what to say to an intern who’s chronically late

A reader writes:

I am currently managing an intern on my team. Interns at my organization are unpaid, which I do not agree with, but this does not seem to be changing any time soon. She has very poor timekeeping and is constantly late, often by a significant amount of time. The fact that the position is unpaid is influencing the way I am dealing with this, as I feel uncomfortable about being too stern as she is not being paid. How can I broach the subject? Should I make it clear that I understand she is not being paid but that constant lateness is unprofessional and would not be acceptable in future roles she may have?

I answer this question — and four others — over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  • My new desk is right next to my manager
  • I thought I was a finalist for a job, but they’ve just reposted the job ad
  • Recruiter asked if I knew anyone who was interested in a job that I’d like
  • Telling the HR director she’s breaking the law

{ 106 comments… read them below }

  1. anon today*

    She might not connect her own lateness to the fact that she is unpaid. I doubt she’s doing it on purpose, or in a vindictive manner. I know a lot of people who are chronically late and they do NOT like it about themselves, but it’s a hard thing to change (for some reason. I’m not one of these people, but I hear that it’s kind of a habit that has just seeped in over their lives).

    Since she is your intern, you can really help her out here. Try coming from a mentoring position rather than a critical one, and like Alison said, respectfully let her know why she should be on time, whether it is for a specific reason or if it’s just that being late makes her look bad. Maybe even throw some sympathy in there for the fact that she is unpaid, and explain to her that this is her chance to make a great impression and being on time is part of that. The girl needs help!

    1. That Girl From Quinn's House*

      If she is unpaid, it could be possible she is working a second job in the evenings for pay, and is juggling the obligations poorly and is getting exhausted. But that’s not something you would know unless you have a conversation with her, which still needs to happen.

      1. JoJo*

        True. Keep in mind, though, that plenty of people who are also work second jobs — I’m saying the issue of lateness needs to be addressed regardless of what hypotheticals exist. Sometimes ESPECIALLY when a person is working two paid jobs, which tends to be someone holding at least one job in a service-type position, the likelihood is high that at least one of the employers will be super-strict about being on time (many call centers, for example, and huge online retailers not only ruthlessly track every second an employee is on the clock, they have very regimented systems in place tracking every tardy arrival — and being late often is the No. 1 reason employees are fired by such companies). It’s less of an issue in a professional office setting.

    2. Kiki*

      Lateness is also one of those things that can creep in unless there is some sort of enforced boundary. I’ve had jobs where I knew me being late would be an inconvenience to others (taking over a shift from someone else, etc.), so I was almost on time. But at a job where my lateness was largely unnoticed, uncommented upon, and really didn’t matter to my quality of work, I gradually started coming in later and later (at its worst it was 20 minutes late). Not even on purpose, it’s just like my mind in the morning stopped registering any urgency for getting out the door. It wasn’t until a manager noticed and commented on it that the urgency returned.

      All this is to say that mentioning it is probably in the intern’s best interest. She may just take home a good lesson in professionalism, but she may also bring up some valid reason for being late, like working a paid job or something.

      1. JR*

        Agreed. I’ve had jobs like this, particularly when I was then working much later (like, coming in at 9:20 but staying til 7pm – in a salaried job) and/or no one seemed to care and I knew it didn’t matter to my workload (like I never would have been late if I had a 9am meeting). If my boss had cared, I would have wanted to know that! (I also would have been annoyed if there was no compelling reason for her to care, but that’s a separate issue that may or may not be in play here.)

      2. Emily S*

        Yep. In my last job I had to be in on time and though I couldn’t quite manage to be 100% always on-time, I came pretty close, and when I was late it was only by 5-10 minutes.

        My current job, a few weeks in, my boss responded to one of my, “I’m running 5 minutes late,” emails with, “You don’t have to send these emails. Anything before 10:30 is not late.” Every year my arrival time slipped later and later until after 5 or 6 years I was getting in closer to 11 most mornings. I’m salaried and did plenty of work at home and was keeping up with my workload so it never became an issue. But every now and then someone would schedule a meeting for 10 a.m. and I would find it nearly impossible to be in that early! And I knew I could’t really complain about it because… it’s 10 a.m., which is not what most people would call early by a long shot. Or I’d be entertaining the idea of applying for a new job that seemed interesting and suddenly be completely put off the idea when it occurred to me that they’d probably expect me to be in at 9 every single day. I honestly question if I would even be capable of going back to that and not running late all the time.

      3. alienor*

        I’ve noticed this too. My office has flexible start times and no one really notices or cares when you get there, as long as you’re on time for your first meeting of the day. I’ve actually been trying to get in earlier for my own sanity (it really helps to have an hour or two to go through my email and review things that are waiting for my approval before the meeting onslaught starts), but it is SO HARD to have that urgency without an external motivator.

