I am a new hire and recently had my first 3-month review. I got an overall satisfactory rating, but was criticized for being away from my desk too much. According to my manager, my lunchtime (rarely over 30 minutes) does not count towards the 8 hours of work expected each day. He told me this was informed at the orientation, but I did not remember this to be so.

I checked the handbook later and found the policy mentioned there:

Employees are expected to work between the core hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. or as defined by their specific client contracts. Flexible scheduling, or flextime, is available in some cases to allow employees to vary their starting and ending times each day within established limits. Flextime may be possible if a mutually workable schedule can be negotiated with the supervisor involved. However, issues such as staffing needs, the employee’s performance and the nature of the job will be considered before approval of flextime.

A one-hour lunch is provided to you each day, schedule permitting. Lunch breaks should be taken between the hours of 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. in order for employees to be available at optimum times for our customers, both internal and external. Employees who elect not to take lunch on a given day may be allowed to leave early upon supervisory approval prior to ending the work day. Employees are relieved of all active responsibilities and restrictions during meal periods and will not be compensated for the time.

I found the policy ambiguous so I emailed Mary from HR, who had done my orientation:

Hi Mary,

I was just reading the handbook and I wanted to clarify the lunchtime policy--in order to get in my minimum eight hours, if I were to come in at 9 and take an hour lunch away from my desk, I would need to stay until 6, correct?

Best, Anon

She forwarded it to another HR rep because she was not familiar with the handbook enough to answer the question. The HR rep responded that my manager was indeed correct, and cc'ed my manager on her response. Apparently, HR conversations are not as confidential as I had been led to believe.

My manager wrote me an angry email:

I am very surprised to see that you are casually asking about this again after we discussed this topic in detail during your 90 day review. I have reached out to Mary as well and we are certain that she didn't discuss a 40 hour work week including lunches and breaks, during the orientation. Mary has been conducting these employee orientation sessions for years and this is the first time an employee walks away from the session thinking that the 40 hour work week includes lunches and breaks.

In addition, though I reinforced the expectations again during your review about 40 billable/productive hours. As a salaried employee, the expectation is for every member of our team to put forth a full 8 hour day, and if needed, additional hours to ensure we meet project and client expectations. Let me know if we need to discuss this in more details.

This took me by surprise because I didn't think I had done anything wrong. Moreover, even before the HR's confirmation, I had immediately acted upon his feedback, and there have been no complaints otherwise.

How, if at all, should I respond?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 21:57
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    Your title says "manager upset" and your question says "angry email" - I must be missing something - could you clarify what about this email leads you to believe your manager is upset?
    – corsiKa
    Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 1:17
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    Request for clarification: What jurisdiction is it? In mine (Poland) there is 15-minute break mandated by law that does count toward the 8h.
    – Agent_L
    Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 14:24
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    @Agent_L United States and here, the 15 minute breaks you are referring to are treated differently than lunch which is typically unpaid. I also know of no state in the US that requires paid lunches, though several do require 10-15 minute paid breaks during the day separate from lunch. Unfortunately, "exempt" employees (of which salaried employees are usually included) are exempted from that requirement except in rare cases.
    – Chris E
    Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 14:31
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    What do you find ambiguous about "Employees are relieved of all active responsibilities and restrictions during meal periods and will not be compensated for the time"? (emphasis mine)
    – TylerH
    Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 19:49

8 Answers 8


It's disappointing that HR felt the need to copy your manager and that your manager is so seemingly insecure that they perceive this as a slight against them. Nevertheless, you are learning about your company, its environment, and workforce practices as a whole. To that end, a few thoughts...

  • I'm surprised to see that you were initially under the impression that breaks do count towards work hours. In my experience, it has always been the case that work hours do not include lunch and breaks that you may take, though different company cultures may be more or less flexible on a daily/weekly hour requirement.
  • HR is there to serve the company and implement its policies. While there may be some internal guidelines on how interactions should be shared and there are some laws governing particular pieces of information, in general you shouldn't expect any kind of "doctor-patient confidentiality" when speaking to them. I would find it odd that they CC'd your manager, but perhaps they were simply trying to let them know that you received something in writing from HR regarding a policy so that a formal record was made in case the manager disagreed.
  • Your manager does seem overly hostile or aggressive on this note. Take a look at your company culture - is it a very formal, structured, 'old-school' environment? Do you refer to all higher-ups as 'mr/mrs X'? Do your coworkers have a rigid schedule and stick to 8hrs/day minimum? You may be in an environment that lacks the more flexible work/life balance of many modern companies. It may also be that your manager perceives you as doing less work than you could be capable of (regardless of quality) or that you are a new hire and thus they want to be more strict with you before giving you some flexibility.

