my assistant uses eating to avoid working

A reader writes:

I am a new manager at a nonprofit and have just been assigned an entry-level administrative assistant who has been failing to make deadlines, has been repeating preventable mistakes, and has major issues with focusing at work.

She tangled with her last manager because she felt attacked when asked to explain missed deadlines and now has been passed off to me. In my team, we are all exempt workers and are all given some flexibility regarding when we take meals and how long they are. We don’t have set hours but we typically work 9-5, eat breakfast before we start work, and typically take an hour or less for lunch breaks. We don’t have a break room, so most of us eat lunch at our desks.

One large source of distraction for this person is that she will spend up to four hours a day eating and when she is eating her work trickles to a halt. It is not unusual for her to arrive after 10 AM with breakfast in hand and spend an hour slowly snacking with a bowl in one hand and a spoon in the other. She will order takeout for lunch that requires leaving for an hour to pick it up (we are in a traffic congested city) and then she will munch on it over the course of another two hours. Slurping noodles or soup is a regular occurrence and after an hour it gets pretty old. A snack or lunch leftovers are picked at from 4-5 PM. While she is eating, her laptop is open but very little work is getting done or she is scrolling on her cell phone. On most days she only has 3-4 productive hours in the day. None of this extended snacking would matter if she was doing adequate work, but now when I get handed poor work with excuses, all I can think of is the two-hour spaghetti slurping break that took place while she was supposed to be working.

We work in an open plan office, so all of this is happening within feet of other team mates who have admitted to being distracted by this drawn-out eating ritual. It feels like eating is being used to avoid working, but I don’t know how to address it with her without seeming like I’m picking on her. Other people do eat at their desks but they all get their work done and don’t distract others while they eat. I’m also sensitive to the fact that many people have complicated relationships with eating. I wouldn’t like it very much if someone made me feel self-conscious about eating at work.

This isn’t really about the eating, it is about the time spent not working. I really wouldn’t care if she ate crunchy tortilla chips for eight hours straight as long as she got her work done but she is regularly dropping the ball and also not working full days. I’m a new manager and don’t want to be unprofessional but I also don’t want to be a doormat and don’t know what to do.

Eating issues aside, I’m very skeptical that you’re going to be able to keep her. She spends four hours a day barely working, misses deadlines, repeats mistakes, and “feels attacked” when she receives feedback. It’s very likely that you need to replace her, so start planning with that in mind (meaning that you should find out what the process is for doing that in your organization and begin that path right away). And given the history, you should assume she’s going to feel attacked when you talk to her about these issues, and plan for how you’ll respond to that (there’s some help here, here, and here).

Which, conveniently, ties into how to handle the eating: Focus on her performance.

If she stopped the eating completely but nothing else about her work changed, you’d still have big problems, right? So your primary focus should be her productivity, her work quality, and meeting deadlines. It’s time for a serious conversation about those things, which you should frame as, “In order to stay in your job, I need to see X, Y, and Z.”

Make that your primary focus. But as part of that conversation, you can also say, “I’m concerned that you’re spending a lot of time focused on things other than work — like eating, being on your phone, and reading online. I’d like you to eat breakfast before you arrive at work so you’re not distracted once you get here, and I’d like you to confine your lunch to your lunch break so your work has your full focus the rest of the time. I’d also like you to keep your cell phone put away while you’re working.”

(In fairness, it’s possible to have a health condition where it helps to be steadily snacking throughout the day. If she tells you that’s the case, obviously you’d accommodate that. But even then you’d say, “Right now your level of productivity is plunging when you’re eating. Having a snack out is fine, but it can’t slow your work down the way it has been.”)

But keep the focus on her performance and what needs to change there, and make it clear you need to see significant, sustained improvement quickly — meaning within days, not months.

One last thing: You mentioned your whole team is exempt. I’m skeptical that an entry-level administrative assistant qualifies for exemption (something that’s determined by government rules; it’s not up to your employer). That might not be something you feel like taking on within your organization as a new manager, but it’s very likely that she’s actually supposed to be non-exempt (meaning you have to pay her overtime), which is all the more reason to get this under control.

{ 377 comments… read them below }

  1. Clorinda*

    It’s literally BEC time.
    Thank you for being sensitive about the possibility of her having disordered eating of some kind. But she still has to do the work, whether the distraction is eating or knitting or desk calisthenics.

      1. Myrin*

        “Bitch eating crackers”. It’s a common internet turn of phrase with the meaning of “I’ve had it with this person for so long, literally everything they do makes me want to tear my hair out, including when they eat crackers”. And here we really have that person literally eating and annoying everyone during the process.

    1. earl grey aficionado*

      Yeah, as someone with a disability that significantly affects my work, I want well-meaning people like the OP to know that not holding someone’s work to a high standard because you think they might have a medical condition/disability in play is ultimately more harmful to disabled people than being clear and firm about expectations in the way that Alison suggests is. Guessed-at “accommodations” are infantilizing and contribute to ableism in hiring if they’re leading hiring managers to jump straight to assuming what accommodations a candidate might “need” instead of trusting the candidate/employee to ask. It sounds like OP knows that, but I just wanted to reiterate it. I agree with Alison: accepting this degree of poor performance in perpetuity is not at all a reasonable accommodation if this is a disability. Even in a short term medical emergency, I don’t think it’s acceptable. (That’s what time off would be for!) Generally I think employers could be doing much more to accommodate disabled people, but it’s important not to overcorrect, since the overcorrection contributes to the problem of ableism.

      It’s possible, even likely, that there’s no medical issue/disability in play here at all, which makes it even more important not to assume. Disabled people are more than capable of asking for accommodations when we need them instead of relying on our managers to guess. All managers can do is create a friendly environment in which to ask. Good luck, OP! You sound very thoughtful and kind.

      1. Fikly*

        Also, the key phrase is reasonable accommodation. If the person needs to eat frequently because of a disability, but is also unable to carry out her job duties because of this, it’s not a reasonable accommodation to be able to eat frequently for this position.

        1. Close Bracket*

          Or it might be when in combination with a longer work day so that she still accomplishes her tasks. Lots of creative ways to approach it, but yeah, core duties have to be done.

        2. earl grey aficionado*

          That is the key phrase! I think there’s an idea among a lot of abled people that disabled people are unreasonable and will push for special treatment no matter what. That’s not been my experience personally or really with any disabled person I know. In fact, there’s typically a lot of guilt/stress around asking for accommodations even when they’re eminently reasonable. There’s also a lot of variation in how much accommodation each disabled person needs, even between disabled people with the same medical condition (s), so it’s important not to assume on that axis either. I work very part-time as a freelancer because there’s just no reasonable accommodation that would make a normal job workable for me right now, but friends of mine with the same conditions handle work just fine. Don’t assume, don’t assume, don’t assume!

          In short, finding accommodations is a process that’s different for everyone and every workplace, and needs to be a process between employee and employer – one side can’t do it on their own, especially if the employer isn’t even sure there’s a disability.

          1. earl grey aficionado*

            (I’m not saying that disabled people are never unreasonable or flawed, btw, just that the cultural concept of the sue-happy, unreasonable/unrealistic disabled person is a frustrating straw man that hangs over these conversations. I hope we can get to a point where we’re looking at these situations on a case by base basis instead of getting bogged down in assumptions and guesses, even well-meant ones.)

            1. Fikly*

              Ah, the fear of the lawsuit! You can’t violate the ADA in this scenario if no accommodation has been requested. But that would bring reason and logic into it, rather than fear.

        3. tink*

          I agree. I’ve had coworkers in the past that needed accommodation for smaller meals or snacks during the day and it’s generally been something like “Jane needs to eat a smaller meal every 2 hours and she’s allotted X minutes for this” or “Fergus has to eat at specific times and will be splitting his lunch break into two 30 minute sessions, plus an allowance letting him combine his break times.”

      2. Jennifer Juniper*

        Firing this employee would be doing everyone a kindness. The rest of the team would be more productive once the eating stops and they don’t have to pick up her slack. The OP would rid themself of a giant headache. And the employee would learn a valuable lesson.

      3. Caroline Bowman*

        This is an excellent point of view from a person who lives the experience. I never thought of it that way, but yes it IS infantilising. Assuming co-workers and managers are respectful, speak clearly and ideally privately if there is any issue, then courteous and straightforward expectation-setting is the way to go.

        It’s so easy to dance around things for fear of somehow upsetting someone or ”discriminating” inadvertantly, that then leads to someone possibly losing their job and never really getting why.

    2. designbot*

      yep, I remember explaining a similar issue with one of my reports to one of the partners in my firm, complaining that as soon as he got to work (usually 10 minutes late already), he made oatmeal and loitered in the kitchen chatting with people… it wasn’t the oatmeal. It’s never the oatmeal.

      1. Schnapps*

        I’m totally stealing “it’s never the oatmeal” as a comment. It pairs nicely with a first aid question along the lines of “What if there was a bear?” question (e.g. – a bear is wandering around while you’re performing first aid).

        1. whingedrinking*

          One of my profs while I was working on my philosophy degree once said, “In a discussion of real-life issues that impact real people’s lives, I will fail you if you create a thought experiment that has a wizard in it.”

          1. Michelle*

            One of my law professors responded to the avalanche early first year hypotheticals with, “What if the moon were made of green cheese? Then we could all have a sandwich.” I still don’t quite know what it means, but I use it all the time, more than 20 years later.

            1. Ego Chamber*

              It’s an obnoxious and condescending way to shut down hypothetical questions. He wasn’t interested in interacting with the people asking questions on an adult level, so he treated them like they were ridiculous children. In a class people were presumably paying him to take. Jeesus. O_o

              Shutting down bad faith arguments and bringing people back to the topic are necessary skills to have, especially in a classroom setting where time is limited, but there are better ways to do it than by rewriting that “candy and nuts” nonsense all our grans used to say when they were just over it.

                1. Destroyer of Worlds, Empress of Awesome*

                  Wow. That’s a really unkind thing to say and really seems to go against the spirit-and the rules-of this site.

              1. Helena1*

                I don’t know, there is a fairly fast realignment in undergrad philosophy between the small cohort of students who were expecting to sit around smoking dope and saying “but what if we all saw colours differently, maaan”, and the professors who were trying to teach Kant.

                Particularly big problem on the Indian Philosophy module, which people took expecting easy hippy shit, and found to their horror it was three-value logic and theoretical maths. That prof, who was Indian, used to complain like mad in lectures about the racism of white teens assuming nothing intellectually taxing had ever come out of India.

                So yeah, given it was first year philosophy I might give that Prof a pass.

      2. From That Guy*

        Me too! I’m stealing “It’s never the oatmeal.”! That is too rich. Allison’s first comment is all that needs to be said, she is just not working, in all aspects and turning this around is just not going to happen. Good luck!

    3. Maria Lopez*

      And just for the record, I don’t think there is any medical condition that requires continual grazing throughout the day.

      1. Ego Chamber*

        PSA: There are actually many medical conditions that can benefit from frequent, smaller meals/snacks being added to an overall treatment plan but that’s not what I think is going on with LW’s assistant.

        1. Helena1*

          Agreed, I can think of plenty (weight loss surgery, various gut motility problems, metabolic issues, etc etc). But it’s frequent small snacks, not “literally doing nothing but eating slowly and playing on your phone all day long at work”. There is no medical reason for doing what this woman is doing. In particular, there is no medical reason she needs to take a multi-hour round trip to get takeout each day.

      2. Belle of the Midwest*

        My director has a neuromuscular disease AND she has one of those petal-to-the-metal metabolisms where she has to eat frequently or she can’t function. However, she has developed the art of snacking discreetly during meetings and at her desk. She packs snacks and meals the night before, and I only see her in the breakroom to heat up something in the microwave or get something from the fridge. She does not lean on the shovel.

      3. Simonthegreywarden*

        If my dad’s blood sugar dips too much he has a lot of issues. He might not actively snack all day but he has to have the ability to have on him/near him nuts and grain as well as some simple carbs. It isn’t an issue at the moment because he’s not employed outside the home, but when he was, he had to have it. He doesn’t have diabetes but it is a similar kind of blood sugar issue.

      4. Kate 2*

        Outing myself here. Hypoglycemia is one such condition. My doctor STRONGLY recommended I start doing that, but I don’t want to be seen as “that freak who eats all day”. You never know if your coworkers or more importantly your boss is ableist, and some of the comments here just reinforce my decision.

  2. Lilo*

    I kind of had a similar situation in the past and I dunno if I would even mention the snacking from a productivity perspective. Her eating all day is annoying colleagues but if there is a culture of allowing eating at your desk, I don’t think you can single her out on that.

    The serious productivity issues require a lot of attention. She’s not making her goals and the reason doesn’t really matter.

    In my simar case, I managed a new guy who took constant smoke breaks and had low productivity. The job was flexible so him going out to smoke wasn’t a huge deal as long as he did his total hours and work. I never told him he had to quit smoking because I thought that would be a huge overstep. But I did tell him he needed to meet X goal by Y date and so on. I met with my own boss on strategies to help him and gave him extra support but he never got where he needed to be and eventually left. Maybe it was the smoking but the reason didn’t matter, he just didn’t work out.

    Set clear goals, make your expectations clear, and be prepared to let her go if her if she doesn’t meet them.

    1. The Original K.*

      Her eating all day is annoying colleagues but if there is a culture of allowing eating at your desk, I don’t think you can single her out on that.
      I agree. I would be frustrated by constant eating in an open-plan office too but if the only place to eat is at your desk (which is really not ideal), that’s kind of that. It seems like this isn’t an office where people leave for lunch.

      1. Allypopx*

        It does seem like she’s dragging it out way more than other people, which I think *is* an issue but maybe a harder one to target. Someone who isn’t self-aware enough to realize slurping noodles for two hours is annoying probably won’t notice the difference between what they’re doing and the fact Suzie had some ramen that she ate as quietly as possible over 15 minutes.

        In my experience trying to address this kind of thing just leads to a bunch of frustrating, pedantic arguments about where the line is drawn and very little discussion about actual work performance. So if OP brings up the eating thing at all I think they need to be prepared for the pushback of “why is it okay when this person does this but I can’t!” and be ready to just bring the conversation back to work performance.

        1. Creed Bratton*

          When dealing with immature people (or in my case – teenagers) I stick to the black and white. Stick the results needed, much like Allison advises. Otherwise they miss the point completely and feel persecuted because others are not being treated in an identical way.

          1. Allypopx*

            The overlap between teenage behavior and the behavior of full grown adults baffles me more and more as I get older.

            1. Elizabeth West*

              I know, right? Just think, I was excited to leave high school until I found out it never ends.

              1. Libora*

                I’ll always remember when, in elementary school, I was annoyed about some classmates childish (obviously) behavior and I said to my mom something like “I’m so glad that one day we’ll be grown-ups and all those things will stop!”, she just looked at me very seriously and said “Never. You need to know, it never stops.” That was the truest and saddest thing ever.

