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I work at a software company. I have a coworker who props up his phone most of the day, watching stuff while he works such as video game streamers, or cooking shows, or whatever. He's trying to give the appearance that he's working while having the content on in the background, but a lot of times, its hard to tell if he's working or just watching stuff. He would be a great employee otherwise, and he works a lot of hours (unpaid overtime), though my impression is that the total hours he "effectively" works is probably close to regular hours (or less).

I am occasionally (recently) responsible for assigning tasks to this employee. My impression is that the task(s) would have been completed sooner had he not been working (what I believe to be) more slowly by being distracted by his phone. For example, I go over to check on his progress and he is very obviously looking at his phone, and then makes a comment about the show and jumps back to his work.

Should I approach him about this behavior? I'm one of the leads on the team, though not his direct boss, but I am one of the ones who is asked to give feedback on his performance occasionally. I'm concerned he isn't operating as efficiently as he could be, so when I'm asked to give feedback on him, it puts me in a tough spot.

Why do I care? I care about him as a person. I've known him for a few years now and I like him, but since he is the only one in the office that does this, I think it negatively affects his image and opportunities for advancement. He's complained in the past about being stuck at a lower level than he'd like, but I can't help but feeling like his "professionalism" at work contributes to it.

My goal is not to get him in trouble or scold him, but just to suggest that perhaps this behavior creates a bad impression of him. At the same time, I'm really worried about demotivating him or it backfiring, since I do value him as an employee.

Update: So I ended up going to talk with the coworker. I had previously made a snarky comment related to him watching his phone at work. After reading these responses here, I felt pretty bad, and felt pretty bad about my tone in general. I pulled him aside to apologize. He ended up sharing with me some pretty rough things that were going on outside of work these past few weeks, and that he himself was concerned that his lower performance recently was noticed by everyone on the team. Long story short, I felt it was a good conversation, and I was reminded that you never know whats going on with someone and to never judge the situation just by the appearance of it.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Jan 26 at 5:34
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    I'd suggest editing your "update" out of your question and into an answer instead. Relevant answer to related meta: "Try and work your experiences into an answer - how did you decide to go with one approach rather than another etc. I think an answer is better than an update to the question as it clearly separates the original problem from the solution - if you update a question with "here's my answer", it's going to discourage anyone in future from posting an answer to the question." – V2Blast Jan 26 at 6:34
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    @V2Blast while I normally agree that updates go in the answers, in this case it a) gives more context for future answers and b) is incredibly situation specific. I don’t think it would be an especially useful answer for future readers, or even the OP in a similar situation in the future. – Tim Jan 27 at 15:45
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    @inaliahgle Okay I don't know on which question I should comment, but I find the connection here quite hilarious – Pierre Arlaud Jan 29 at 10:43

12 Answers 12

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Should I approach him about this behavior?

I would only do this if this person is falling behind on their tasks, or their work quality worsens.

You just said that this person is a "good employee otherwise, and he works a lot of hours", so I take it that this person actually works hard and delivers their tasks on time. If this is true, I see no reason why to approach him right now.

I must say that it seems you are assuming what this coworker is doing on their phone, when it could well be that he is chatting with some client, or reading IM or emails on their phone (not necessarily idling).

If you still decide to approach this person, try to understand what they are doing on their phone first, before taking for granted that they are idling or losing their time (this person may get offended if you "accuse" them of idling before finding out what's the truth).

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    They could also be looking up some technical references or documentation online, like most of us would probably instead do on our computer (although I have to say this seems unlikely, unless the office internet is restricted). – Dukeling Jan 24 at 22:43
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    I'll update the question, but the coworker is watching stuff like cooking shows or watching online game streamers. Its very obvious and he even talks about what he's watching sometimes. – default Jan 24 at 22:49
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    Don't forget that coding is a creative job and that taking time to disconnect from a problem you're stuck on and letting your brain focus on something else for a few minutes actually makes you more productive. – Draco18s Jan 25 at 0:59
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    @Draco18s totally agree on that, it's necessary to have a break to let the creativeness flow – DarkCygnus Jan 25 at 5:38
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    @Draco18s There is also some people who work better with some background almost white noise. I've a friend who likes to have stuff playing while he codes. I personally don't, as I find it distracting. I don't know how actively my friend watches the videos/streams but he doesn't find it distracting. It also tends to be content that requires very little engagement, like those outlined in the OP. It's not dissimilar to letting the TV play in the background and I definitely do that occasionally at home. At work I prefer music, though which probably has a similar effect. – VLAZ Jan 25 at 6:17
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I don't know the psychological term for this but when I was in university studying computer science I developed a bad habit of always playing random repetitive games on my phone or laptop while listening to lectures, things like minesweeper or tetris. The lecture had my full attention and I found without this I would feel jittery and not be able to concentrate.

