Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues-everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader writes:

I have a bit of a weird situation and was wondering if you had any advice on how to deal with my manager. I've recently been transferred to a new department, working in a new office environment, under a new manager. His diet consists mainly of fast food and take-out.

I have crazy allergies to a bunch of foods, as well as to 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 not being rude by not eating food they bring in. 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, and then walks away.

Any thoughts on how I can handle this situation? I'd especially like strategies that don't have me going above him to complain to his manager (also, we have no HR department to turn to).

Your boss is either incredibly rude or has some kind of eating compulsion problem. Or both.

You've got two choices:

1. Talk to him directly. Not in passing, not off-the-cuff, but a serious, sit-down conversation that sounds something like this: "Jim, as you know, I have serious food allergies. 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. Like most people, I don't do well when I'm starving. This is a medical issue for me. I need you to stop taking my food."

If he jokes it off, repeat again, "This is a medical issue for me. If you're going to continue taking my food, it will put me at risk of a medical problem. How can we solve this?"

If you're like most people, you probably don't feel 100 percent comfortable having this kind of stern conversation with your boss. But when you're dealing with someone so willing to violate normal boundaries, your best bet is often a simple, direct assertion that the behavior needs to stop. I'm not going to tell you that there's no chance of it creating tension between the two of you; it might. But you're so clearly in the right and he's so clearly in the wrong that it's likely that he'll just feel sheepish and back off.

2. Get a locking lunchbox. Seriously. Purchase a small, locking toolbox or one of those lockboxes that people store money in. Get something that can only be opened with a key or a numerical combination.

But constructive advice aside, it's pretty outrageous that this guy is going through your desk to steal your food, especially after you've asked him to stop. I'd be on the watch for other boundary violations or lack of understanding of workplace norms and basic courtesy.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.

Published on: Jul 1, 2015
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