    3. Mayflower*

      It is hard to change because you need to target an arrival time of *10-15 minutes prior* to the time you want be there. Then 9 out of 10 times you will be there on time… and the 1 time you are 10-15 minutes early you don’t regret it.

      It took me years (decades!) before I understood this.

      1. anon today*

        Completely! Or perhaps she’s learning a new transportation system/pattern in a new city. People always told me Boston traffic was horrific, and to leave at least 45 minutes earlier than what the actual travel time is telling me to. Turns out, it’s even worse than they said, and it took me months of adjustment to finally get it – only to be hit with the snow/winter traffic once I got the hang of it!

        1. Jaydee*

          Or, the commute time may be dramatically different over a span of 15-20 minutes. I live in Smaller City and commute to Big City. Many others do the same (plus the suburbanites in between). My 35 mile commute can take less than 40 minutes or more than 60 minutes depending on when I leave, and it goes in waves depending both on when people start/end work in Big City but also when people leave their homes in Smaller City to go to work or take their kids to school. Leaving my house at one time might make me early for work and leaving 5 minutes later might make me 15-20 minutes late for work

      2. Flash Bristow*

        That is so important! I’ve had PAs work for me who seemed to think 9am was a loose target, that then when they show up they hang coat… have a drink… check phone…

        Er, no. Im sorry but I asked you to start at 9am because I had planned stuff around it.

        I’ve also had PAs who understand 9am is fixed so if they show at 859 they don’t get ages to chill (but a break in a little bit can be accommodated no problem!)

        And an awesome PA who was usually early… took time to chill… I obviously left them alone to sort out any personal business until their check in at 9.

        For what it’s worth, when the deadline doesn’t really matter, well no worries. But as others have said it’s easy to slip, five minutes at a time, then any appointments I have which are time critical get broken.

        Obviously there are unavoidable exceptions, but if it becomes a pattern it needs at least discussing.

        1. Massmatt*

          Thank you for giving the early employee time and space to chill. I worked somewhere where this was NOT the case, as soon as you sat down it was a barrage of assignments, questions, and work. And this was a very time-clocked position. So most people just stopped coming in early.

    4. LunaLena*

      I agree she’s probably not doing it on purpose or vindictively, and that the OP should come from a mentoring position here. If she is fresh out of college or still in college, it’s quite possible she doesn’t realize being on time is a thing she should be doing. I work at a university, and quite a lot of students simply don’t understand that even a college job is a real job that requires things like being on time, dressing appropriately, or doing good work. Many students are accustomed to showing up to class late and/or not at all with no repercussions, so they assume that the same is true for jobs. I can see this especially being true for an unpaid internship – it’s not paid, so it’s not a “real” job with “real” responsibilities – after all, what are you going to do, dock her pay? I’ve known many students who had to be gently explained to that they can’t just not show up to a shift or announce an hour beforehand “I got concert tickets so I can’t be there.” I don’t work directly with many student employees myself, and my office is extremely flexible and laid back, but even I’ve had to deal with students who didn’t think to send a quick email and instead just never showed up, even after several talking-tos about letting us know if they can’t come in so we don’t worry that they may be lying unconscious in a ditch somewhere.

  2. HailRobonia*

    Another reason unpaid internships are problematic. Like it or not, people consciously or unconsciously tend to value paid positions more.

    And don’t even get me started about how unpaid internships favor the wealthy….

    1. anon today*

      Honestly, we should get started on that discussion. I feel for the OP, being influenced by the fact that it’s an unpaid internship. Unpaid internships are a loaded topic. I wish they’d just be entirely eradicated. And I’m about to do one myself!

      1. boo bot*

        Yeah, it’s not unreasonable for the unpaid part to factor in! It’s a pretty significant factor, when you’re talking about a job.

        I think what the OP can do with a clear conscience is to remember that the point of an internship is for the intern to learn about the workplace, and to build positive relationships with the people she meets there. It seems like coming in on time is going to be necessary to both of those things, and so I would approach the topic from that frame of mind.

        1. fhqwhgads*

          Sure but if the argument is “she doesn’t bother being on time because she’s not being paid” that’s still weird behavior because plenty of professors will dock your grade for being consistently late (or not let you in the class late after it starts, etc). If the internship is for credit, treat it like a class one needs to show up to. I don’t really understand the connection…as though it’s some sort of spite thing? “They’re not paying me so I can show up whenever I want”? I don’t understand how or why someone would end up on that conclusion. I think it’s much more like this intern is just a Late Person who does not yet realize that it has been noticed and that it reflects poorly on her in the current context.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      Except that if this is an internship, isn’t it likely for school credit?

