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The Food Thief strikes again

Q. Employees continue to eat food from the fridge that does not belong to them even though the food items are clearly labeled with a co-worker's name!

Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

J. P., Bloomingdale, NJ

A. I’m confounded by the workplace kitchen. Colleagues steal food, leave messes for others to clean up, leave food to rot and smell long after it should have been thrown out, and leave the lunch table or break room a mess. I hear about it repeatedly, and I’m appalled.

The simplest solution for you may be to bring your food in a small, insulated lunch carrier that will protect it without having to put it in the refrigerator. That way you can keep it at your desk and away from light-fingers. While this may solve your problem, it leaves the lunch thief at large and shifts the problem to the next victim.

Short of installing a security camera - likely to be seen as management spying - or catching the thief in the act, your next official step is to take it to management. Ask if you can bring this up at the next office meeting. Alerting coworkers to be on the lookout may be enough of a deterrent to foil the lunch-lifter.

If that brings no joy, then it’s time to propose a kitchen policy. In your situation, I suggest getting like-minded, frustrated employees together and recommending a policy to management.

Creating rules requires determining the consequences and who will be responsible to do the enforcing. Be specific in your recommendations not only with the problems but also with the consequences. What do you do if a food thief is caught? Is a warning sufficient or is stealing really stealing, whether it’s someone’s lunch or money from the cash register? If dishes are left in the sink and no one takes responsibility, do you close the kitchen to all?

Each company will have to decide the severity of the consequences for the different infractions. The key is that once articulated, the rules must be enforced for everyone. Unfortunately, you may not be able to get a policy instituted precisely because it requires enforcement. Management’s attitude may be: “Hey, we’re all adults here. People should be able to be responsible for themselves.”

At the very least, try posting the following advice for the workplace kitchen or break room:

  • Leave it alone unless it’s yours.
  • Clean up your dishes.
  • Throw it out or take it home.
  • Wipe off and clean up counters, common area tables and chairs.

P.S. Please, don't even think about lacing your food with a laxative or other substance. While it may seem like a tempting pay-back, it could have severe or adverse medical consequences.

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