I carried this on into the workplace and although I don't watch lectures anymore I do like to divide my attention to other things while my code is compiling or if my brain "overheats".

To a casual observer I'm barely working, often on my phone.

But my work output is more than two of my peers put together.

There's another guy on the floor who looks like he's playing flash games on his laptop a lot. He's one of the brightest guys who does excellent work.

If he's working well leave him alone, concentrate on his productivity rather than how he achieves it.

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    > "If he's working well leave him alone, concentrate on his productivity rather than how he achieves it." Yes! This. But try to explain it to managers. – user2818782 Jan 25 at 5:57
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    How else would all these Steck Exchange questions get answered!?! – Strawberry Jan 25 at 10:26
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    "If he's working well leave him alone", also be prepared to point to his output if anyone (above, lateral, or below) points to him as lack of discipline or a negative example. "If anyone outperforms their peers by the margin he does, I'm very reluctant to push them to change their working process." is a good enough answer for most people. – Myles Jan 25 at 14:13
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    @Strawberry The certainly aren't going to answer themselves – UnhandledExcepSean Jan 25 at 15:19
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    I think some people are just wired to function better with some background activity, I've been that way for as long as I remember. Our parents were allowed to sit in on a class when I was in 3rd grade, and my mom told my teacher she was worried because I was just drawing and fidgeting the entire class and not paying attention. My teacher said, "if I called on Lord Farquaad, he'd be able to tell me everything we were talking about today. If I made him sit still and focus, he wouldn't learn anything." ~20 years later, there has been no change whatsoever. – Lord Farquaad Jan 25 at 16:12
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Not to be rude, but you should probably just mind your own business. You've stated the following:

  1. He works close to if not his full 40 hours per week .
  2. He delivers his work on time.
  3. His work is of acceptable quality.
  4. You're not his direct supervisor.

Does he smoke and go for 10 small smoke breaks a day? Does he take extended lunch or coffee breaks? Does he disappear from his desk for no apparent reason? If you answered no to these questions, it sounds like your colleague who you don't manage is a pretty decent employee.

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    Of the four points, I feel that number four is the most compelling. If it is not your job to supervise someone... then don't, enough said. – kleineg Jan 25 at 16:09
  • Totally agree, it's not this guy's place. Jeez he isn't hurting something. Nothing irks me more then a tattle tale or a micro manager, who hasn't been hired to manage others. – Reuben DeVries Jan 25 at 20:15
  • "My goal is not to get him in trouble or scold him, but just to suggest that perhaps this behavior giving a bad impression for him." - that leaves us zero options to suggest other than a conversation that doesn't even say everything in the post (because the "goal" won't let us). Be where your supposed to be, when your supposed to be there. +1 – Mazura Jan 26 at 17:19
  • Smoking is not the same as "not working"; especially not in jobs which require brain-work. Likewise "disappearing". Likewise the others. – phresnel Jan 28 at 16:08
  • @phresnel spoken like a true smoker, I'm going to guess your at pack a day. Taking 10, 5 minute smoke breaks during the day is taking 50 minutes a day from your employer unless you forgoe lunch and coffee breaks. I can tell you the vast majority of my team's smokers don't include their smoke breaks as coffee or lunch breaks.I also dont care what they do, provided they do their job. – Reuben DeVries Jan 29 at 2:43
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Unless this person is noticeably underperforming relative to the prevailing standards and norms of the team, no, I would not bring it up.

It's up to your management, and perhaps you, to judge what he produces, not how he produces it.

It is not at all uncommon for people, especially in a technical field, to use an audio/visual distraction to block everything else.

Additionally, if you enforce this with him, you have to be prepared to include the entire team and all forms of audio/visual content. Meaning, if Joe can't watch YouTube, Jamie can't listen to Spotify.

From your Answer, this is where you should draw your conclusion:

"total hours he "effectively" works is probably close to regular hours"

If that's the case, I don't see an actual problem here.