      It’s not a job: It’s a class. You don’t get to be late to class over and over again without getting penalized.

      But either way, somebody here needs to start talking. Either the intern needs to own the problems she’s having and the reasons behind them, or, really, the LW needs to sit her down and see what’s up.

      1. Kathleen_A*

        Paid or unpaid doesn’t matter when it comes to this particular issue. The fact is that the intern is getting something out of it – be that college credit, the chance of a good reference, valuable experience or more than one of these things. If she wants college credit, a good reference and to take advantage of that valuable experience, she needs to follow the rules, and that includes getting in more or less on time just about every day.

        So yes, the OP needs to figure out what the rules are (making sure they are as fair and flexible as possible), then make sure the intern understands them, and then make sure the intern complies.

      2. Pescadero*

        In 5 years of university education – I never had a single class that required attendance.

        1. Ace in the Hole*

          I have. In my experience there are two types of classes that require attendance: experiential classes (labs, studio art, phys ed, public speaking, etc) and first-year classes taught by patronizing professors.

          The experiential classes I understand. If someone is not physically present they can’t learn or demonstrate the skills being taught. In some classes that focus on group projects, presentations, critiques, discussions, etc. having the whole class present is important so everyone can get the experience of participation – it’s hard to have students give a speech if the audience doesn’t show up, for example.

          Regular lecture classes that require attendance? Nope. Not an acceptable way to treat adult students in my opinion. I’ve had professors do it, usually with the patronizingly paternalistic reasoning that they’re “teaching students time management” or something similar. I got in an argument with a professor over this once. My grade was going to drop from an A to a C due to attendance. I pointed out that since I was getting full points on all exams and assignments without attending, that skipping his lectures to study for other classes was in fact the best use of my time.

  3. Parenthetically*

    Oy, “Take your lunch break or we’ll dock your pay”? Gosh, we keep beating these folks and morale isn’t improving at all!

    1. Rebecca*

      My workplace does this, we have an ADP system, sometimes it doesn’t work, sometimes we forget, etc. but if you don’t have a punch out for the mandatory 30 minute unpaid lunch, the manager does it for you. No overtime allowed unless it’s approved ahead of time (and that’s rare if ever). Clock rounds to the nearest 15 minutes, so if you clock in 5 minutes before starting time, it hacks off 5 minutes…but if you punch out 1 minute early, it rounds up, and you will get an email from the manager saying that you need to punch out on your end time. For a minute. It’s ridiculous. Ask me how willing I am to stay late or come in early.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        I don’t know your state but holy crapballs this is illegal here. You can round but the rule is strict about how you can only round up if it’s 7 minutes “late” and if you clocked in less than 7 minutes early, they can round up and it’s fine. JFC these kinds of scoundrels make me sick.

        1. animaniactoo*

          Originally, I read it the way you were too – but I think what Rebecca is saying is that her company DOES do it that way – and then you get a scolding “reminder” e-mail for making the company pay you for the 1 minute that you didn’t work.

          Which I think may also be a legal issue – they can’t happily take your 5 minutes and then harass you about their 1 minute even if they are paying it.

          1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            Argh sadly they can harass you about it, that’s part of the game.

            I had one place that did this. They never rounded incorrectly because they weren’t going to break the law in that way but they would “discipline” those who used it to their advantage. Lots of places are strict about clock in/out rules and will give you strikes and even fire you in the end if you don’t abide by their restrictions.

            1. Rebecca*

              Yes, exactly this! The software is set to round at 7 minutes – so if you clock in 7 minutes prior to start time, say 7 AM, it rounds to 7AM. Clocking in at 8 minutes prior rounds back to 6:45 AM. So, we are always advised not to clock in until 6:53AM, and if you do, and you are at your desk working you lose that 7 minutes. So at quitting time, if you clock out 1 minute early, you hear about it….but never mind the potential 5+ minutes hacked off in the AM.

              Honestly I waste more time trying to be punch in/punch out compliant than the 1 minute I’d get called out on. So while I might punch in before starting time, I don’t start until the exact minute. And conversely, at the end of the day, everything is shut down and ready to go when that clock hits quitting time. No money, no work.

        2. Magenta Sky*

          In California, you can round however you want, but you have to round the same way for clocking out as clocking in.

          Deducting a lunch when the employee was working will likely get someone drug into the parking lot and beaten with sticks by the labor board. A second offense will likely involve nails and a cross.

          1. NotQuiteOfficialHR*

            I googled the auto deduct. As long as they are offered a meal break free of all work duties, you may auto deduct the half hour from hourly employees according to FSLA. The SHRM site was the one quoting this answer.

            1. Commenter*

              You’re misinterpreting the statement – they can set up the system to auto-deduct *as a default* but there needs to be a way to cancel the auto-deduction if the break is not actually taken, to stay in compliance with the FSLA.

