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Can your boss tell you who to eat lunch with?

Your boss can tell you what time to be at work, what you have to do, where you have to go, when you can leave, what your salary is, and even who you can sit next to at lunch.

Wait, what? Isn't lunch time your time? This seems like a question that shouldn't come up at all, but I just received an email from someone whose boss wants her to go to lunch with people from the (unfriendly) neighboring department. She writes:
I work for a growing, diverse company which, as I'm sure you'll agree, can present a lot of interesting challenges. One is that we are essentially two separate teams -- the sales team and the support team. We are in the same building, with minimal interaction -- we share the building, break room, and restroom. We are generally friendly enough with one another but don't interact with the other team. My new boss sees this as a problem and at first, in the spirit of teamwork -- we all do work for the same company -- encouraged us to get to know the other team. I agree with what she's attempting but now she's taken it a step further. Her direct reports have been told we are to get to know the other team and constantly tells us to invite the other team to lunch. These people have yelled at me for using the printer, opening the blinds, etc. But now I feel like my boss is telling me how I'm supposed to spend my lunch time? I've been tempted to invite the people who've yelled at me for stupid things to lunch so they can yell at me some more and hopefully, I'll be off the hook. I'm expecting my boss to use this against me somehow in my upcoming performance review.
I absolutely, positively see where both sides are coming from. The boss is right -- it's not productive to have people sharing space who can't stand each other. And if there is yelling about blinds and printers, it's a problem. But, lunch? Making your employees invite people they don't like to lunch? Can they even do this?

Of course! But, not without some restrictions, of course. If you're an exempt employee (that is, you're paid a salary and you're not eligible for overtime) your boss can certainly require you to go to lunch with any number of people -- from hated coworkers, to clients and even with his obnoxious, gum cracking, iPhone-texting teenage daughter who needs a "mentor."

But,  if you're a non-exempt employee, and this lunch is mandatory, you've got to be paid for it. Bosses will, of course, argue that lunch is always off the clock and it's social anyway, so it shouldn't be paid. According to employee attorney Donna Ballman, that can be the case, but the relevant legal question is, "Will not going affect your job negatively?" She writes:
If you are threatened that failure to attend will result in termination or discipline, it isn't a voluntary event. That means, if you aren't exempt from overtime, you probably must be paid for your attendance. Keep copies of any notices, emails or text messages indicating that failure to attend is not an option, then talk to the Department of Labor or an employment lawyer in your state about getting paid if the company fails to pay for your time.
In the letter writer's situation, she fears it will affect her performance rating, so she has a pretty strong case that the lunch is mandatory. However, before getting up in arms and being defensive about pay for a lunch, everyone should consider the "whys" in a situation such as this one. The boss sees a problem with the relationship between departments. He knows that generally people are more tolerant when people know and like each other. And let's face it, if the tension level dropped in the office, that would be a win for everyone.

So, if your boss asks you to go to lunch with someone you'd rather not, figure it's an hour out of our life. Not a big deal in the overall scheme of things. So, walk up to that person and say, "Hey, Jane, we've been working side by side for 6 months now and I only have a small understanding of what you do. Would you like to go to lunch on Tuesday? I'd love to learn a bit more about your department." It will make your boss happy and might even result in you making a new friend.

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