Lunch policy-can I work through lunch?

I enjoy talking about policies and whether or not policies are necessary. Recently someone asked me what I thought about a policy on working through lunch. The phrasing led me to believe that their employees were working from their desks while eating (and by working I mean surfing the web).

So, with that in mind, did I recommend a “no eating at your desk rule?”


I encouraged my friend to look at the situation in the context of job performance. If employees are completing work and abiding by the rules, leave them be. On the other hand, if it is affecting performance by causing them to not finish their work on time, have more mistakes, etc., then approach the situation from that legitimate standpoint.

A follow up comment by my friend was that the policy would be “too hard to manage” if done piecemeal, so it should be a flat ban across the board if it went into effect. My response was that people choosing to eat at their desks or not isn’t something that really requires management (or attention) unless it impacts their level of performance.

This isn’t 1910. We don’t have to stand over people every minute of the day to “crack the whip” and make them work. If you do, then you have larger problems on your hands.

Focus more on what is accomplished and less on the how.

What are your thoughts?

12 thoughts on “Lunch policy-can I work through lunch?

  1. Chris Ponder

    Hi Ben,

    I definitely agree with you in regards to employees working through lunch. You shouldn’t have to stand over them if they are doing what they are supposed to do. However, it depends on what kind of employees you have – exempt or non-exempt. If they are exempt and choose to work through lunch, they choose to work through lunch. If they are non-exempt, 1) the state could regulate that the employee has to take a meal break after a certain amount of time, and 2) the company could encourage a meal break after so many hours (usually 5 hours or more).

    I have had to manage this issue across my organization. Because we have office assistants (non-exempt) working in the branch and they have a lot to do, many of them don’t want to take their lunch break and eat and work. Our company does encourage a meal break after 5 hours of work and we highly encourage it because people need a break. Additionally, encouraging/enforcing lunch breaks for non-exempt associates can assist in the future if someone ever quits or gets terminated and then they contact the DOL stating they never got a lunch (I have seen this many times in my years of HR, as well).

    Just my thoughts…..


  2. jkjhr

    I agree with Chris, it depends. In Illinois, there is a law that states non-exempt employees are supposed to take a lunch break and the employees cannot waive the rule. Exempt, however, can work as much as they like.

  3. Jorden Bartlett

    Why not create an inviting area where employees can eat lunch together? Get to know each other better, develop stronger connections. Create a sense of community. That’s why people work hard. They stay for the pay cheque but they pull out the stops for a company when they have a strong connection. Use this lunch time to help yourself!

  4. Steve Browne

    My question is “Why is the HR person looking to add yet another policy?”

    If the behavior isn’t working, or if the employee isn’t doing work, then just TALK TO THEM !!

    Sorry to yell, but it blows me away that HR has fallen into such a deep hole when it comes to writing policies. We forget that there are many employees who work for us and not just a few. Most policies are written because of the behavior of a few folks.

    Chris and John are right on point here and I agree with their responses,but it just kills me that we see this over and over again.

    I wish I could teach every HR pro out there the uncanny skill of talking to their employees. They are yearning for it and are so understanding 99% of the time when ambiguity is cleared up. Don’t think that employees will follow the policy, or that it will be consistently enforced, just because it’s written down.

    I need to go and grab a snack, coffee and wander around the office now just to see if someone will write a policy !!

    Thanks for hitting a hot button Ben. I appreciate that you’re being proactive.

  5. Robin Schooling

    Can’t overstate enough that the non-exempt issue is important. Even if not required (i.e. by state law) to take a lunch, if you suffer or permit the NE employee to work through their lunch (and know or should have known they were doing so), you MUST pay them. This turns into an expense – 5 hours of OT per week for each NE employee? yikes! And Susie sitting at her desk eating will, more than likely, answer her phone, take a few minutes here or there to do some tasks. And thus, she’s working.

    A policy necessary? No. But an expectation of the managers to manage this situation – treat it positively “hey Susie, we appreciate your desire to get more stuff done, but we really want you to rejunevate yourself over lunch and not have to be grabbing the phone, answering questions, etc.”

    One way I’ve seen this work – the NE employees who DO choose to eat at their desks (i.e. to surf the interwebz, etc), merely post a little sign on their cubicle wall “out to lunch” or something to that effect. They don’t answer their phone, maybe even put some earbuds in, and DO “take their lunch.”

  6. Doug Shaw

    Hi Ben – great to see you’ve got a good discussion going on here. I agree with Jorden – make the lunch thing feel like being part of a community. And as for what Steve says – yes! Less policy, more conversation. Works for me every time.

    Following our recent exchange around zombiehr, I wrote a piece on using lunch as a way for employees to thrive. Not only is it a great way to meet folk, the conversations people have often means less crappy email flying about as they meet, talk and agree stuff face to face. Here is the link in case you or your readers are interested.

    Very much enjoying your site – keep it up!

  7. Jeff Williams

    Ben, great post. I agree that state laws may dictate some of these decisions. On a bigger picture, I do not recommend a “do not eat at your desk” policy. I’ve seen this turn into a fiasco in some environments I’ve worked in before. General rule of thumb is don’t create a policy unless you’ve thought through how you will implement and enforce it. In my opinion, this one (eating at the desk) is a lose all the way around.

  8. Leon Noone

    G’Day Ben,
    You are absolutely correct: which means that I agree with you. This is the sort of thing that happens when there are no clearly defined and measurable performance standards for individual employees and intact work teams.

    And what’s it got to do with HR anyway? Surely it’s part of a manager’s job to make these decisions.

    As long as HR people allow themselves to be sucked into this sort of bureaucratic trivia, they’ll never be treated as the professionals they claim they are.

    I’ll stick my neck out a little further and say that any company that thinks that “working through lunch” requires some sort of formal policy, has probably got issues that desperately need professional HR assistance.

    That’s this Aussie curmudgeon’s opinion anyway



  9. Amy Wilson

    I like Robin’s suggestion – more of a protective guideline that still provides flexibility for people who need a different kind of break than offered in the break room/cafeteria. Though I do encourage people to build relationships over lunch breaks, sometimes the will/energy just isn’t there.

  10. Daniel Rose

    I agree with Steve Browne, above. There is often a lack of “human” in human resources. Policies are only as effective as your employees allow them to be.

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