              From the SHRM site you mention:

              “Auto-deductions for nonexempt employees’ meal breaks can be less risky if employers take these three steps:

              Provide a method for workers to cancel auto-deductions if they work during meals.
              Reduce the chance that meal breaks will be interrupted.
              Train employees and supervisors about the auto-deduction policy.

              The safest way for an employer to ensure that it satisfies its obligations to pay hourly employees for all time worked is to require nonexempt workers to clock in and out not only at the beginning and end of each shift or workday but also at the start and finish of each meal break, said Adriana Kosovych, an attorney with Epstein Becker Green in New York City.”

      2. kittymommy*

        Back when I had to clock in our would round to the nearest 15. So if your start time was 7am and you came in at 7:07 it reflected that you came in at 7. If you clocked in at 7:08 it rounded to 7:15.

        1. fposte*

          Rounding is okay as long as it rounds on both ends evenly–IOW, rounding errors benefit the employee as often as the employer, which it sounds like your system does.

      3. RUKiddingMe*

        Do they punch you out even if you don’t take (i.e. work) that 30 minute lunch?

    2. Holly*

      I didn’t think this was illegal? But I was a salaried exempt employee working for a municipality that automatically deducted an hour for the lunch hour.

      1. NotQuiteOfficialHR*

        It’s not. According to SHRM, FLSA says as long as you’re offered the break without work, they can deduct it for hourly employees.

        1. Commenter*

          ONLY if the break is actually taken. If it isn’t, the auto-deduct must be cancelled/reversed.

  4. Close Bracket*

    She is late, but does she work a full 8 hours? If she leaves at the same time regardless of when she gets in, that’s a bigger deal than the time she arrives (assuming she doesn’t need to, say, open a store at a particular time). Make sure she supports the start time that other people need her for, like for an early meeting or what not, and let her be on the other days as long as she works a full 8 hours.

    I would not give a lecture about what other companies do or don’t do. She’s not at other companies. She’s at this one. Enforce the norms for this company.

    1. JR*

      I generally strongly agree with this and agree that only this company’s norms need to be enforced, but since an internship is a learning opportunity, I think it’s a good idea to note that this might be an unusually flexible arrangement, so she knows that going into her next role. (Even if it should be more common!)

      1. Phoenix Programmer*

        Yes the “it’s ok here but don’t think it means everywhere and be sure to note the culture at your next office” is a very important convo.

    2. Observer*

      If this is a regular employee, then “what other companies do” is definitely not relevant. However, this is NOT a regular position. The whole point of the internship is to help the intern learn professional norms. Which includes understanding what is, and is not, typical.

      1. StressedButOkay*

        This, exactly. An intern is, generally, a completely different type of employee one who is not because, most of the time, part of having an intern is teaching them overall professional norms. Not just the norms where you work, especially if you work for an organization that’s more laid back or has flex hours.

        It’s part of the exchange of getting cheaper and/or free employees to help around the office. They’re not there just to learn about that particular job – and in fact, sometimes an intern is in a job that has nothing to do with their career path – but how to function in a general office environment.

  5. Falling Diphthong*

    #2, It could mean that your manager feels you are the most troublesome employee and so she needs to keep an eye on you. The most pleasant employee, and so she wants you as a buffer between Ned and his cat videos. The most critical employee for her work, and so she wants to touch base with you easily.

    Or just the person who seemed easiest to slot into that spot as you play traffic jam with the desks.

    1. Just J.*

      It could be any of the above. Or it could be nothing. When my last employer moved into a new lease space, we assigned desks by lottery. It was as random as we could make it.

    2. TootsNYC*

      Or you’re the person she trusts not to chitchat with her.
      Or you’re the person she trusts to be discreet with anything you overhear.
      Or you’re the person whose slightly snarky asides she thinks are funny.
      Or you’re the person who might need her help most.
      Or you’re the person she trusts to answer queries when she’s not there.

      1. Rusty Shackelford*

        Which would mean Alison should expect other emails: “Why didn’t I get moved next to the manager’s desk?”

    3. ssnc*

      or that she had that spot before and the manager is trying not to shuffle the seating arrangement too much from the previous arrangement

  6. StaceyIzMe*

    When volunteers are late, it does impact how they are perceived. This is such a simple thing to acknowledge that I think it’s often overlooked. There are organizations where it’s perfectly fine for people to set their own hours, but when that’s not a privilege that’s been granted, it violates a few things- 1) trust (if you can’t be here when you’re supposed to, what else is falling through the cracks?/ 2) respect (if you’re late and I’m waiting on you or wondering when you’ll get here and get on with your responsibilities, why aren’t you “getting” the fact that my time is as important as yours?)/3) courtesy (everyone else manages to get here and get going on their work, why are you behaving as if the rules apply to us but not to you? Also, our clients don’t appreciate waiting on you ./ 4) competence (managing time is easier than managing other pieces of professional life so if that isn’t going well, is it a good idea to put you on that challenging project?

