A reader writes:
I am a frequent long-term contractor at a very small company. There are two owners, two full-time employees, and a handful of freelancers and interns at any one time. The owners are wonderful people whom I enjoy spending time with, but they have a practice that some coworkers and I feel conflicted about: they expect us to eat lunch with them in the office every day. And pay (and shop) for it.
They send a tin around every week to collect our lunch payments, which supposedly are based on how much we are paid (my expected weekly contribution is $40). We take turns shopping for the lunch and assembling it. The owners think this is wonderful “family” time and feel it’s an added benefit for those who work there. On your first day, they say, “This is what we do for lunch” and after that, you’re locked in.
The problem is that sometimes we don’t want to all eat lunch together and feel pressure or worry about appearances if we decline. I’ve only known one freelancer who didn’t participate, and they said things like “Does he not like us?” “Is he anti-social?” So you pretty much have to participate or you’re sort of an outsider.
I’d be happy to do it sometimes, even more than once a week, just not always. What’s troubling is the expectation that everyone participate every day. Is there any kind way to inform the owners that something that they clearly love isn’t working for everyone? They would be hurt if they knew that some employees just want to get away for an hour.
They think this is “family time”? Are you perhaps all related?
If not, this isn’t family time, and it’s bizarre that they’re calling it that.
For the record: Workplaces aren’t families. They can be places where people have close, supportive relationships and genuinely care about each other, but unless they’re using a dramatically different business model than most employers in the U.S., they’re not families. They’re paying people to be there, and those people would not show up otherwise. Workplaces don’t typically inspire (or warrant) the sort of loyalty that families do, and families don’t typically fire people or lay them off.
This is more than semantics. It can have real ramifications for employees, because it generally means that boundaries get violated and people end up feeling like they’re supposed to display inappropriate amounts of commitment and loyalty, even when that’s very much against their self-interest. And it’s usually the employees who bear the burden a lot more than the company. Turn this around, and try to imagine an employee saying “but we’re like a family!” when her boss gives her critical feedback.
Anyway, that rant aside, the best thing here is to be straightforward and matter-of-fact. You can do that on a case-by-case basis, or you can do it big-picture.
If you do it case-by-case, then on days you don’t feel like eating with everyone else, just say, “I’ve got some errands I’m going to run today so I won’t be joining you in the kitchen. See you in about an hour!” Say it cheerfully and like of course it’s no big deal, and hope that they’ll respond with some degree of reasonableness. (I know they were all weird and sad about the freelancer who didn’t eat with them, but it sounds like that was every day, so maybe they’ll pull it together and get through the shock of you doing it less frequently? If not, you’d need to decide to just be okay with the fact that they’re baffled by your absences.)
But I think you’d be better off addressing it big-picture. That’s potentially more awkward, but it’s more likely to get you a clearer resolution. Ideally you’d get a group of coworkers to say this with you so that you’re not out on a limb by yourself, but if you can’t, it’s reasonable to say it on your own too. You’d say something like this: “It’s nice of you to set up these group lunches, but can we do them less often? Sometimes I/we need use my/our lunch time for other things — running errands or even just talking a walk — and it feels like a big deal to not attend. What if we switched to doing them once a week instead so that people can use their lunch break in different ways if they want or need to?”
Of course, that’s not even getting into the (seemingly required?) lunch payments. If you succeed in getting these lunches cut back to weekly or less, you may not need to. But if would be entirely reasonable for you and your coworkers to say, “You know, we don’t want to be locked into spending $40 on lunches every week. Can we switch to a system where we fend for ourselves so that people have more control of their lunch budgets? We could still do group lunches occasionally — maybe weekly or monthly? — but it would be easier on us if we brought our own food rather than shopping for the group and preparing it together.” That’s not really addressing the issue head-on (although certainly the money/shopping/prep part of this is a weirdness in its own right), but it’s an option if your sense is that it’ll go over better.
my office makes us cook and eat lunch together every day was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.