              1. DarnTheMan*

                Apropos of not much but my co-workers daughter (who’s 4) was in yesterday and I only realized it when her mom brought her out to say hi to a few people before they left for lunch; she was quieter than quite a few of my adult co-workers!

                1. Betty*

                  There are many varieties of toddler. Ours is not loud, but I suspect he is a nihilistic ruleslawyer in the making… just like teenage me.

            2. Curmudgeon in California*

              Me too. Yeah, ok, some people have unresolved issues from the meatgrinder that is many high schools, but after 30 it should hopefully be over. But sometimes bullies never grow out of it…

        2. MusicWithRocksInIt*

          How does she even make that work? If you are focused on your food and not work, how to you slurp noodles for two hours without running out of noodles? She’s got to be trying pretty hard to make the food last that long.

            1. Jen S. 2.0*

              I’m sure she ambles to the microwave 4 times a day, too, and then meanders back to her desk, scrolling while she waits for the soup to cool enough to eat it. It’s likely a whole routine.

            2. Ego Chamber*

              I personally don’t care if my food is cold, probably because I can take forever to eat if I’m distracted by playing on my phone or whatever (don’t worry: I’m not the assistant in the letter—I don’t work as an assistant).

              Jen S. has the more plausible answer, especially since the only excuse for slurping noodles is to cool them off when you’re eating hot noodles. Otherwise wtf are you even doing with your life? Where did you learn to eat?!

          1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            It’s something amazing to watch. I have no doubt the OP isn’t over-exaggerating either with the time she’s taking to eat a bowl of noodles. I do wonder about the temperature, my former friend would casually meander over to the microwave and zap it a bit if it got too cold after awhile even.

            Think nibbling and sipping. Not eating.

          2. AKchic*

            Heaping bowls that should serve 5 people instead of one.

            I worked with someone who decided her diet plan should be the “eat multiple meals/snacks every 2 hours”, which included a lot of soups and noodles. She was a slurper. A *loud* slurper. I have misophonia. I did everything humanly possible to avoid our shared office when she was eating.
            The difference between my former coworker and this person? My former coworker was actually a good worker. An ambitious, manipulative, backstabbing busybody, but a good worker.

            1. Clorinda*

              Or a regular serving but one noodle at a time … sucking … it … in … very … very … very … slowly. And a little lip-smack after the last bit of noodle is in. And then a break of a minute before the next one starts, just long enough to make you think she’s done.

              1. Duvie*

                Ack! Just reading this gave me the heebie-jeebies. That would be like fingernails on a blackboard to me!

              2. AKchic*

                I really really hate that mental image and accompanying mental sound. It makes me want to punt the nearest soup and pasta aisle.

              3. Ego Chamber*

                Eww gross. I bet she eats her Froot Loops one at a time with the glass of milk separate. O_O

          3. Manager of Distracted Snacker*

            Hello, this is the OP. I just realized my question got picked, sorry I’m late to responding here! To answer this specific question–this person will eat a big bowl of noodles one noodle at a time. Also, no judgement here, sometimes she purchases two entrees and eats them back to back in this very slow one-noodle-at-a-time fashion.

            I agree that focusing on goals and deadlines is the key and that not bringing food up at all is a better approach. I do not believe my employer would support firing her unless something really drastic happened (this is in the culture of my organization).

        3. Dust Bunny*

          But that still doesn’t mean that eating, specifically is the problem. The problem is that she is apparently using [other activity] to avoid working. Here it’s eating, but it could be smoke breaks, or personal “emergency” phone calls, or some other thing. I once worked with a woman whose teenaged children were apparently in constant low-grade crisis and she regularly avoided working half her shift because she JUST HAD TO TAKE THIS PHONE CALL. The “emergency” was always her kids quarreling over something trivial or crying because they didn’t like what she’d planned for dinner; it was ridiculous.

          1. Jean*

            Oooohhhh, I used to work with an all-day-phone-talker. The VP of our company, in fact, so of course no one could or would call her out. She had 3 kids (late teens to early 20’s) and she was literally on the phone with them ALL. FREAKING. DAY. Just chit-chat too, never anything important. She’s actually in federal prison now, interestingly enough, since it turns out our “company” was really a complete scam and in violation of a bevy of federal finance laws. Fortunately I was just a low-level admin and had no idea what was actually going on there. In retrospect, I guess THE VP chatting to her kids on the phone all day in lieu of doing any actual work should have been a clue to me that something was very, very off. I still can’t deal with people who do the phone-chat-all-day thing though.

            1. Tina Belcher's Less Cool Sister*

              I just learned that my boss will spend half the day texting his family members…via voice to text! So my poor coworker in the next office has to hear every single text, all day every day. That would get so old so fast!

              1. Jean*

                Oh my gosh, that must be maddening. My ex mother in law was notorious for using voice to text but not being able to get it to work right, and would end up saying whatever banal phrase 7, 8, 9 times or more to try and get it to transcribe properly. JUST TYPE IT OUT, YOU COULD HAVE TYPED AND SENT IT 3 TIMES BY NOW ARGHHHHH

          2. ellex42*

            Oh, I trained that person! I kept having to tell her that she needed to put her phone away – she’d answer the phone *while I was training her in her job*, and it was always her kids (while they were in school, too!). I got the boss to tell her she needed to put her phone away and be present in the job, and it made little difference.

            We had to downsize (tiny, tiny law office) and she and several others had to be laid off due to lack of work. When work picked up again and we were able to rehire some people, she didn’t even make the list of possibles rehires.

        4. Laurelma_01!*

          I’m wondering if dragged out on eating is an avoidance tactic. She’s learned that if she’s eating people will not ask her approach her, or ask for something.

          1. Librarian of SHIELD*

            This feels pretty likely, and I think I might have a workaround for it.

            At an old job, our break room was way too small for our staff (one table and four chairs for close to 30 people), so a lot of people took their lunch break at their desk. It led to a lot of confusion. People would interrupt someone on their lunch break, or not ask an important question because they didn’t want to interrupt someone who turned out NOT to be on their lunch break, or complaining that so-and-so is always on her phone when she really only used it when she was on lunch.

            Our solution was to make signs that said “I am on my lunch break.” You can eat whenever you need to, but your sign can only be out during your 30-60 minute break. When your sign is out, you’re not interruptable. It doesn’t matter if you’re eating or reading or scrolling on your phone, if the sign is out you’re not working. But if your sign ISN’T out, it doesn’t matter if you’re eating or not, you’re supposed to be working and your coworkers can interrupt you as needed when they have work related needs.

            I know this doesn’t solve the entirety of our OP’s problem, but it could be one piece of a multi-pronged solution if they think it would help.

            1. Elizabeth West*

              Having a break room doesn’t always help. At OldExjob, people would get up from their desks, come all the way across the office into the break room, and ask me to do stuff while I was actively eating. Then they’d get mad when I told them I was actually off the clock and asked them to email it to me and I’d get to it when I was no longer on my lunch break. It didn’t matter how polite I was, either. *insert eyeroll here*

                1. Massmatt*

                  Plus break rooms are usually dingy and unpleasant places. Who wants to eat staring at OSHA posters with colleagues streaming in and out buying soda or using the dirty microwave. Ugh.

            2. OhNo*

              It could help with the phone use/online reading issue, too. Telling her that she’s only allowed to use her phone or do non-work related reading online while the sign is out means the OP can call her out on doing those activities during non-break hours.

    2. Dragoning*

      I think in cases like this, it’s not the eating, or the smoking anyway. When I’m inclined to get distracted, I can try cutting out the distractions and focus better…but then I end up distracting myself with something else, because I can’t/don’t want to focus.

    3. Observer*

      but if there is a culture of allowing eating at your desk, I don’t think you can single her out on that.

      That’s not really true. If someone’s eating is reaching a point where it’s either demonstrably affecting their work or it’s really and legitimately bothering others, *and* neither is the case with others, you most definitely can single that person out. MUCH better than banning eating at your desk.

      It still may not be worth bringing up, simply because there is enough other stuff to focus and and I can see avoiding getting into an argument over how much eating is ok.

      I do agree that the OP needs to set clear and concrete goals and be prepared to let her go if need be.

    4. SheLooksFamiliar*

      I agree, Lilo. The constant eating and snacking are both a cause and symptom of a bigger problem, which is not meeting productivity goals. It doesn’t matter why she is not productive, she needs to know that she isn’t meeting reasonable goals and her work behaviors need to change.

      If she can meet expectations on a regular basis, then her eating becomes an annoyance more than a cause. If she sort-of improves, it would make sense to map what she does during the day, and how to better manage her time. That would be the time to talk about how many hours – HOURS! – she spends eating instead of working.

      1. Hey Karma, Over Here*

        I like this a lot. It put form to my mess of thoughts. She isn’t getting her work done. Tell her she isn’t getting her work done. She needs to get her work done.
        “Why are you attacking me?”
        I’m telling you that I need X and Y. Can you do that?
        “I do X, Y, Z ABDCDKDKDK!”
        “Well, I just need you to do X and Y with no errors. Let’s touch back in a week and see if that is true.”
        But yeah, for the next person (who I’m sure will be coming) instead of the flexibility of exempt make it non-exempt, require 8 hours, keep lunch to one hour, pay overtime if you have to and well, hope and pray you don’t get another problem employee managed into your group!

    5. Shadowbelle*

      “Her eating all day is annoying colleagues but if there is a culture of allowing eating at your desk, I don’t think you can single her out on that.”

      You can, if the eating is noisy and distracting (noodle-slurping, good grief), the food is smelly, or (not mentioned in OP’s letter, but the first thing I thought of) she doesn’t clean her desk properly and has crumbs and spills.

      1. Annony*

        The bigger problem is that they have no where else to eat. So it would basically be telling her she can’t eat.

        1. kt*

          That’s stretching things too far. Saying “you can’t wear ripped jeans to work” doesn’t mean “you can’t wear pants to work”. People can be expected to clean their desks, try to be neat about their eating, try not to select particularly noisy or messy foods, etc.

          1. Annony*

            I meant telling her and only her that she cannot eat at her desk seems unreasonable if another location is not available. Blanket rules are fine, and telling her not to eat at her desk when others can if there is another space for her to eat and if she is particularly egregious about productivity, mess, noise or smell would also be reasonable.

            1. Jaydee*

              I don’t think the LW needs to tell her that she can’t eat at her desk. I think the LW can be specific about the issues that are annoying (ie, the constant slurping sounds) and the issues that affect productivity (she is spending an excessive amount of time beyond what is customary for lunch and breaks on the acquiring, preparation, and consumption of food, resulting in her not meeting deadlines or completing necessary work tasks).

        2. Holly*

          That’s a bit extreme. It’s very common to limit someone’s *time* or manner of eating without withholding a lunch break.

      2. E*

        Also, eating as the desk can be addressed as in it should mostly be limited to lunch hour or a brief snack. Excessive time spent on anything other than work is the focus.

      3. TootsNYC*

        I think you can say, “you can only eat lunch at your desk during your lunch break”

        You can have boundaries about this!

        1. Not a Blossom*

          But if that applies only to her and not the rest of the office, it’s going to feel and honesty be unfair, because it would mean she couldn’t ever snack. Also, she would likely focus on that instead of the real issue, which is the productivity (or lack thereof).

        2. Not a Blossom*

          Some kind of limits aren’t out of the question, but that limit goes too far. And again, the real problem is the productivity. It’s best to focus on that and the other problem will solve itself, either because she doesn’t have time to eat constantly or because she gets fired.

      4. Mama Bear*

        I worked in an open office a few hats ago. One of our fairly new to the workforce officemates started getting lazy about their dishes and one day left food on plates and went home sick for the rest of the day. The plates lingered and no one wanted to clean up after them. Eventually the CEO himself (small company) got fed up and left a note for the coworker to clean their space and never do that again. In an open office, it is extra important to respect the folks around you.

        If the OP’s employee gets take out far away and spends an hour fetching it, then she’s used up her lunch time. Lunch starts when you take a break, not when you sit down to eat. She should eat there and drive back ready to work or find somewhere more local to get her food. IMO that’s avoidance, and again the solution is to find out what she’s avoiding workwise and mitigate it.

    6. EventPlannerGal*

      No, I think you can definitely address something that’s culturally permitted if the person is taking the piss. Like, at my office it’s okay for most people (barring coverage-requiring positions) to take a flexible lunch break, eg nobody will care if you take an hour and a half instead of an hour or if you don’t go at the same time each day. But if someone was to vanish for four hours every day, I think it would be fine to say that the flexibility does not extend that far because that is taking the piss. Similarly, even if eating at your desk is generally okay, routinely having multiple meals per day at your desk that stretch over several hours and are audible and messy is taking the piss. There is probably a more eloquent way to describe it but that’s what it is.

      1. TootsNYC*

        “taking advantage”

        And then there’s “rules lawyering.”
        “you never said I couldn’t…”

    7. PopJunkie42*

      I don’t see why the OP can’t address the time issues while putting aside the food aspect as well. Like, hey, we start at 9am and even if you bring breakfast I need you in your seat and working at that time. You get 1 hour for lunch and you can take it whenever, but you can’t be away from your desk picking up food and then take a second hour to eat it. Since this employee is a problem I would maybe consider having her check in and out for lunch or have some sort of accountability here. Normally this would suck but for someone abusing lunch hour so much it sounds like she needs really clear break/work times spelled out.

      1. valentine*

        we start at 9am and even if you bring breakfast I need you in your seat and working at that time. You get 1 hour for lunch and you can take it whenever, but you can’t be away from your desk picking up food and then take a second hour to eat it.
        I’m interested in why OP hasn’t said this. This is a time to single someone out because they’re singling themselves out by not working. When she gets defensive, you ask her how she’s going to skyrocket her productivity.

        1. Ego Chamber*

          Probably because the assistant is (likely mis)classified as exempt and people in exempt roles tend to have a lot more freedom since they’re being paid to complete specific tasks rather than being paid for their time. The assistant might also be unclear on time management and productivity in general or is testing the fences to see how much time she can spend effing off during the day and still meet the minimum to stay in the job.

          LW needs to have a serious conversation where clear expectations are set and (if she’s willing to go super out of her way) offer resources to help the assistant get her ish together re: productivity, etc.

          1. rigger42*

            I agree, focusing on how she eats is a distraction from the real issue here, which is she spends half her day having first lunch and second lunch instead of working. Frankly, I would suffer someone slurping for a half hour – not half the day – if they were productive the rest of the time and there isn’t a break room.