    1. StaceyIzMe*

      Sorry- my comment got chopped since I used “”. Hope this isn’t a duplicate: And so forth. It just doesn’t really matter that it’s an intern or whether it’s paid. When someone agrees to a schedule, it’s as binding as any other aspect of professional life such as overall responsibilities accepted, opportunities offered and perks or benefits. It feels lousy to have to tell someone to be on time because intuitively, it feels “off” to have to bring it up since it should be a basic “adulting” and professional skill. But there are lots and lots of ways to bring it up in terms of how to frame it.

    2. Manon*

      I agree that it might help to contextualize her work and position within the broader context of the workplace. Especially as an unpaid intern, it can feel like what you’re going doesn’t really matter and giving some context to how her work impacts/supports the rest of the team (assuming it does in some way) might give her a push to take the role more seriously.

  7. M from NY*

    Intern knew position was unpaid when they accepted. Unless intern is late because of situation out of their control they need to understand timeliness and reliability is part of the expectations for successful internship. I’m speaking of real issues like class section changed time or public transportation schedule adjusted and they were scared that saying something about adjusting time would make them give up internship. Don’t assume it’s about pay. Let intern answer, figure out solution if possible (like set new work hours) but clearly reset expectations now so they understand what needs to happen for the rest of the internship.

    1. Kuododi*

      I’ve worked my share of unpaid clinical internships/residencies over the course of my professional history. (Confession time). I also tended to take schedules and time clocks as “suggestions” rather than boundaries, when I was younger and sillier. I found the supervisors who were most helpful were the ones who didn’t get worked up over the “what ifs…” I might or might not be facing. They would sit me down and kindly but firmly let me know what I was doing which was inappropriate and the performance issues I needed to tighten up in order to successfully complete my internship. Not surprising, the earth kept rotating and I got my act in gear with minimal difficulty. Noone benefits in the long run by allowing misplaced worry to drive us into total inaction.

      1. Rusty Shackelford*

        And this is what an internship is about. You’d be doing her a disservice to ignore it. Whether she needs to be there at a certain time, or it’s okay to be late as long as she puts in the correct number of hours, or she just needs to let someone know… whatever the protocol is in your office, she’s not following it. Please let her know that there IS a protocol, and that there always WILL be a protocol, and she can’t assume it’s the same everywhere, so she needs to find out what it is, and follow it.

  8. Im hungry*

    I really hated chasing employees down to make sure they took their breaks. It so wasn’t a case of pressing deadlines or business needs- just hourly employees being forgetful or plain willful (looking to game CA wage laws).

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Same. However we fix it by telling them that they follow the laws, fix their behavior or they are going to be terminated. I’m not breaking the law to try to whip them into shape and I’m also not going to accept that they’re not doing a required duty. It’s just like if someone “forgot” or “refused” to answer their emails or their phone or are constantly late/disappearing, etc. You pay them for all time worked, warn them that it’s going to cost them their job and keep going on with your life!

    2. Magenta Sky*

      That’s why you put it in your employee manual that it is a required part of their job. If they don’t do it, get replace them with people who will.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        It’s often more nuanced than that. If you have a good employee who for some reason doesn’t realize they need to take this seriously, you don’t go straight to replacing them.

      2. Gaia*

        I had a really high performer who just legitimately could not remember to take breaks. And I was in a state that took this very seriously. He brought in hoards of revenue in a job that didn’t normally produce revenue so there was no way I would get rid of him over this issue. Instead, we instituted a buddy system: a coworker always took Joaquim on breaks with them.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          This is a good workaround as well, we do it in production all the time. It’s easy to get distracted and not everyone is watching the clock. So it’s the upgrade to just having a whistle for everyone to listen for.

    3. JoJo*

      Right. But like Alison said, the company “can of course require lunch breaks and discipline people if they don’t take them,” and that is how to address the issue.

    4. Lynn*

      Agree – our field guys work remotely so there was no chasing them down, but it became apparent that they never deducted their lunch on their paper time cards (new guys would be confused as to why their time, with a 30 minute deduction for lunch, differed from the rest of the crew’s so yeah.. it was a thing). Our field crews make between $20 and $45/hour; this was a significant expense. So, when we switched to digital time cards we made use of the 30-minute auto deduction. If they legit don’t take a break, they note it and payroll overrides the auto deduction. We are definitely not out to swindle our employees – they are our most valuable asset. But we also have to make a profit and paying them fairly goes both ways.

