ZSD, your understanding isn’t correct (at least not based on the legislative history of laws re: on-site paid breaks). Those regulations/laws are mandatory, they were not written to simply cover bathroom breaks, and they apply to all nonexempt workers*—not just blue-collar workers. There are state and federal regulations that require employers to let their employees use the bathroom, and that’s independent of the paid 10-minute breaks.

            * Caveat: State break laws also often apply to FLSA-exempt workers, but the timekeeping for that is captured differently.

            1. ZSD*

              Sorry, I didn’t mean that the laws were written to only apply to factory workers or only blue-collar workers. I meant that they were the *inspiration*, though yes, the laws would apply to anyone who’s non-exempt.
              So if you meant that my understanding was incorrect because you thought I thought the laws only applied to blue-collar workers, then we just miscommunicated. If you mean that I’m wrong about what the original inspiration for the laws is, can you tell me more?

      3. Moonsaults*

        Not in Oregon.

        They’re written to specifically mandate breaks at specific intervals in your schedule, with very few exceptions for places that do not have the ability to cover the breaks, such as gas station attendants who tend to get the shaft on that regulation.

        You also have to pay a lunch break if you are required to be available. In the OPs case, if her boss says “No, you have to answer anyone who comes to you, regardless of being on lunch.” they’d legally be required to pay that lunch break.

      4. Megan Schafer*

        That… seems off. If those are designed to be paid bathroom breaks, is the implication that other states expect employees to punch out to go to the bathroom?

    2. AshK434*

      I wondered why the OP just didn’t tack the two breaks onto her lunch giving her a 50 minute lunch break. Everyone did that at my old employer which is how we got 1 hour lunches. Is this possible or do some employers strictly forbid this?

      1. OhNo*

        I think that’s a company-specific thing. I’ve worked places where that was allowed (even encouraged, sometimes), and also other places where combining breaks was verboten. IME, the latter tended to be jobs that required coverage, like retail, but I’m sure some office workplaces have similar feelings.

        1. doreen*

          It’s probably a employer-specific thing- but I know that at my employer (which allows 2 -15 minute breaks at the supervisor’s discretion) it’s forbidden. It’s not that you can’t take a hour long lunch break- you can, as long as you work 7.5 hours. You could even take a two hour lunch break, as long as you work 7.5. But the whole time will be unpaid, you won’t get paid for half an hour of it.

        2. The Rat-Catcher*

          Big Box Store that I worked at was ridiculous about break timing. First break had to begin no earlier than one hour into shift but no later than 3 hours; lunch had to be begin no later than 5:45 into shift; and last break had to start no later than 1 hour before end of shift.

      2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        It can also vary by state. In California, for example, if you’re nonexempt you can’t tack your paid breaks to your lunch break. The underlying reason is because the breaks are intended to be just that—breaks from an otherwise exhausting shift. They’re trying to prevent employers from making you work 7 or 8 hours and then giving you 50 minutes at the end of the day.

        States also have different rules about how proximate your paid break is to the start of your shift, your lunch break, and the end of your shift, mostly to prevent employers from gaming the regs. But the timing, etc., depends entirely on each state, so it’s worth looking up that information on your state’s labor website.

      3. Rusty Shackelford*

        The last time I had an hourly job, this was expressly forbidden. You also couldn’t use your breaks or lunch to leave early.

      4. Talvi*

        This is what I did when I was working at a grocery store. We were required to take all of our breaks before the last hour of our shift, but otherwise it wasn’t an issue. Of course, my job there involved stocking shelves, so coverage wasn’t a concern like it would be for cashiers or people working in the Bakery or Deli departments.

      5. Gaia*

        You can’t do that in every state. In my state, for instance, not only do we need to provide 10 minute breaks, we have to provide them in 2 hour segments of the work day.

    3. H.C.*

      The untaken paid 10 minute breaks are what caught me off-guard too. When I was non-exempt, bathroom runs definitely do not count towards those . . .

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Yeah, the idea that bathroom runs count as paid 10-minute breaks is simply wrong. And an employer who’s counting bathroom runs in that manner, depending on the state, can get into real hot water for trying to enforce something ridiculous like that.

    4. HR in MN*

      MN requires “adequate” break time to use the restroom within each 4 hour shift. And that “sufficient” meal time be allowed for anyone working an 8 hour shift. If the break is less than 20 minutes, it must be paid.

      1. Natalie*

        And for whatever it’s worth, everywhere I’m aware of in Minnesota (all the places I’ve worked and all the places my friends/family have worked) have interpreted “sufficient time” to be 30 minutes or more. No idea if that is case law or just standard practice.

