I want my lunches back!!
March 12, 2012 9:49 AM   Subscribe

Months ago, I was asked to do something outside of the scope of my job (over my lunch hour to boot). I don't want to do it anymore. What are my options?

When I started this job, I was asked to sit out at the reception desk during two hour-long lunches a week. I don't have a laptop and my job requires specialized software, so I can't work there. I bring a book and read, but it seems to me that answering phones, taking packages, and dealing with strangers does not a lunch hour make. I didn't want to do it, but I agreed since I liked the job and I wanted to seem like a team player.

Originally I was told that all new people were asked to do this and that as newer hires joined the company I would stop. As I started, someone else stopped, so this seemed true. But the next two hires were into high-level positions, and now it seems like I'm stuck.

On top of that, I recently learned that another entry-level hire (slightly before my time) was not asked to do it!

No one told me when I interviewed that I'd be a lunchtime receptionist. I'm terribly socially awkward, bad at the phone, and awful at remembering things like extensions, names, etc. If I was interviewing for a receptionist position I would not get it.

I find this whole thing demeaning (not because I think it's beneath me, but because I'm bad at it and it looks really bad on me. I go from seeming competent and skilled to seeming, frankly, ditzy and stupid) and frustrating. I was originally planning to just grin and bear it (I like this job and, other than this, my supervisor is fantastic). But after learning that that other entry level person didn't have to do it I've become really upset about it. I even found myself making snippy passive-aggressive comments about it to coworkers the other day (which: bad bad no good idea). So:

Do I talk to my supervisor before getting called out for being snotty about it? Do I just try to retain my composure and not talk about it?

If I do talk to him, how? I have a solution that I think would work. Do I present it?

If I don't talk to him, how can I chill out about this? I don't really WANT to get better at it because it's not within the scope of my job and I have no desire to waste brain space on it, but at the same time it's really embarrassing that a grown-ass women should have to run around the office begging for help when someone new calls (also -- I just remembered that I forgot to pass on a message from last time I did this thing! Dammit! How can I screw up so bad?).
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (26 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
"[Supervisor], I've realized over the past few months that I am not effective at these tasks. I think my time would be more productively spent on my normal work and taking my lunch break to collect my thoughts and review next steps on my assigned projects. I would be happy to help train a suitable replacement - bearing in mind my own limits - if you don't plan to hire a receptionist or assign someone with relevant experience."
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 9:57 AM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wait. So you are female and the other new hire who was not asked to do this is male? And two days per week you do not have any REAL lunch break??

I think you need an employment lawyer and not metafilter for a clarification. Not that you are suing anyone, just that you need a clarification on your rights in your jurisdiction, NOT a bunch of Internet opinions.

Or, call your state's labor department for a clarification.

This sounds wrong to me. Check out your rights before talking to your employer.
posted by jbenben at 9:59 AM on March 12, 2012 [25 favorites]

The next time you are asked to do this, simply say "oh, that's not possible. I'm really busy with [project]. Maybe ask [new guy] to do this?" Don't apologize or say any excuses about not being good at it.
posted by joan_holloway at 10:01 AM on March 12, 2012

Is the slightly earlier hire a guy? If so -- hmmmm. That would be shitty. If that's the case, I'd definitely bring the differing expectations for male vs. female hires up with a supervisor, although I'd be careful about how.

If you haven't read it, I highly recommend the book Women Don't Ask for learning about how to negotiate things more effectively. It'll help on this, and it'll help in the future.

What are lunch breaks like at your company? I know my company has no set lunch break hours for most salaried employees (like me), and people generally end up eating at their desks while working to try to get through their workloads. The admin staff gets a proper lunch break, and trades off who covers the phones for each hour. So the admin staff are actually the only ones to get a proper lunch break, they just take it at a different time. Where are you located? Are they required to provide you with a lunch break? If so, and if they're not willing to budge on having you do this, I'd ask to take a proper lunch break an hour later on those two days, and have the phone-covering time be part of your job.

Can you ask earlier hires who have done this (or whoever does this the other three days) about how this has gone down in the past? There may be history you want to be aware of.
posted by pie ninja at 10:05 AM on March 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Your company is being cheap by not hiring someone who is qualified to do this. Are you at least being paid for this time (assuming you aren't exempt)? Don't get trapped into saying yes to everything because at some point, you can't do everything, one thing will suffer and it will look bad because it was all getting done before. Never mind that you were being overworked.