      Honestly – there was no way we were going to terminate

      1. Lynn*

        Oops – posted w/o finishing.

        There was no way we were going to terminate an otherwise stellar employee.

  9. Alex*

    When I was in college, I had a job like #5–where they automatically deducted 1/2 an hour lunch break from all shifts that were longer than 5 hours. But they wouldn’t actually let you leave to take a lunch break, apart from going a few feet away to grab some food (this was on campus, employed by the college, and there were campus food options in the same building), and bringing it back to eat.

    Their argument was that this was a kind of job where much of the time there was nothing to do (true!) so the whole job was almost like a break. It was true that a large amount of time we sat around doing our homework (or just screwing around) until someone needed us, but we never knew when that would be. They said that they would pay for all time actually worked if we could prove that the entirety of our shift was spent actually actively working rather than sitting around waiting to be needed.

    I felt this was BS at the time and am curious as to whether or not it was legal.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      That’s illegal. They can make you work through your meal period but they have to pay you for it. Employment laws are so easy and straight forward, there’s no guess work to it, there’s no excuse for places that so willfully break the law.

      Being on call like that is work, it doesn’t matter. They kept you sequestered in a room and required you be there, therefore you were working. Again, they stink and broke the law.

      The only time we’ve ever just deducted the meal break was for a factory where everything stopped, machines were turned off and everyone went to lunch at the same time and returned the same time. We could prove that nobody would be working through their lunch time and the foreman wasn’t interested in pushing anyone to work more because he looked forward to lunch time too.

    2. irene adler*

      In USA?
      If so, below is a link to a summary sheet by the Dept of Labor which explains things.

      From the link:
      Waiting Time: Whether waiting time is hours worked under the Act depends upon the particular circumstances. Generally, the facts may show that the employee was engaged to wait (which is work time) or the facts may show that the employee was waiting to be engaged (which is not work time). For example, a secretary who reads a book while waiting for dictation or a fireman who plays checkers while waiting for an alarm is working during such periods of inactivity. These employees have been “engaged to wait.”

      Rest and Meal Periods: Rest periods of short duration, usually 20 minutes or less, are common in industry (and promote the efficiency of the employee) and are customarily paid for as working time. These short periods must be counted as hours worked. Unauthorized extensions of authorized work breaks need not be counted as hours worked when the employer has expressly and unambiguously communicated to the employee that the authorized break may only last for a specific length of time, that any extension of the break is contrary to the employer’s rules, and any extension of the break will be punished. Bona fide meal periods (typically 30 minutes or more) generally need not be compensated as work time. The employee must be completely relieved from duty for the purpose of eating regular meals. The employee is not relieved if he/she is required to perform any duties, whether active or inactive, while eating.


      My take: you got cheated.

    3. Aurion*

      That sounds similar to the waiting to engage vs engaged to wait argument. Since you couldn’t decide to, say, jaunt off and go play video games despite having the freedom to do homework/goof off a bit, I’d still say it’s an “engaged to wait” situation and your time would’ve been considered work time. If someone had come in and asked you to do stuff you would’ve been expected to drop your homework and do the work task, right? So you should’ve gotten a lunch break where you weren’t expected to drop everything and jump to it.

    4. Observer*

      Totally not legal. I don’t know if they were legally required to give you a break (I think that’s location dependent), but IF they are not paying you, you MUST be allowed to go away from your desk and not be on call.

    5. Ask a Manager* Post author

      There’s a twist to this that the comments above didn’t cover: It’s actually legal for them to require you to eat on their premises. They can make you take an unpaid lunch break where you have to stay on their premises, as long as you’re (a) not doing work during that time and (b) allowed to leave your immediate work area.

      1. Gaia*

        This is really common in an industry I used to work in due to safety and security. Once you were in the secure location you were there until you left for the day. It always seemed a bit overkill to me but no one really bats an eye at it.

      2. New Jack Karyn*

        So, say this was a campus writing lab. It sounds like you’re saying that they could require the workers to go grab food, and eat on a bench within sight of the door to the lab, but that they could not make them sit in the lab at their usual desks?

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          They could make you go to the breakroom or whatever designated area for “break time”.

          It’s in their best interest [companies] to NOT allow anyone to eat at their workstation because then you get into that great old game of “are they really relieved of all their duties to allow this to be an unpaid meal break?”

      3. Alex*

        Interesting. It’s kind of hard to parse here because of the specific nature of the work. What is considered “working”? If your job is to wait around until someone comes to ask you to do something, is your job the waiting, or the doing? Their argument was that it was the doing, and that the bulk of our job was waiting, and therefore, the bulk of our job was a break.