        1. Moonsaults*

          I went fishing around because even though I’m not in MN…I always get the itch when this kind of thing comes up.


          Subp. 4. Meals. Bona fide meal periods are not hours worked. Bona fide meal periods do not include rest periods such as coffee breaks or time for snacks. The employee must be completely relieved from duty for the purpose of eating regular meals. Thirty minutes or more is ordinarily long enough for a bona fide meal period. A shorter period may be adequate under special conditions. The employee is not completely relieved from duty if required to perform any duties, whether active or inactive, while eating. It is not necessary that an employee be permitted to leave the premises, if the employee is otherwise completely freed from duties during the meal period. If the meal period is frequently interrupted by calls to duty, the employee is not relieved of all duties and the meal periods must be considered as hours worked.

          So you’d probably need a really solid reason why 30 minutes wasn’t allowed, since “special conditions” is so wishy-washy.

        2. Moonsaults*

          I tried linking this because I’m having a “rookie mistake” kind of day. But I found this while fishing around for MN regulations, out of my own need to know random things like this, despite not working or imagining myself working in MN any time soon lol

          “Subp. 4. Meals. Bona fide meal periods are not hours worked. Bona fide meal periods do not include rest periods such as coffee breaks or time for snacks. The employee must be completely relieved from duty for the purpose of eating regular meals. Thirty minutes or more is ordinarily long enough for a bona fide meal period. A shorter period may be adequate under special conditions. The employee is not completely relieved from duty if required to perform any duties, whether active or inactive, while eating. It is not necessary that an employee be permitted to leave the premises, if the employee is otherwise completely freed from duties during the meal period. If the meal period is frequently interrupted by calls to duty, the employee is not relieved of all duties and the meal periods must be considered as hours worked.”

          I assume that special conditions is for places with limited amount of employees, so a break of 30 minutes would harm their business. I imagine this being very much due to servers and such.

          1. cofepwnd*

            Moonsaults, that regulation is from the Federal Department of Labor, Wage and Hour Division, Section 785.19 Meals. The State may have adapted it for their purposes but it’s practically verbatim.

    5. Persephone Mulberry*

      This is going to end up way at the bottom, but in regards to Gaia’s original post:

      9 states require paid breaks…this is not something you can waive. In other words, not taking your paid breaks could get your employer in serious hot water.

      In MN at least, the employer is required to offer the break, but they employee is not mandated to take it.

      1. Cassie*

        I think this is the same in California (though I’m too lazy to look it up). The employer has to authorize/permit the break, but they aren’t required to make sure the employee takes it.

        Lunch breaks are different, though, because they aren’t paid.

  4. jm*

    I definitely empathize with OP – I’m non-exempt and receive a daily hour-long, unpaid lunch break. I’ve found that sometimes the worst lunch break interrupters are exempt employees, because they don’t fully understand the dynamic of the lunch break being unpaid, personal time. I finally just started taking my lunch break away from work – either in my car, or at a restaurant, or outside on nice days. It’s annoying to have to remove yourself from the building (esp if you want to read or study at your desk) but that’s the only thing that ended up working for me.

    1. Alleyne*

      I’m about to go hourly with the new exemption law, and I’m wondering about this. I work in NYC, so no car to escape to. I’m also unfortunately in a part of town that doesn’t have much going on outdoors where I could go and eat. I also don’t particularly care to sit outdoors for an hour, especially if it’s too hot or too sunny or too cold or rainy. I can’t afford to eat in a restaurant every day. I’m really at a loss as to how I’m going to escape for my unpaid time.

      1. OhNo*

        Is there someplace in the building you can escape to? A break room, or lobby with comfy chairs, or something? That might be a good compromise. Or you could do like one of my former coworkers and I did, which was to swap offices for the duration of a break.

      2. Jennifer M.*

        At my office, we don’t really have anywhere to “get away” to, but the office building across the street has a really beautiful atrium with comfy seats and since there are also shops on the atrium level, it is treated like a public space (no one is ever “patrolling” to make sure people are working for or visiting a company in the building), so coworkers and I will sometimes grab coffee from the place next door and then go sit in the atrium.

      3. Vancouver Reader*

        I just dress for whatever weather we’re having and go for a walk and then come back and eat my lunch. Are there any nooks or crannies in your building where you could hide out?

    2. Elizabeth West*

      I had this problem at OldExjob. When I took my break, I would do it in the break room (or the conference room, if it wasn’t being used, where I could close the door) with my PERSONAL laptop, headphones on, writing, and they still interrupted me.

