I want to stop eating lunch every day with my employee

A reader writes:

I have a direct report, “Dan,” who expects to eat lunch with me and another colleague, “Amy,” every day of the week.

We were friendly and ate together a lot before I became his boss, and I would say are generally still friends. I do work hard to be clear on when the boss/buddy line starts and stops.

At any rate, in the name of variety in my week and keeping the aforementioned line intact, I simply can’t eat with him every day. The other colleague mentioned feels the same, although the reporting structure has nothing to do with it for her. How do I encourage him to reset his expectations about us eating together every day? How can I encourage him to venture out without feeling “ditched”?

More background in case it helps:

We sit on the same floor, but most of the communication before lunch occurs over our instant messaging software. It’s a very quiet environment/culture, one where three of us in the lunchroom causes too much noise (and we eat with the door closed). IM allows us to say things without a “shh” repercussion. Maybe some context is lost in this communication platform.

Sometimes Amy will let me know ahead of time that she is not available for lunch. She’s got other plans, or she’s got a meeting, whatever. She will usually let me know as early in the day as possible, and she usually lets Dan know at least one hour before lunch. Dan will let me know anywhere between 15 and 5 minutes before the expected time (11:30) that “Amy is ditching.”

Since I usually know this in advance, I feel like I can’t “ditch” him too. So, I usually eat with him alone then. There are times where it is reversed and I do the ditching and Amy eats alone with him (although she says he never refers to it as ditching when I am not there). If I do know ahead of time that I have a meeting or something, he will generally offer to wait for me until I am free. Or, if I am for sure not going to be available (last week I had lunch with my mom one day), he says “Ok, have fun!” I think when he knows as far in advance as possible, he doesn’t feel ditched or neglected.

He will ask if I’m ready to eat by a simple “Ready?” question around 11:30. Or sometimes, a “I’m heading in.” I guess I just wish it were more a “Hey, can you eat lunch today?” and less expected that it just happen.

Dan is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Very sweet, very positive. Sometimes even unaware of his own performance (or lack thereof). That’s actually something that I know for me is an underlying cause of why I don’t want to eat with him everyday. Now that he reports to me, and I see more of his performance issues, it’s hard to want to walk in the lunch room and have a pleasant/friendly lunchwhen I know I have to address something with him soon. He’s so nice and friendly with everyone; it surprises me that he doesn’t ask others to lunch.

I suppose I should ultimately be flattered that he enjoys my company so much. And it’s not a huge problem in the grand scheme of things, just one of those things that I would love to feel in control of, and not feel guilty for “ditching.”

I think you’ve actually made this into a bigger problem in your head than it needs to be, although I understand how that’s happened.

It’s hard to change a pattern once it’s established without feeling like you’re somehow slighting the other people who are part of that pattern. But I also suspect you’re reading too much into Dan’s use of “ditching.” I doubt he means “ducking out of a presumed obligation to eat with us”; it’s far more likely that he’s just using it to mean “deviating from what we normally do.”

In any case, this really doesn’t have to be a big deal. You just need to explain to Dan that you’re going to change the pattern and why … and as long as you don’t act like it’s a Huge Serious Deal, it’s pretty unlikely that Dan will take it that way.

So just let Dan know that you’re going to be eating with him and Amy less and give a reason. Anything like this would work:

  • “Hey, I’m going to be eating less with you guys because I’m going to walk during lunch / try to unwind from anything work-related during lunch / eat at my desk while I read over XYZ.”
  • “Hey, I’m going to spend more lunches trying to catch up with other departments because I’m realizing that it’s helpful to me to get to know their work better, so don’t plan on me for lunch for a while.”
  • “I know we’ve gotten in the habit of all eating lunch together, but I’m going to pull back a bit so that you’re not stuck always having lunch with your manager.” And if he protests that he doesn’t mind, you can add, “I’d still love to join sometimes — I’ll let you know on days that I can.” (Or even more candid: “I feel that I need to pull back a bit because of the changed relationship, although I’d still love to join you on occasion” … as long you say it in a way that makes it clear that this is about being thoughtful about your relationship and not you being snobby because you now have a more important job.)

And then, after that, if Dan IMs you to say he’s heading to lunch, just tell him to enjoy or say “okay” or whatever. If he asks if you’d like to join him, say yes on occasion and the rest of the time say “no thanks, but go on ahead” or “I have plans today but enjoy” or anything else along those lines.

All of this is just about (a) being straightforward with him so that he understands that you’re changing the pattern — as opposed to just changing it without explanation, which is more likely to leave him feeling bad — and then (b) doing him the courtesy of assuming that he won’t be devastated. Because really, he probably won’t be. (And if he is, then you can explain head-on that yes, the relationship does need to change now that you’re his manager. But again, I don’t think you’ll need to.)

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