        Our argument (because everyone thought this was BS) was that being available to work was working, and that being on a break meant not being available to work. They wouldn’t allow us to be unavailable to work at any time during our shift, counting on the fact that most of the shift would be waiting. So, if we went and got food and sat down to eat, it was expected we would interrupt the meal if someone came with a request.

        In terms of a human experience, yeah, it was totally fine. We didn’t actually need a “break” from sitting around, and I didn’t mind being interrupted from eating dinner (which rarely happened anyway). I just minded the docked pay!

        Also difficult here is what “premises” vs “work area” would be. Like, let’s say we were yodelers, and at any time someone could come up to the yodeling office and ask for a yodel to be performed in room 305, so we would then go to room 305 and yodel, and then come back to the yodeling office to wait until someone else needed a yodeling performance. There were lots of different places in the building that needed yodelers, but no yodeling was ever actually done in the yodeling office. Also in the building were the places to eat. We weren’t actually REQUIRED to eat from there, but most did, because it was food that was included in the college meal plan.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          The law is pretty firm on the fact that if you’re not on a “break”, then you are to be paid for the time spent at work, even if you’re just licking the paint.

          This kind of BS thinking they were spewing is exactly why they had to make employment laws to begin with and proof of what entities still get away with forcing their employees to deal with because most of you aren’t going to go out and find an attorney to fight their nonsense.

  10. Name of Requirement*

    For the internship, if her lateness means you won’t be giving her an enthusiastic recommendation, tell her! And outline what you need to see to do so.

  11. WMM*

    I feel like there’s more to be said to the intern:

    “One part of internships is building solid references. One question often asked of references is how reliable an applicant is. Right now, I won’t be able to say that you were reliable. This is an unpaid internship, so I am giving you as much schedule leeway as the position allowed, but by being unpredictable in your hours, I won’t be able to give you a glowing recommendation. Also, those in our organization who might hire interns are also seeing your unpredictable schedule. Consider what you want out of this experience when you juggle your schedule priorities.”

  12. Gaia*

    I came across a situation like LW5 in a previous workplace. No amount of “no seriously, here’s a direct link to the law, we cannot do that” convinced HR or the owner that this wasn’t allowed. I moved on (it was a bad fit in other ways) but I did see a lovely report of the wage complaint division of our state labor board also sharing this news with them along with a hefty fine….

    I hear they’re still doing it anyway. Sigh.

  13. Phoenix Programmer*

    I manage unpaid interns myself.

    1) all feedback is a kindness to interns but i feel when the internship is unpaid we have a greater responsibility to insure that the intern learns valuable skills for their future jobs.
    2) I make sure to connect the why to the drudgery of their tasks.
    3) I give my interns freedom to make their mistakes. So in your late example, I would giver her feedback about it using similar language as Alison suggested, but at the end if it continues i would mark her down in the evaluation that goes to the university.

    1. Krickets*

      Is there a way to advocate for paid internships in your organization? I think it’s good that you’re investing your time in their professional development.

  14. TootsNYC*

    One thing I think people don’t realize when they think being late is no big deal is that other people may need you when you’re not there, and you have no idea when that will show up.

    Also, if an intern is supposed to be learning, perhaps by tagging along, then it’s just really hard on the boss to have to remember to go tell the intern things that should have been absorbed during that lateness.

    That’s an important thing to point out.

    There’s also the “perceptions matter” aspect, of course.

  15. TootsNYC*

    One of the reasons I’ve used the “do you know anyone who might be interested?” wording when directly calling a very junior person at another company (when recruiting for a midlevel position) is that I didn’t want to imply that I was automatically giving them a big leg up by calling them.

    It sends a message if you directly say, “Would you like to apply?” (Maybe not as much for a recruiter as for a hiring manager)
    The times that I’ve done that, I already know that i sort of want to offer the person the job–or I was flat-out ready to offer it.

  16. Jessen*

    #3 I think someone should point out – they don’t know if YOU will accept the job, either. For all they know their top candidates have other jobs who want them too and will end up taking those positions.

    Ok, there are probably other explanations that might be better. But I like that one because it feels more awesome to think that they’re not just presuming that you will definitely take the job if offered.

  17. Elmyra Duff*

    “Sorry that we’re literally getting free labor from you, but, like, could you be on time for your servitude?”

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The intern made a commitment; if she doesn’t want to keep that commitment, that’s fine but then she needs to say that.

      It’s very common in nonprofits to use volunteers.

      1. Antilles*

        It’s very common in nonprofits to use volunteers.
        And contrary to popular belief, nonprofits can and *will* ‘fire’ volunteers who repeatedly no-call/no-show or stroll in hours late…because a volunteer who constantly skips out might as well not exist.

