A reader writes:
My sister works in a local government office. Most of the time, she eats lunch alone at her own desk, but sometimes she will eat with some of her coworkers in one of their cubicles.
Recently, one of the coworker's supervisor came to them during lunch and told them that her supervisor ("Betty") asked her to come tell them that they can't eat lunch together (i.e., they can't eat with other people).
No real reason was given, other than "I'm sorry I have to tell you this, but Betty asked me to..." The general consensus amongst my sister and her friends is that Betty feels left out. Though Betty eats lunch with a friend every day, she doesn't socialize much with the staff. (There are some days the office orders takeout or if it's someone's birthday - where everyone in the office eats together).
Just based on what my sister told me (I don't personally know anyone else in her office), it seems a bit like Betty is afraid other workers will think my sister and her friends are being clique-ish. They are all of the same race and when they chat, they sometimes switch back and forth between English and their native (foreign) language. My guess is that if it were a group of racially or ethnically diverse workers, no one would care if they were eating together or not - but that's a different story. In general, there are groups of people who eat lunch together, and there are some people who eat by themselves.
Does an employer have the right to dictate who you eat lunch with, and more importantly, should they? The lunch break is 30 minutes, unpaid. There is an area with a fridge and microwave, but no chairs/tables to eat at so everyone eats inside their cubicles (no rule forbidding this).
On the one hand, I guess they can make rules about this because you are on company property. And cliques in the workplace are bad. I hate them. On the other hand, I think this is silly. It's one thing to tell workers to limit their congregating during work hours. But this is a lunch break and it's unpaid.
I think I would ask management to clarify the policy regarding lunch. How am I supposed to follow rules/policies, when we aren't told until we "break" them? (At least, these "rules" on lunch are not written down - they have official policies on dress code, work hours, etc).
Can they do this, legally? Yes. But that's a very different question than whether they should.
I'd be interested in knowing the reasoning for this rule. If you're all in cubicles and there's no other place to eat, it's possible that having a group lunch in someone's cubicle is disruptive to people nearby who are trying to focus on work.
But if this is the case, that should be explained to you, so that you're not left thinking that it's some arbitrary edict imposed for no good reason. In fact, the bigger problem than the rule itself is that it was just dumped on you with no explanation, so it made it seem heavy-handed and obnoxious.
It's also possible that Betty did explain the reason to the supervisor who approached you, and that supervisor is the one who erred when she didn't share it with you. So until you know otherwise, I'd be wary of assuming that the rule was made because Betty feels left out. That would be so over-the-top petty for a manager that unless you truly have reason to believe this, I wouldn't jump to that conclusion.
Why not simply ask? Sometimes people get so caught up in this sense of "us versus them" when it comes to dealing with their managers that they make things a lot harder (and more dramatic) than they need to be. Just ask: "Hey, ___ mentioned to us that we shouldn't eat lunch with each other, and that surprised me, so I was wondering what was behind that request."
Then come back and tell us what she says.