I have a solution that I think would work. Do I present it?
posted by soelo at 10:05 AM on March 12, 2012

it seems to me that answering phones, taking packages, and dealing with strangers does not a lunch hour make

This is very true. The task you describe is itself a job, one that many people do full-time and take lunch breaks from. Your lunch break is supposed to be a time when you are free from job-related demands, not a brief period mid-day where your job description changes and you try to wolf down your sandwich between tasks. This arrangement is almost certainly illegal where you are, and you're absolutely right to feel insulted and taken advantage of. If they don't have someone to cover the phones during lunch, they need to get someone or turn on voicemail.

If I were in your position I'd talk to a lawyer or research the labor laws myself and present it to the supervisor as "Look, this is illegal, and I tried to roll with it for a while because it sounded temporary but it doesn't seem like it's changing anytime soon. I'm disappointed that a company I otherwise love would try to cut corners like this. We need to get somebody qualified for this job who can actually be legally on the clock while they're doing it."
posted by contraption at 10:13 AM on March 12, 2012 [8 favorites]

I would present your solution that would work - talk to your supervisor because this really is not fair unless it is part of your job description. Did your supervisor ask you to do this or did someone else?

At my previous job a situation like this actually ended in a lawsuit. I think the receptionist duties were only part of the overall problem, but the employee won.
posted by fromageball at 10:15 AM on March 12, 2012

Prior to hauling out the legal threats I would try and deal with directly, if everyone actually did that I'd wager they would find a better solution.

Hi boss, we need to talk about the receptionist fill-in I've been doing. As part of the newer hires I was willing to do this even though it was outside the scope of my actual job. But, I am having troubles with it and am uncomfortable, as I don't work well in that situation and on top of it am giving up my lunch hour about 40% of the time. I would like to not have to do this anymore, especially ass it is not why you hired me.

If that does not work, yeah the legal route is what to fall back on.
posted by edgeways at 10:16 AM on March 12, 2012 [8 favorites]

If you are being denied your lunch break, it sounds like there would be ample room for discussion regarding potential rights under the FLSA. Unfortunately, Ask Metafilter is good at identifying that this is a possible issue for you, but is really horrible at providing you with specific legal advice.

Notwithstanding that issue, I agree that there are potential gender issues going on here, including, for example, if other, similarly situated male employees are not being asked to cover the receptionist desk. Again, other than spotting this as a potential issue, it's really tough for anyone qualified to give you actual legal advice about your particular situation in this particular forum.

Those issues aside, it also seems that the way your managers handle this situation may give you insight into how they view you (and the relative importance of your job). Without knowing more about your job and company, it's really hard to gauge the level of support or outrage (setting aside the potential FLSA and discrimination issues).

For instance, when I was a (paid) minimum-wage college intern at a bank, I occasionally had to cover the receptionist desk, even though I also did some client-facing work and some specialized tech work. Intern and receptionist? Yeah, those are interchangeable. But that situation is a lot different than if we were talking about brokerage trainee, or a much-higher-than-minimum wage person, or other higher-on-the-food-chain positions, even.

Again, setting aside the other issues, complaining that you're not good at the receptionist tasks is something I'd do very cautiously. "Hey, boss, I'm really not good at keeping messages organized, and I'm too socially awkward to interact well in-person with people." That's not something that a valued employee really says to their boss. Dunno, maybe you're in a position in which success doesn't require those sort of skills, but if it's any type of higher-level task, organization and social interaction seem to be basic stuff, and heading down that particular road seems fraught with peril.

posted by QuantumMeruit at 10:20 AM on March 12, 2012 [4 favorites]

edgeways has it. I would go on to add on that paragraph that you have a possible solution and explain what that is. Say it all in a helpful positive way, rather than a complainy negative way (even tho I'd be feeling complainy and negative about it if it were me!)
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 10:23 AM on March 12, 2012

I think Inspector.Gadget's answer and jbenben's answer are two sides of the same coin. Start by talking to your boss about your concerns - you feel that you are not very productive in this particular assignment and it takes up your lunch hour, so you would like to work with the supervisor to come up with a plan that is fair to everyone (including you). It sounds like the current situation is not fair to you since another entry-level person was able to avoid desk duty. Maybe the solution will be to get the new person to take 1 shift a week so you only have to sit at the desk once a week, which would even out the burden with the new person. See if just asking resolves it - maybe you'll be bumped down to once a week and then get out of the assignment when a new hire comes along.