            This is one of those situations that needs a blunt ‘I need you get x y and z done before 4pm every day, and after watching for the past two weeks I notice you take several meal breaks, you’re constantly on your smartphone, and these tasks aren’t getting done. We have a relaxed policy about snacking at desks but it can’t interfere with your work or anyone else’s. Please eat breakfast before you come in so that you can start work at the appropriate time, you get a half hour for lunch and your phone needs to be put away except during an approved break or in case of emergency.’

          2. Happily Self Employed*

            I suspect it’s misclassification to say an admin assistant is “exempt”. You can definitely give people flex time, but I seem to recall that several years ago the labor laws were tightened up to prevent companies from calling everyone at the mall an “assistant manager” and making them work unpaid OT. I don’t remember the details of the criteria, but the HR department should do some research.

      2. Manager of Distracted Snacker*

        Hi I’m the OP – all of the folks on my team are exempt. We don’t have to clock in or out and a certain time and we don’t have set break or lunch times. As long as I get my work done, if I need to take my dog to the vet in the AM or leave early to take my car to the mechanic that is fine. It’s a great perk of my workplace and they talk about it in the hiring process. Every other member of the team is able to handle having this great freedom with responsibility. They work very hard and if they need to leave early or late or take a long lunch that is no problem at all because they typically are going above and beyond in other areas.

        In the past when this issue of long breaks or lost work time has been raised, the first thing that comes up is that she is being singled out and she alleged her last manager was creating a hostile work environment. I’m a new manager, I’m not quite sure how to handle an employee like this when upper management won’t support firing (unless something more drastic occurs).

        1. Happily Self Employed*

          I am boggled by this person’s audacity, honestly.

          What are the results to your organization when she doesn’t finish her work properly and on time? Can you document this and either persuade her she needs to meet standards or persuade your bosses that they need to hire someone who will do the work?

  3. PJ*

    In my experience this has been a common occurrence at various companies. There’s almost always a person who does exactly this.

    One co-worker I had did exactly as LW describes but with an extra irritating piece: she would walk around our office after lunch and have a long discussion with everyone about what they ate, asking them what it was, and what it tasted like. And if they still had some, she would ask them for a taste! She was productive for maybe 2 to 3 hours a day – only right after breakfast and right before the end of the day (“this day went by so fast! I’m so behind!”)

    1. Pobody’s Nerfect*

      Hahaha how in the world do these people hold down jobs, and why are there so many bad managers out there that just keep them on forever? I have a coworker who eats all day long, every day…2 breakfasts, 2 lunches, early dinner, endless snacks, endless trips to the break room fridge and vending machines to get food. And it’s never “quiet” food, it’s chips and crunchy stuff that we can all hear. It’s maddening.

  4. The Original K.*

    I’ve known a number of people who ate breakfast at work because their morning routines meant that that made sense for them. Either they got in to work very early or their morning routine with kid drop-offs meant they didn’t get much time to eat, etc. But they just ate and then got to work, or used breakfast as part of their “starting up” work routine – turning on their computer, checking email, seeing what meetings were on the docket, what have you.

    It sounds like this person is a problem employee that’s being shuffled around rather than actively managed, and that’s the root of the issue. She needs to … do her work.

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      Yep. I “eat” (drink, actually) breakfast at work, cause I’m just not hungry until a few hours into my day. But it’s easy to sip a protein shake while I continue to work.

      1. Oh So Anon*

        I don’t think anyone is going to question sipping a protein shake if they don’t otherwise have problems with you.

    2. Dragoning*

      I bring breakfast to work because I hate, hate, hate mornings and it’s faster, and eat while checking my email in the morning, and sometimes it takes a while because I’m eating slowly…while working.

      But I’m working and getting things done.

      1. Amethystmoon*

        I bring it to work because I have to take medication in the morning that I have to wait at least 30 minutes to eat after, but I bring something like hard boiled eggs or a protein shake and it gets eaten pretty quickly. I also include the time in my break periods for the day.

        1. Dragoning*

          I usually bring cereal in a lidded bowl (I don’t eat cereal with milk) or poptarts. Nothing…particularly smelly or loud, I don’t think.

        2. not that kind of Doctor*

          yep I eat breakfast at work because I’m not hungry/don’t have time before work. But I eat it during my 10min morning break.

      2. Quill*

        Generally if I eat breakfast at work it’s because I overslept but I do drink copious amounts of tea throughout the day…

        For me, eating breakfast at home is how I ensure I’m awake enough to drive. And as I type my desk lunch is finished and it’s time for me to stop waiting for files to transfer… though I do take my lunch break when it’s not raining and is decently warm outside.

      3. Elizabeth West*

        This was the case at Exjob. I wasn’t the only one who fixed breakfast after I got there. My boss did not care how I did things as long as 1) I was available and responsive when needed, and 2) my work was done in an accurate and timely manner. As she said many times, “You’re adults and you can manage your own time.” For me, that was an ideal environment, and I was far more productive and engaged than when I was micromanaged.

      4. PurpleMonster*

        I used to keep a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter in my desk drawer for the oh-crap-I’m-so-late mornings, where it was almost literally out of the shower and out of the door.

    3. Detective Amy Santiago*

      It sounds like this person is a problem employee that’s being shuffled around rather than actively managed, and that’s the root of the issue.

      Bingo. It sounds like there is a management issue here that goes much deeper than OP. What was the conversation with her when she was “passed off” after “tangling with” her previous manager? It should have included something about needing to see marked improvement in her work.

      1. Allypopx*

        And it sounds (forgive me if I’m misreading this OP) that OP doesn’t have management experience, and got saddled with a problem child right out of the gate. That’s unfair to everyone involved, but I’m glad OP seems to be trying to handle things.

        I also do wonder if this is the kind of company that will see a new manager trying to fire someone as a management failing rather than proactive managing (which it is) and whether or not that makes this an impossible situation. From the management shuffling I worry that’s the case.

        1. Hey Karma, Over Here*

          I think it’s could go the other way and OP will now be the last stop or the dumping ground for problems. Remember when Norm became the hatchet man on Cheers? I’m feeling that.

          1. Allypopx*

            True. Personally I would prefer that outcome if I were in OP’s shoes, but I definitely understand that not everyone is up for that.

            (I recently learned that my old employees miss me because their new managers don’t enforce things or fire people when they need to go. I think I might be a bit of a hatchet woman, by reputation.)

        2. Massmatt*

          I worry that a manager moving a problem employee (entry level!?) to someone else because she was too lazy or chicken to manage them signifies overall dysfunction. We can’t know this from just 1 data point, but it’s a bad sign.

        3. Manager of Distracted Snacker*

          Hi, OP here. I have some management experience but I am still very early on in building skills with challenging employees. In my other teams, I’ve been very lucky to have been able to hire/assemble my own teams and they have been great. This is my first experience with inheriting challenging employees and I have been told that firing is not an option unless something more drastic happens. I’m also in a weird limbo period where I’ve been told not to bring up performance issues with the employee but I’ll be able to starting next month? So I’m preparing for that moment by thinking deeply about what to focus on first and how to prioritize problem solving with this employee. I’m trying to make upper management a partner in problem solving but I appreciate all the comments that are helping me understand they are putting me in an unfair position. I know other people that could fill this position, be glad to have it, and that it would boost our productivity immensely but this person also hasn’t been 100% useless and management doesn’t see bad outweighing the good at this point.

    4. Liz*

      I eat my breakfast at work, because I can’t eat as soon as I wake up. I need to be awake for a couple of hours. But that being said, my breakfast usually consists of something I can eat WHILE I work, a protein bar, yogurt with granola, etc. nothing that necessitates me stopping what I’m doing to eat.

      1. UKDancer*

        Me too. My stomach doesn’t want to work until I’ve been awake an hour or so. Like you it’s a quick activity while I deal with my morning emails.

      2. Schnapps*

        I have coffee, workout, first breakfast (usually a protein shake) around 7 on my way to work, and second breakfast (something a little more substantial, often at my desk) around 10:30 or 11 (sometimes a bit earlier depending on how hard the workout was earlier in the morning)

      3. KaterTot*

        Same here: I bring something I know I can stuff in my face while I’m checking emails, responding to questions, processing papers, etc. My system doesn’t tolerate food first-thing very well, and mornings are insane so I have to prep well the night before to mitigate morning stress. Hence breakfast at work. I save things like pancakes or bacon for the weekend when I can give them my full, undivided attention. (Bacon deserves that.)

        Lots of current and past colleagues do the same thing, but the common factor is that we’re all getting stuff done while we eat.

    5. Falling Diphthong*

      I suspect a link between the eater here and the morning letter about the employee who became lost in the bathroom for 50 minutes at a stretch, until the sound of clattering awoke them–they’re trying to avoid work, so hit on a standard thing that is OK to do in place of work and then streeeeeeeeeetched it out beyond all reason. But the requirement to believe they’re passing subtly and undetected means they’re incapable of realizing that everyone around them can see through the pretense of “I’m just doing this normal office-y non-work thing, not stalling.”

    6. BlueWolf*

      I eat breakfast at my desk right when I get in because if I ate at home I would be hungry again by like 10:00 am and I would have to wake up earlier too. However, it only takes about 5-10 minutes and like The Original K said, it’s during my “starting up” routine like turning on my computer and checking my email.

    7. Save your forks*

      The headline of this post really hit home for me because I was eating breakfast at my desk while I read it. Literally eating and not working! (But I do get…most….of my work done).

    8. Pommette!*

      Some people are also good at eating while working. I used to have an office-mate who would bring a slew of containers to work everyday, all filled with cut-up fruit and veggies and an assortment of ready-to-go elements. The woman had a full, fancy breakfast and then a full, fancy lunch, all without looking away from her screen. I couldn’t have pulled it off (too easily distracted!), but she certainly did.

      1. Third or Nothing!*

        *looks away from screen to shove forkful of roasted carrots into mouth*

        That is a level of hand-eye coordination I can only aspire to.

        *resumes typing while chewing*

        1. Pommette!*

          It was admirable. I gave up trying after repeatedly poking myself in the face with a forkful of salad.

    9. Dust Bunny*

      I eat breakfast at work before I actually start working because I’m not hungry very early in the morning and eating after I get there means I won’t be ravenous by 9:30. Solves two problems. But I don’t eat breakfast all morning long.

    10. NACSACJACK*

      I eat breakfast @ work because I have discovered the best food for me is scrambled eggs with veggies, which are $3.54 at my company cafeteria. I dont have time in the morning to cook eggs or chop veggies. As far as cooking the night before, A) reheated eggs in the microwave taste funny and B) I dont get home from evening activities until 10/11/Midnight.

      1. Schnapps*

        But that’s a bit different than taking all day to eat – to the point that your work performance suffers. I think the OP’s situation is really more about productivity than taking a few minutes to grab something to eat.

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        They have pre-fab stuff for this now! It’s called “Just Crack an Egg” and I’m kind of obsessed with it.

        The downside is that it’s killing the environment given it’s a single-serve waste.

        You can microwave eggs, you don’t need to reheat a darn thing.

        1. Seven hobbits are highly effective, people*

          I used to have good luck with putting frozen veggies in with the eggs before microwaving them, and that way you can at least buy them a bag at a time rather than single serving. (I’d get one of those peas/corn/tiny pieces of carrot mixtures so the veggies would cook fast enough to match the eggs. With something bigger like broccoli florets you might want to zap the veggies a bit before adding the eggs.)

    11. RC Rascal*

      Excellent analysis. Some companies pawn the problems off on the new manager to handle. Been there, been that manager.

      OP— just remember others are watching. Manage this person. Do it well, even if it’s hard or unpopular. You will win enormous respect from everyone else.

    12. Allison*

      I eat breakfast at home, but then eat a bagel when I get to work, almost as a morning snack or “second breakfast.”

    13. AKchic*

      Eating breakfast at work when your work culture doesn’t have a problem with eating at your desk when you actually get your work done, and when you can eat and work at the same time isn’t a problem. This individual seems to either have a severe problem with multitasking, be unable to multitask altogether, or be using food to avoid work (that seems to be the common consensus). I don’t think it much matters what the actual reason is, nobody is saying that people can’t eat (or drink) breakfast at the office, so long as they are still able to be productive.
      As it stands, the company is paying this person to pretend the office is a cafeteria.

    14. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      I’m one of those people who have particular routines and breakfast is consumed when I get to work. I could get up earlier and try to eat at home but just my mental state and my stomach aren’t interested until I’m in “let’s do this” mode. My mother hated it because I wouldn’t/couldn’t eat before school and would stuff a snack in my mouth after first period if I had a teacher who wouldn’t allow food in their rooms for first.

      So in some places, I drink my breakfast if I’m on the go. With my current routine it works well do to do the start-up setup you mentioned. My computer takes so long to bootup and mornings are slow AF. But if I was getting here around 10am, my mornings wouldn’t allow it.

      So yeah, it’s really not the eating thing. It’s how she is unmanaged and just shuffled around when she doesn’t “fit” somewhere. Spoiler, she’ll fit nowhere unless there’s a job there that requires very little work overall. Maybe there is one, I’ve had filler jobs where I’m just waiting for a phone to ring and it only rings precious few times a day. But yeah, if that existed, I’d assume she’d be plunked there by now!

    15. Hamburke*

      I feel like the odd man out in this – I could give up any other meal than breakfast and I want it immediately when I get out of bed. I have eggs, bacon & hash browns pretty much every morning (used to be toast instead of potatoes but I’m limiting bread…)

      But really, it’s only a little bit the eating… A lot the management shuffling a problem employee around. I’d give the benefit of the doubt, perhaps, if this was a first shuffle…

    16. Windchime*

      Most of us in my office who come in early will eat a quick breakfast after we’ve been there an hour or two. It’s always something quick, like oatmeal or yogurt, stuff like that. We work while we eat. For lunch, I will take a quick 15/20 minute break and read on my phone while I eat at my desk, but if someone needs me I am available. We do have a guy who prepares elaborate meals that involve a lot of crinkling bags and packages, but he also sometimes sleeps at his desk so there’s that. I just pay attention to my own work and let the boss worry about that other guy.

  5. Senor Montoya*

    Alison is way nicer than me.

    Fire her now, if you can. Seriously. She does very little work, she’s difficult to get along with, she won’t take feedback, she arrives outrageously late, and this has been going on for how long? Yeah. You are wasting time and energy = wasting resources and money dealing with her PLUS her work is not getting done (= someone else is doing it? that’s even more costly). You’re throwing good money after bad. She needs to be gone yesterday so that you can hire a competent person who actually, you know, comes to work and works while at work.

    1. Senor Montoya*

      I am sure there are LOTS of people who would like a job as an admin asst, lots of people who are competent and will do the work. It drives me bats when incompetent/recalcitrant/unproductive (= I mean, doesn’t actually WORK at work) get to keep jobs. Why? Seriously WHY???

      OK, I needed to rant, so many people need work and would do good work, argh.