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    There's a big difference between listening to music and watching a show. Not allowing audio books, podcasts and tv programs while allowing music would be an entirely fair line to draw. – Tim B Jan 25 at 15:05
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    @TimB How is that a fair line to draw? If someone can listen to music to help them work, why shouldn't I be able to listen to the media that helps me work? – GrumpyCrouton Jan 25 at 17:40
  • @GrumpyCrouton Because the likelihood of music being a distraction rather than genuine aid is low. – Tim B Jan 26 at 19:05
  • @TimB I think you could say the same about audio books and podcasts – GrumpyCrouton Jan 27 at 20:02
  • @GrumpyCrouton Yes, hence why I said you could reasonably draw the line between music and other entertainment where more attention is expected. – Tim B Jan 27 at 23:49
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I am very much like this guy. I own my own business and work long hours. Having a show playing in front of me helps me to be vastly more productive. If I turn everything off and try to just focus on one thing, I end up endlessly switching between one task and another and accomplishing very little in any of them. If I put a show on and can listen to it, I end up cranking through a lot more work in a day than I could without. But those hours of intense work come with the need to stop every so often and just wander around the office or finish watching an episode without working.

There are times that it can become distracting, and I've learned to recognize when maybe I need to switch to music or an audio podcast. A lot of times I'll be 10 or more episodes into a show before I know what one of the main characters looks like. Just having the moving image in front of me accompanied with the sound of the show is enough distraction for my mind to focus on the task I'm supposed to be doing. It's kind of the adult version of giving the hyperactive kid in class an exercise ball to sit on. My high school chemistry teacher hated that I spent every lecture playing tetris on a graphing calculator, but he never told me to stop because I could always answer any question he threw at me.

So my advice is, if he's getting the work done on deadline, then let him be. Just maybe give him a gentle reminder that he needs to make sure it's helping him get stuff done and not being a distraction.

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    I am the same sort of person too. I prop up my phone and have stuff going on it while I work. I work in an open office plan. Having Netflix or Pandora running and headphones on helps me tune out all the chaos around me and focus on my job. – BoredBsee Jan 25 at 14:58
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    I am also very much like this as well. In fact, I am taking a five minute break to surf SE after looking something up on SO. However, it is sometimes a difficult balance to keep. Distractions are tools, to help concentrate, derail roadblocks, relieve stress. They can become procrastination in an instant. One other thing to keep in mind is that upper management rarely if ever understands, but that is his risk to take. Either way an upvote for a well written answer by a kindred spirit. – kleineg Jan 25 at 16:24
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As the saying goes,

PROGRAMMING IS THINKING NOT WRITING

If he's performing, it's none of your business, and if he's not on your team, it's not your business.

Since you don't know him you have no idea if he's a lazy underperformer, or a savant that has done things like deliver projects months early with very happy end users.

Don't risk kicking over the beehive for something that might not be a problem.

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    Sitting 9 hours straight staring at the monitor brings down productivity to zero, unfortunately lot of companies make their employees do exactly that. – Sirajus Salekin Jan 29 at 7:29
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When you come to review his performance you should be looking at the quality of his code and his overall contributions to the team:

  • Does his work incur technical debt?
  • Does he take longer than others to complete tasks?

By raising this as an issue you risk:

  • Demotivating him
  • Potentially losing a good employee
  • Losing respect from co-workers & management

If he's doing a good job leave him alone, you shouldn't worry how he works.

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I have noticed that you have received a lot of responses that accept and defend your colleague’s behaviour, some of which go so far as to make you question the truth of your own observations.

One of the things not addressed here is employee burnout and attention span. Your colleague may be getting his work done, but is also spending a lot of time in the office. This can mentally shift a worker’s feeling about their work environment and tire them out more quickly. Resentment may also be soon to follow if the employee feels like they aren’t being compensated or recognized for their time commitment to the job.

It is not something you definitely need to bring up in a professional manner, but I do recommend casually suggesting that there are activities outside of the office that might be fulfilling. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that.

  • I agree that burnout is possible. The manager should look at how many hours he's working overtime vs the length of viewing material. If he's spending 3 hours after work to do work and it happens each day while others having the same amount of work able to complete and go home or minimally overtime, then yes it should be brought up. – Dan Jan 25 at 19:12
  • Yea, my experience at startups is that workers who spend a lot of the time in the office eventually start using that extra time for their personal social needs, everything from video to game playing, even office affairs. If OP really does like this person, sitting down to discuss how their video watching behavior is perceived is just being a good person. – SafeFastExpressive Jan 28 at 0:36
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If a software developer makes his or her deadlines, you should let him or her do it however they see fit. Here's why. Software isn't making widgets on an assembly line, no matter how people try to make it that way; it's more like writing a book. You can easily get programmer's block throughout the day. Also, for me, the best solutions to the hardest problems usually occur to me when I'm NOT at work sitting in front of a computer.