But DOCUMENT EVERYTHING. After your meeting with your boss, send an innocuous email to your boss saying "Thanks for discussing the issue with me, here are my notes so we're on the same page." That adds some accountability to the boss, and it's documentation that you can use if this continues. Moreover document relevant information for your own records. What was the job description when you were hired? When were you asked to do receptionist duties? When did the entry-level hire start? When did you talk to your boss?

If it turns out that the company is unwilling to budge and you find that you are being singled out to take on secretarial duties based on being part of a protected class, then you'll need that documentation, and others have covered those next steps pretty well. So for example if it turns out that only women at the company are asked to cover the receptionist desk, you'll have documented that you clearly asked to drop that responsibility just like your male coworkers and it was denied.

Finally, answering this: If I don't talk to him, how can I chill out about this? I don't really WANT to get better at it because it's not within the scope of my job and I have no desire to waste brain space on it, but at the same time it's really embarrassing that a grown-ass women should have to run around the office begging for help when someone new calls (also -- I just remembered that I forgot to pass on a message from last time I did this thing! Dammit! How can I screw up so bad?).

Look, I was so socially anxious that I had to seek therapy for it. Fast forward a few years and I have given a presentation to an audience of 4,000 people with very little difficulty. This kind of stuff can be learned. Even if you don't want to do this, being helpful on the phone and pleasant to people in person are skills that will help you in any job or situation and that can be slowly learned - so I suggest learning to be good at this to benefit yourself in the future, not to benefit your current employer. My advice would be: even as you try to move past this crappy assignment, apply yourself to it for 2 hours a week. Try very hard to help the person on the phone and make them feel comfortable, as if they were your grandparent / best friend who needed help. Take copious notes when taking a message and develop a system for making sure they are passed on (I write everything in a notebook, and it only gets crossed out when it's handed off to the right person. Anything not crossed out is still my responsibility). Read How To Win Friends and Influence People and practice that with people who come to the desk. Don't think of it as applying yourself to a role you don't like, think of it as learning new skills that you'll use to get better positions where you aren't asked to do stuff like this. Honestly, if you get really good at this, there's a decent chance your boss will think "Hey, anon is really good with clients. We are wasting their time putting them behind the receptionist desk, we need to get them on the phone with clients."
posted by Tehhund at 10:29 AM on March 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

This isn't very likely to be illegal, but a lot depends on your status. If you're salaried, your job description may include wording like "and other duties as assigned".

Also, jobs change. Unless you've got a very specific contract or a collective bargaining agreement, it's legal in most places in the US for your job to change.

So the dilemma is probably going to be "how do I get my boss to change his/her mind?"

You don't want to highlight your ineptitude to accomplish this.

I think your best shot is a direct approach with some subtle language:

"Hey boss, I'd like an update on the lunchtime coverage issue. Do you know how much longer I'll be doing 'double duty'? I thought it was temporary. "

Listen to response....

Follow with "Kevin's a newer hire. Can he come on board? It's really creating a big chunk of unproductive time for me. I need to be at my computer with the software to get my work done."
posted by vitabellosi at 10:50 AM on March 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

You know what? I was asked to do this in junior high school- I guess I seemed reliable- and it still bothers me that some authority figure asked a quiet girl to answer phones and deal with school related administrative stuff (mostly telling older kids that they couldn't use phone, which was scary at the time) and didn't allow me to use my own time to play with my friends or whatever.

You are being taken advantage of. Also I hate answering phones too. You need to tell you boss this is making you uncomfortable- don't say because you are bad at it because like you said, it's not your job to improve your receptionist skills. Just say you need your lunch hours back to focus on...eating or whatever you might need to do during your FREE TIME from working. Within the confines of your own job/role/schedule.

Don't let them take advantage of you, it's just not right. Maybe initially you were just doing a favor, that time has come and gone and now you are doing someone else's job for free.
posted by bquarters at 10:50 AM on March 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

And don't present it as "you can't do you own work there." Otherwise they'll just get you a laptop.
posted by barnone at 10:51 AM on March 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think you're going about this all wrong. Rather than concentrating on how unfair! this is, I think you should try to do the job better. You're in a very visible position, and have the opportunity to work with just about everyone in the place. Rather than being resentful and grumbling, I'd leap on this as a chance to meet and interact with everyone on all levels. Sad but true--people with poor social skills don't do well working with others. So, why not try to improve? Develop a program to note all the calls and messages, so that you won't forget and everyone can be dazzled by your ability to solve problems.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:08 AM on March 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Not her job, and giving up lunch breaks so she can optimize a system that she is not primarily responsible for and develop skills tangential to what she actually does so for a living? Sounds like a shit sandwich.

