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A company with several hundred employees has several office rooms used as kitchens - they are equipped with tables, microwaves, sinks and fridges. Employees leave their food in the fridges and sometimes food just disappears. This happens so often it just can't be accidental.

Short of installing a huge surveillance camera see note below near each of the fridges what can be done to prevent these events?

Regarding camera - first, installing it takes effort (and some money), and second, it would mean people don't trust each other, and third, people just don't like being watched by cameras everywhere.

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Do what they do at banks - pack an exploding paint package. When thief opens it up, boom. They get covered in paint and wear their guilt ;) –  Oded Nov 16 '12 at 13:40
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You posted about preventing theft on a interweb q&a Site... i think trust is already out the window. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Nov 16 '12 at 14:48
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A sticky note on your sandwhich "Dear lunch thief: There is a 30% chance I've spiked this with syrup of ipecac. Are you feeling lucky? Well? ARE YOU?!". (Note: Don't actually spike your lunch) –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Nov 16 '12 at 16:26
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Have you checked with your company to see if they have any policies on food storage? I know our company requires food to be labeled with the employee name and date, and there are periodic cleanouts of the fridge where anything not dated simply gets thrown out (we had problems with people forgetting about food down there, or leaving the company but leaving their food behind, and it would rot and become a health hazard) –  Rachel Nov 16 '12 at 18:54

6 Answers 6

  • Clearly label food with the owner's name.
  • An email should go out from an "office manager" or other person who has general responsibility for the facilities saying something like "many packed lunches look alike. Please make sure you are taking your own."
  • Periodically purge the common fridges and make it publicly known in advance.
  • Sometimes, people assume that food has been left there a long time and it's fair game - maybe it belongs to someone who left the company 2 days ago. If everyone knows that the fridge is periodically purged, they have a stronger feeling that the food that's in there is owned.

This activity may be malicious, or it may be simple confusion. Protect your own food by having distinctive packaging that can't be mistaken for someone else's, and label it clearly.

If it's malicious, it's quite possible that it's happening "off hours" where the perpetrator is less likely to get caught. 2nd or 3rd shift, during large meetings, etc. Some measure of surveillance may be required. You say that doing so would mean that people don't trust each other - if people are having their food stolen, there is already a feeling of distrust in the office. People don't like being watched? Fine - act like adults, stop the food theft and the camera will go away.

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I think purging and maintaining a neat fridge are extremely effective - if the fridge is a broken window, people are more likely to steal from it. –  Tacroy Nov 16 '12 at 17:09

Get a lunchbox with an actual lock on it. Put it front and center in the fridge. Get others to do the same.

Alternately, if you've got a laptop and a table in the lunchroom, work in there one day. Your presence should dissuade anyone from taking a lunch that isn't theirs. You can probably play it off as "there was a discussion near my desk and I wanted to find a quiet place to work".

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In general, 1 sentence "answers" get lots of downvotes because they aren't really answers. –  enderland Nov 16 '12 at 15:54
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@AdamV Your answers should be complete, link or no link (links tend to rot). It's always helpful to point to outside resources, but that doesn't mean that whatever is in the link is really a part of your answer. –  Yannis Nov 16 '12 at 16:04
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Even in that case it is still good to add the text to your answer. You don't know when or if that link will die, and if it ever does, your answer is completely worthless. See - meta.workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/505/… –  enderland Nov 16 '12 at 16:05
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You have two answers in one saying what you think the solution is but nothing to back up why it is the solution. And the rules of the site say it is not acceptable to simply write what you think you need to explain why you think it is the correct answer –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Nov 16 '12 at 19:09

There is very little you can do at the systemic level. There are a few minimally-effective things you can do at the personal level.

At the systemic level, I've never found appeals to reason or compassion to work. I've never worked at a place that used kitchen surveillance, but I wouldn't expect it to work well -- somebody has to monitor it (or review the recordings) and workers who feel insulted by it may work harder to either defeat it or prank it.

If you don't already have a "label with name and date" rule for stuff stored in the kitchen, at least do that to avoid the real or claimed accidents ("I didn't know it wasn't mine").

At the personal level, I've had some success with the following (but all of these are imperfect):

  • Bring food the thieves don't like. Develop that liking for eggplant-and-limberger sandwiches. Ok, maybe not that, but unusual food is less likely to be taken.

  • Food that looks like it's already been eaten from is less likely to be taken. Take a bite out of that sandwich before putting it into the fridge. This doesn't work as well with pre-packaged and single-serving food, of course.

  • Don't use the shared fridge. Buy a small insulated bag and just keep your food at your desk for the few hours until lunch-time. Also, some foods can just sit out for a few hours without harm, like hard-boiled eggs, yogurt, hard cheeses, and fruit.