      1. Alli525*

        SAME. I graduated into the Great Recession right as it was beginning, and I get so ANGRY when people are indifferently incompetent at their jobs, especially in roles I’ve held before (receptionist, admin asst, etc). I would have been homeless if I’d been incompetent – or at least hadn’t tried to be less incompetent.

        1. Oh So Anon*

          Yes. This. Also, as a WOC, the standards are just different for me so I find myself observing people messing up and thinking to myself, “if I pulled that crap everyone would just think of me as a lazy [insert slur] and they’d kind of be right, but you get to suck, must be real nice”.

            1. Oh So Anon*

              What? It’s the reality of the situation. Implicit bias means that people may perceive my actions differently and less sympathetically. If I were to be naive about having less room for error than a lot of the other people around me I’d be homeless.

              1. The Original K.*

                Oh, I’m sorry – that was meant to be a commiserating “Girl!” I was agreeing with you.

                1. Oh So Anon*

                  Oh, I’m sorry for misinterpreting. I’m just more accustomed to people being horrified and acting like I’m a terrible alienating person for speaking my reality, but, y’know, it’s all good!

            2. DonnaMartinGraduates!*

              Can I just say, as *not* a WOC, I totally saw that comment as a supportive, commiserating “Girl!” and even wished I could say stuff like that once in a while :)

          1. RC Rascal*

            I’m a female manager & have always worked in male dominated industries. I’m white but I’ve felt this way too. I’m held to a higher performance standard.

            I cope by telling myself that being half assed spills over into other areas of your life.

          2. AKchic*

            I feel so much empathy for you. I am not a WOC, but I have seen what you’re talking about far too often.

            1. Oh So Anon*

              Thanks. I just looooooove knowing that being really good at my job doesn’t really go all that far to humanize me. It’s cool, tho, because I have a good job and a nice house so what could I possibly have to complain about?

              1. AKchic*

                A lot. My gods I wish screaming it in the streets was acceptable. Granted, nobody listens regardless of how “acceptable” the message is given.

        2. Entry-level Marcus*

          You have to remember that the job market is much better now that it has been in a *long* time, though. There might not be that many high quality candidates for entry-level admin jobs these days.

      2. The Original K.*

        Especially when we’re not talking about Liam Neeson in the Taken franchise when it comes to the skills required for the position. OP needs an admin who shows up on time and gets the work done. Those aren’t that hard to find.

        1. Aquawoman*

          Off-topic but Seth MacFarlane does an impression of Kermit the Frog doing that monologue from Taken, and it’s hilarious.

      3. Dust Bunny*

        I can personally refer to you more good candidates for this job than you’ll know how to handle. This person needs to go.

      4. EPLawyer*

        Because once bitten twice shy. They are so afraid they will get another slacker, why bother. At least this is known quantity. You go to the trouble to fire this person. Go through the whole hassle of posting the job, reviewing resumes, giving skils tests, interviewing, training and then — six months later you are writing AAM again.

        Now the chances of this happening are low. But good staff is hard to find and all that. So they stick with the problem employee rather than risk getting another one and repeating the cycle.

        1. TootsNYC*

          this does happen.

          And I always think, “A new slacker can’t possibly be more work, and at least it’ll be a fresh person! Maybe they’ll be nicer, at least.”

          And if you are really worried, you hire carefully. Ask trusted people for referrals, etc.

          Also: in this situation (hiring her replacement), I would absolutely hire for attitude first, and experience and skills later.

        2. Oh So Anon*

          Also, because a stopped clock is right twice a day, even a problem employee tends to have organizational knowledge that can be valuable and difficult to replicate in a brand-new employee.

          1. TootsNYC*

            when that happens, I consider it a failure of management. Managers should always be working to make sure that organizational knowledge gets spread around.

            Ye gods, someone could win the lottery and move to the Caribbean!

            1. Jedi Squirrel*

              Managers should always be working to make sure that organizational knowledge gets spread around.

              Exactly this. To a lot of people, “organizational knowledge” means “the stuff in my head” or the “the stuff in Dave’s head”. Um, no. It’s called “organizational” for a reason—lots of people should know it.

      5. Aquawoman*

        There are reasons to do this in an orderly way rather than just fire her immediately that don’t have to do with being “nice.” If you really start managing someone and making them live up to standards, sometimes they leave, which is good. If you create a process and document, they may be less likely to sue you when they’re fired, which is good. It allows you some time to plan for a replacement while someone is at least getting part of the job done. And while it can be bad for morale to keep someone on who is not working, it can also be bad for morale to fire people abruptly without a runway.

        1. linger*

          In this case, the process needs to start with getting this employee to provide an hour-by-hour account of tasks accomplished (if that’s not already being done). The core issue is a lack of productivity: so what would acceptable productivity look like, and how does this worker’s output compare with that?

      6. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        I get this mentality and have subscribed to it for years prior to doing hiring for administrative workers.

        It’s not that easy. It’s never that easy.

        Everyone here that I would snap up and give a job to…is not here in my local area. It’s administrative work, nobody is relocating for this work, I cannot spend 3x my budget to offer to move someone either.

        I’ve fired people before and sometimes it’s a turnstile because you don’t know until you have someone doing the job in the end. So many people interview spot on, they are wonderful, we all click, we are all greaaaaaat. It’s gonna be rosy and perfect. And nope. Slack McSlacker Pants comes out to play.

        I get a ton of resumes for these jobs, every time. I get very few qualified people and have had a lot of times I’ve been triple burned by people who have presented well along with possibly a fabricated resume of sorts.

        But this is probably a local issue as well. I posted a job last year that took us months to fill and we got the worst candidates to date. Not a single stand out that we’d just pull right in immediately, nope.

        All that aside, I still say “fire her” because it doesn’t matter how hard replacing her is. You’ve got a place holder now. At least try to make something work and you’ll find someone, some day and it’ll be a lot better in the long run and big picture.

      7. Massmatt*

        Completely agree, even with the economy expanding the past several years there are many people unemployed or even more, UNDERemployed. Many people are trying to get by on 2-3 PT jobs, if they can get them, so it’s frustrating to hear about toxic losers that do little to no work and are yet considered unfireable or passed around from manager to manager just collecting paychecks.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          That’s not at all what’s been happening. There are more jobs than job seekers right now.

          The only people stringing together part time jobs are in retail and service industries. You can’t even get resumes for part time positions anymore for the most part.

          This isn’t the Great Recession anymore. It’s time to come out of the misconception that the job market is that hard for basic jobs like administrative assistance.

          1. Ego Chamber*

            I think this depends on location. I know of a lot of local businesses that will only hire part time workers because they “can’t afford” to pay for benefits or a living wage (I interpret that to mean they can’t afford to run their business but whatever). A lot of employers haven’t realized it’s not a recession anymore and they’re kind of pissed at the employees for wanting better.

    2. Creed Bratton*

      The fact that this employee is still there makes me think the management is perhaps OP’s real problem…

      1. !*

        This! She was pawned off on OP because someone else did not want to deal with her. This is such a typical management style in so many companies. I hope OP puts a stop to this and sets the example for how this issue should have been dealt with.

    3. Lizzy May*

      Depending on what exactly happened in the “tangle with the last manager” she might deserve one last serious conversation about her productivity but that conversation needs to be clear that if she doesn’t improve to a set level by a set date (no more than a month), she will lose her job. It’s possible that the management side of things haven’t dealt with this employee properly and she could improve if given the chance. I’m not holding my breath but it’s a good practice.

    4. Lilo*

      I think this is likely way too far to be salvageable. The fact that they transferred her makes me side eye LW’s upper management too.

  6. Jennifer*

    Is it possible to say something about leaving for an hour to go pick up her food, then taking hours to eat it once she returns? That’s ridiculous. Especially when there are so many options to have food brought to you now. That has nothing to do with disordered eating. It’s just poor planning.

    1. MCL*

      I hate the idea of telling someone what they can’t do on their break time, but I also noticed this. An hour to go get her lunch and she hasn’t even started eating it yet? Holy cats. But I agree with the post that OP should focus on the performance and not on the eating. Pointing at benchmarks and deadlines is a lot easier way to manage than focusing on someone’s eating habits.

      1. Dragoning*

        I think we’ve seen this even on this blog before, and it’s not really the exact issue (they might be running errands, walking their dog, w/e)…but they aren’t even working when they get back.

      2. Super Duper Anon*

        Eh, I wouldn’t even really focus on the 1 hour to go get lunch part. I mostly bring food from home for lunch, but once every so often I haven’t been able to get my lunches for the week completely sorted so I need to run out and grab something. I am not that close to food sources where I am now, so it can take an hour on occasion. I then eat at my desk while working when I get back. But I am also a productive employee who meets my goals and deadlines so nobody cares. The much bigger issue is the productivity and her seeming not to care about changing it when it was brought up previously. I have a feeling that if the running out to get lunch thing was curbed, she would waste time in other ways.

        1. Jennifer*

          Yeah, that just annoyed me for some reason. It’s such a primadonna move. If I took that long to get takeout I’d definitely work while eating once I got back instead of taking ANOTHER two hours just to eat.

          I work in a congested area as well so I usually do uber eats or postmates, work until the food gets here and then take my lunch hour. If she can afford takeout nearly every day, I’m guessing a $3.99 delivery fee wouldn’t break her. It’s just inconsiderate.

          I can even get past the 10 am arrival time since the letter says they don’t have set hours.

          1. Aquawoman*

            I had the same reaction, but it’s also a good example of why not to focus on the eating, because I guarantee that she’d insist that she IS WORKING while she eats. She’s at her desk! Her laptop is open!

          2. klew*

            I worked with people that didn’t count the time getting their lunch as part of their lunch break. Like they wouldn’t clock out prior to preparing or picking up their lunch but would clock out when they were ready to eat.

          3. TheFacelessOldWomanWhoSecretlyLivesinYour House*

            $3.99–that’ awesome. I live in a small rural town and a local delivery would be $10 because it’s a local person doing it. They advertise once in a while in local groups).

            1. Jennifer*

              Wow, that is rough. Sorry about that. Yeah in my city it’s usually between $4 and $6 depending on how far away you are. Sometimes they run specials for 99 cent delivery.

            2. Wintermute*

              there’s some places here in the Chicago suburbs that are close enough it’s .49 cents (plus tip, naturally). It sometimes makes it cheaper to have something cheap delivered than use the (good but pricy) tower cafeteria.

      3. theelephantintheroom*

        If it’s an hour to pick up the food and an hour to eat, then one of those hours is happening on company time, unless she’s making up the hours missed by working late (which it sounds like is not happening). So I think it’s perfectly fine to address this. Especially since OP mentions they work in a traffic-congested city…that likely means things like Doordash, Uber Eats, and other delivery services are available.

        1. Mia 52*

          Im confused because if you live in a traffic-y area then aren’t there options within walking distance? Most highly trafficked areas would be in larger cities which one would presume include walking options. Like if it takes you an hour to get food there, then that isn’t a an appropriate choice for a restaurant to go to.

          1. Jennifer*

            Exactly. I can get to a few local places and back within 20 minutes. And there are a couple in the building.

          2. Manager of Distracted Snacker*

            Hi I’m the OP! They are very particular about which places they order food from and none of the close by places are what they want to eat. Again, I don’t really want to have to manage someone that closely and it’s not really in my power to say eat here and not there. I agree with the folk saying to keep the focus on deliverables and deadlines. It’s true, I wouldn’t care if they took a long lunch if they got all their work done mistake free.

      4. Fikly*

        It’s less telling someone what they can do on their break time, but telling someone that their break time is limited to x amount of time. So if she wants to use the break time to obtain food, that’s fine, but then eating time must be productive work time.

    2. the_scientist*

      I think it’s dangerous to get into what people can and can’t be doing on their lunch break. If the office standard is a one-hour break (and if she is legally non-exempt as Alison believes, she should actually be clocking out for her break, no? Not American.) it’s reasonable to assume that people will use that hour to run errands, get lunch, work out, walk their dog, whatever. But it’s also reasonable to set the expectation that they are ready to focus on their work AFTER that hour. That means that when the employee has clocked back in or returned from her lunch, she has finished eating, completed whatever personal tasks she needed to do, and is un-distracted and ready to focus on work. That is an eminently reasonable expectation for the OP to enforce. If she complains that other employees aren’t policed to this degree? Tough t*tties, she’s proven she can’t eat and work at the same time.

      But honestly, OP, from a stranger on the internet who is also a manager…..just fire this woman. Your stress level will decrease by about 100% on the first day she’s not there.

      1. Amethystmoon*

        Exactly. Even when I was allowed to do Toastmasters for an hour once a week on my lunch break, I was ready to start working after I got back to my desk. You cannot just be gone for a long period of time, then dawdle about doing actual work.

  7. Antilles*

    This jumped out at me:
    We don’t have set hours but we typically work 9-5 (…) It is not unusual for her to arrive after 10 AM (…) She will order takeout for lunch that requires leaving for an hour to pick it up
    I’m not a fan of the “count hours/butts in seats” mentality, but if this is accurate, she’s not even physically present 30 hours a week; that’s effectively not even a full-time employee!

    1. The Original K.*

      The coming in after 10 jumped out at me too. She’s an hour late every day and that’s just been allowed to continue?

      1. Giant Squid*

        Coming in at 10 if there aren’t set hours isn’t late. This employee probably needs to be fired and coming in later is part of a pattern of performance issues, but I think like Alison said, her issues are her lack of productivity, not extended eating or coming in “late”.

        As an aside, imo it’s a little strange to willingly subject yourself to rush hour if you don’t have to. Most people I know who don’t have set hours work 8-4 or 10-6.

        1. Mia 52*

          But if she works 10-5 then that’s an hour a day that’s not getting worked. Is she staying til 6 or 7? She would need to stay until 7 for a 10am arrival to work an 8 hour day if there is a 1 hour lunch.

      2. Hamburke*

        One place I worked had core hours 10-2 where you were expected to be there so meetings could be scheduled or whatever but the building was open from 6am-7pm so there was flexibility. I had to be there until 4 as part of my duties but even that was somewhat flexible since I knew when I was actually needed that late.

      3. Massmatt*

        Right, the prior “manager” was either too lazy or too cowardly (or both!) to deal with the bad employee.

        The longer the bad behavior goes on the harder it is to change, and soon you have the “oh, that’s just Phyllis, that’s the way she is, nothing we can do!” attitude. Good employees leave and are replaced by more dysfunctional ones.

        It doesn’t sound from the letter that this employee has any redeeming features so I would start whatever the process is for warnings, PIP’s, documentation, etc your org requires to get rid of her. Which yes, the prior manager should have done.

      1. Allypopx*

        My job is definitely a “we basically are here normal business hours but you can set your own schedule” kind of thing. I’m in the habit of working roughly 8-4, my boss works more like 10-5 and does some work from home, as long as work is done no one really cares. If I had an employee at this job who was working six hours a day but still getting a normal 40 hour week workload done just because they’re super efficient, I wouldn’t make a thing out of it. The issue here to me is more that this person is taking advantage of all these flexibility perks and also not getting their work done.