Finally, there's burnout. If you get it, you're about useless for a good 6 months. Each person manages burnout in their own way.

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  1. Keep in mind that divided attention is not necessarily decreased attention. For example, fidgeting and doodling are correlated with productivity and recall.

http://content.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,1882127,00.html

Doodling ... requires very few executive resources but just enough cognitive effort to keep you from daydreaming, which — if unchecked — will jump-start activity in cortical networks that will keep you from remembering what's going on. Doodling forces your brain to expend just enough energy to stop it from daydreaming but not so much that you don't pay attention.

  1. Ongoing issues outside the workplace are distractions, and it's impractical to willpower those concerns away. Watching video alongside work could be a soothing activity. https://www.fastcompany.com/90262521/the-case-against-fighting-to-stay-focused-at-work

Unconscious distractions, such as worrying about paying your mortgage, or concerns about the health of a family member, may not always be top of mind, but are happening unconsciously. These thoughts can become unhealthy distractions, activating your brain’s fear center without you being aware of it.

  1. Many kinds of diversions are coping mechanisms for cognitive dysfunctions, diagnosed or not. A common ADHD symptom is difficulty in focusing on one task, ameliorated by strategically dividing attention. Anecdotally, I'm listening to music and fidgeting as I write this. https://www.additudemag.com/focus-factors/

According to Zentall, an activity that uses a sense other than that required for the primary task — listening to music while reading a social studies textbook — can enhance performance in children with ADHD. Doing two things at once, she found, focuses the brain on the primary task.

A fair question is whether watching something on a phone is a helpful diversion or a distraction. Neurodiversity is an intensely individual experience, you can only measure your co-worker's output, rather than their working methods. You wouldn't raise concerns about a co-worker's preference of IDE, even if you feel Vim would hypothetically be so much more efficient. I hope.

In summary: Decide whether you are concerned about their productivity or their appearance of productivity. If the former, it sounds like they're already meeting their goals, and you don't need to do anything.

If the latter, make it clear that you respect whatever techniques work for them. The only reason to bring it up is if you want to help them avoid misunderstandings with management or teammates. Be supportive!

  • @pauld I see you already cleared this up with your co-worker, but I wanted to submit this answer to help provide context for other readers coming to this question later. I'm glad you found an amicable understanding! – Justin Jan 25 at 21:54
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    Thanks for writing this answer, it has made me realize certain things about my own behavior that I was not fully aware of the cause of or benefit of. – Alex Jan 26 at 9:02
  • There is a big difference between subconsciously doodling and watching videos. Studies have indicated that listening to instrumental music while coding produces higher quality code faster than listening to songs with singing. Your brain is subconsciously interpreting lyrics as they are sung, and decoding language is a very intensive process for the brain. So if watching a video with sound and conversation, I imagine it's a very big impediment. If the sound is off but you are reading captions, still probably a significant impediment. If it's just visuals, maybe only a minor distraction? – SafeFastExpressive Jan 28 at 0:44
  • @SafeFastExpressive That's true for a lot of people, and that's why I added the bit about "helpful diversion or a distraction". However, it's hard to draw broad conclusions from one principle across a spectrum of emotional experiences and neurodiverse conditions. Given a bad enough day, I could imagine getting more done spending 50% of my time watching Twitch than ruminating on how bad my day is. – Justin Jan 28 at 17:35
  • @Alex I'm glad I could help! If you're ever frustrated by symptoms like these, it might help to find an ADHD specialist and get yourself tested. We have lots of stereotypes about ADHD, but real-world symptoms can be much subtler and harder to identify as a condition instead of blaming it on your "character". – Justin Jan 29 at 18:05
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I like to take an objective, step by step approach to deciding when to take action for situations like this. Firstly, you need to ask yourself the by-the-book questions regarding the norms and structures in your workplace:

  1. Is there any company policy regarding personal phone use during business hours? Many employers mention personal phone use during business hours in their employee handbook, IT policies, or other policies. If you're unsure about any policy, look or ask. Even in the absence of policy specifically on personal phone use, there may be policy on wifi use, if he's using the company wifi to get his content on his phone.
  2. Do you have responsibility for the employee's performance? You implied you did by mentioning that you give feedback for his performance review, but it's important to follow structure any time performance feedback is given. If you are not directly responsible for the employee, it's probably better to let the person who is handle matters like this. When disciplinary feedback is given outside of official hierarchy lines, it makes for messy situations that usually end poorly.