      I just told them, “I’m actually off the clock; send me an email and I’ll take care of it when I get back.” They were pissy at first, but after a while, they got used to it and stopped bothering me. The key was to just be pleasant and consistent. I didn’t give them an inch or they would have taken a mile.

      Besides, it’s illegal for you to work off the clock.

      1. JustaTech*

        Yeah it does! “You *must* give us a numerical value for how much you want your salary to be!” “You *must* give us 3 references before you’ve even submitted your application!” “Has anyone you’ve ever known worked here?” – How the heck am I supposed to know that? Like, I have no idea where my husband’s cousin worked 20 years ago.

    3. KR*

      My boss is really bad with this. He’s been exempt for years and frequently forgets that when I’m punched out, I am punched tf OUT.

    4. Not the Droid You Are Looking For*

      At my former job, we had one non-exempt staff member in our group. Because we had very limited space, she often ate at her desk, which was in an open floor plan. She was really good about saying, “Can we talk about this in 15 minutes when I clock back in?” or “We need to pause because I have to take my lunch break.”

      There was a bit of an adjustment (the previous person had been incorrectly classified as exempt), but people started to adjust.

    1. Red lines with wine*

      It seems obvious the OP would be doing that (or have already asked about doing that) if a lock was already on the door.

    2. Michelle*

      I did that when I had an office. I put up a sign that said “Out to Lunch, Back at 1:30” (using the sign to cover the window in my door), closed and locked the door, turned off the overhead light and switched on a lamp. If someone knocked, I didn’t answer because I was eating, reading or meditating.

    3. Mononymous*

      Or if there’s no lock installed, maybe try a rubber doorstop wedged under from the inside (assuming the door swings inward)? It wouldn’t fully stop the really determined interrupters, but might help redirect those who didn’t see or mentally process the sign on the door.

      1. JustaTech*

        Be careful about doorstops though. We had a few at my office and when the fire department came through for an inspection they took *all* of them, because they are technically a fire hazard (prevent fire doors from closing, increasing risk of a fire spreading).

  5. animaniactoo*

    You may also want to check your company policy and discuss with your boss the idea of taking a 40 minute lunch in lieu of taking one of your 10 minute breaks that you don’t take anyway. That would give you some leeway to go somewhere nearby but outside the building to get in your lunch break without interruption and without “losing” any time in getting there.

  6. EW*

    Just one note: my coworker used to have an “out to lunch” sign on his door. But often times he left it up past the time he is actually on lunch. I was never sure if I should interrupt him or not (once it was 2pm). Sometimes he takes a late lunch due to a meeting or other issue that comes up. Anytime I knocked (because I actually had something time sensitive) he always had me come in. So my suggestion is to make sure you remember to take the sign down! Which, maybe you already do.

    I always try to respect lunch/break times for coworkers. Good luck with keeping your boundaries! I think it’s ok to take 30 minutes in the middle of the day even if it wasn’t technically unpaid.

    1. Otra*

      That’s a good point! I think as other’s have mentioned the “out to lunch back at 1:30pm” would avoid that misunderstanding!

    1. Kelly L.*

      It depends on why it reeks, doesn’t it?

      If it reeks because somebody’s old trash is moldering away in the bin, sure, that’s fixable. If it reeks because it’s smelly work and the work smells are permeating, or if it reeks because the building has a persistent mold problem or something, then I don’t think it can be fixed by snarking at the OP.

      1. jm*

        All this, and IMHO, sometimes breakrooms are the worst place to take lunch breaks….because sometimes what you need as much as food is a break from your co-workers. Lunching with some of my co-workers would be anything but a restful, relaxing experience.

        1. OhNo*

          I’m with you, I hate taking my breaks in a breakroom. People always want to socialize, and even if they’re not socializing with me I still have to listen to them talk, and something work-related always seems to come up no matter how hard you try to avoid it. I’d rather skip all that, given the choice.

        2. Adonday Veeah*

          This! There is a woman who reads in the break room on her lunch break– big, juicy, intricate novels. I never understood how she concentrated in that beehive!

          1. Non-decimal*

            I can read anywhere. People often wonder how I can concentrate on reading in the middle of a lot of noise and activity, but once I’m reading I don’t notice anything. As a kid, my parents could stand next to me when I was reading and say my name and I wouldn’t hear them. I wasn’t ignoring them, I just wasn’t hearing anything.

            On the other hand, I cannot follow a TV show unless I am giving it my full attention, and any other conversation/activity will totally distract me from it.