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          I think this is the key. Flexibility is really nice, but it only stays in a work environment as long as people don’t abuse that flexibility. This person is loving the flexibility but not producing any results.

          Maybe a part of a PIP for this person could be the temporary loss of the flexibility until her productivity and error rate are in line with the standards for the job.

    2. Observer*

      Yes. OP, this is one of the things you can, and SHOULD, deal with. She needs to be in the office an average of 35 or 40 hours a week (whatever is the norm in your office.) So, using 35 hours, she could be in 33 one week and 37 another week. If she’s not averaging that, then she needs to start using her PTO. While her being exempt means that you are still going to have to pay her if she comes in one day for 3 hours even if she’s used up her PTO, it does mean that you won’t have to pay her for vacation.

      More importantly, you need to start tracking her time in the office and use that as one of your metrics. It’s not your only metric, of course, and if she were a stellar employee otherwise, or working most of her hours on a regular basis, this wouldn’t be an issue. But when someone is this negligent, you need to deal with it.

      1. Manager of Distracted Snacker*

        Hi OP here–thanks for this suggestion. It is something I will bring up with upper management. I do believe she spends between 30-35 hours a week in the office (not counting breaks). She comes in late and does not stay late. I’m not an attorney, I don’t know why this person was classified as exempt. I agree that she may be misclassified. I do know that when lost work hours were brought up previously the last manager was told that no one else is scrutinized in that way and upper management declined to discuss it further. I appreciate all the insight from fellow managers warning me that this isn’t a good sign about upper management, I’m starting to see this more clearly.

    3. BRR*

      I thought that about someone at my last job. We were 35 hours a week. If you factored in when they arrived (late), the 45 min talking once they got there, and 2 hours of lunch; we essentially had a part-time coworker. I wouldn’t care as much if they were good at their job but basic things weren’t being done.

  8. DataGirl*

    I’m eating my morning snack as I read this. I’m on a very strict diet, doctors orders, where I have to eat specific things on a rigid schedule every 3 hours. I’m sure to other people it looks like I’m always eating. although I usually finish my meals in 10-20 minutes. So I kind of cringe when I hear criticism of someone’s eating habits. BUT you’ve made it clear that the problem is her productivity, so I agree with Alison to focus on that.

    1. Oh So Anon*

      People generally don’t care about this if your food isn’t smelly, you’re likable, you get your work done, and you don’t otherwise fall outside of office “norms”.

    2. Heidi*

      I think the distinction is that a medical accommodation is supposed to facilitate your work. For this OP’s coworker, it sounds like the frequent meals are an obstacle to her doing work. In any case, the missing deadlines and frequent mistakes are more than sufficient to put her on PIP at the very least. The OP mentions not wanting to be unprofessional in handling this, but based on the description, the most professional thing to do in this case may be to fire her.

      1. Half-Caf Latte*

        I think the distinction is that a medical accommodation is supposed to facilitate your work

        This is a great way to frame this.

    3. snoopythedog*

      As an endurance athlete with some digestive problems, I eat and drink a lot and frequently throughout the day. I am pretty self-conscious about it as the workers I share an office space with are the type of people who can go the whole day without eating or drinking much.
      I would avoid discussing her eating habits/choices as much as possible. It’s a sensitive topic for a lot of people. Instead, like Alison suggested, focus on her productivity. Coming in at 10 AND eating breakfast is beyond the norms of your company. Taking an hour to get lunch then eat it is beyond the norms of your company. You can talk about those things in terms of cutting down her productive hours– getting and eating lunch is expected to take no more than one hour, arriving on time is important, breakfast shouldn’t cut into the whole first hour of your day…arrive at work to be productive. You can try approaching it from the angle of spoon in hand for hours a day means she’s literally working at half pace.

      End of the day, focus on productivity. The length of time for lunch, coming in late (and eating breakfast for the whole first hour) are just examples of poor productivity and focus.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        OP can call it excessive break time without calling out the eating.
        We had someone who would sit and stare at her PC doing nothing until the screensaver turned on. Eating is no more productive, but somehow a little less…creepy.

    4. Alli525*

      No one’s “eating habits” should include staring into space for hours at a time when they should be working. The problem isn’t the frequency or content of the meals, it’s the fact that she’s apparently incapable of multitasking during hours-long “breaks.”

          1. DataGirl*

            Sorry. I think I have been massively understood here and am feeling like some of these responses are pretty rude. Feel free to delete this whole comment thread if you want Alison.

            1. Anonforthis*

              You got one reply that could maybe, possibly be construed as negative and it wasn’t even about you. Stop taking things so personally! Then again, if the shoe fits…

    5. CheeryO*

      And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you’re productive and you’re thoughtful about not eating super smelly/distracting things at your desk. I graze all day long, but I’m doing work at the same time, not using it as an excuse to have some meme time on my phone.

    6. Observer*

      What you are describing sounds very different from what the OP is describing. If you keep working, keep things to a reasonable timeframe and get your work done, reasonable managers won’t have an issue.

      None of those things seem to be true of the OP’s employee, though.

    7. CRM*

      Reading OP harshly criticize her eating habits was hard for me to read, too. I’m always very self conscious about eating at work (we don’t have a break room, and my schedule rarely allows for a full 1 hour lunch break, so I have to eat at my desk in front of others). I would be mortified if I found out that someone was paying as much attention to my eating habits as OP is to her assistant.

      I agree that OP should focus on her assistant’s productivity issues. If anything, OP should focus on how much she is out of the office; she is an hour late every day, leaves for an hour or more to pick up lunch, and departs at 4pm. At many places I would think that alone is grounds for a PIP.

      1. CRM*

        Sorry, I just re-read and realized that the assistant doesn’t leave at 4pm. Still, it’s a lot of time out of the office.

        1. Chocolate Teapot*

          You might be confusing it with my post from the short answer thread where I talked about somebody similar to this who did leave at 4.00pm every day.

          When she left, her desk was cleared and her cupboard was full of half empty pop bottles, crisp packets and some cheese erring on becoming green furry mould.

      2. DataGirl*

        Thanks for understanding what I was saying. I don’t know if I was unclear in my response, but a lot of people seem to think I’m either attacking OP or justifying the person being unproductive? Neither is the case. I just wanted to a) give an alternative thought as to why some people might need to eat throughout the day and b) agree that productivity is the issue, not food.

      3. Link*

        OP wasn’t harshly critical though. She actually seems quite sympathetic to the fact that the eating habits might be related to a medical issue and asking how to address the productivity issues without making it about the eating. And I don’t think OP is paying too much attention to the eating habits. If someone is spending half the day eating and not working, that’s hard to not notice.

        1. CRM*

          I would disagree, I do think OP was being a little harsh. Describing how she “slurps” her food and mentioning how smelly her food is, what does that have to do with OP’s productivity? Especially because this clearly isn’t about the food. In this situation, even if OP told the assistant to stop eating at work altogether, it’s very likely that the assistant would just find some other way to avoid doing work.

          1. Manager of Distracted Snacker*

            Hi, OP here. I hope I don’t come off as too unkind. It is not my intention. I’m seeking advice to prepare to manage this employee in a firm but compassionate way and not bring unfair frustration as baggage into my discussions with her. I am especially eager not to stigmatize eating itself but struggling when it is such a visible source of distraction. It is helpful to puzzle through is here as a dry run so I avoid missteps with this person. Thank you all for the feedback and suggestions.

            While productivity is the main concern here, there is some issue with other employees being distracted by eating noises (chewing ice is one of the biggest issues). This discussion is helping me understand that it’s not really in my domain to tell people to eat more quietly so I’ll de-prioritize that and focus more on deadlines and deliverables. Folks are right in guessing that as I’ve been sleuthing what the sources of distraction are that this is the most noticeable one and now it really stands out.

      4. Allypopx*

        When someone isn’t being productive it’s normal for a manager to pay more attention to their habits and try to find issues. I don’t think this level of scrutiny would be present if there weren’t underlying issues.

      5. CupcakeCounter*

        OP’s letter does focus a lot on the eating but I’m guessing that the eating habits of the assistant became an “issue” once the performance issues started to appear and OP was investigating what could be causing the poor results. She went looking for the root of the issue and now that she noticed the food thing, its not something she can un-notice so it is becoming more and more of a “thing” due to the frustration with the poor performance.

        1. Jen S. 2.0*

          I suspect OP also is misophonic about eating noises (as am I). The time spent eating is a problem, but the multiple mentions of the noises of eating means OP is not only faced with Admin’s productivity problem, but ALSO is enraged by the slurping and smacking and sucking and crunching and chomping. The two problems are enhancing one another in terms of OP’s annoyance level.

          (No hate. I moved offices to get away from a gum-chewer (I can just step away or use earplugs if it’s a 30-minute lunch, but gum chewing goes on ALL DAY), and I have dumped perfectly nice men for chewing too loud.)

          1. Dust Bunny*

            One doesn’t need to be actually misophonic for noises to be annoying, though. I am not, but there are a very few people I know who really are unreasonably, unappetizingly, loud eaters. 99.9% of the time I don’t notice people eating and have no problem with eating noises, but, yeah, I know a few people who can be heard smacking their lips from no-fooling across the room, and you don’t need to be misophonic to think that’s just too damned loud. I’m a middle-aged woman with normal hearing; f I can hear a breakfast burrito from 75 feet away and around a corner, in a carpeted room, that person is eating too loudly.

      6. alienor*

        Same–I’m a very slow eater, and I’m self-conscious about it, so whenever I can, I leave my desk for lunch because it really does take me an hour to eat a full meal. If I have to eat at my desk for some reason, I’ll either get something I can finish faster, like soup or yogurt, or I’ll eat for what seems like a “reasonable” amount of time, say 20 minutes, and then stop even if I’m less than halfway through my food. Even though I’m working the whole time, I feel like the visual of me eating for an hour straight would make it look like I was eating for longer than I really was, plus I don’t want to subject the people around me to an hour of chewing (open office).

        1. MistOrMister*

          I think we tend to be self conscious about somethings and no one would even notice them. I really don’t think I would pick up on someone taking an hour to finish their food if they ate while they worked. If you’re getting work done, for some reason (to me at least) the fact that you’re eating the whole tine isn’t that likely to register. But I can understand how it could make someone feel self conscious.

      7. Yorick*

        I think you notice more when someone’s not getting their work done. Like, if she were a stellar employee, you’d barely notice the spaghetti. But when she’s not getting something important done because she’s eating spaghetti every time you see her, it sticks out.

        1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

          I’ve just realised that of course “noodles” in this context is likely to mean Italian food. In the UK we only use the word “noodles” to mean Chinese/ Japanese/ Thai etc. rather than pasta, and my mental image was stuck on slippery udon or similar which really doesn’t lend itself to lengthy eating over a keyboard.

          Thank you. As you were.

      8. Washi*

        One common step for a manager to take when an employee is not meeting deadlines is to look more carefully at how they spend their time. I’m not going to knock OP for noticing that her direct report is spending MULTIPLE HOURS per day on eating-related activities where absolutely no work gets done. She even says several times in the letter that she wouldn’t mind all the eating if the employee were working and getting stuff done!

        I agree that the focus should be on productivity, but I’m really not seeing a lot of judgment in OP’s letter.

      9. Dust Bunny*

        OP didn’t, though. OP specifically tried to avoid doing that, even though the time spent eating is the problem. And I would guess nobody is paying that much attention to how you eat because you’re getting your work done; the assistant here is not, which is what is drawing attention to her time-management habits that happen to revolve around food.

        I’m a small-meals-and-snacker but I don’t make noise and I get all my work done, so nobody cares.

    8. Socrates Johnson*

      I eat all day. Actually it’s because I DO have disordered eating. I also am a top performer at my company (also have an office so the actual eating doesn’t both other people). But, it doesn’t matter because…..work gets done.

    9. MistOrMister*

      I also think it makes sense to take the eating part out of it. It is always possible that a medical issue is at play (stomach issues, throat issues, etc). I think it would still be coming off weirdly to people if the employee was taking so much time to consume each bit of food, but if they were getting their work done people would probably be more likely to try harder to ignore it. I would think it’s probably the blatant time wasting that is really causing so much diatraction. I might not notice if someone is always eating whenever I see them, but I DO notice the people who are on their phone every time I walk by!

      Really, a lot of things could be substituted here and it would amount to the same thing. Say the employee was knitting for hours, leaving for an hour daily to pick up yarn, etc. Whatever it is, the employee is not getting the work done. And if the focus is too much on the eating aspect, they might just find some other way to waste time and play the “you said I was taking too long eating, I didn’t eat at all today, I was playing tiddlywinks!” I think it’s easier to nip in the bud by making it strictly based on performance.

      1. Socrates Johnson*

        Agree. I think people are getting a bit hung up on the eating when it really could be anything and there is nothing inherently wrong with eating all day at work (obviously client facing, offensive odors, etc notwithstanding)

  9. Threeve*

    This isn’t just about her poor performance. It’s also about the message you’re sending to your other employees, who–working in an open office–can clearly see how little time she’s spending working. They need to know that their manager doesn’t just ignore problems like that.

    Seeing a manager failing to address poor performance is just as discouraging as seeing a manager failing to acknowledge good performance. Either way it results in people thinking “what’s the point in working hard to do my job well if it doesn’t matter?”

    1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

      Yes, this. So what you’ve got really is:

      1) She’s not doing her own work
      2) She’s being very noisy for a good portion of the day, which is likely distracting as all hell to her coworkers
      3) They see her do this and get away with it, which demoralizes them and is likely to reduce their productivity further

      What a drain on your workplace! One bad apple really can spoil the bunch. Imagine how much better your good workers would do without her dragging them down.

      1. Catsaber*

        In my previous department, there were a few guys who didn’t do their work by walking around and talking to people all day. Different behavior, same outcome – they were noisy, distracting, and since their managers never did anything, it was demoralizing to see them get away with it. Their bosses rationalized it as “Well, they need to talk with coworkers to get their work done,” but these guys were dancing right up to the line of “collaboration” and just spewing all their words on everyone all day long, occasionally throwing in a “work” topic.

        One of them was particularly awful – if I tried to stop one of his lectures by saying I was busy or needed to get back to work, he’d launch into another lecture about how I worked too hard, I was selling my soul to The Man, I needed to lighten up and live life, etc etc etc. SO ANNOYING. Glad I escaped that department.

    2. RVA Cat*

      Also, unless the other manager she “tangled with” was the OP’s predecessor in this role, you’ve got a much larger problem of the org passing around a bad employee instead of managing her out. That plus everyone being exempt makes me wonder about structural dysfunctionality….

