Work

Office Lunch Theft Is a Universal Workplace Scourge

Why does no one have a good solution?

An open office fridge blocked off by police tape
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

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.

The internet was transfixed last year by the real-time accounting of the theft of some shrimp fried rice from an office refrigerator. Comedian Zak Toscani’s Twitter thread about the disappearance of a co-worker’s lunch, said co-worker’s viewing of office security tapes, and the identification of another co-worker as the thief went viral, garnering half a million likes and the attention of a nation undoubtedly grateful to finally see lunch thievery gain the attention it deserves.

Lunch theft is a problem that plagues nearly every workplace, and few offices have found effective solutions to it. When a group of people share a refrigerator, some are going to help themselves to other people’s foodstuffs. One survey found 18 percent of workers admitted to eating someone else’s lunch from the office fridge—that’s nearly one in five of the people sitting in your next meeting who might be plotting to waylay your Lean Cuisine.

Witness these harrowing firsthand accounts from people who have written to me about the problem:

I brought a sandwich to work and stored it in the fridge. It was very simple, couple slices of white bread, two slices of cheese, and some lunch meat in a Tupperware. When I went to get it, I found the lid slightly open, and one piece of cheese missing. Someone opened my sandwich, removed a single slice of cheese, reassembled it, and put it back. That night I went out and bought an insulated lunch bag and ice pack, and have not used the fridge since.

One of our faculty members had gotten himself a sub and left it in the fridge for dinner. That night before class, he went to eat his sandwich…only to find that someone had opened it, taken out all the meat, then wrapped the bread and veggies back up for him. I heard the story from several co-workers the next day of him running through the halls, plaintively shouting “Who stole my meat?!”

I had been running too late to make my lunch before work, so I grabbed the packs of deli meat and bread I had bought the night before and carried them with me to work in my lunch bag, which I then stored in the staff fridge. Well, sometime between 9 am and 12:30 pm, someone stole an entire week’s worth of deli meats from my labeled lunch bag. I was so angry. I had to pay something like $10 I didn’t really have to buy a salad nearby, and I had to figure out lunches for the rest of my week with money I hadn’t budgeted for. I never put food in that fridge again. The kicker? It was a slow period, and only a few people were around the office. Every single person who had access to that fridge that week made at least $70k more than me in salary. It made me ramp up my job search, to be honest. It feels petty to write out now, but who does that? … Screw you, you ham-stealing jerk.

Think that’s bad? This person had to put up with her own boss brazenly repossessing her lunch:

I have crazy allergies to a bunch of foods, and chemicals found in most processed foods. Some are the swell-up-like-a-balloon-and-stop-breathing kind of allergy. I make most of my food at home and bring it with me to work. I’m really open about my allergies so that people understand I’m just defective, not rude. And most people get it. Except my manager. He eats my lunch out of the staff fridge on an almost daily basis as if the food fairy left him a gift. I resorted to packing meals that I could keep at my desk, and he started raiding my drawers when I would be in meetings or away from my desk. When I try to address the fact that he’s stealing my food, he tries to butter me up by complimenting my cooking, then walks away.

Victims of lunch theft try various strategies to deter pilfering: Labeling your lunch with your name and a large “DO NOT TOUCH” is popular but often ineffective. Lunch thieves care not that they’re taking someone else’s property; that may even be part of the appeal. Indignant all-staff emails or notes left on the fridge are another common—and generally equally ineffective—avenue. But this person stumbled upon a method that actually worked:

My mom uses creamer in her coffee, but other people kept taking it out of the work fridge and using it. So instead of bringing in an entire bottle, she started putting it in a small Rubbermaid drink container with a Post-it note on it that said “Breast Milk.” No one ever took her creamer again! (Although she did have some explaining to do to a co-worker who saw her making coffee once … )

You don’t have to go that far, though. The person whose boss was stealing her specially packed, allergen-free lunches eventually found success with a locking lunchbox that her manager couldn’t access (and some of her co-workers followed suit so they wouldn’t become his next victims). If the epidemic of office thievery continues, locking lunchboxes might be the next big workplace trend.