3 Ways To Help Employees—and their Food—Coexist

During the summers in college, I worked as a secretary at a law office and my mom sent me off to work with sack lunch every day. Yes, I know it sounds pathetic, but I wasn’t going to turn away the offer of a ready-made lunch. So she made my lunch with her homemade brown bread and signature veggie and fruit. Every. Single. Day.

That’s why I was so amazed one day when I pulled out my plain brown paper bag from the fridge and found a white-bread meat and cheese with a full-size candy bar. I remember sitting in the break room, astonished at my luck, and scarfed down my most delicious sandwich and dessert.

When I was back at my desk basking in my sugar-high, an email found its way to my inbox—an intraoffice email to the entire office telling the thief who ate her lunch today to watch out!!!

Suddenly, it all made sense. Somewhere pushed in the back of the company fridge, my pathetic brown-bread PB&J and overripe fruit waited in its brown paper sack.

The inconveniences of the company fridge is something everyone who works at an office has probably had to deal with. There’s the forgotten, moldy food; the lack of space (ever pulled out your sandwich from underneath a can of soda?) and the office crook who seems to think anything in the fridge is fair game.

HR has to deal with it too when the employees come to you about it. Have you had employees complaining about missing food?

Here are 3 tips to keep the peace when employees are sharing their food’s living space:

1. Create a throw-out date. You can eliminate strange odors and give everyone a little more space for their food by specifying a clean date. Usually a Friday afternoon. Perhaps once a month or once a week. And warn your people that anything left in the fridge will be thrown out (including that top-of-the-line tupperware). You have to keep your word: If you say you’re going to throw it out, you’ve gotta throw it out—even if it looks brand new.

2. Label it. Encourage your people to put names and/or dates on their food. That way, it’s easier to tell who food belongs to (to stop those accidental food thiefs) and how long it’s been sitting there. Hopefully a little marking your territory can help. Although that didn’t really help with Kevin’s tuna sandwich, did it?


3. Tell them it’s stealing! While employees should understand that taking what doesn’t belong to you is stealing, some people can’t think past their grumbling stomachs. I’ve heard of late-shift employees rummaging through the fridge hoping to find something and think anything left for the night is fair game. Did you hear about the turkey and swiss with mayo on rye that was recently held for ransom?

Frankly, it is still stealing and you may have to remind your people that. And if it’s the boss doing the taking, well, a reminder never hurt anyone. Who can forget the FRIENDS episode when Ross Gellers’ Thanksgiving-leftover sandwich (with Moist Maker) was eaten by his boss?

While it may seem like managing emotions over stolen lunches and smashed sandwiches is juvenile, it’s still something HR has to deal with from time to time. And it’s happening more often. In fact, a poll showed that over 60 percent of people have dealt with food stolen from the company fridge. And 10 percent of people say it’s a constant problem. Perhaps a video camera directed at the refrigerator could help. And catch this guy . . .

I recently heard about a company that offers its employees a stocked fridge where people can grab what they need for breakfast, lunch or dinner. And employees prefer this open-fridge idea to catered lunches. If it’s in the budget, offering employees the perk of a fully stocked fridge could be one solution to the shared company fridge problem if these three tips don’t help.

This many years later, I’ve never forgotten how ridiculous I felt when I realized my mistake of eating a coworker’s lunch. Regardless of whether it’s intentional or not, it’s never fun to have your food stolen (or borrowed)—especially when you’re counting on it being there when your own stomach is feeling a little grumbly.