    3. !*

      This! I can’t begin to say how demoralizing it is to bear witness to someone who avoids work whenever possible, and nothing is done about it. My manager likes to “punish” people by assigning them less than enjoyable tasks (answering the phones), instead of actually managing.

    4. Rebecca*

      I can’t second this enough. I see this every day. Management failing to manage. I’m sick of watching people stand around smoking outside, giggling over snapchats, chatting, and doing the bare minimum of work, and management seems not to notice or care. We all have some down time, but seriously, hours every day? There are more than a few of us who think why should I go the extra mile, or suggest anything, do something extra, for what? There’s no reward in it, there’s no downside to goofing off – all of this breeds bad morale.

    5. singularity*

      Thank you for pointing this out! The other employees had definitely noticed how little this person does all day and some of them are no doubt wondering what they could do to lighten their work-load and still get away with.

  10. Phillip*

    This would drive me nuts, for some reason the smell of other people’s food, and especially in an office, really bugs me.

  11. Kiki*

    This is tricky because you don’t want to insert yourself into her food choices (which would be super inappropriate), but most people are able to figure out for themselves that eating at work shouldn’t be an hours-long distraction.

    I eat constantly at work, but I also intentionally bring foods that lend themselves to being munched on while working (don’t need utensils or cutting, don’t need to be reheated, etc.). This may be a rougher transition if she just came out of an environment where she could be productive and eat like she is currently (like school where you can listen to professors and also eat a full meal), but it is also something most people can figure out for themselves, especially when their work is slipping. I really like Alison’s advice that groups a few of her distracting behaviors together so the focus isn’t on her dietary habits, but it may make her realize she needs to adjust them.

    1. WellRed*

      “like school where you can listen to professors and also eat a full meal”

      People really do this?

      1. Kiki*

        For sure, especially for evening classes or classes around lunchtime. It’s not ideal, but many students have schedules that don’t allow for meal breaks.

        1. The Original K.*

          I did my MBA while working full time. I absolutely ate during my evening classes, as did many of my classmates. I would pack both lunch and dinner on my evening class days. Dinners were things that could be eaten quickly and/or with one hand, like sandwiches.

          1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

            There’s a reason sandwiches are so popular for working lunches. Self-contained and one-handed is important.

      2. Socrates Johnson*

        This was totally what everyone did when I was in college. Mostly bagels dipped in the little cream cheese cups.

        I mostly drank copious amounts of diet coke.

      3. Seeking Second Childhood*

        I had 60 minutes to from my office to my night class… it was a 45 minute drive without traffic, and there was always traffic. I packed food. Learned to like walnuts during that class because it was a non-peanut finger food protein.

      4. Elizabeth West*

        Yep, we did it at my college. I was an evening student. Not all professors allowed eating, but many did because the majority of their evening students came right after work. Quite a few of us attended classes until 10 pm with no time for dinner.

      5. Antilles*

        Yes, with the caveat that “full meal” is more like a sandwich or something similarly portable.
        It’s also pretty common to sneak in the meal between classes – if you’ve got a couple consecutive classes all in the Teapot Design building, it’s often easiest to just walk straight from the 10:00-10:50 class to the class that starts at 11, then use that time sitting in the desk to scarf down your food.

      6. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        I actually had a few professors who addressed eating in the classroom directly, by stating their “guidelines” for eating during lectures.

        1) nothing that requires silverware
        2) nothing that had a strong odor
        3) nothing that made lots of noise (slurping soup/noodles for example)
        4) please be considerate of any allergies in the room

        I think honestly that was about as well as it could have been handled. Most of those guidelines are basically stated out loud common curtesy.

        1. Adultiest Adult*

          I guess I had professors who had been burned with people eating in class–most of the classes I went to had a “no food” policy, both undergraduate and graduate, although a few of the grad school classes would allow something like a granola bar or a cookie, eaten quickly and quietly. Eating a sandwich would have been looked upon as strangely as bringing soup or fried chicken, and all of it would get you tossed from the class!

  12. Sharikacat*

    OP pretty much answered their own question in the letter. They point out that it isn’t the eating itself that is the problem but the productive hours and overall performance. The tricky point here was the idea of potentially policing very personal things like how one eats, which may be due to reasons that no one else needs to know. No one wants to tread into that territory.

  13. Mary*

    >>Slurping noodles or soup is a regular occurrence and after an hour it gets pretty old

    I think there’s something else you can address here, which is if her eating is actually disruptive to others. I can’t tell if this focus on “slurping” is because you’re so annoyed about her productivity that normal-ish eating is really getting on your nerves, or whether her eating is genuinely loud and disruptive to other workers, or even whether it’s the thing where anyone who is perceived to be eating-whilst-fat is described as disgusting in a way that people who are eating-whilst-thin rarely are. I think it would be good to observe her eating as neutrally as possible sometime and decide whether it’s objectively loud or disruptive, and if it is, address that.

    You could ask that food like soup, spaghetti or noodles which is kind of inevitably slurpy gets eaten in the breakroom. Even if that has an impact on other workers, it wouldn’t be a completely unreasonable one (they are kind of messy things to eat at your desk!) and it could also help destroy her plausible deniability that she’s “working” because she’s at her desk with her laptop open.

    1. Celeste*

      OP said that the office doesn’t have a break room, so it’s normal to eat at the desks. But everyone else seems able/willing to make their food breaks wrap up in a reasonable amount of time, and get back to work. The employee doesn’t seem to be able/willing to do either.

      1. Mary*

        Right, but they also mention “slurping” twice, which is a really graphic and disgusted way to describe someone eating. Which is why I think it’s worth thinking about where that disgust comes from: is it a side-effect of their irritation with the employee, a reaction to them as a person, or a genuinely disruptive way of eating? If it is the last, then thinking about possible solutions (no spaghetti? time to get an actual break room?) separately from the lack of work problem.

        1. a1*

          I never saw the word “slurp” as “graphic and disgusting”. It just correctly describes a sound and method of eating some food. You seem to be reading a lot into one word. What other word do you use to describe the slurp sound? I can’t think of one that is right. Maybe a slew of words like “noisily eating off a spoon” or “sucking the contents off a spoon without actually putting the spoon in the mouth” – but that actually seems worse to me. And take a lot more typing.

    2. Manager of Distracted Snacker*

      OP here, I’m not trying to be unkind by using the word slurp. Sorry if it seemed harsh or bullying. This person eats noodles one at a time by placing one end in their mouth and sucking the noodle through their lips and that is why I used the word slurp but maybe it wasn’t a necessary detail. I admit to being very frustrated and that probably shows but it is helpful to work it out here. I realize I don’t need to talk about food at all to talk about poor performance.

      I do not want to unintentionally stigmatize eating and it helps to work through other ways to address the poor time management.

  14. animaniactoo*

    I think you can also mention the idea of taking an hour to get the food before actually eating the food in the context of: “Being exempt gives you a lot of leeway for how you spend your time, but it has to be balanced with meeting your deadlines and getting your work done. If you’re having problems meeting your deadlines, you can’t do things like taking extensive time to go get your lunch and then still be on lunch when you get back with it. You need to make choices that prioritize getting the work done and doing efficient work for the majority of the day until it’s finished.”

      1. Manager of Distracted Snacker*

        Op here, several people have mentioned this and I’ll bring it up with HR but I’m not a lawyer and don’t know how reclassification would work with someone that has been with the organization for over a year.

  15. Jimming*

    As a side-note, can you create space for a break/lunch room? Having somewhere to go to eat can help people step away from their desk, have a nice break, and then get back to work rested. It doesn’t sound like that will help this specific employee but it might help the next one in the role to have better defined work/break boundaries.

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      Snark me wants to point out that if you let her go and she was doing less work than you think, you might get an instant morale boost in productivity for the rest. …and use her desk as a break space.

  16. Lifelong student*

    How is an entry level admin assistant considered exempt? the administrative exemption duties do seem to apply to entry level positions in general

  17. CheeryO*

    Maybe this is splitting hairs, but I think there’s a middle ground between making this about her eating and focusing solely on her performance. It’s a problem that she’s gone for so long in the middle of the day. It’s a problem that she’s on her phone while she’s eating instead of doing work. I think it’s fine to address those specific behaviors without getting into the weeds about how long it should take someone to eat or whether or not she should be eating breakfast at home.

    At any rate, I agree with Alison that she will probably need to be fired. I have a coworker like this, and everything is a symptom of her desire to do as little work as humanly possible. If it wasn’t scrolling on her phone during munching time, it would be something else. She’d have been fired five times over if we weren’t government (or if she had a supervisor who was willing to do the legwork to discipline her).

    1. Allypopx*

      I think that middle ground is basically what Alison’s script boils down to. The eating is mentioned as part of a list of things, not the main focus. The phone is also a big problem, etc.

      But you’re right – people who are trying to avoid work will find ways to avoid it regardless. (She says, scrolling AAM comments and not answering her growing pile of emails).

  18. J.E.*

    I’m thinking of that foist episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry had an assistant who wasn’t very good and he tries to foist her onto someone else. Sounds like OP was on the receiving end of a foist.

    1. HairApparent*

      The art of the foist is not easily mastered! Makes you wonder if she respects wood. Probably not.

  19. MuseumChick*

    OP you say, “… but I don’t know how to address it with her without seeming like I’m picking on her. Other people do eat at their desks but they all get their work done and don’t distract others while they eat. I’m also sensitive to the fact that many people have complicated relationships with eating. I wouldn’t like it very much if someone made me feel self-conscious about eating at work.”

    You have to change your thinking. You are NOT picking on her. You are setting extremely reasonable expectations. I know its hard. I get physically shaky every time I have to talk to a direct report about a performance issue. And, as Alison says that is where you need to focus. You may need to have the “as a good manager I need to be able to give you feedback” talk if she gets defensive. You don’t need to tell her when/often she should eat all you need to do is set the expectations for the role and it is up to her from there. If you want to give her another chance you can go through the following stages with her”

    “Jane, the newsletter was three days let, can you tell me what happened that delayed it?”
    “Jane, the newsletter was late again this month. We’ve talked about this before, I need to be out on time going forward.”
    “Jane, we’ve talked before about missed deadlines and it keeps happening. I need to be honest with you, ff this continues it will affect your employment here. The expectations for your role are X, Y, and Z.”

    Now, this is if you want to spend your time going through these steps. Personally, it sounds to me like she should be let go yesterday.

    1. Sara without an H*

      I think we’ve had a number of letters from new managers with difficult direct reports and getting side-tracked from the real issues. In this case, eating is a side issue. What the OP needs to focus on is a continuing pattern of non-performance in core functions of the job.

      One of the things that alarmed me was this statement: She tangled with her last manager because she felt attacked when asked to explain missed deadlines and now has been passed off to me. Does the OP’s organization have a pattern of passing problem employees around, instead of firing them? I would recommend that the OP talk with their HR person, review the personnel manual (if any), and make sure they’re very clear on what the requirements for progressive discipline are in this organization.

      If this particular nonprofit has a history of carrying problem employees past the point of reason, then yes, the OP may have to document problems and go through the steps of progressive discipline. It’s annoying to have to do the work previous managers should have done, but it sounds from OP’s description like it’s way past time to do something before this woman turns into a “missing stair.”

      1. singularity*

        Yeah, I caught that too. Why wasn’t this employee fired for performance issues to begin with, why is she passed on to someone who is new to management? It sounds like this place has issues with getting rid of low performing employees. If it were me, I’d go through the steps of trying to improve her behavior like MuseumChick listed, but I’d be documenting everything and looking into the process of getting rid of her to get a competent replacement.

    2. Fikly*

      This.

      Telling someone that something is a performance issue is not picking on them.

      Telling someone they are a bad person for having said performance issue is picking on them.

      See the distinction? Don’t let this person tell you that you are picking on her when you aren’t. That’s her gaslighting you.

  20. Baja*

    OMG a few years ago we had an employee who rushed in every day a full hour or more late — 11 am is the earliest she would start — with a takeout breakfast she would proceed to focus on for an hour. At noon she would begin lunch, also for an hour. Then about 3 a snack. And about 4-5 a full dinner. And then she would leave an hour early from work. She took about a month to get done what routinelt is completed in one week. It honestly seemed she believed her job was to eat. And of course, nothing about the way she did any of this wasc considerate of employees around her (very noisy, very smelly, and literally ALL DAY LONG). People don’t believe this really happens but it does.

    1. annakarina1*

      If I did that at my desk job, I would likely feel very sick and full from just eating straight for a few hours. Maybe this person just has a higher metabolism or bigger appetite, I couldn’t do it.

    2. Cashew*

      You are describing a former colleague so accurately that I am halfway convinced we once worked at the same place. Arrived two or three hours later than office core hours, took extra-long social lunches (always at restaurants, ate half of it at the restaurant and half back at their desk, claimed as work hours because it was with their office pals), ate dinner at the office, and then left around dinnertime even though they probably only put in a solid 3 hours of work a day.

      This person was eventually let go for similar reasons that the OP is outlining. They were wildly unproductive. They had a lot on their plate but accomplished nothing, and as a result the rest of our team ended up either compensating or looking bad. I wonder what sort of knock-on effects this is having for others in OP’s workplace…

      *As a note, the person I discussed above did/does have a self-described complicated relationship with food. When they were dismissed after several attempts at direct and professional coaching, our (amazing) supervisor did NOT mention their eating habits. It was a very Joe Friday firing, only focused on their lack of output and unwillingness to receive feedback.

  21. Keymaster of Gozer*

    A couple of times I’ve had to manage staff who’ll try any tactic to actually avoid work. Extended lunch breaks, long periods on their personal phones, eating messy snacks all day (so you can’t use the keyboard and eat at the same time), arriving late/leaving early..etc.

    In all cases I’ve had to sit down with them and speak candidly about how their work output is simply not acceptable. I tell them about how x, y and z isn’t getting done or how they’ve neglected tasks. Then I ask them what they think they should do to remedy this.

    Either I got a reply about how they don’t see how they can do any more (which is when I bring up the non work time I’ve seen) or they’ll actually volunteer to improve their timekeeping/take shorter lunches etc.

    The reluctant to see the issue ones are harder. I always take a hot drink into these meetings so I can calm myself by taking a sip or two, also gives me thinking time. One particularly difficult one was a guy who spent a very long time every lunch at the gym (3 hours) while keeping a 9 to 5 schedule because he didn’t see how his time out the office was our business. I put him on a PIP and told him he had to get the work done each day. No further excuses.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        It was exceptionally egregious. But it had started as 1 hour at the gym at lunch (no problem, that hour is your own!) and then built up to the ridiculous level. Once I saw the multiple hours becoming a daily occurrence I kept a closer eye on his work and saw how badly he was performing compared to the rest of my team.

