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I am the payroll director/manager for a small accounting firm. I have roughly 10 individuals who directly report to me.

Yesterday, two coworkers and I went to lunch which turned out to last roughly 1 hr 30 mins. Our typical lunch is 45 mins. This is out of the norm and a rarity.

Upon returning, the owner emailed me letting me know that he was getting a lot of flack/anger from two individuals in my department about taking my assistant to lunch with me for extended periods of time.

He noted that there was no problem with me doing so; however, said it is not a great idea to take said individual with me again and that they should get lunch on their own or come back within a reasonable time (45 mins - which has been the case for years).

Also, I was told that an "apology to them would go a long way towards cooling things down." I should apologize to these two who went over my head to the owner when I did nothing wrong? Conflict avoidance and negative attitudes riddle the two who did go to the owner. At this point, I view what they did as undermining me and presented blatant lies and false flags to the owner. I never once heard of such an issue before.

I feel let down by the owner due to how he presented we mitigate the issue. I'm all for taking responsibility when I've done wrong but apologizing when I did nothing wrong is unreal. Not to mention, a lot of untrue nonsense was told to him.

How should I approach this with the owner?

  • Does the firm have a strongly enforced policy on how long lunch can be? Have there been similar instances in the past where you or other people went for a longer lunch and were reprimanded about it? – Cronax May 18 '18 at 13:28
  • Negative. The two complaining actually went on ultra extended lunches before. I never complained as it was not a reoccurring thing; as my situation has never been reoccurring either. – merger May 18 '18 at 13:54
  • Did you actually try explaining any of this to the owner yourself? The way this is currently worded, it sounds like he's only heard one side of the story (theirs,) so his requests may not be based on all the information. – Steve-O May 18 '18 at 13:54
  • Steve, you are right. I am going to see a follow-up email to the owner (I was planning on doing this). He heard one side, 90% of it being false. – merger May 18 '18 at 13:56
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    Have you considered that they see you as favoring this person in the workplace and that is why they complained. These things rarely come out of nowhere. – HLGEM May 18 '18 at 14:20
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Talk to your boss in person.

There seems to be a misunderstanding, so you want to have a single conversation with your boss to clear things up and make sure he is making his request from a position of having all the right information.

Hello boss, I wanted to check in with you about the earlier incident. If I understand correctly, you want me to apologize to the two coworkers.

I don't think such an apology would send the right message. We don't have any policies in place about the length of our lunch breaks and there was no disruption of the department. In addition, we're talking about a single incident here.

I think that apologizing would send the message that it's okay to complain about your coworkers for trivialities. I don't want to create the sort of environment where management is expected to act like kindergarten teachers making sure everyone stays in line.

When you've explained your side of the story, if the boss' response is that he'd like you to make the apology anyway, your response should be something like this:

I really don't agree with your decision, but if you feel strongly about this I'll do it.

While it doesn't seem fair, this is work: work isn't always fair. This is the sort of thing where someone higher up can put their foot down if they feel it's the best solution for the good of the company. Working for someone else means that sometimes, you'll have to do something you don't agree with. You should never compromise your morals or ethics, but outside of that, you'll have to listen to those who are above you in the food-chain.

  • Cronax, this is what I needed to hear. You words speak to me clearly and are what I am going to bring to fruition. Compromising my morals/ethics here is what is causing me to even ask this question to begin with. I appreciate your time and effort. The advice is priceless. Have a great Friday. – merger May 18 '18 at 14:12
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If you are a director with 10 direct reports, then for all intended purposes you're seen as management. I don't know if one would see employees going to the owner as circumventing your position, but rather simply doing what many employees do in organizations when they have a direct conflict with a manager who'm they don't feel comfortable directly approaching with their concerns for fear of retaliation.

To some degree, who you take to lunch is your choice, but it should avoid the appearance of playing favortism. You as a manager should set an example to other people in the business regardless if they are direct reports or not. When you're in a position of authority, you have a target on your back.

For the sake of being a good leader and manager in the business, I would take the high road and extend an apology, especially since the lunch time was double the long standing company policy of forty-five minutes.

Being a good leader sometimes means having to take flack from people even if its unfounded and doing what's best to ease it. After all, without those employees, there won't be much of a business.

You can always take up your concerns about the matter with the owner directly to come to a resolution that may result in a business wide policy change or other solution issued from the top down. In the interim though, you're best to take the high road to ease tensions. Small companies like that can be wrought with some of the worst "corporate" politics which can adversely affect the business more than in a large organization where corporate politics and conflict have a bigger surface area of people to absorb it.