FWIW no one is going to be dazzled or think of it as problem solving by someone working 2 hours a week who manages to not forget a telephone message and signs for packages while everyone else in on lunch break.
posted by edgeways at 11:16 AM on March 12, 2012 [15 favorites]

> You're in a very visible position

That's one of the problems, as I see it. She's going to be associated with being a receptionist. When they're handing out projects, at the back of their minds she'll be a receptionist -- and thus not deserving of promotion.

I've been a receptionist. It's a fine job -- if you're a receptionist.
posted by The corpse in the library at 11:37 AM on March 12, 2012 [15 favorites]

Wasting a resource with hard skills to perform soft skills is bad enough, but taking away a person's legal break for this is just plain wrong. And if the earlier new hire on a similar level who didn't have to do this is male, then, yeah, it's pretty crappy.

You would not be out of line to call the labor board to get clarity. You should definitely look at your hiring papers before doing that to make sure you know what they say about extra duties (which doesn't excuse taking away your lunch).

Simultaneously, you can have that conversation with your manager. Emphasise that you're wondering how much longer this temporary assignment will go on and float your idea.

If the boss says it'll be ongoing or isn't attentive to your idea (receptive might not be possible, but attentive is important), then you should combine that data with the information with what you got from the labor board to decide what to do next - your options are to have a harder conversation with your boss, make a report to the labor board, invoke an employment lawyer, find a new position elsewhere, or put up with it as is. I really hope you don't choose the latter.
posted by batmonkey at 11:46 AM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

[Folks, OP is asking for how to solve this problem for herself. Variants of "suck it up" are not really helping that, please answer the question being asked. Thank you.]
posted by jessamyn at 12:06 PM on March 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

To clarify batmonkey's statement to "call the labor board", the US Department of Labor is the agency in charge of enforcing the FLSA (Fair Labor Standards Act), which addresses, among many other things, the rights and remedies of covered employees being forced to work through their lunch hour. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the agency which could (potentially) take action relating to a claim of sex discrimination.

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), among other things, investigates charges of unfair labor practices (which include, for example, unlawful retaliation against employees who try to organize a union). From the OP, it's not at all clear that the NLRB would have any jurisdiction here, but any second-year law student taking Labor Law could probably come up with some hypothetical additional facts which would make it fit in there.

The OP may also have enforceable rights under various state laws.

A private lawyer would be able to give advice specific to the OP's jurisdiction, employment status, and other specific facts.

This is just my effort to make some general statements about the lay of the legal landscape. Nothing in my post here is meant to dissuade the OP from contacting ANY law-enforcement agency. OP, you should talk to an employment lawyer in your state. There simply aren't enough facts here to provide a solid answer regarding your legal rights, and, even if you did provide more facts, it's very difficult (if not impossible) for lawyers to advise you.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 12:11 PM on March 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Lawyering up seems a bit much here. I was in a similar situation a while back, but more because I started with a temp role where I would take anything to get more hours and then moved into a full-time, much more senior position. I was still doing reception at lunch because there was no one else to do it.

What worked for me was explaining to my direct supervisor that I couldn't get her work done because I was spending over an hour at the front each day and it really broke up my day. Just explained how I couldn't work from the front desk, was missing calls to my phone, and other ways it was impacting my "real" job. My supervisor didn't want that, she wanted me getting her work done, therefore, she made the change happen.
posted by dripdripdrop at 12:28 PM on March 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


I can't make out from your question whether the sexism angle that many are assuming is for real or just assumed. IOW, whether the female new hires are being systematically lined up for this while the male ones are systematically skating by. Since everyone else has covered that possibility, I'll speak to this as if this is NOT taking place. Rather, I'm assuming that your company just tags people with this (or not) in some random way (possibly based on whether they need more people for the role at the time).