    2. fhqwhgads*

      More like “hey you’re getting college credit for your labor for us, could you show up when you agreed to so people aren’t wondering where you are?”

  18. Czhorat*

    #4 – Ah, recruiters. “Do you know anyone who might be interested” sometimes comes up as the pretext 0f the day; I suppose that some consider it less pushy and direct than “I have an opportunity FOR YOU!”.

    I’ve had some very good experience with recruiters and some very poor ones; if the position is well-suited to you there’s no reason to not respond that you’re interested and seeing what, if anything, comes of it.

  19. wittyrepartee*

    From someone who was denied a letter of rec over this early in her career, please tell her that it’s a problem. Some people really don’t know, especially in unpaid/flexible roles. Being told a hard limit can be really useful, and you might find out that she’s having trouble with transportation that can be managed. I learned an extremely embarrassing but valuable lesson from having someone call me out on this problem, and just wish they’d told me as soon as it seemed to be becoming a problem.

  20. Bopper*

    Seat near boss:

    Everyone else figured out how to get a different spot farther away.
    The boss relies on you to do things so it is handy to have your nearby.

    1. WonderingHowIGotIntoThis*

      100% that second one in my case. We’ve had five desk moves since moving into this building and it was an absolute *given* that I will be sat next to my boss, away from the window. No amount of push back has worked so far, but I have negotiated teleworking days, so there is some respite there!

      Depending on what you know of your boss and coworkers though, I wouldn’t necessarily take it personally (I was fine with the first two desk moves, it was the third and subsequent ones that niggled). You never know, your boss could want you in proximity in order to better mentor you for greater things.

  21. Noah*

    #4 — the recruiter may also not want you for reasons that don’t have to do with your qualifications, like if she does a lot of work for your company. So if you get a negative response from her, apply for the job directly!

  22. Ferris*

    For those “what to say to HR” questions, I am always too afraid to say anything. HR has too much power and I would never risk getting on their bad side.

  23. Working Mom Having It All*

    People who did this sort of thing, when I was an intern, weren’t offered full time positions or given references after the internship was over.

  24. OTRex*

    Re: the intern. Being young is not an excuse. I was never late to a job as a young person, because I was raised to know better. Many of today’s young people have not. “I have a hard time being on time for things” is not a valid excuse either. Get your act together and show up to work on time. That’s what being a responsible adult is all about. I don’t keep those who are chronically late (for anything, not just work) in very high regard. I currently accept clinical students in my line of work and so far, I have not had issues with tardiness, but believe me when I say they would NOT last very long if there were.

  25. 1idea*

    I work at a place that deducts half an hour for lunch if someone hourly doesn’t clock out for the break. I tried to push back on the policy when I found out about it, saying it couldn’t be legal. That didn’t work because they said in Texas employers can do that, and it’s for employee protection to make sure everyone takes a break. Also it’s part of the culture everyone else was used to, and most of the other hourly people rely on the policy rather than bothering to clock in and out for their lunch breaks. After that I tried to negotiate an exception to it, which one HR manager would do, but not her successors. I just made sure to take a break every day after that one left, and eventually they put me on salary, probably partly because they knew how much the lunch break thing bothered me. I’m always very direct with my reports that they have to take a break – and that I and the company want them to – or they will be forced to donate their time. Some do, some don’t, but at that point they are adults and can decide. It’s my least favorite policy.

  26. Ducky*

    On desk assignments – as a manager I put myself right at the end of a row so only have one direct report next to me, the other next to her and so on. Usually I would have the newest person closest, so we aren’t talking ‘though’ someone else. I’d prefer to have more of my own space! To the OP I’d suggest being a good neighbor – avoid asking questions just because your managers there (try to figure it out yourself), don’t read your managers screen or bother yourself about their mood/facial expressions (it’s not you, it’s the random stuff in their inbox).

  27. cncx*

    my first internship was over 20 years ago, also unpaid but competitive. I was something like five minutes late and my then boss basically told me verbatim Alison’s advice but in a very stern way.

    I think the two important points to drive home were a) that just because it was unpaid doesn’t mean it wasn’t competitive (it was an international internship) and i still had to earn my right to be there; b) my boss, even through the sternness, told me that i needed to learn to be on time now and that this was one of the points of internships, to learn how normal jobs work.

    I have many other professional flaws but being late is not one of them. It was an extremely valuable lesson to learn at the beginning of my professional life and while i was mortified at the time, my boss did me a huge favor.

  28. Enginear*

    Unpaid internship… no wonder! Just kidding, all jokes aside, not cool. Address it.

  29. lilli*

    There might be a transportation issue, maybe she relies on a family member to drive her, who doesn’t deem punctuality important. I also know transport companies who charge differently depending on time. Still not your problem to solve but it might be an explanation.

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