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Your Office's Fridge-Raiders Are Stealing Much More Than Food

Food theft runs rampant in offices. It's not silly: It's a workplace honesty issue that needs to stop.

Managers have bigger problems to deal with than the prospect of employees stealing one anothers' lunches. That's what makes the fact that it's a surprisingly common problem so vexing.

As reported by NPR, the most common complaint at Etiquette Hell--a website compiling and crowdsourcing everyday ethical breaches--is, indeed, colleague-on-colleague lunch theft.

That might not do the extent of rampant office food theft justice; a 2012 survey from Monster showed that 18 percent of people admit to at least sometimes stealing food--including 4 percent who say they do so "all the time"--and 43 percent of people say they have been victim to such injustice.

For some reason, there's something about the idea of lifting food from the fridge that inspires a chuckle and a roll of the eyes.

But this is supposed to be basic: You don't take what isn't yours.

And it's not like there aren't consequences. In Britain, a quarter of employees said food theft is their number one workplace annoyance. Meanwhile, most advice on the topic is geared toward employees, suggesting they take things into their own hands with pranks and amateur sleuthing methods. (Example: Put dye in your food and see who's wearing it around their mouth after lunch time. That'll show 'em!)

The problem there is obvious: First of all, guerrilla warfare really isn't suited for the office--especially not for a topic as mundane as the contents of a refrigerator. But even beyond that, what happens when the thief is caught? Whoever's out a lunch now has a target for their scorn, and the thief is going to be pretty embarrassed if caught. They deserve that embarrassment, mind you, but it's not going to be very good for morale.

But can you manage the problem away? It might be difficult, for the very reason that it is a problem in the first place. The reason people take food from the fridge, as noted by BusinessWeek writer Claire Suddath, is that they know it's not a problem that can be very easily monitored. Suddath writes:

That’s the problem with office thieves--they know the food belongs to someone, but when it’s just sitting there in the fridge, they also know that they probably won’t be caught if they take it. It’s the office version of the tragedy of the commons, a theory developed in 1968 by ecologist Garrett Hardin as a way to explain why shared resources are often ruined. The answer, in short, is that no individual feels responsible for them. Hardin’s idea explains why public bathrooms are so gross, why people litter, and, according to his original example, why farmers will let their cows overgraze communal fields. It’s a simple, if depressing, facet of human behavior. If I were Hardin, I’d rename the theory People Are Jerks.

Jerks though people may be, the best solution might be to just try and appeal to their conscience. Writing at her Ask A Manager blog, management consultant Alison Green suggested that an employee who was having trouble with a manager stealing her food stress dietary restrictions as a reason she couldn't sacrifice her food. Green suggests the employee say, "When you eat the food that I brought to work with me, it means that I can’t eat anything that day since I can’t replace it with just anything that happens to be accessible. So when you take my food, I literally cannot eat until I go home."

This principal could be employed from a managerial perspective as well. Allergies and diets are a bit more concrete than the ideals of right and wrong, and could thus strike potential thieves as more dire. A note on the fridge stressing these side implications of food theft could help to reinforce the ground rules of basic office etiquette.

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