Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
Early in my career, I worked for an organization that provided free bagels and cream cheese on Wednesday mornings. It’s no exaggeration to say it was the highlight of the week for many of us. We’d crowd into the kitchen, thrilled to get our free bagels, jostling for the first rights to the scallion cream cheese. It’s not that we were denied access to breakfast foods on other days; there was a bagel store a few doors down. But something about the food being free made it so much more satisfying. I still miss those bagels sometimes.
People are weird about free food at work. Really weird.
My mailbox is full of reports of co-workers losing all sense of decorum and courtesy when free food is on offer—people taking whole pans of lasagna back to their desks or running roughshod over colleagues to ensure they get first dibs on the best doughnuts. Here’s a typical example of the bizarre greed free food can bring out:
At a previous job, staff were allowed to take food left over from client and other meetings. People would aggressively lurk or pace around the conference rooms waiting for the meeting to be over. Some of the conference rooms were all glass, so these lurkers were extremely conspicuous to everyone in the meeting, including clients (and this was a finance company that worked with high-wealth clients). Certain staff members were referred to as “the vultures.” It became so awkward and embarrassing that the company established a new rule that people were not allowed to get food out of the rooms when the meeting was over. If there was anything left over, the office manager would bring it to the cafeteria and then people could take some.
Some people’s avarice extends to hoarding the food for later, ignoring that it’s generally only intended to feed you while you’re at work:
At my old company, we had monthly employee appreciation lunches. They were always catered in from local restaurants and the food was great, but you had to show up right on time, since there was a group of people who would show up with Tupperware containers. They would take a huge helping of food for their lunch and then pack away food “for later.” There were so many people who would show up 10 minutes after the lunch started to find that there was no food left. I was part of the team that organized these lunches and asked these folks to wait until the end of the lunch to take leftovers, and you would’ve thought I’d declared war!
Others are simply oblivious to—or don’t care about—the fact that they’re supposed to leave enough food for everyone else to have some:
I had a coworker who thought any treats were just for him. If breakfast tacos were ordered for my department, we’d usually offer other departments nearby any leftovers. If he hadn’t already, as soon as he heard that leftovers were being offered he’d go through and get *all* of the ones he wanted (example, all the brisket) and hide them in his desk drawer before the other department could get any. He’d also get in line first or near-first (he volunteered to help with setup), and would take massive amounts of what was there. If some folks didn’t get firsts while he was loading up his second, he’d say folks should have gotten there faster. Management did talk to him, but his answer was that he didn’t care.
And while social shaming can be effective against a number of other rude office behaviors, like taking every call on speakerphone or failing to refill the coffeepot, office food vultures can be surprisingly immune to attempts to rein them in:
At my last company, they used to get cookies once a month from a well-known bakery in my city. People used to stampede down the halls when it was cookie time and grab handfuls or platefuls instead of taking one. Eventually it got to the point that if you got to the cookie location 10 or 15 minutes after they were put down, there were none left. An email was sent out reminding people to take only one cookie so their coworkers could also have some, and that they were welcome to take additional cookies at the end of the day only if there were any left over.
There was such a protest. Some people were SO INSULTED that they couldn’t take more than one cookie (and honestly, I can understand maybe taking two, but these repeat offenders were taking between 6–12 each—legit strutting away with plates piled high). They complained so much about being denied more than one cookie that cookie day ended up stopping permanently. It was honestly bizarre. Grown adults throwing tantrums over being denied more than one cookie (and they were big cookies, too).
When people get accustomed to free food being supplied regularly, taking it away can result in outright revolt:
I used to work for a contracting company with a mix of on-site and off-site staff. The main office had very well stocked break room refreshments—coffee, tea, soda, water, fresh fruit, candy, chips, etc. The understanding was that staff were welcome to help themselves to the food in the break room.
Over time, some of the off-site staff started stopping by the office to stock up on break room food and drinks. And by “stock up,” I mean they brought bags and coolers to take food from the break room. After a few months of the break room being completely empty by the second week of the month, management issued a policy saying that the break room food and drinks were primarily for staff working or attending meetings at the main office.
People lost their minds. Petitions were organized, there was at least one hostile exchange during an on-site staff meeting and many nasty emails were sent. In the end, the company got rid of the break room refreshments completely.
Rapacity for free food knows no boundaries by age or affluence. It’s perhaps more understandable among low-paid interns who subsist largely on ramen and happy hour specials, but it’s just as likely to be seen from executives who could easily buy themselves as many bagels, pizzas, or cookies as they desire. There’s just something primal about free sustenance.
There must be a way to balance employers’ willingness to boost morale with free food against people’s weird and sometimes anti-social behavior when confronted with said food. But short of saddling the perk with strict and tough-to-enforce rules (“You may have one cookie only, and Susan will stand by the food to enforce that”), I don’t know that any office has found it yet.