            1. Drew*

              I was once served a hot dinner by my loving mother that was full of food I did not care for one bit. “Ugh,” I said, “I wish I’d known this was dinner; I would have made a sandwich.”

              “But, son, I told you what was for dinner and asked if that was OK and you said yes.”

              Come to find out, I was immersed in a thick novel (in multiple senses of the word “thick”) for my English class, and I had absolutely no memory of the conversation nor even a hint that my reading had been interrupted.

              Now, many years later, we have a rule: if someone is reading and you need to ask them a question, you must wait until the book is closed.

              1. JustaTech*

                When I was a kid we would use the converse: if you need to tell Dad something but don’t actually want him to process what you’ve said, wait until he’s reading the newspaper. he’d never even know you were there.

        3. KR*

          I hate taking my breaks in the break room for this reason. I’m in IT so people always assume I want to talk about their new phone or printer or whatever and they’ll drop in and ask me about why their PC is doing A or why my boss hasn’t gotten back to them on B and I always have to tell them, “I’m on break, but when I punch back in I can look at your issue if I finish with my other projects today.”. It’s just easier to eat at my desk where I can close and lock the door.

      2. Fafaflunkie*

        Or if it reeks because some co-worker decided to warm up some curry-laden food in the microwave and there’s no ventilation (assuming it’s not OP that warmed up said curry-laden food) then OP can’t be blamed for that, either.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Hey, curry isn’t considered malodorous by a lot of folks. Microwaving fish, on the other hand…. ;)

          1. Fafaflunkie*

            I understand it’s a matter of opinion here, but I’ve been in enough places where the overwhelming smell of curry almost literally knocked me out. If OP has a problem with the break room reeking, that could well be a reason. Then again, lack of cleanliness may be another, and (s)he wasn’t hired to be the maid.

        2. Mononymous*

          When I read the letter, I was picturing the kind of stale-cafeteria smell of a poorly-ventilated, enclosed space where the scents of everyone’s reheated lunches combines and then eventually seeps into the walls and furniture… No amount of cleaning will get that nastiness out. Eww.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            I was imagining food rot and fruit flies and ant infestations… But I also worked at a place where the men never did their dishes, assuming the women would get sick of the mess and clean them (I kid you not). I remember coming in one day and finding a half-empty, family-size bottle of lemonade in the middle of the kitchen floor. I still have the photo—it just seemed like such a poetic distillation of everything ridiculous about the breakroom/kitchen.

    2. Observer*

      Really? Unless the problem is fairly simple (eg someone needs to get rid of the garbage and there larger pail that gets regularly emptied nearby), that’s a big jump. Most places that “reek” tend to need a lot more than a few minutes of clean up every few days.

      Unless the OP’s boss is willing to pay for it, this is something the OP should not consider taking on.

      1. Elise*

        I agree that it is not the responsibility of the OP to clean the lounge, but in my experience, everyone always thinks these issues are unsolvable. If – assuming the OP would otherwise not mind using a staff lounge for lunch – why can’t they attempt to find out if facilities can investigate the smell? What if it IS something like mold that can’t be fixed easily? In certain situations, that can pose a health risk, and the employer would need to fix it.

        I can’t tell you how many times everyone at an office I work in has assumed that smell/stain/whatever is just a fact of life, and then facilities asked why they weren’t contacted earlier about it once someone finally did.

        1. Observer*

          I hear that, but if that’s the case, the suggestion to clean up and the snark at the OP is still misplaced. If Zip Silver had suggested talking to the facilities people that would have been a different thing.

      2. Zip Silver*

        Making an assumption here, but I’m imagining a break room that just needs cleaned up. As in, it’s nobody’s responsibility to clean up the break room and it has just built up gunk.

        1. Observer*

          And why is it the OP’s responsibility to give up lunch to take care of this?

          The initial cleanup would certainly take at least one full lunch, and maintaining it most likely take more than a couple of minutes every few days. So, it’s either give up lunch to take on an added responsibility, or take on a job that the boss is probably unwilling pay for.

            1. Mookie*

              Nope. The OP has decided she’s not going to use the breakroom; we’ve no idea who else is bothered by it.

  7. Christine*

    OP – can you lock your door? Can they see you in the office through a window, glass in your door? Some people will assume you’re available if they can see you. Others want an answer now and do not care a fig. They also think their quick question doesn’t amount to much; but after getting 3 – 4 quick questions your lunch break is over. Are most of your coworkers salaried?

    I got tied up with a faculty member once during my lunch break and wanted to leave an hour earlier. My boss informed me that in the future it was my responsibility to tell them I’m not available. They’ll have to live with it.