In any case, your manager does seem to be pretty perturbed. Regardless of the validity of their umbrage or how reasonable it may seem, they brought this to your attention with a wall of text and it's prudent to respond. Assuming you're physically nearby, I suggest stopping by and letting them know:

  1. You appreciate that they addressed their concerns about your presence at your desk and apologize sincerely if you gave the impression of slacking off.
  2. You were checking with HR to get the 'long-winded' version of the company policy regarding working hours to ensure that you weren't accidentally making any other faux pas.

If your previous experience is in hourly work, mention that you are still getting familiar with a more structured and salaried position and reiterate that you appreciate them speaking with you about it instead of giving you a poor review.


All together now: HR IS NOT YOUR FRIEND

You did PLENTY wrong, and here's why:

Going to HR ALWAYS makes things more official and your manager was likely put on the spot. Going to HR for anything dealing with a fellow employee will trigger an investigation and it is the workplace equivalent of a nuclear strike, and that's how it will be viewed. Going to HR is actually worse than going over someone's head because now, there is an official record of your manager having a problem with one of his reports. This is why this is a big deal to your manager. Too big a deal, perhaps, but it happened and this is where you are now.

Your manager is rightfully irritated with you, and you are likely to come under extra scrutiny for the near future.

A simple, "I'm sorry, this won't happen again." is adequate, and make sure it doesn't. Beyond that, it will take some time to earn your manager's trust again. If you need clarification for anything, go to your manager and take his word as law unless something egregious happens.

There is a very strong movement right now to purge people that are considered "toxic" regardless of their performance. Don't get labeled as toxic.


What you did wrong.

  • You made Mary look like she wasn't doing her job at your orientation
  • You escalated something to HR, which is usually reserved for serious matters
  • You essentially called your manager a liar by not taking him at his word
  • You have been paid nearly a weeks wages for time you were not at your desk.
  • You insulted your boss who, rather than come down hard on you, reminded you of the policy after you've been paid for work you didn't do.

What to do now:

Say "I'm sorry for my actions and in making difficulties for you, it won't happen again" and then be an outstanding employee, not just in your workload, but in the soft skills as well.

You can come back from this situation, but only by replacing the reputation of merely being satisfactory with being outstanding. Do that and you and your manager will laugh about it in a few years. Did you hurt yourself, yes. Can you recover, yes.

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    Moderator note: There is a chat room for this question. Many of the answers here have received comments that are more discussion and argument than requests for clarification. Please take all that to chat. Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 21:58

You have clearly misunderstood the company policy:

Employees who elect not to take lunch on a given day may be allowed to leave early upon supervisory approval prior to ending the work day. Employees are relieved of all active responsibilities and restrictions during meal periods and will not be compensated for the time.

You also describe the manager's reply as 'angry'. Just from the text itself I can detect no anger but rather he is explaining to situation to you - as a manager should. He is directly responsible for you and the work you do. It is right that he wants to ensure that you know the rules. I have never come across a company where your breaks are counted as work [until today - see comment below].

My advice: apologise for the misunderstanding and get on with your work

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    Moderator note: There is a chat room for this question. Many of the answers here have received comments that are more discussion and argument than requests for clarification. Please take all that to chat. Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 21:58

How, if at all, do I respond?

"You are right, and I apologize for the misunderstanding, and for not meeting your expectations prior to this. I shall do my best going forward to meet or exceed all of your expectations, and to provide excellent value to the company in my service."

Your manager feels that you challenged their authority on this issue by going to HR. While that was probably not your intent it is how this appears. Your manager communicated their expectations to you during your 90 day review. Then you challenged their authority to set those expectations by going to HR. The assumption being that had HR returned to you saying that your lunch break is included in your expected work period you would have challenged your managers expectations of you. So I can see why your manager would be upset about this.

In the vast majority of workplaces where I have worked, reporting to have worked hours that you did not work is a fire-able offense. Your manager dealt with the issue during your review in a manner that your manager probably felt was rather generous. Putting you on a Performance Improvement Plan, or even terminating your employment for this would not have been outrageous or even unexpected by many employers.

