Just today I encountered a sticky etiquette issue here at work, and decided to wing it your way. I'd love for you to post on your site, but I'm sure you're being bombarded with real-life etiquette situations such as today's post... poor Billie!
So imagine it's lunchtime at the office, and I've got four powersuits sitting around deciding what they want for lunch. They decide, and then call me over to cater their lunches - they give me money, I run out to so-and-so's restaurant for a salad, and then I return with food and change (with nary a tip for the food delivery service!).
My question is: sometimes the guys will be flitting between meetings and will just call over their shoulder "Hey, could you grabme lunch at so-and-so's?" I say sure... but they are already headed into their office or another meeting, leaving me with a lunch order and no money.
What is the office etiquette on this? Do I just barge into the meeting and demand payment? I have already shouldered about 4 meals for individual partners - and on my scant salary it does add up - and I am the first receptionist to do this lunch-time delivery service, none of the temps before me have lasted long enough to have the privilege of retrieving their lunches. Help me, etiquette master!
Sincerely, Broke in Boston
Dear Living on Beans in Beantown,
I hope to one day achieve the sort of stardom that gets me a personal lunch delivery service. I mean, really, wow. Who stiffs a temp? I've been in your shoes on many occasions, and I totally feel your pain here.
Here's something you may not have considered: these might be company-expensed meals, and that's why the partners haven't always given you cash upfront. It's also possible that they're just absent-minded and need to be told that food doesn't grow on trees. (Well, some of it does, but I've personally never seen a chicken salad bush.) Most likely, they're just self-involved dinks, but approaching them from a sympathetic perspective makes it easier to remain courteous.
From there, you have two paths, depending on whether your strongest relationship is with your agency, or with your jobsite. It's like a Choose Your Own Etiquette Adventure!
Adventure One is if you've been at this job site for a long time (6 months or more) and are considered 'one of the gang' among your colleagues (basically, if you're a temp in name only):
Speak to a more senior member of the administrative staff, such as the office manager, or, if there isn't one, the accountant. "Suzy, as you may know, I occasionally pick up lunch for Partners X, Y, and Z. Sometimes they give me cash upfront, other times they're unable to do so because they're about to head into a meeting. I was wondering if these meals should be expensed to the company, and, if so, is there a petty cash fund or company card that I could use? I have wound up laying out personal money on occasions x, y and z, and I don't want that to happen again."
This alerts the operations folks that you have been laying out personal money, and puts the weight on them to sort out the problem.
If the partners are indeed supposed to be paying for lunch out of their own pockets, things get stickier. Unfortunately, barging into a meeting to demand your $2 is poor business etiquette. Instead, when you drop off the lunch, hand over the receipt and say, "Hi Bob! Here's your chef salad, the bill came out to $7.50." Then stand there with an expectant smile until he forks over the cash. Or, hey, be proactive: ask for lunch orders in the morning, and ask for payment or credit card numbers on the spot.
Adventure Two is if you haven't been there very long, and, honestly, it's the much safer route:
You can take this up with your handler at the temp agency. Check your temp agency contract. Many agencies require that you work through them to resolve workplace issues. They can intervene on your behalf with the employer, or, failing that, look to find you a new assignment.
And, lastly, a PSA: No temp should ever be laying out any personal money for anything. It is very inappropriate to place that sort of expectation upon a temp. A temp's position at the company is very tenuous, and placing unreasonable expectations upon them takes advantage of that fact. They're also dead-ass broke...a temp receptionist in D.C. makes about $11 an hour. I don't know what Boston is getting paid, but I doubt it's a lifetime supply of Kruggerands and cocaine. Stiffing a temp is like taking your baby brother out for a Sno-Cone...and then making him pay for the both of you. Funny, in a perverse sort of way, but totally not cool.
PS - If you're on the clock, and billing them for the time that you spend picking up lunch, no 'tip' to you is necessary. However, it would be polite for them to tell you to go ahead and pick up something for yourself while you're over there. But I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for that to happen.
Special thanks to my favorite handler, Brett, for tactical support. Got a dilemma? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org!
In the comments, tell me what you want for lunch.