    You’ll have to train them to expect it also. If you’re in sight, it’s hard to ignore them. Can you go to your car for 30 minutes? is there an empty office you can use for 30 minutes? but ask your boss if you can use an empty office. Sometimes that’s frowned upon.

  8. Anna*

    Question: If the law is that a meal period be 30 minutes uninterrupted by work, doesn’t that mean if she IS interrupted, she can’t just tack those minutes to the end of her lunch, but she would have to start her lunch over so that it met the 30 uninterrupted minutes rule?

      1. Otra*

        From what I understand in my state (CO) if you are interrupted during those 30 mins they are required to pay you for the full 30 mins.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Yes, or you bill for the time during which you were interrupted (or a combination of the two). But it really depends on each state. Some are more aggressive than others about protecting the sanctity of the “uninterrupted lunch.”

      BUT, this is also a really good excuse when someone tries to interrupt you. You can always say, “I’m so sorry, but I’m not legally able to do X until after my break concludes.” (but of course, clear this with your boss, first, otherwise you’ll sound like a nutjob).

    2. Gene*

      The (unwritten, not approved by upper management) rule around our office has always been, if your unpaid lunch is interrupted by the manager with a work-related request, your lunch starts over. I once managed about a 2 hour lunch on my half hour when he was having a bad brain day.

  9. Elise*

    Since you say that your break room reeks, is there a change that something can be done about that? I occasionally eat at my desk, but because I work in a cubicle, being interrupted is part and parcel of taking my lunch there (and usually I’m working through lunch so I can go for a walk when I do that anyway). My suggestion would be to remove yourself during lunch. Your office environment does not lead to a peaceful lunch there. Our break room reeks occasionally, but then we do something about it.

  10. Jesmlet*

    Are you able to address the issues with the break room with your boss? If the break room didn’t reek and you were comfortable eating there, that would also solve the problem.

  11. Murphy*

    I agree with people’s suggestions about getting the break room cleaned, but that may not stop it. I was hourly at my old job with no office, but if someone had a question and I was taking my lunch, they’d stop in and ask me even though it was obvious that I was on lunch and that I was hourly (most of us here). Or they’d catch me as I was walking out the door, sometimes after I’d already clocked out. So making yourself invisible or relocating may be the best option.

    1. Not an IT Guy*

      I agree…take advantage of the fact that you’re free to leave during your lunch break. I’m hourly, non-exempt with an hour, unpaid lunch but I am also forbidden from leaving the building and am required to work during my break if need be. So if no one is saying otherwise step out for that half hour.

      1. a different Vicki*

        I am not a lawyer, but I suspect that your employer is breaking the law by requiring you to take an unpaid “lunch break” but making you stay in the building and requiring you to work during that hour “if need be,” because that adds up to forcing you to work off the clock.

        1. OhNo*

          I think that’s a state-by-state thing, so it might depend. Moonsault mentioned above about the law in Oregon – that requiring you to be available means you have to be paid for the entire time. But I don’t know how universal that idea is.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          It really depends on the job and the state. There are many states that allow employers to require you to “standby” by remaining in the building (or within a certain distance of the building), even on unpaid breaks. This is usually the case for first responders—doctors, nurses, firepeople, police. Some states require that your employer compensate you for your standby time (California), while others do not require compensation if you’re not “recalled” to duty during that time.

        3. Moonsaults*

          Most places you can be placed on call as long as it’s an agreed upon practice and if you’re called in from Unpaid Break to work, they pay you for the time you’re actually working.

          It’s all about being paid for the time you’re working in the scheme of things.

        4. Anna*

          According to the Fed site, if you can eat while working, your employer can require you to eat at your desk. I’m pretty sure this is for things like security work where you’re likely to be the only person on duty overnight and can’t just not work during a break.

  12. PK*

    Part of the reason that I take lunch in my car is to avoid this kind of thing. They can call if it’s immediately pressing.

  13. Lily in NYC*

    My coworker used to put a sign like Alison suggested on her door but no one ever respected it. She changed it to read:” “On a conference call; please do not disturb” and that did the trick.

  14. ManderPants*

    Is your workplace very strict about the 30 min time frame? If not you could always add time to your break. Say if you’re on lunch, but then interrupted for 8 min, once the interruption is over add 8 more min to your time.

  15. persimmon*

    Honestly, it might be overkill to ask your boss about not taking interruptions from student workers. Sounds like your judgment is that this would be fine, which seems reasonable, so I would just try it and see if there are any issues. If you feel comfortable you could also try out a gentler checking if you can get back to the interrupter for other non-urgent requests from people other than big boss. Depending on your relationship with your boss this might be an etiquette thing you can handle on your own.

