Monday, November 23, 2009

Etiquette Question: Can I Make the Temp Pay for My Lunch?

Hi Shannon!

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!

In the comments, tell me what you want for lunch.


Brando said...

It's a good chance that these were company expensed, or that the partners assumed that they were and didn't know that the temp wasn't getting reimbursed. They'd probably be pretty embarrassed to find out that s/he was laying out cash for them. They probably also aren't aware of how hard it might be for a temp to be assertive with partners--I know I think our receptionists at work can be up front with us, but that may not be the way they actually feel.

But the best avenue here is to go straight to administration on this--clearly they're the best to address it.

lacochran said...

I'll take a sno-cone and cocaine. Stat!

(I'm very suggestible. [And have fantasies about working in an ER, apparently.])

Lori said...

Great advice! definitely having a carnation breakfast shake for lunch, but will be dreaming of turkey/cranberry/stuffing sandwiches on Thursday...mmmm

Jamie said...

Criminy. What a whiner. I can only imagine the drama should this person go out to dinner with friends. I don't know what to do, because I am po' and don't want to split the check and subsidize their drinks! Hello: grow a personality. If you're that cheap, then don't put yourself in that situation in the first place, or get a separate check, or just pay what you think you should pay. It's not a Palestinian peace negotiation, it's life.

I would say to her, go get the lunch and hit them up for the cash later, or if you are really living nickel-to-nickel, then just say at the very moment they ask you to do this, "I am sorry but I don't have the cash." They will, without question, give you 40 bucks or a credit card.

I'm not kidding, if someone can't deal with this situation without getting screwed financially and/or causing a scene, then they would probably freak out when faced with such complexities of life as a metro farecard machine.

bh said...

Kruggerands and Cocaine. mmmmmmm.

Visions of Capetown in 1978 aside, you're advice is sound.

bh said...

Jamie_ Do you have any idea of what it's like to be temp? A crosswise look can get your as$ fired. That's why the person is nervous: They want to be gainfully employed.

These are friends who are cheap on the bill: Their your boss and you have NO employment protection.

Jamie said...

I haven't been a temp, but I've been a summer intern and in the exact same situation.

Someone would get fired for asking to not pay personally for someone else's lunch? Really? I would think there's a lot bigger risk of being fired by making a big deal about it and going to the administrative staff. This will, undoubtedly, get back to the person who put you in this situation, which will undoubtedly annoy them.

I'm trying really hard to be sympathetic. I just don't see the crisis. Nor the fear of firing by just not being a complete wimp.

Jamie said...

Let me put that another way... nobody likes it when people "go around" them. The conversation that Shannon describes should be between the temp and her boss. Admin never holds the purse strings, the boss does.

The best case is that admin just says "you need to talk to (whoever it is), we don't know what project or account should be paying for this, talk to them." The worst case is, they call up the same person and ask them the same thing... in which case he will be annoyed and wonder why the temp didn't just talk to them directly, and instead get other people involved.

I've never worked somewhere that just had petty cash lying around, or would just give you a credit card to pay for random incidental expenses. Either it goes to a project, or goes to a specific overhead account, but whoever's paying for it will have to account for it. Like most situations in life, there's nothing to be gained by not dealing with this directly.

Alex said...

Jamie, as a general rule, summer interns have alternate means of support (usually their parents). That's why they can work for next to nothing. And that also means taking chances isn't such a big deal. On one hand, it's a job at the bottom of the ladder, but unlike temping, it is also a hugely privileged position.

People generally only do temping because they need the money. So the stakes of pissing someone off are much higher. They don't even need to fire you, they just don't request you again.

That being said, most of the time when you allow people you work with to disrespect boundaries, their respect and appreciation for you will diminish, not increase. It's important to push back tactfully when this happens.

In most cases in this scenario, the people ordering lunch would have no idea the temp is paying for it, and they'd be appalled to learn that was the case. There are a lot of tools in this town, but few bad enough to expect a free ride from the people at the bottom of the food chain.

Jamie said...

I am not proposing allowing the disrespecting boundaries at all!

I think that going around the boss to admin, or worse, to the temp agency, is itself disrespecting boundaries. If I had hired a temp, and their response to this situation was to make an issue, you can be sure I wouldn't call them back again.