Your manager set out their expectations for you. It is not unheard of for a managers expectations to exceed the minimum expectations of the company. When a manager hires someone they are not hiring them to do the minimum amount to get by. They want their team striving for excellence, and so often set expectations that are higher than those set out in the employee handbook. If you do not like, or find those expectations unacceptable, then you should find other employment.

I see a lot of people are telling me why and how I was wrong, which doesn't matter at this point. My manager thinks I was wrong and that's all that counts--my question is how to fix this.

You cant. It is like a broken egg, there is no way to unbreak the egg. But you may be able to overcome it anyway. And the way to overcome it is to realize what you did wrong, accept it, own it, and not make the mistake again.

I think you believe that your mistake was the hours worked thing. That was a mistake but your manager dealt with it, set their expectations for you going forward, and dropped the issue(for now). Your mistake was not accepting your managers counseling on expectations going forward, but challenging them by going to HR to confirm their expectations. This was incredibly disrespectful to your manager.

The way to overcome this is to make sure that you are not in any way seen as being disrespectful of your manager. This can not be faked. The easiest way to achieve this, is to limit your responses to directions to something along the lines of "Yes sir." (I understand, I will do that, or OK may also acceptable responses) The important thing is to be humble, and compliant. If you have questions about a directive, make sure that when you ask those questions, you are clarifying what the direction is, not why the direction is being given. There are times where understanding the why is important. But for you right now far more important for your position is that you demonstrate your understanding that your manager is your boss, and their expectations are the expectations that are important to you.

Going forward you need to affirmatively accept that you are the one that was in the wrong here. It is not enough to imply that you were wrong by saying something like, "I apologize for putting you in a bad place." You need to apologize for what you did, because what you did was disrespectful, antagonistic, and insubordinate. You have put yourself in a position where the only courses forward are an eventual separation from the company, or a complete about face where you become incredibly respectful, courteous, and obedient.

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    Moderator note: There is a chat room for this question. Many of the answers here have received comments that are more discussion and argument than requests for clarification. Please take all that to chat. Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 21:58

You asked for information. You are perfectly in your right to ask for information. He is imagining that you are accusing someone of not doing something. The only way that is your responsibility is to account for the fact that he will be oversensitive to perceived affronts to his authority.

You don't need to respond to this directly. He says "if you need to discuss". You don't need that.

The best approach is to be a good, dependable contributor (in a way that reflects well on your team and manager). And use the opportunity to do this job as a stepping stone toward your next career move.

The guy is totally out of line and does not have any place in a professional environment (let alone management), but that is only your problem so far as it affects you in the future.


He told me that I had been informed of this at orientation and it was in the handbook, although I did not remember this to be so.

Your boss is at fault here: he should have had a copy of the handbook somewhere convenient and been able to show you the exact passage in the review. A lesson which you should take away for future reviews is that when your boss tells you that you're not following a company policy and you thought you were following the policy you should ask to review the policy together on the spot. Something like "I'll re-read the policy to make sure there's nothing else I've misremembered, but in the meantime could you show me the relevant passage to clear up anything I've misunderstood rather than misremembered?"

I am very surprised to see that you are casually asking about this again after we discussed this topic in detail during your 90 day review. I have reached out to Mary as well and we are certain that she didn't discuss a 40 hour work week including lunches and breaks, during the orientation.

The appropriate way to respond to this depends on what exactly you and your boss said during the review, and there isn't enough detail in the question to be sure.

You need to respond to your boss, and you need to defuse the situation. But you don't need to commit harakiri. In spite of the impression which some other answers seem to give, your greatest "crime" is to a minor error of judgement of your company's culture. The important (and tricky) thing is to present the facts from your point of view but avoiding a defensive or confrontational tone. If you didn't say that your recollection was that Mary had said that the 40 hours included lunch breaks, that provides a useful hook. I'm thinking along the lines of:

I think there is a misunderstanding here. No-one thinks that Mary said that the 40 hours included lunch breaks: it is merely that I didn't understand her to say that they didn't. You made your expectations clear in the review, and I applied that feedback immediately. You also raised the handbook, so I checked the relevant passage after the review and found it unclear. On reflection it would have been better to seek clarification on the wording which I found ambiguous during the review meeting rather than afterwards. I intend that there will not be any need for it in my next review, but I shall make a mental note to bring a copy along just in case.