  16. Bee Eye LL*

    You’ve got a personnel issue first and foremost, which is a management problem. I bet if you started taking lunch in the breakroom, people would still come in there asking work questions.

    At my work, a closed door means “do not disturb” and if you’ve got people still coming through it means they either don’t respect that notion or are completely clueless. Maybe even get or make a Do Not Disturb sign to put on the door. No guarantees, but it may help. Try and put your foot down somehow.

    1. Otra*

      I agree! At all my offices closed doors means do not disturb come back later…of course your boss or boss’ boss might come in if it’s time sensitive as you mentioned. Maybe the student workers don’t know this? Or maybe they think that since you are “on lunch” they are free to interrupt because you aren’t doing “anything important” (from their point of view). Although I find this weird, because if they are student workers’ they probably get paid hourly too and wouldn’t want to be interrupted while studying or on their unpaid break.

  17. animaniactoo*

    Another thought about setting expectations: If the note on your door just says “on lunch”, some people are really not good with intangibles like *when* you’ll be off lunch and they’ll be able to get that info from you. Towards that if you added a time so that your note said “On lunch until 12:40” they might respect that time as a clearer boundary.

    1. KR*

      Yes – you could get one of those little clock signs that you can change every day depending on when you take your lunch.

  18. Jess1216*

    I feel like this is a know-your-office situation because I’ve worked in offices across the spectrum on this issue. What do the other hourly employees do in this situation? If you don’t know, maybe asking them would be a better place to start than asking your boss.

  19. MsCHX*

    In my last non-exempt position, I had this issue as well. It was really bad because everyone else on my team was exempt. I did end up explaining to them that my lunch breaks are unpaid time; that I’m essentially “clocked out” and to please not interrupt unless it is a true emergency. I would also have my door closed and half the time be sitting on the ‘guest’ side of my desk. And one offender would routinely just throw open the door, even with a sign.

    I am one that would typically go out for lunch but I live in a winter climate and some days you just don’t wanna do the snow/ice scraping off your car twice a day. I reasoned that if I were out of the building at lunch, not a single one of these issues would ever cause them to call me so they were not emergencies. (I think in my 3 years someone called me to ask a question once while I was on my lunch break).

  20. Beancounter Eric*

    Wish I could suggest a closed door with a somewhat more strongly worded note, but I suspect it will continue to be ignored, or will result in nasty comments to your boss.

    Sad to say, but in most places I’ve worked the past 15 years, the only way to have lunch without being disturbed is to leave the premises. Eat lunch in the breakroom, people either drop by with questions, or they assume you are in a social mood and want to chat, gossip, etc. Eat at your desk, the assumption is you are on duty – I can be sitting at my desk, with lunch spread out – obvious I am at lunch – and people still come in and want to drop questions, projects, etc. in my lap.

    Get out of the office – Whether it’s heading to the local cafe, lunch in your car, or some other way of escaping the office – looks like your only solution is to make yourself scarce for your lunch break.

  21. Liz2*

    OK so I get 30 min unpaid lunch myself- but I take it at my desk almost every day just so I can be available. 90% of the time, no interruptions at all. The other time- well that’s why I’m there. I suppose it depends on whether your workplace values explicit time start/end or availability.

    On days I really do need a break- then I take one. I drive somewhere to eat or eat outside- which again time start/end isn’t a huge deal and since I’m consistently available no one dings me for taking a bit more time a few days a year. And for someone to have an office I’d be surprised otherwise. Eating where you work and expecting people to not try and get work done just seems frustrating for everyone.

    1. MsCHX*

      But it is truly unfair (and illegal!) to expect a non exempt person to be working when they are not being paid to work.

      1. Liz2*

        Again, I understand rules are rules and usually have good reason and couldn’t suggest people go against policy. I agree- no one should ever feel entitled to take away your lunch time.

        But…I always figure it evens out in the end. I am taking my lunch, I’m not actively checking emails or following up on things, I am reading my fun articles. If someone realizes their phone isn’t working and calls me frantically (I’m an admin), I will stop and get on that urgent request. If someone forgot to reserve a room and pops over to ask, I’ll set it up. Then I’ll go back to my lunch stuff. Again, if I really do need that break- I can and do take it. Being available consistently has made me more valuable and reliable overall so it’s totally worth it.

        1. LBK*

          If you’re non-exempt and you’re doing this work off the clock (since you say your break is unpaid), that’s against federal law. Even if you’re cool with that, I’d be wary about doing it since it can make it harder for others to push back if you have coworkers in similar roles (“Why can’t you just help me out? Liz does it all the time!”).