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Personally, I don't understand why people put food that they intend to eat at 12 pm in the fridge at 8 am. It's not gonna spoil in four hours - and if it is, you probably shouldn't be eating it in the first place. –  Tacroy Nov 16 '12 at 17:07
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Actually, most cooked foods will, at room temperature, spoil in four hours. That is the cutoff time in commercial food handling for food left in the "danger zone" (between 40 and 140*F); after that time, bugs that don't get killed by refrigeration and/or moved in after cooking have begun doing dastardly deeds you don't want to know about in detail. –  KeithS Nov 16 '12 at 17:26
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Why the downvotes? –  Monica Cellio Nov 16 '12 at 21:35

Honestly, this is pretty hard to solve without some surveillance. I can think of a few options to try to ameliorate it.

  1. Using psychology: Post a statement appealing to people’s self-image, because people care about their self image and no one wants to think of themselves as inconsiderate or dishonest. “Please be considerate. People have spent time and money on getting their lunch ready. Some of us have medical conditions which require a specific diet, and having our lunch stolen is much more of a burden than it might appear. Think about how you would feel if people took your property from your desk. Thank you for your consideration.” Or some such version.

  2. Trying to catch them in the act by going to the kitchen at unpredictable times, because no one wants to be caught taking something that is not theirs.

  3. Bringing something that you don’t have to keep in the kitchen, since if it's not physically in the kitchen, it cannot be taken from the kitchen. It would work, but then you’d have to accommodate the thief(s).

  4. This is more out there, and I have never tried it. Maybe it would be possible to use some safe food colorant in a “trap” lunch. Whomever has a colorful tongue afterwards is probably the culprit! (Because no one wants to be seen as a thief)

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tldr: keep short term food at your desk. Offer alternative long term food (funded by the company or donations from coworkers) to protect your own long term food.


I see two separate problems here and they have different solutions.

First, you are preparing something at home, taking it to work, and putting it in the fridge to eat that day. After about 3 hours in the fridge, it's gone, and you don't get any lunch that day. This is pretty rare, really, and I recommend using an insulated bag on or near your desk and ignoring the fridge, while mentioning to management that it's a shame a labelled personal possession can be taken so quickly and blatantly.

Second, you keep something in the fridge or freezer that you might eat sometime soon. You use this when you are hungrier than you expected, or stay late. (Or perhaps one day you're less hungry than you thought, so you leave part of your lunch at work to eat the next day.) After a week or two in the fridge or freezer, you go to eat it and it's gone. This one is far more common. Someone with poor impulse control has convinced themselves they'll replace it before you notice, but has then forgotten. Sure, they should have left it, and failing that replaced it, but they have poor character. Shaming notes etc generally don't work.

I think your best bet here is to ask management for a small budget - say $10/week for a dozen people - and use that to buy fruit, the occasional box of Hot Pockets, and so on. These items will be clearly labelled "free for anyone" "help yourself" "company-provided snacks for people working late" and so on. Now instead of asking Mr Poor Impulse Control to sit hungry at his desk while perfectly yummy food (that he intends to replace) is just feet away, which he's shown he can't do, you're asking him to eat the free stuff and leave the private stuff alone, which he can probably do.

If management won't give you a budget, consider collecting a dollar a week from your coworkers (purely voluntarily of course) and taking turns doing the collecting and shopping. The convenience of knowing there's an apple in the breakroom, some muffins in the freezer etc, will be nice for all of you, and the confidence that anything special you've brought is more likely to be respected will also be nice.

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It actually sounds like this is EXACTLY the problem the asker is having. –  enderland Nov 16 '12 at 17:28
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+1 - This strategy works. When resources are plenty, people don't steal (or borrow and forget to replace). Some companies I've worked for have done this, and it works out quite well! –  jmort253 Nov 17 '12 at 6:47

There may be various reasons for such "incidents", but they are the consequence of too "household-like" atmosphere. If anyone can put anything in the bridge, you got that dormitory clima:

I've run out of butter, no problem, I will "borrow" some. Oh, someone has brought some cheese, cool! I'll borrow it too.

Please note, that in some companies, anything that's in kitchen is provided by the company. Normally, it's the sugar, tea and coffee, but some people may be such used to that model, they even don't bother to ask if something in the fridge isn't accidentally brought by some other employer...

The best solution for the big company is to provide basic products like sugar, water etc. by the company, so that nobody need to bring them on their own. The costs are really low, and you avoid the chaos. There are no misunderstanding. Everything in the kitchen is free for everyone. You keep your private food in your locker. You make your sandwitches at home. Period.

It may be a bit radical, but shared household between a hundred unfamiliar people simply can't work well.

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protected by Rarity Nov 16 '12 at 16:44

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