  • In a well-organized company, you (and every other employee!) should have a copy of the handbook, so you don't have to waste your manager's time asking straightforward questions about facts stated in it - only questions about interpretation, if they arise. Of course if you have lost your personal copy, or never opened it, that's another item to add to the list of things you did wrong.
    – alephzero
    Commented Oct 4, 2017 at 22:51
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    @alephzero, I agree that OP should have a copy of the handbook, and that's implicit in the final sentence of this answer, but OP didn't know that the manager was going to raise failure to follow the handbook in the review, and the manager did. Therefore it was really the manager's responsibility to bring a copy to the review and point out the relevant passage to OP. If you tell someone that they're not following a policy you should back it up with direct quotes. Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 6:23

You need to find a new job. Not because you've irritated your manager, but because your employer expects min 40 hours/week excluding breaks, plus with what sounds like potentially unpaid overtime ("and if needed, additional hours to ensure we meet project and client expectations").

Also, the handbook says you're allowed an hour for lunch, you're claiming you rarely took over 30 minutes and yet your manager thinks you're too long away from the desk? Either you're mistaken on how long you take for lunch, or your manger is, or your manger has unreasonable expectations.

Your manager is right to be pissed due to the office politics of going to HR as others have mentioned (though an genuine apology should fix that unless he keeps a grudge), but that's not your long term problem.

Really, find a better employer that provides decent breaks, holidays, work/life balance, and realises more time doesn't automatically mean more productivity.

Also note, that in civilised parts of the world, there's a legally minimum amount of break time defined, and a limit on how many hours per week (inc. overtime) you may work (e.g. Working Time Directive).

  • 5
    This is probably a cultural thing, but at least where I am, in salaried work, it's quite common to have to do the odd long day here and there. You don't start billing by the minute when that happens. You just get your head down and do it. You're likely to be rewarded in some way down the line for your dedication and hard work. Finding a new job is a wild overreaction here. Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 9:47
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    In my experience, when a salaried job expects voluntary overtime but is super-strict about a minimum number of hours, people are much less willing to put in that voluntary overtime. I worked a job where people routinely stayed a few hours after 5 without complaint, until the management said that all employees must be working by 8:30. All of a sudden--without collusion that I know of--people just started leaving promptly at 5. It was an extremely counter-productive policy. Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 18:38
  • I think this is a big misunderstanding of the situation. The company assumes you take one hour unpaid lunch time. They probably wouldn't mind if you take two hours unpaid lunch time (obviously leaving an hour later in the evening). The OP took half an hour, but counted it as working time.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Oct 6, 2017 at 15:38

First of all it is pretty clear from the handbook that the lunch is not part of the 8 hours. It says:

Employees who elect not to take lunch on a given day may be allowed to leave early upon supervisory approval prior to ending the work day.

You work 9-6 and if you skip lunch you can leave earlier i.e. at 5. Otherwise people would leave at 7 hours having a 35 hour week which is of course absurd.

Now you already got feedback that it is not clear how exactly you spend your time since your manager told you you are not at your desk most of the time. What was your plan with the question to HR? Let's assume that your manager was not CC'd.
Either HR would say yes that is correct and then would you stay the extra hour or not? Or HR would say not that is not correct and then would you report your manager? Correct him? What exactly?
It seems to me that his reaction was justified

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    Wasn't me, but a 35-hour week is not "of course absurd". I've had a 35-hour contract in the past; currently I'm on 38 hours including 2.5 hours of paid coffee breaks. OP hasn't said where they are, so although we can guess based on the reference to "salaried employee" we don't know what the range of normal hours is there. Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 7:41
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    Wasn't me either, but a 35 hour week is not absurd. In France, 35 hours is the law. Not that we have employee handbooks in France written in English, but I hope you realize what I'm saying. Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 12:13
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    Downvotes should be assumed to indicate that the voter believes your answer is wrong in the absence of a comment explaining otherwise. A comment that says: I think you are wrong does not add anything so should not be left on an answer. Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 12:33
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    @PeterTaylor: what is the international norm. 40 hours week right? How is the fact that there are exceptions relevant?
    – smith
    Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 19:37
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    Exceptions would mean that they're not "absurd" Commented Oct 5, 2017 at 20:36

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