Joint Accounts

Should Your Boss Always Pay for Lunch?

The tricky etiquette of figuring out who foots the bill during work outings

Welcome to Joint Accounts, a weekly advice column about money and relationships of all kinds. Have a question? Email jointaccounts@medium.com.

Dear Joint Accounts,

How do you deal with social situations with co-workers when one of you obviously makes more? Something like a one-on-one lunch with a supervisor, for example, can be strange: Obviously my supervisor makes more, but if they pick the place for lunch during the workday, should they pay? Should I pay? What about group meals or activities? Occasionally the place is out of my budget, but I don’t want to be the only one in the office who says no.

— Employee on a Budget

AsAs with all matters of etiquette, there’s no etched-in-stone rule for who should pay for lunch in this scenario. Everyone has different ideas about the social norms of footing the bill in various situations.

That said, your boss should probably pay.

In my 15-plus years of working, if a boss wanted to meet with me to talk business, she always covered both of our orders. This was never something I asked for or confirmed ahead of time; it just seemed like common courtesy. If you ask someone out on a date, for example, it’s polite to pick up the tab. This circumstance seems similar.

If your colleagues prefer Ruth’s Chris and you’re on an Arby’s budget, it’s perfectly okay to decline a one-on-one or group outing.

But even if common courtesy dictates that a supervisor should pick up the tab for a business-oriented meal, it also dictates that you shouldn’t automatically expect this. So, if you’re worried about the bill, you could hold off on ordering until your boss clarifies who’s paying — or if this doesn’t happen, you can just treat it like a meeting that happens to be at a restaurant and not order at all (or just have something like a soda). In other words, don’t expect someone else to cover you because they outearn you. Be prepared to fork over for your share, and make a good gesture to do so when the bill comes.

Things are different if the situation is a more casual or social one. Say your boss just wants to grab a quick bite, but it’s not in your budget. Or maybe you have work friends who outearn you or just have different spending habits, and you can’t always afford to go to lunch with them. These are problems that can be handled pretty easily: If your supervisor or colleagues prefer Ruth’s Chris and you’re on an Arby’s budget, it’s perfectly okay to decline a one-on-one or group outing. You can always mention that you packed a lunch that day if you want an excuse, or just say you’re swamped if that feels more comfortable.

If you want to have more control over the situation, you can try to be the one who initiates these outings—pick a place that’s in your comfort zone, and then invite people to join you. If a destination has already been chosen, you can always suggest a more affordable alternative or make plans to join a later outing when you’ll have room in your budget.

At an old job, I was a technical writer who didn’t make very much money and considered a meal out to be a treat, while most of my colleagues were engineers who earned considerably more and went out to lunch every day. I allowed myself to splurge once a week, on Fridays; if my co-workers asked me to join them on another day, I would politely turn them down or suggest that I could join on Friday instead.

There’s also the option to be up-front with your co-workers about what you can and can’t afford, which comes with the bonus of opening up a conversation about salary at your workplace. In theory, transparency is a positive thing: It’s hard to know how much more you could earn — or whether you’re a victim of wage discrimination — if you have no information about what anyone else is making. Talking about salary in the workplace is also perfectly legal — the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who openly discuss their compensation.

That said, it’s understandable if you’re reluctant to broach the subject with your co-workers. Even as an advocate of salary transparency, I worry about openly discussing my own income for a number of reasons, including the fear that the people who pay me won’t like it. Despite the NLRA, many employees do face retaliation when they talk openly about how much they make.

If you don’t feel comfortable being forthcoming about your finances, you have every right to keep that information private. If they press you on why you’re not joining in on the group lunch, you don’t need to give a reason. It’s up to you what kind of boundaries you want to set, but whatever they are, your colleagues should respect them.

Kristin Wong is a journalist and freelance writer. She’s written for the New York Times, ELLE, The Cut, and Glamour.

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