First, the thing about not getting a true lunch break is really shitty, and based on the way you've phrased the question, seems to be the main problem. Is it possible to take at least 30 minutes on the day you've been stuck with this, either before or after, to at least eat? Can you say to your supervisor "I've got the reception desk today so I need to run an errand I would have run on my lunch break; be right back." I think I'd have to do this for my mental health even if the "errand" was to go around the corner for coffee. Or similarly, to take 30 minutes to eat at your own desk where you're not in the public eye.

Second, I'm conflicted about your assessment of how well you're doing the job. The company you work for does not place a great deal of emphasis on having a well-trained receptionist. If they did, they'd have one - they'd have 2 or 3 in the admin staff, actually, who do it enough to be good at it. So I wouldn't be too choked up about how great it was going. But I would be learning how to operate the phone system and how to operate whatever you're using to forward messages, be it an e-mail system or a paper notepad. Your statement about "using up brain space" or whatever is a bit self-pitying. If you can walk away from this job, great, do it, but if you're stuck with this unpleasant task because you need the job or otherwise like the job, learn to do this one thing that isn't your bag. Presuming you do something else on a professional basis in an office environment, you can learn to do these tasks on at least a basic level.

The statements everyone's making about FLSA (either on the sexism angle or the unpaid labor angle) are a bit high-strung. Can you make a case? Yeah, maybe. But I think a more constructive angle would be to go talk to your supervisor and say "this is cutting into my productive time, no matter how you slice it. The receptionist does X number of things in that hour (where X is some realistic number based on your experience), so I am neither able to eat, do my actual job, nor mentally regroup for the afternoon's work. Management may picture it as just sitting at a desk; it's more involved than that." If they're reasonably enlightened people, you may have a chance to educate them. My guess is this is a small-to-medium size company where the reception role has kind of evolved in a haphazard way. At companies this size, being too inflexible about what you expect to do during your workday tends to get greeted with resentment from managers who have also done that job (and cleaned restrooms, etc. etc.), so frame it in terms of what's good for the company and fair to you. A management or skilled salary person, which it sounds like you are, doesn't punch a clock like an assembly line worker, so unless you are stuck at the desk and given no relief and never have time during a work day to do personal things, you have to be careful about how you complain about work lousing up your lunch hour. Not saying you can't; I'm just saying that the "not getting paid for that hour" argument becomes a bit more complex to make.
posted by randomkeystrike at 12:53 PM on March 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

I wonder if it's possible to simply ask your boss when he/she thinks the new hire(s) might be ready for the receptionist duties? This would just be repeating back information that they gave you when you were hired. Maybe it would be too difficult to sound neutral, but a reminder might help clarify the management's assumptions about the extra work. These really are just extra duties and I don't know that it would seem hugely lazy to want to know when they might be passed along (this is where asking some coworkers about the history of the job might help). I don't think you should have to deal with a bunch of lies and work-arounds just to get your job back on track.
posted by stoneandstar at 2:11 PM on March 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I find this whole thing demeaning

As you should.

If you can find a workable solution, I really suggest you present it. But you may find that this is not the workplace for you, culturally-speaking.
posted by mleigh at 2:27 PM on March 12, 2012

What is your goal for this job position? What are you getting from this job besides the pay check? Are you getting valuable experience that you can take with you and get a better job, is this a reputed company that would look good on your resume etc..you get the drift. If this is just a filler job and something you have since you dont have anything else, then the stakes are not that high. You can be clear and concise and let them know that you dont appreciate this.
posted by pakora1 at 2:35 PM on March 12, 2012

I'm terribly socially awkward,

Then don't be social - be professional and courteous. Memorize the three lines of dialog you must master; "How can I help you?", "Good Question. Let me see who can help with that," and, "Let me connect you."

bad at the phone,

"Good afternoon, XYZ Corporation, this is anonymous." Forward to extension or voice mail. If they insist on leaving a message, write it chronologically in a spiral notebook so it doesn't go missing or overlooked and you have a backup copy. Then write the message or email to the recipient.

and awful at remembering things like extensions, names, etc.

Don't try to remember, use an alphabetical cheat sheet, just like everybody else does.

Every company has initiation rituals, and this is probably one of them. Can you adapt and transform, or do we get to watch your head explode? Very Large Corp used to do this to every new engineer hire and watch to see if they handled it by building a system that worked for them, or just let frustration overtake them. It's very telling. Add in the lunch hour deprivation angle, and we have a full-blown research project here.

Once you've done with this, you'll be in on it when they do it to the next person. Be kind.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 6:40 AM on March 13, 2012

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