          1. MsCHX*

            Exactly. As an HR Manager this is the type of thing that really makes life hard. I recently had an employee out on disability checking emails.

            YOU CANNOT DO THAT!! As I run in circles, tearing my hair out.

            So Liz, if you are non-exempt, please stop working off the clock! :)

        2. Oryx*

          Being available consistently actually makes you a liability if it’s ever found out that you were working when you were not being paid for that time.

          I tend to eat at my desk and catch up on AAM and Reddit and blogs and whatever and even if a co-worker comes to me with a task that I know will only take a couple of minutes, I still tell them they’ll have to wait until I clock back in.

          1. Alton*

            I think it can also create an unsustainable burden on one person. It’s good for an employee to be needed, but if people can’t cope if something comes up in that employee’s absence, it’s a problem. True emergencies happen, but it’s good to have a backup plan.

            I try to make sure that the people I work with have a basic idea of who the other administrative contacts are and how things work, because I don’t want to worry that if I’m out sick, someone might panic if they have an urgent timekeeping question and think that because I haven’t answered, they’re doomed.

        3. Elsajeni*

          But if you’re non-exempt, it’s not just a matter of whether you’re okay with having your lunch interrupted — your employer could be held responsible for allowing or “suffering” you to work unpaid, even if you did it completely of your own free will. Even if they told you not to! If you’re exempt, that doesn’t apply to you and what you’re doing sounds fine, but it does apply to the OP; just accepting the occasional interruption really isn’t an option for her.

        4. Been There, Done That*

          With all due respect to the desire to be diligent and helpful, this concerns me a lot because it sets up an unrealistic and disrespectful expectation of administrative staff. Administrative workers aren’t widgets; they’re human beings who need those breaks and a meal in the middle of the day. Mama always said an emergency is somebody is bleeding, somebody is choking, or something’s on fire. If it’s not an emergency, it can wait until lunchtime is over, and if somebody wants it NOW, they can take care of it themselves.

          It’s a challenge in my current office, where the longest-term admin. asst. does this all the time and has an attitude that she’s the good, helpful one. Non-administrative staff has bought into it. The office workers who take their full lunch can be regarded as not quite team players. L.T.A. also works unpaid overtime, so the manager expects all office staff to work unpaid overtime.

    2. Moonsaults*

      I’m just like you and I’ll have to severely change my ways if I ever work anywhere that has a real HR department who enforces all the regulations to the letter of the law.

      However at the same time, I can understand that others are not like me in that way either. I don’t expect everyone else to be available on their lunches, I always leave even my boss alone when it’s lunch time unless it’s an emergency. Whereas I’m over here answering questions and phones regardless of if I’m technically supposed to.

      I always leave when I need a break-break as well but in my position now, that’s not always good enough, I’ll get a phone call on my cell phone if something pops up regardless of if my butt is in the office or outside of it.

  22. A.*

    Closed door plus “will return at 1:00” sign plus turning off the glaring overhead light and using a desk lamp instead worked really well for me back when I had an office.

    Now that I’m in a cube environment with no break room I either go outside or have to take my chances at my desk. I can’t even count the number of times someone has come up behind me while I was turned the other way, wearing headphones, with a mouthful of food and a book open in front of me. “Are you busy? I just have a quick question.”

    I think the key is people not knowing you are actually in there.

  23. Rocketship*

    I skimmed some of the comments, so I may have missed it if this was already brought up… but from where I’m at, I don’t really see a problem with being “rigid” about breaks, even if that’s not the prevailing office culture.

    It doesn’t necessarily need to be a matter of “FOOD NOW NO TALKIE” rigidity either…. it’s just boundary-setting. I eat at my desk more often than not (cubicle, not office) and frequently my associates want to chitchat or talk about work. If I don’t want to be interrupted, I just ask them, “Is it ok if I come talk to you once I’m done eating?” Perhaps my office is just full of really reasonable people, but that tends to get me the best and most uninterrupted results.

    Then again, we don’t tend to play as hard-and-fast with break times as OP seems to – and whether that’s a company-culture thing (30 minutes! No more, no less!) or a personal preference thing (dolla dolla bill, y’all), I could see where still having to address the interruption would be less than ideal. But it might help address the interruptions that are already happening, while you implement other steps toward eliminating them altogether. :)

  24. Lemon Zinger*

    Ironically, I am on my lunch break, and was just interrupted by a coworker asking a question!