    1. CRM*

      I’m just so curious- who needs 3 hours every day to work out that isn’t a professional athlete? I feel like most regular people would burn out on that kind of schedule. A few of my friends train for marathons, and even they wouldn’t put in more than 1.5 hours a day on average (perhaps they would do 2-3hr runs on the weekends, but definitely not every day). Did you ask what he was doing for those 3 hours?

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        I’ve got no experience with gyms so I just took him at his word that he was there for several hours. He liked to make a big thing about how he was fitter and healthier than I.

        1. CRM*

          Ugh, he sounds kind of like a jerk. Fitness and health notwithstanding, I would bet money he wasn’t actively working out for all 3 hours.

  22. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

    I’m surprised that Alison didn’t mention this, but the fact that your organisation transferred a problem employee to a new manager instead of dealing with the problem is a red flag. You may find your hands are tied when it comes to managing this person’s performance.

    1. CRM*

      It could be that the organization doesn’t realize how serious things are with the problem employee because her former manager didn’t feel like dealing with it, and that’s why she was moved. All the more reason for OP to take action now.

  23. Middle School Teacher*

    Time to fire her, OP. Solely for performance issues. Don’t even bring up the eating when you do.

    1. irene adler*

      Can she be fired?
      When I inherited a lab tech who was egregiously late most days (2 to 2.5 hours late), management explained that they could not take disciplinary action against her because her lateness had set a precedent. Nor could they fire her for this. Management had ignored the tardiness for years (more than a decade!) so they could not now -all of a sudden- start penalizing her or firing her for it.
      (I’m thinking this was management serving up excuses for their laziness in tackling the matter)

      I documented the times when her tardiness resulted in lost product (= lost $) because time sensitive testing was not completed on time. Made no difference. I was stuck with her.

      1. RC Rascal*

        I was in a situation like this one time. I was told I couldn’t fire someone who I thought needed to be fire.

        But here’s the kicker : Problem didn’t know I wasn’t allowed to fire her. I put the fear of God into that woman. I was mean and scary and frightened her into an acceptable level of performance until she finally left at a time that worked for her.

        This doesn’t mean I bullied or picked on her. I was really mean once. But she took it seriously.

      2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        You can’t draw on her previous incidents because they weren’t brought up in a timely manner.

        BUT you can always adjust your expectations and start from there. So you don’t say “Okay Nancy, you’re fired after being let slide for the last 8 years.”

        You say “Nancy, starting from today, your start time has to be at 8am. If you don’t abide by these new rules, there are consequences leading up to termination.”

        Then you actually enforce it from there.

        Your management are full of fools if they truly believe that is how it works. Even in CBAs you just have to start from square one in most situations, and square one is whenever someone draws it and clearly identifies it with the person who is supposed to change their patterns.

      3. General von Klinkerhoffen*

        Perhaps this consideration is why LW’s terrible management have shifted her around. But now she has a new manager the precedents change. We’ve talked often about “Boss A wants to be copied on everything whereas Boss B wants a weekly status report” and I don’t see that “Boss C is very casual about your timekeeping whereas Boss LW actually enforces the handbook” should be vastly different.

  24. Hello It's Me*

    TBH most people don’t work more than a few hours a day anyway. The time is spent chit-chatting with coworkers, or “looking like” you’re working. Of course she should get her stuff done, but it seems like she’s just less good at appearing to be doing something.

    1. Keymaster of Gozer*

      I’m curious as to what fields you work in where it’s normal to only work for a minimal number of hours a day? I’ve never seen it happen in IT without some kind of disciplinary action following?

      1. More Than You Think*

        Pretty much any of the people who write to Alison mentioning that they are underutilized at their jobs, including the intern in the recent letter who wasn’t being given enough tasks.

        1. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

          I’ve seen many more people write in about being overworked, than under utilised.

          1. Kat in VA*

            Oddly enough, I thought I would love to have a job where I could do things in a leisurely fashion, not work from home and weekends and PTO, and actually have time to surf the web – the way things are in my current position.

            Well, that leisurely workplace atmosphere happened this week. Most of our office is at a sales kickoff, and I managed to get a whole lot of backlogged stuff done, then got a bunch of wishlist stuff done, then started searching for stuff to get done…then left every day except Monday around 1300-1400 because I was actually bored and ran out of things to do. I predict tomorrow will be the same.

            Bring on the busy workplaces; it makes the time go faster and I don’t feel guilty for going on ebay or reading the news!

            1. Kat in VA*

              Edit: I feel guiltily compelled to add that I am salaried, and I definitely put in more than 40 hours a week on the regular. Just…not this week.

              I’m looking forward to next week when everyone comes back and we ramp up with a vengeance!

    2. Fikly*

      I’d love to see a source for this being as many people as “most.”

      How is the issue her being less good at appearing to be doing something when it’s clear that she is producing much less than everyone else?

    3. Helena*

      In consulting, when building staffing models for clients, we estimate that people are only actually productive for 5.5 hours a day. I increasingly believe it’s even less.

      1. Harper the Other One*

        I think that figure could be misleading, though, depending on what’s considered “being productive.” I’m thinking of a friend dealing with a toxic workplace right now whose team just got chewed out because their productivity “dropped” – after upper management added a mandatory two-hour meeting daily. So when I see something like that figure, I wonder if they include meetings/1 to 1s/etc. or just time where someone is working on designated tasks.

    4. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

      It sounds as though have been exposed to some pretty laid back workplaces. I sometimes have an “off” day or even 2 or 3 where I’m not very productive, but typically I am working flat out all day. I seldom take a lunch break of more than 20 minutes, and most days I eat at my desk. I don’t have the kind of job where someone else sets the pace. It’s just how I work. And I’d guess that even my most relaxed colleagues work a pretty solid 6 hours after lunch, smoke breaks and a bit of YouTube. I did have a team member who probably worked 2-3 hours a day – it was extremely apparent and eventually I had to escalate her.

      1. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

        Sounds as though YOU* have been exposed, sorry for the typo.

    5. Washi*

      I don’t understand the point of this comment. She’s not getting her stuff done, so how much time other people who DO get their tasks done are spending eating or chatting is irrelevant.

    6. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      It sounds like you’re projecting and don’t understand what people are actually “doing” so therefore you assume they’re faking it.

      It reminds me of the times someone has asked me what someone even does for a job and I can shoot off a list of their stuff and the eyes just widen with fear. Whereas if your job is a lot of sit around and wait, you assume that’s the same for everyone.

      There’s a difference between looking busy when you’re out of work and don’t want to have more piled on you and actually being unable to keep up with their work like this person.

    7. MissDisplaced*

      I worked at a place where the one long-time admin would basically do this.
      Our hours were supposed to be 7-4 or 8-5

      Arrive 9am
      Take a break at 10am for 10-15 minutes
      Take a 1 hour lunch at 12pm-1pm
      Take a walk break for 10-15 minutes around 2pm
      Leave at 3:30pm

      So, basically she only worked for about 5 hours, and a good portion of that was also spent chit-chatting with coworkers. She wasn’t my report, so I never said anything to her. But I was shocked her manager seemed to just let her do whatever. There were a lot of people in that office doing similar. Some of them would claim they started early and so left around 3pm, but I was often there at 7am and I know who REALLY came in.

    8. Amethystmoon*

      I worked pretty much straight through today except my half hour break and regular other 2 little breaks, but I do data entry, and have been busy lately.

  25. CW*

    She needs to go. At work, you are expected to do just that – work. While it is normal to take a 5 minute Facebook break, taking well over an hour of slacking off is a completely different story. As someone in my early 30s, I have had bosses who would not tolerate this kind of behavior for a single second. Assuming you haven’t talked to her already, fire her. She is wasting valuable time and money through lost productivity.

  26. KR*

    Hi OP! Obviously you should make sure this is consistent with your organizations culture and what your manager is ok with – but I think it is reasonable to take the stance that flexible work hours are a privilege contingent on demonstrating an ability to get your work done in a timely manner. This employee has demonstrated that she can’t manage her time correctly so you can take her flexibility away and not feel bad about it imo. You could even make it clear that if she successfully meets her deadlines for x amount of time her flexibility will be reinstated even if you think she isn’t likely to work out. But please say something! She has 8hrs a day just like the rest of your staff but she isn’t getting anything done. I’m guessing she might get upset or defensive (and of course she will – she’s getting a free ride right now so she will probably feel embarrassed and upset) so just let her feel what she has to feel and continue with the conversation and hold her accountable!

    1. Allypopx*

      The privilege point is important. People who take advantage of the perks of their jobs may earn themselves limited access to those perks. In an ideal world adults would be able to manage their time and responsibilities, and managers wouldn’t have to feel like parents taking a child’s toy away, but sometimes coaching an employee means putting restrictions in place.

    2. mf*

      I like this framing a lot. It also allows the OP to require the employee to put some structure around her schedule: “Until you’ve demonstrated you’re able to meet your commitments and deadline. Can we agree that you will arrive by 9 AM, ready to work, and leave at 5 PM with a one hour lunch break?”

  27. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    I’m getting severe flashbacks to an old former friend who ate this way and lost time while doing so because of the behaviour. She can’t hold a job because of severe attention issues in the end.

    I like exactly what Alison’s plan of action is. You have to get ready to terminate her as quickly as possible to save you all further issues. These will not change.

  28. Holy Moley*

    I honestly thought this was about a coworker at my old job but we didn’t have an open floor plan. She was ALWAYS eating and not really working. She also loved to tell us how busy she was and had so much work to do. The thing that drove me up the wall is she would always tell me when to go eat.

    Sounds like someone passed you a bad apple. Document the actual work issues. Missed X deadline on this day, had X errors this week etc. It will help in the process to either correct her or remove her.

  29. NYWeasel*

    One phrase my leader encourages us to use is:

    “It’s not just the ‘what’ but the ‘how’ you get stuff done.”

    Your assistant is struggling with the “what” and not even touching the “how”. She’s not taking feedback, not demonstrating professionalism, etc.

  30. Liz T*

    Isn’t there a lot of leeways with admins to call them exempt or not? I thought that was one of the annoying grey areas.

    (Fun fact: I’m an office manager and my current job has insisted I’m exempt because it’s a semi-managerial role, except I don’t have any subordinates and they just told me I’m supposed to be washing the kitchen floors, yay!)

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      You don’t have to have reports to be exempt. You have to have the right to make business level decisions and have the autonomy in your work. Lots of Office Managers without reports pass the tests for exemption. Even if they have some menial tasks involved as well, it’s about the big picture and how much time you devote to those labor tasks. If you were only washing floors, then it’s an issue. But if it’s something you do every couple of weeks for an hour, not an issue, most of your tasks are deemed clerical based most likely.

      1. Liz T*

        What constitutes business level decisions? I can decide what office supplies and snacks to order, within budget, but not much else.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          Ah. Then yeah, they’re playing games with classifying you as exempt with that lack of actual decision making ability.

          It has to be decisions that impact the company. Such as being able to sign them into agreements. If you could sign a binding contract for a vendor, that would count. If you could sign the contract for a new company vehicle, that would count. But no, small items like office/snacks is one of the “not this” examples I see everywhere.

          Office Manager is one of those titles that are often used across so many different levels and can vary drastically. I can negotiate with vendors and sign contracts with them, make decisions on how processes are done, establish new procedures and policies, I get to choose what we write off the books if it’s not collectable, I can give discounts or refunds or promotions when it seems fit without any permissions granted. And I also get to stock things because it fits into that job more than anything.

            1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

              Yuck, these people stink and gave you a title thinking that it means that you’re “management” and therefore salary.

              I’d say fight it but honestly the department of labor has done me dirty on a personal level after having to dig into that kind of thing for a close relative. So I mean, you could ring a bell but most likely they won’t answer it because the DOL doesn’t give a hoot unless they pull your number for a random audit. Sigh.

  31. TootsNYC*

    I don’t know how to address it with her without seeming like I’m picking on her.

    Ummmmm…..you are singling her out, because she deserves it.
    It’s not necessary to try to seem fair.

    “You can’t eat breakfast at you desk. You can only eat lunch at your desk, and you get one hour maximum.”
    “And you’re missing deadlines.”

    Just move really strictly to the missed deadlines and the productivity. Have a meeting a tthe end of every day: “What did you get done today?” Tell her you want her to track her time–and it’s OKAY if she’s the only one who has to–she’s the only one who has a performance problem.
    Keep records, and move to fire her.

    “Fair” is not “everybody is treated the same.” Fair is when everybody is treated appropriately.

    1. Courageous cat*

      Yeah… confused as to why we’re afraid of “picking on her”, and even calling it that in the first place. OP, this gives me some hesitancy about your management if you think that giving feedback about a very serious performance issue is considered unfair/picking on.

      1. Manager of Distracted Snacker*

        Hello, OP here. I have not gotten the full download from upper management but I was told that when her last manager tried to address some of these issues she made a hostile workplace complaint and that is why management was transferred. I have no clue how the other manager approached her, maybe it was done badly but I have been told to avoid making her feel singled out. Not much help otherwise though from my higher ups and meanwhile our avalanche of work isn’t slowing so even though it seems common sense it has been difficult to get more information from HR or the other manager or my director.

  32. Orange You Glad*

    I would focus first on her work hours and tie that to productivity. Assuming you have the authority, make it clear what her work hours are and that she must be at her desk working during those times, then hold her to it. No more coming in late. No more 2 hour lunch breaks. If she’s in late, she’s expected to stay late. Most likely even with that rigidity, her productivity will not improve. Then you have even more ammunition for letting this employee go in the future.

    I know you mentioned it’s part of your office culture to eat lunch at your desk while working, but does that need to be the case? When we had some issues in the past with low-level (non-exempt) employees taking a full hour lunch break to do whatever, then coming back and eating their lunches at their desks. We had to make a rule within our department that employees at that level can’t eat at their desks. Realistically not much work is getting done while you are eating a meal – that’s the purpose of the lunch break. Higher-level (exempt) employees have a little more flexibility but it’s generally agreed we’re not doing high-level work while eating.

  33. blackcatlady*

    The OP said the chronic eater is an entry-level employee. Trying to be most charitable here: she has no clue what real life work is. In college you do sit and munch at the computer while doing course work. Hurt feelings be damned sit her ass down in a chair and outline hard goals with a time frame. Go to your manager and get authorization to fire her.

    1. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

      However, OP has said that she eats instead of working, not while working: “While she is eating, her laptop is open but very little work is getting done or she is scrolling on her cell phone.” The constant eating might be annoying but it’s not the actual problem.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      Uh, no.

      Entry-level =/= young. She could just as well be a middle-aged woman who took time out to raise kids. Or she could be new to the field of work but not to working in general. And plenty of us had jobs before we graduated and knew perfectly well not to waste time on the clock.

      1. ACDC*

        +1
        I had an admin at a previous job that was 70 y.o. and acted the same way OP described. It really has nothing to do with age.

