When Deadlines Interfere with Lunch Time

Elaine Varelas offers advice on how to handle employees who are not flexible with their lunch breaks.

Ask the Job Doc.
Ask the Job Doc. –Boston.com

Q: One of my employees takes his lunch at the same time every day, regardless of what’s going on in the office. If we have an unexpected 1pm deadline, he’ll leave exactly at noon, knowing the rest of the team is left shouldering the work. I know everyone is legally entitled to their breaks, but I think it shows a poor work ethic and lack of awareness. What should I do next time?

A: First, have you talked to this employee about his behavior and about having some flexibility? If not, here’s my main concern: There are people who need to eat at a prescribed time because they are diabetic, on medication, or have some other condition unknown to you. Many people have legitimate reasons for taking their breaks at a specific time each day, so make sure you consider and address this possibility.

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However, it’s within your role as manager to have a conversation with your employee about this issue. Don’t wait until the next time it happens—have the conversation now: “Jeff, I know you take your lunch at noon, and sometimes this poses a hardship for the team. For example, the XYZ project last week was a big push for us; I’m not sure you were aware that we could have used your help.” Don’t accuse him of a poor work ethic or lack of awareness, just state that facts. He then has the opportunity to clarify whether he needs or just likes to take his lunch at a certain time—which are very different things. He isn’t required to tell you specific medical details, but if he needs to keep a strict schedule for health purposes, communicate your understanding. If he simply wants to take lunch each day at noon, that is a different conversation, and you need to know if this employee will honor an all-hands-on-deck request in the future. While you are correct that employees are legally entitled to breaks, state laws differ, and meal breaks often don’t come into play until after five or six hours on the job. Specific laws can be found at the Department of Labor website. In any case, it’s reasonable to expect employee flexibility.

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Many people are oblivious to coworkers and the impact their behavior has on them. In this case, you need to make this individual aware. How did the rest of the team know that they should stay and help? Whatever form of communication works for them needs to work for this individual, too. If he’s walking out the door an hour before deadline and you say, “Jeff, could you stay and help with this project?” his response will guide your approach to the situation. If he says, “I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize, I’m happy to stay,” then you know the issue was just one of awareness. If he says “no,” don’t argue with him at that moment. Instead, plan a future conversation with the employee explaining that you’d appreciate some flexibility when working against a deadline and need to know that you can count on him. Be cognizant of the impact on all employees of what you are asking. An occasional one-hour lunch delay shouldn’t cause much resistance. But a multiple-hour delay on a regular basis says plan better or provide lunch for everyone on site.

Look at your role in this situation, too. As manager, are you clear about needing the team’s extra assistance or is it an unspoken expectation? Don’t expect your team to read your mind—not being clear about your expectations could be part of your problem.

If this is a regular or widespread occurrence, it may indicate a cultural issue. If there’s always a rush deadline, your employees may be immune to it, or your office environment might not be that cooperative. These underlying issues present a larger concern than just one person being a stickler about lunchtime. Cultivating a flexible, cooperative culture can take work, so make sure you clearly express expectations, communicate with your team, and show appreciation for their extra efforts.