  • Thanks for your feedback. The company policy is nonexistent for how long you can go to lunch for. Nothing is in place. – merger May 18 '18 at 13:51
  • I hit enter too fast. I agree on having to take flack from people even if its unfounded and doing what's best to ease it. However, I cannot stomach to apologize for not doing anything wrong. The owner was fed poor information that simply had no basis. – merger May 18 '18 at 14:03
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    @merger To my mind, it doesn't really matter that there's no company policy if there is -- as you say -- a company norm or expectation. And while you might not technically have "done wrong" (if there's no "right" to measure it against), it sounds like you've created friction, and apologising for that may to the best for the company as a whole. – TripeHound May 18 '18 at 14:41
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Deal with the owner by dealing with the problem

While the owner's response was suboptimum, it is understandable. It sounds like he is trying to smooth things over and repair the relationship issue.

I agree with your gut feeling that apologizing isn't the solution.

I think your best approach to this problem is to address the root cause of the issue, the relationship problem. Unfortunately I can't tell you what lies at the root of the relationship issue, but I suspect it goes deeper than one lunch break. With your new found perspective on the relationship, if you reflect on past interactions with these people does anything seem amiss?

Is there anything you can think to do that would strengthen your relationship with these people?

Whatever solution you come up with, I think the answer lies in strengthening your relationship with these two people (and perhaps with the rest of the team as well.) If you stop the flow of complaints to the owner, you'll solve the problem. Improving your relationship with your team can stop the flow of complaints for this issue and other issues that might arise in the future.

  • You're right about trying to smooth things over. Also, you are right about addressing the root cause of the issue which I have been doing since yesterday. I spoke with one of them minutes ago and we're on the same page now. There was miscommunication lingering that made them feel disrespected. We're seeing eye to eye now. Whereas your other point of the relationship issue, no favoritism is generated by myself. I asked the office who wants to go to lunch - that is how that is decided. The two in question have never went to lunch with me. I have asked hundreds of times since my time working here – merger May 18 '18 at 14:09
  • I would one day say "Hey X you never come to lunch when can we organise it?" some people here an invitation like that and for some reason think the person doesn't mean it, is only being polite etc. – WendyG May 18 '18 at 14:39
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There seem to be multiple issues here:

Firstly, you don't say if both these "coworkers" are amongst the 10 people that your supervise; one is your assistant, so they are. However, we don't know if the other was another supervisor/manager, or just someone else in the company. Since at least one is a direct report, you need to be aware that doing what you did will be seen as playing favorites by the other workers in your group. Even if they are your best worker(s), that's bad for appearances, especially since it seems you're going out to eat with them on a regular basis. This could be why you were reported to the owner.

As for the apology: As an outsider, it seems there's a bit of truth to what both sides are saying. You weren't violating any policy by taking a long lunch. However, you weren't available to those who need your direction either. The boss has directed you to apologize for what you did. The best bet here would be to do so. Perhaps some advice I read a while back will help: An apology isn't (necessarily) an acknowledgement of wrongdoing, but an indication that the relationship(s) involved is(are) important. I hope I don't have to tell you that your relationships with your subordinates are important to you for your job! I wouldn't think you'd need to say anything more than something like "While at lunch yesterday I was gone for a lengthy time. That made me unavailable to you. I apologize for that."

Going forward, I recommend having a talk with the owner to clarify what is expected of you about lunch. Also, if you are going to lunch with people you supervise, either go with different people on a regular basis, or stop doing it in a way that seems to show favoritism.

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If your boss instructed you to not take your assistant to an extended lunch then you have done something wrong. Boss gets to decide what is wrong.

If you did in fact go to an extended lunch then it is not a lie (let alone blatant).

How do you handle you manager? You do what he instructed you to do - apologize.

  • From the OP, it seems the boss did not instruct this. In fact, "He noted that there was no problem with me doing so" – Laconic Droid May 18 '18 at 13:41
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    @LaconicDroid True, but at the same time the boss also suggested an apology to the two other coworkers. That seems very odd if there's nothing to apologize for. – Cronax May 18 '18 at 13:43
  • @LaconicDroid I read "said it is not a great idea to take said individual with me again" as don't do it. OP taking an extend lunch is OK. – paparazzo May 18 '18 at 13:44
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    @merger Head on backwards? Where is your head. Your words "however, said it is not a great idea to take said individual with me again". 90 minutes is an extended lunch regardless of the reason. If people are going to your boss then it is a disruption. Based on the attitude you have displayed I bet they are bitter for good reason. – paparazzo May 18 '18 at 14:04
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    He followed up that if doing so, to keep it to 30 - 45 mins. Rendering your hostile effort invalid. Again, thanks for your feedback but it is misguided. Have a nice day. – merger May 18 '18 at 14:10

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