If on the other hand they just brought it up with me directly, there would be no problem at all.

Shannon said...

I'll have more time later to respond to comments individually, in the meantime, I ask that everyone take a moment to review this portion of the FAQ:

I have a few ground rules: You are welcome to disagree with me, you are welcome to offer criticism, you can debate with other posters. You can even hit on me, be insane, or act a little bit creepy. However, you can't trade in personal insults and hostilities, you cannot assert that people who disagree with you are dumb and/or ignorant, and you really, really can't be rude to other commenters. Not in my house.

Just A Girl said...

Man, that's a really uncomfortable position. I've never done temp work, but I've been on the low end of the totem pole quite a few times, and it's REALLY hard to bring up stuff like that. I just don't know how people (i.e. the partners) can seriously be that rude. I would never ask someone to get me lunch without giving them money on the spot.

I think your advice was good. She needs to say SOMETHING to someone because the situation can't keep going.

Shannon said...

Brando - Thanks! Having been a temp receptionist, I can tell you it's a very precarious position to be in. Diplomatic but firm is the way to go.

Lacochran - Some snow and a sno-cone, coming right up!

Lori - Thanks!

Jamie - Whether or not you agree with the content of my advice, your comment was REALLY over the line. Like, I'm having to peel my jaw off the floor and take oxygen. Actual people, with actual feelings, write in for advice. I do not expect everyone to agree with me on everything, but I do expect people to know how to mind their manners.

BH - Agreed. Being a temp is incredibly stressful - you're barely making enough to eat, and you can lose your job at any time for any reason. I don't blame Broke in Boston for being nervous.

Alex - Agreed.

Jamie - Last response to your comments...1. Many temp agencies REQUIRE you to sign a contract stating that, if you have any workplace issues or conflicts, you will take them to your temp agency coordinator to handle it on your behalf. If you violate that policy, you're out on your ass. 2. If you'd can a temp because they didn't handle your being a disorganized cheap-ass quite the way that you would have liked...then eeeeeesssh. I hope you aren't a supervisor of any sort.

All - The reason I suggested Broke in Boston go to the office manager or her temp agency is because those people are her supervisors, not the partners. If the partners are calling lunch orders and scurrying off, then they're probably not going to be accessible to Broke in Boston for a little heart-to-heart about lunch orders.

JAG - Thanks! It's just such a horribly awkward position to be in - I mean, who wants to admit that being stiffed on a sandwich can break them financially? Especially when you're a temp, in the worst economy since, like, ever? I don't envy the letter writer at all.

A said...

Yeah, I've been in both positions and I'd say that neither side is handling it appropriately. A boss should never ask for or order something without giving resources and the admin should have asked for money or clarification on how payment would be made. Surely if the partner is too busy there is another colleague to ask.

Totally agree with Alex on the boundary comment and with Jamie that this is not a crisis. Just a lack of communication.

Brett said...

Ok as the "handler" in this situation, I have to step in here. If you are a temp, you are asked very specifically (and often in an employment agreement) NOT to address workplace issues with a client, ie the actual place where you are working. You are technically an employee of the staffing firm, and we would handle this matter on your behalf. Yeah, I'd be pissed if I found out this was happening to one of my temps, but I'd be even more pissed if I found out we lost a client because of the way they handled it.

Let me be clear on one thing: a good agency will not work with clients who disrespect or otherwise abuse our associates. We don't want to put anyone in that situation. So we would end the relationship ourselves; we don't want you to do that intentionally or otherwise.

On another note, yeah, Jamie is right, if you are in that situation (where you are no longer a "temp") grow a pair and say something. If they actually fire you for asking for money they owe you, you've got a nice fat law suit to smack them with.

Jamie said...

@Brett, are you really called a "handler?" How very 007. I like it.

I would switch to temping immediately if I was issued a watch with a high-powered laser and a self-destruct timer built-in.

Kim said...

I think it is very likely that those asking for lunch, never thought about how it might be paid for, but at the same time, are probably not expecting that the temp is footing the bill.

I think the best option is a straight forward simple one. When taking down the info down for the order and assumedly asking questions like "What kind of salad dressing do you want", simply include the question "How should I pay for this?"

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