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The Way to Keep Working: Beware the Office Refrigerator!

Written By Amy Goldschlager
Last updated: March 1, 2023

One great way to save money is to bring your own lunch to work, and more people are doing so in these tough times. Unfortunately, that means tangling with that workplace battlefield known as the office fridge.

Lunch Thieves

Alas, some people simply cannot keep their sticky hands away from food that does not belong to them. In a 2008 poll conducted by career site, 97.8 percent of office workers agreed that the most heinous of office sins was stealing others’ food from the fridge.

How can you prevent the loss of your lovingly prepared sandwich or tasty dinner leftovers? Polite, angry, plaintive or passive-aggressive notes taped to the refrigerator apparently have little deterrent value. Make the theft more personal (and guilt-inducing): Label the lunch with your name and attach a note or even a photo of yourself directly to the container, an Orlando Sentinel article suggests.

Or, make your lunch inaccessible or entirely unappealing: options include a padlocked box (possibly too extreme), an insulated lunch bag that allows you to keep food safely at your desk or Anti-Theft Lunch Bags, which make your sandwiches appear to be splotched with mold.

Forums at the Etiquette Hell Web site offer several entertaining ways to stop or catch lunch thieves. For example, one victim loaded his sandwich with onions and then sniffed people’s breath until he found the culprit.

Do not, as many suggest, consider adding unpleasant substances to your lunch to trap the thief. If you actually like sardine, marshmallow and jalapeno sandwiches, it’s the thief’s problem if she gets nauseated. If a thief with a peanut allergy goes into anaphylactic shock after munching on your chicken satay, you’re not responsible, either. But if a lunch thief becomes ill after a meal that you yourself would not eat, you will not only get fired, you will face criminal charges. In the 1990s, The Press-Enterprise reported on a California nurse who was charged with a felony after she spiked her own water bottle with formalin, sending her thirsty, thieving coworker to the hospital for two days.

Think about enlisting HR’s help. Stealing food is a firing offense at some companies, and some will even install security cameras in the lunchroom to enforce the policy. However, bear in mind that other companies are not that sympathetic to the problem, and confronting it could prove awkward. According to Etiquette Hell and other forums, the lunch thief is often a senior executive who, despite having far more disposable income than you, enjoys eating lunch on your dime.

If you do register a complaint, do so calmly and in the company of your coworkers. An inappropriately worded accusation can result in negative consequences for you. reports that a nasty e-mail conversation between two legal secretaries in Australia that began with a complaint about a missing ham sandwich led to them both getting fired.

Cleaning the Refrigerator

Sources in this Story

  • The F Word Means You’re Fired!
  • Orlando Sentinel: Think food theft at work is a petty or even laughable offense? Think again. It can have a real effect on workplace morale and trust.
  • The.: Anti-Theft Lunch Bags
  • The Press-Enterprise: Crime & Nourishment
  • Etiquette Hell: Forum: Office Food Thieves: Anybody ever caught one?
  • Ham Strung
  • CNN: Office refrigerator stench packs punch, sends seven to hospital
  • University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension in Lancaster County: Food Reflections: Cleaning Up the Office Refrigerator
  • Ask Annette: Purge the Fridge
  • Houston Chronicle: (Moldy) food for thought

Leaving your stuff in the fridge can be just as bad as removing someone else’s. A communal fridge should not contain your kid’s science experiments or your bodily fluids (this does not apply to nursing mothers’ breast milk, although that has also been a point of contention in some offices). Avoid including overly pungent foods in your lunch. Yes, you have a perfect right to indulge in week-old Squid Surprise, but don’t expect to retain a positive relationship with your coworkers.

Promptness in removing old food is also important. In March, CNN reported that when a helpful person tried to clean an unplugged refrigerator full of spoiled food, seven people were sent to the hospital and all 325 people in the building were evacuated.

 “Food Reflections,” a newsletter published by the University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension, offers many helpful suggestions about office food safety. It seems picky, but consider labeling and dating your food, which helps others know when “previously edible” becomes “biohazard.” Establish a clear refrigerator-cleaning policy that notifies everyone when the refrigerator will be cleaned out, and who will be responsible for cleaning it. “Ask Annette” of facetiously suggests turning the often distasteful chore of fridge cleaning into an entertaining group event, “Purge the Fridge Friday,” in which everyone takes turns guessing the source and type of each frightening food item.

Even if the fridge has become a toxic waste dump, don’t clean it out yourself without warning; you risk angering your coworkers when you dump their perfectly good salads. It might also be criminal behavior. In 2007, the Houston Chronicle reported a case in which the University of Texas emptied out the office of an extremely messy chemistry professor two days before he received a certified letter with a deadline for tidying up. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that all “government employees must receive adequate notice before their personal belongings can be tossed out.” The Chronicle suggests that the ruling would apply to refrigerator contents, although one lawyer quoted in the article believed that a conflict over overly zealous fridge cleaning would never go to trial. Still, it never hurts to play it safe.

Charles Eames

Amy joined findingDulcinea in October 2007. She has edited adult and children’s books for a variety of publishers, including Avon Books, the Penguin Group, Scholastic, Inc. and Interweave Press. As an editor at Muze, Inc., she provided capsule summaries of genre fiction for an online entertainment database. A former curator of the New York Review of Science Fiction reading series, she has reviewed books for both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. Amy has a B.A., with honors, from Haverford College in Psychology, and an M.A. in Cognitive Science from The Johns Hopkins University. To get updates from Amy, follow her on Twitter.

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