Assuming those two questions still leave you without a clear direction, you can ask yourself further clarifying questions before deciding to take action:

  1. Does the distraction impact his work quality? Pretty straightforward, and probably the most common evaluation people would make. Quality impacts can come in many forms: bad work product, late work product, work product that incurs some issue down the road (ie "technical debt" for software developers). However, this shouldn't be the only question you ask. It can be difficult to determine if a specific action is causing an impact to someone's performance (especially in light of common, and legitimate, claims that "background distractions" can help some people focus better), so it helps to instead take a holistic view of performance, and take action only if there are issues - versus trying to attribute performance (or lack thereof) to some specific thing.
  2. Does the distraction impact others' work quality? Ask the same questions, but of the peer group: Even if the distraction allows him to indirectly concentrate on his own tasks, it's possible that him having his phone out all the time may be distracting others in a negative manner. Even consider yourself - you're clearly spending time thinking about this, so there's already at least some impact.
  3. Does the distraction cause a safety or security risk? Watching content on his own personal phone using it's own cell data connection probably doesn't. But, watching content on his work laptop might present a security issue, depending on the content and the source. Regarding safety, it's probably not an issue for someone sitting at their desk, but for someone responsible for doing or monitoring physical activity or safety, it would be a big issue - ie an equipment operator or security guard would obviously not be able to perform their job while staring at youtube.
  • +1: the only big concern is #2 and #3, it seems like he is doing adequate work – WetlabStudent Jan 29 at 5:17
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For this situation, since you already know him, here is what you do:

Take him out to lunch in a friendly, non offical way. In the middle of the meal,say something like this:

"I've been wanting to talk to you for awhile now. Normally, this is none of my business, but since our boss has asked me to assign tasks and follow up on them, I've noticed you've been on your phone a lot. I know you put in extra hours, but I think it still hurts how well you do your work. I would feel very guilty having to report this to our boss. Do you see where I am coming from?"

Let him answer, and he will give a lot of excuses. DO NOT get side tracked, you will only start argueing. Redirect the conversation and stick to the point, Respond by saying:

"Yeah, I can understand your perspective. But,I still feel I will have to bring this up if our boss asks how things are going. let me ask this: would you be willing to try turning the screen off, and just listen to music or podcasts?"

The very last part is important, it gives your coworker an option, an out. It's a fair compromise to try.

If it continues, do exactly what you said you would do: ONLY If your boss asks how progress is being made, tell him your concerns.

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    Do not do this! Threatening or even suggesting that you will report him to your boss is a terrible idea. There is nothing to report to your boss if he is just choosing to be at work longer hours, but working less during those hours, so as to equal full-time work. As long as he is getting his job done, reporting to the boss will make you look bad. – WetlabStudent Jan 29 at 5:15
  • Wetlabstudent, you are completely wrong, and you should work on your reading comprehension skills. OP specifically says that overall he feels this his hindering his colleague. OP is responsible for giving out tasks, and seeing that they get completed. If his boss asks how he thinks things are going, he should be honest in his opinion. OP should not offer his opinion unless directly asked by his boss. – Issel Jan 29 at 6:14
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    "would you be willing to try turning the screen off, and just listen to music or podcasts?" treat the symptoms, not the cause? Because if the issue is "not being productive", then that doesn't help. It depends on the person, of course - I do work while listening to music but I just cannot concentrate on anything when listening to podcasts. Watching something could be non-disruptive or it could really take away from your attention. – VLAZ Jan 29 at 10:21
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    The OP says that this employee is completing their tasks adequately and on time. While the OP does suggest that the employee might work faster if they did not watch their phone, that is not something to mention to the boss, unless the boss specifically asks about the employee being on the phone. Tattling on the employee makes it look like you can't handle minor situations yourself, even when they aren't causing any problems. Escalating this to the boss makes you look like a bad leader. Don't do this. – WetlabStudent Jan 29 at 12:01
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    Don't do this. It's not "friendly" if the whole purpose is to first establish a casual atmosphere and then dump accusations on them - it's just underhanded and rude. Also it isn't really a discussion, since you have already decided where it should go. If it's strictly related to their professional performance you should bring it up in the office, during office hours. Personally I would perceive this as a threat. There's no such thing as a free lunch. – Joe Terror Jan 29 at 12:38

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