    3. Socrates Johnson*

      But also, you do the course work…..I think the all day eating is totally not the issue here, it’s that she clearly can’t do that and work at the same time. It could be anything. I eat ALL the time at work. It doesn’t affect my work product. Also, I’m a person that thrives on many distractions because it helps me to focus. It’s fine if people have odd work habits if not bothering others, but you have to do your work.

      1. blackcatlady*

        I said I was trying to be nice. The evil side of me says her disability is a serious lack of work ethic. That’s probably closer to the truth.

  34. Argh!*

    Accommodations have to be reasonable, so even if there’s a medical reason for the eating, not getting work done is not a reasonable accommodation. If she’s non-exempt, allowing her to have a 2-hour lunch with an earlier start time & later end time so she has more time for eating might be a reasonable accommodation.

    And yes, focus on the work, and offer EAP, but not a lowering of standards.

    Eating and sensitivity to criticism are both probably symptoms of some underlying problem that has to be solved outside the office. Disciplinary action at work could be the trigger to inspire her to seek help.

  35. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

    I’m not sure if the Admin is exempt. OP stated her department is normally exempt but the Admin just transferred and maybe isn’t or wasn’t previously. If she’s not exempt, you don’t have to let her be on a flexible schedule just because everyone else gets to. Different positions have different responsibilities and perks.

    I wonder if the previous boss lost their cool and behaved poorly … said something they shouldn’t have about her size or food … and that’s why management transferred the Admin. OP needs to stay detached emotionally and document missed deadlines and mistakes…who what where when…even if there’s a pattern around meals just track that there is a problem every day at 2:00.

  36. Observer*

    OP, one thing to keep in mind in all of this is that your employee will probably complain that you are “picking on her” or “attacking” her. There is nothing you can do about it, nor should you try. Just be clear, professional and personally respectful. Keep your tone as cool (not cold) as you can.

    “Where are you up to on the Whochima file?”, “The quackers list is due by COB today, are you on track to finish?”, “The deadline for the jumping jacks spreadsheet was 1:00pm today. What happened?” are NOT “attacking” or “picking on her”, as long as you don’t get heated when saying these things.

    If she complains about being picked on, tell her ONCE “This is not about singling you out. It’s about you getting your work done.” and then REFUSE to discuss it any further. And, make this part of your documentation. Document that she tries to get out of responsibility, and to deflect feedback by trying to create an argument about whether you can even give her feedback.

  37. Jane2*

    This is not about eating so please don’t make it about eating. Her output is insufficient (for whatever reason it doesn’t matter). In addition to Alison’s suggestions, please think about how this looks to other employees. They are all (and I mean all of them) watching this and waiting to see how you will handle it (or not). Right now, they are working, she is not and being allowed to not work and still be paid.

    In a previous job, I watched a situation unfold and waited to see how my then boss would handle it. She didn’t, which told me a lot, and I quit. Don’t risk losing good employees over bad ones.

  38. Scandinavian Vacationer*

    Does this employee fill out a time card? Ask her to email you (her supervisor) each day as soon as she gets in, and when she leaves. Get 2 weeks worth of data, and then meet with her to do the working hours math (and fill in time card together.)
    When I had a staffer who was chronically late, this strategy turned her around after a month. Or it will reveal big gaps in hours, which is also data for moving forward with PIP or termination.

  39. MissDisplaced*

    I think you just need to focus on the work productivity.
    She needs to get A, B and C done by the end of the day. If not, write up.
    She needs to get X, Y and Z done every week. If not, write up.
    Be clear on the actual work hours you want her there. (9-5 with 1 hour for lunch). Hold her to it. If she doesn’t comply, write up. You have every reason to insist she have a set schedule.

    Three strikes. She’s out. Do not mention the eating.
    Either she figures out how to get the work you assign done or she’s out. You just have to make VERY clear what work/output you need done and when it is due. Ideally, these should be her job duties as stated in the job description. And of course, they should be achievable things that you know the majority of people should be able to get done in a given time frame.

    This person has not been managed properly. So manger her.

  40. Feed Me*

    Oh wow – I don’t want to project but this sounds so much like me… except I will put in extra time over night to catch up if I fall behind. While your 1st priority is to look out for the business, please be compassionate as this could be a medical issue that is already difficult for her to deal with – my personal story to follow:

    Last year, I was recently put on medication for my ADHD after years of problems stemming from it. What was really surprising with this was the unexpected diagnoses of Binge Eating Disorder in conjuction with my ADHD (and caused or at least agrivated by the ADHD.) I always knew I had a problem with food because of my weight and could easily be the person wasting 4 hours of the work day eating. But I had no clue there was an actual medical reason behind it until I started treating the ADHD. On ADHD medication, my obsession with food is abruptly turned off. Un-caffiened or un-medicated, it’s like my ADHD brain is constantly pinging around in circles and bouncing back to food. When treated, it can stay in one spot and is no longer saying “FEED ME” every 2 minutes. After starting treatment, I lost 40 lbs in 4 months and stopped feeling dead tired at work every day!

    However, it’s not all rosey. Meds are not a magic bullet and are very addictive and easy to gain resistance to. I still struggle with effective ways to handle the BID and ADHD. I’m really glad my boss is willing to put up with me because of my skills and talents (he doesn’t know about the personal issues).

    I share all this is to illustrate that the employee’s issues may not be some personal shortcoming but caused by something else. I advocate for giving her a chance to clean up her act. I’ve found that I personally thrive best when given very clear deadlines, ever-changing projects, and feedback. Of course this job just may not be suited to her so it could be a kindness in the long run to compassiontly manage her out.

    1. Observer*

      The thing is that it doesn’t really matter if the employee’s behavior is a personal failing or not. The employee is not getting her work done, and that’s a problem all on its own. On top of that, she is being disruptive. Even worse, she has a habit of refusing to accept any valid criticism. Any attempt to deal with her issues is taken as a personal and unwarranted attack.

      So, the work is not getting done and it’s not likely to improve unless the OP can get through to the employee, which sounds unlikely.

    2. LavaLamp*

      As an adult also struggling with ADD I can relate. My brain doesn’t ping to food (other medications mean I do eat during the day but often have a lowered appetite) No my brain pings all over the place. I’m currently working with a therapist to get medicated myself. You know your ADD is bad when you’re trying to read a book, play a video game and listen to a podcast at the same time. It just isn’t possible

  41. Jean*

    I always marvel at these people – and we have ALL worked with at least one – who can terrorize an entire workplace with their incompetence, bad faith, and general bullcrap, and still keep their job. They always have a manager who’s not only afraid of cutting the dead weight, they’re usually actively afraid of even approaching the person about anything. These people really are like petty terrorists. I have to admire the chutzpah, even if I’m pretty disgusted with the entitlement and overall poor character.

    OP – FIRE THIS PERSON. TODAY. There will be immediate dividends in the form of higher morale and better culture, I promise you.

    1. London Calling*

      I worked with someone who had been doing this for years for exactly the reasons you outline – manager fear or inability to do anything. He then came up against someone who wasn’t prepared to tolerate some parts of his behaviour (serial harasser and groper, among other things). Took a while, but he was out, and some time later what he did when he did work is still being disentangled.

    2. Joe*

      “I have to admire the chutzpah, even if I’m pretty disgusted with the entitlement and overall poor character.”

      This is such a great way to describe how I feel about these types! I am almost envious of how someone can do so little, take advantage of perks, and have no sense of remorse! But it is very aggravating cleaning up their mistakes all the time.

  42. Betty*

    She needs to be put on a PIP, stat. And part of that should be explaining to her that until her performance improves and she is meeting XYZ goals for ABC time, she will no longer be entitled to the flexibility that other employees who are meeting their work goals are entitled to. She will be expected to be at her desk working from 9am to 5pm with a one hour break for lunch, and will have to notify the LW when she is starting and finishing that break each day.

    Furthermore, the LW would like her to fill out a one-week time audit to see if together they can come up with ways to help her use her time more efficiently. I highly recommend the LW keep a secret “what I reckon” time audit during that week so she can compare how the employee thinks her time is being used with how LW thinks her time is being used. E.g. 1pm to 2pm answering emails vs 1pm to 2pm slurping noodles loudly and scrolling mindlessly. Remember that as the boss, the LW CAN REQUIRE the employee to use certain working methods and productivity techniques. I know Alison has written about this before. “As a condition of your continued employment, I require you to [log all tasks in whatever software and check them off as you complete them].” “I don’t wanna.” “This is a condition of your continued employment.”

    AND to send a daily email explaining what the employee has achieved that day and her major tasks for the next day.

    And then tell her that if no improvement is seen in whatever time, the LW will have to let her go.

  43. TheFacelessOldWomanWhoSecretlyLivesinYour House*

    $3.99–that’ awesome. I live in a small rural town and a local delivery would be $10 because it’s a local person doing it. They advertise once in a while in local groups).

  44. Steve*

    Many people use food to regulate emotion. That’s why there is “comfort food.” Sometimes people overeat because they don’t feel a sense of control in their work life. OP mentioned “open office” and I hated working in one. IDK if there is an easy answer, but if giving said employee an actual office and letting them know that certain tasks are important because of x,y and z, there might be a chance things improve.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      That’s a huge leap.

      That’s also not at all what “comfort food” means. Comfort food means it has a sentimental value, that’s why it’s usually something your mom or meemaw made you as you a kid.

      Many assistants don’t have offices and a bizarre fix to suggest.

      1. Windchime*

        Yeah, I’d be pissed if a lazy co-worker who slacks off all day and takes long lunches was rewarded with a private office.

      2. Steve*

        OP mentioned her eating spaghetti…

        going with wikipedia’s definition:

        “Comfort food is food that provides a nostalgic or sentimental value to someone,[1] and may be characterized by its high caloric nature, high carbohydrate level, or simple preparation.[2] The nostalgia may be specific to an individual, or it may apply to a specific culture.[3]”

        That doesn’t contradict what you are saying. I did think the “carbs” were important. That’s why “tech” companies have unlimited soda and snacks.

        Also, many of us find working in an open office and extraordinarily frustrating experience. IDK if this is what is causing said employee problems but I know from personal experience it causes me problems. What I am going to say right now isn’t meant as sarcasm. If someone had ADD/ADHD and a doctor’s confirmation of the diagnosis, would it be reasonable to accommodate someone with their own office regardless of their position in the hierarchy?

      1. Steve*

        I might be jumping to conclusions, it’s just when I read that someone is eating 4 hours a day my immediate thoughts went there. I know there is a difference between “grazing” and “chowing down.” And I know different people have vastly different caloric needs. Someone who trains like Michael Phelps can eat a ton of food.

  45. Anonymous at a University*

    I think the OP might be focusing on the food because it can be hard to feel you can tackle a problem if the person is using food as a kind of shield for not doing work. I’ve had students who didn’t do anything in class except eat- didn’t take notes, refused to answer questions or give scheduled presentations or participate in writing I’d asked them to do- and the defense was always, “But it’s MY LUNCHTIME” or “This is the only time of day I get to eat!” I feel like I’m pretty reasonable about eating in the classroom, which is basically you can do it as long as you clean up messes and don’t eat during exams (it only takes one tomato falling out of a hamburger onto someone’s exam with a splash of mustard to get that rule in place), but I’ve had to add an explicit rule to my syllabus that they also can’t use eating to avoid writing or other classroom activities I’ve asked them to do. It just got ridiculous, and I felt heartless at first, but in the end it’s the same as anything else: you can’t just idly text through the class either, or listen to music and refuse to take your headphones off, or spend the entire class socializing in the hallway and expect to be counted present. Likewise, this person can’t not do her work no matter how much she has to eat. She has to be able to either work through the eating or put it aside to do the work.

  46. char*

    Yeah, the eating isn’t the real problem.

    To illustrate… I once had someone on my team who took not only ate constantly and took frequent meal breaks, but also would sometimes take random naps in the middle of the day. The difference between him and OP’s assistant? This guy got more done in 4 hours than most of his coworkers did in 8. So I had no complaints! He could eat all day long for all I cared as long as he kept doing great work.

  47. CM*

    I think what the OP is observing right now is that the 8 hours the admin spends at work don’t seem to be very productive. It could be that she would never be productive at this job, but it could be that there are a different 8 hours spread across the day somehow that would be super productive. While solving this problem, I think it’s important to keep an open mind about that, and approach it like, “We need to find enough productive time in your day for you to do the stuff you need to do in a way that also meets our needs,” and not, “We need you to be productive in these exact 8 hours, in this exact place.”

    So, it’s worth asking whether changing the work schedule, or going to a more flexible schedule, or working remotely would help. The problem with not getting stuff done might persist with those changes, but it could be worth trying it to see.

  48. Manager of Distracted Snacker*

    Thank you Alison, this is very helpful. I think your answer is spot-on. I won’t bring up food but I was so worried about accidentally stigmatizing eating that I focused too much on the food part of it as I started processing it. For folks wondering why I’m letting this happen without saying anything more direct. Due to the conflict with her last manager, I have been told I can’t begin actively managing her (meaning discussing performance issues) until February but I haven’t been told any reason why this is the case. I keep getting told I’ll get filled in soon but am left hanging. I’ve also been told that firing is not an option, the workplace culture is not to fire unless something really drastic happens.

    We do hour-by-hour work plans at the start of the week and I use a MOCHA model that makes it really clear what her responsibilities are, who can help if she is stuck, and when we are going to do progress checks. I’ve been doing basic time management skill building and we’ve been using the Franklin Covey quadrants to discuss the differences between important/urgent work and time wasters. All the focus has been on positive needs assessment and skill building. Performance troubleshooting will start in February.

    I think the most helpful takeaway here is that I need to have a frank discussion with my manager about how they expect me to turn things around given the constraints I’ve been asked to work with.

  49. LogicalOne*

    I would tighten up the verbiage and make it a policy that staff are allowed a one-hour lunch period and also allowed to have a small snack. But I agree in that if it’s for health reasons that she needs to be eating like that, there’s another case. Where I work, staff adhere to these guidelines….one hour lunch and then a 15 minute break to get some fresh air or have a snack or go to your car and sit…whatever you want to do in those 15 minutes is yours.
    She could be bored, incorporating snacking/eating as a way to pass the time at which point the job might not be for her. She could be depressed as eating excessively is a way to cope with depression. But this seems to be killing your staff’s morale. I would deal with it immediately.
    This reminds me of a staff member I manage that used to come in a minute before the start of her shift and once her shift officially started, would spend time to brush her hair, go in the bathroom and have a snack. She wouldn’t start work until 15 minutes after her shift started. This isn’t fair to everyone else that’s early and starts their work right away at the top of the hour. She has been with the company for many years and feels entitled to doing these things because she has built enough clout to get away with it which is another issue in itself.
    Good luck.

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