    I am non-exempt as of yesterday. Lunch breaks are one hour long in my office. Most of us eat at our desks, and since we are all in cubicles, there is no expectation of privacy or silence. On days when I REALLY need a break from everything/everyone, I take my lunch on a balcony on another floor, or go somewhere else.

    I don’t mind that my colleague just interrupted me. I’m happy to answer a quick question or two, especially since the higher-ups are out of the office right now. If I didn’t want to be disturbed, I wouldn’t be in the office. Now, if my colleague had come over to ask for help on a project, I would have told her that I’d help when I finished lunch. But she asked a simple question that required a yes or no answer. So it’s okay.

  25. Tiny_Tiger*

    Oh, that would irritate the living hell out of me. I sit in my cubicle during lunch because our break room is constantly freezing and everyone around me has learned that you don’t bug me on my lunch unless it’s a quick “Hey can you do this when you get back?” This is largely due to the fact that I read or I stream anime while on my lunch and I hate being interrupted during either. With reading, I get absorbed into the world and don’t want to break from it until I absolutely have to. With anime, I prefer watching subbed, so if you’re trying to talk to me in one ear while I’m trying to read subtitles I get very cranky very quickly. I’ve joked about getting a sign that says “If the book is open, your mouth shouldn’t be.” Don’t be afraid to tell people “I’m on my lunch break right now, if this isn’t important I will talk to you later.”

  26. Kyrielle*

    OP, you say you just “stick up” a note. Please tell me you are not using a small post it, because I can almost guarantee that unless you have one at eye level for every person in the office, someone is not paying attention. Making a larger sign (with firmer wording – some of the wording above is excellent) may also help. If you’re going to put that effort into it, keep it around and reuse it. Neatly written or typed, letters large enough to easily read. This should not require any focus on the part of the person walking up, because whether they should or not, they aren’t going to put it in.

    Amd some people will ignore even very, very explicit notes. If they do not start with an apology and an emergency, they are not reasonable people.

  27. Critter*

    I must need a vacation because my immediate thought was “remove your energy mask and consume their souls if they try it again”.

  28. Erin*

    The only solution I’ve found to this problem is to physically leave the office. Try a break room, a nearby coffee shop, or even sitting in your car.

    What else sucks is that you only get half an hour, so if you have to go somewhere the travel time, even five minutes, really eats into that quickly. I’m sorry there probably isn’t another solution, but if all other attempts fail, you may need to physically leave.

  29. Flor*

    Ugh, I have this issue. I’m salaried, but here in the UK we’re legally entitled to an *uninterrupted* 20-minute lunch break, and my contract stipulates a one-hour break. I eat at my desk (no office), because we have no break room, the canteen is busy and noisy and makes me feel like I’m back in high school and trying to figure out what clique I’m allowed to sit with, and it’s a ten-minute walk to the parking lot (and about a half-hour walk to a café).

    SO many times I find myself sitting there sipping soup, my headphones in and my nose buried in a book, and someone will come up to me and not just ask me a quick question, but ask me about something that requires me to open up a new workspace in my IDE, search through the code, and figure out the answer – or worse, they’ll expect me to fix a defect immediately. I’ve tried just ignoring them and pretending my music’s too loud and my book too engrossing (which is half-true), but it never works; they’ll wave their hand between my book and my face or rap on my desk so loudly I jump in my seat.

    Fortunately, I’m only at this job another week, but I sympathise, OP.

  30. cofepwnd*

    I must disagree with Alison on this one — I do NOT think it’s okay to be interrupted on 30-minute breaks, because of (CFR) Title 29 Subtitle B, Chapter 5, Subchapter B, Part 785. You can find this regulation on the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division’s page.

    §785.19 Meal. (a) Bona fide meal periods. Bona fide meal periods are not worktime. Bona fide meal periods do not include coffee breaks or time for snacks. These are rest periods. The employee must be completely relieved from duty for the purposes of eating regular meals. Ordinarily 30 minutes or more is long enough for a bona fide meal period. A shorter period may be long enough under special conditions. The employee is not relieved if he is required to perform any duties, whether active or inactive, while eating. For example, an office employee who is required to eat at his desk or a factory worker who is required to be at his machine is working while eating.

    OP can make an argument that if he is regularly interrupted on Meal breaks then he is being required to perform active work duties (answering coworker work inquiries).

    Yes you may violate office norms, but do you want to have violating the law be the norm in an office? Sorry A, I must disagree.

    1. H.C.*

      I don’t know about throwing this kind of legalese at management; it may result in some silly policy that forces OP out of the office during lunch breaks.

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