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While it's not my primary job responsibility, I am involved in a program that helps to promote our company among employees. We had some budget to buy some company swag for the employees, so I took the lead to buy some very nice lunchboxes with the company logo on it. Initially, everyone was happy because it was a really nice quality.

Unfortunately, things soon turned to chaos. 300 people all showed up to work with the same lunchbox. People soon started accidentally grabbing the wrong lunchbox from the communal fridge at lunch, or on their way home. Angry notes and e-mails flooded the firm from people who claimed their lunch was stolen.

Things got worse when some people intentionally started taking somebody else's lunch as retribution for having their own lunch "stolen". (More angry notes and e-mails). Last week, 3 people got sick at work with food poisoning symptoms. The rumor (although there isn't any way to verify it) is that somebody was so fed up with having their lunch stolen, that they purposely put spoiled food in several lunchboxes to make the unsuspecting thieves sick.

Today, our CIO got so angry that he sent an e-mail out to everybody saying that these company lunchboxes were officially banned from the office, and scolded "extremely childish behavior" of the firm. He then sent me a 1-on-1 meeting with a subject of "Discuss Lunchbox Fiasco".

I've never spoken to our CIO, and I'm petrified of this conversation. In hindsight, getting company lunchboxes may have been a poor choice of swag, but I really didn't foresee this happening.

What is the best way to approach this meeting with our CIO? Should I come off apologetic for this situation, or is it best to firmly deny all responsibility for this fiasco and blame this on the immaturity of some of my peers? I'm mad as hell with what has happened and now I'm scared for my job.

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    What is the average age range of your colleagues? It's hard to believe that so many adult employees would cause such a fiasco that started with similar lunch boxes. – user34587 May 1 '18 at 14:58
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    @Kozaky , I used to teach high school as well, these adults act no different from kids. – Rahmun Flayur May 1 '18 at 15:00
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    I think I have a hard time believing just like @atxgis because the situation seems absurd. In my 11+ yrs exp, the usual office have 1-3 fridge for employee lunch. Usually, they are contained in a bag cooler. They are MOST of the time unique enough that no identical bags are the same. About 30% put their name on it. Did most people just brought the swag lunchbox that's not in a bag and never thought to put their name on it? After the 1st mixup happened, no one ever thought to start putting names on it? or start bringing their old lunchboxes? – Isaiah3015 May 1 '18 at 15:43
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    A similar mistake occurred after the Rio Olympics - "The entire British Olympic team arrived back in England with the same red suitcase" - sbnation.com/2016/8/24/12622284/… – overslacked May 1 '18 at 18:12
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    Why the heck was the CIO involved? Are they networked lunchboxes? – Ernest Friedman-Hill May 1 '18 at 22:10
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The immaturity of your peers is absolutely not your fault. The idea of the swag was sound, you cannot control how people behave. With that being said, I would approach this conversation with caution, you do not know the demeanor or tone your CIO will bring.

Like any 1 on 1 meeting with a superior where you aren't sure how the conversation will go (will it be a direct blame on you, others, or just a general discussion), let them set the tone. Listen. Don't make excuses. Take responsibility within reason. Perhaps here you may need to be contrite.

Essentially, just listen to what he/she has to say. Respond accordingly, and like any 1 on 1 meeting, if you are going to defend yourself, set emotion aside and use facts.

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    I would also focus on specific, actionable steps you could take in the future. "Here's what went wrong, and here's how we could fix it if we decided to do something like this again." Set up an informal working team for swag-buying decisions, start at smaller scale (department-wide rather than company-wide?), start a wiki page for what works and what doesn't, etc. – yshavit May 1 '18 at 18:25
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Never apologize for this. You did right by creating these lunchboxes - they're a magnificent succes, and the employees love this swag.

The problem is, your co-workers have blown up the issue of not knowing whose lunch is whose out of all proportion. How can that be your problem?

The CIO is - in my estimation - overreacting, and he's gotten involved in an issue that should really have been sorted by a lower level manager. So he needs to find someone to chew out. That's the worst case scenario. Don't get emotional in the meeting, just stick to the facts; you were tasked with producing swag that the employees wanted to use, and you did exactly that.

And then ask the CIO for a small budget to buy a labelling machine for the lunchroom... :)

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  • Given the way the employees are acting, I'm not sure the CIO is overreacting. If this is a problem for the whole company, the cleanup needs to pushed from the top. – cdkMoose May 1 '18 at 15:28
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    @cdkMoose He is overreacting if he blames the OP for this in my opinion. – paparazzo May 1 '18 at 17:11
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    @paparazzo, I don't see blame anywhere. The fact that he is calling it a fiasco, which it turned out to be because of other employees, doesn't mean he blames OP. He may just want to try to figure out what to do instead or how to improve the situation or to blame. If OP jumps to blame then his tenor at the meeting could be off. – cdkMoose May 1 '18 at 17:16
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    @cdkMoose The operative word is "if". At this point it is not clear if he is blaming the OP. – paparazzo May 1 '18 at 17:19
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Ok firstly, I have to apologize as I did initially nearly choke on my tea. This truly is the stuff of sitcoms. I'd really like one of these lunchboxes myself but I'm terrified it would start a similar drama at my workplace!

Now- first of all, look at the root cause- the employees. The lunchboxes themselves are fine, a good idea, everyone loved them- so it's safe to say that initially at least, this was "mission accomplished". Perhaps some looking to the future may have led to the thought of "Oh, make labeling available" just to help with this, but this is almost an act of god due to the scale.

Now this meeting with the CIO- they've asked for a meeting, this isn't the end of the world. They'll want to probably know if this could've been prevented, why it went the way it did and possibly want some finger pointing.

The best thing you can pretty much do at this point is taking ownership of this- not blame, ownership.

Yes! this was your idea- but it was a huge success! The employees loved it, look at the scale of popularity that went on! Ok sure, the one point that was an issue is that people didn't know who's lunch was who, but it's a fine example that you had a great idea and went with it. The idea was sound, you executed it well- it was just unfortunate that when deployed in the "wild", you didn't take into account that, tragically, people can be (let's face it) idiots.

A mistake here, mistake there- some undeniably intentionally malicious or stomach-motivated office-terrorism later and sure there was a situation, but it goes to show that your idea has potential. You can turn this into a positive, not a negative! Sure, the CIO can probably hang their coat on the peg of "I've had nothing but emails about this for weeks" but you can still say- ah yes, but look at how popular it was! The scale of the disaster is just a testament to how greatly popular it was!

Next time, perhaps go for customized Post-its. Or Stressballs. Maybe mugs?

Edit: I'll just make it clear- don't play it off as being hilarious or be seen to say "Well yes, it blew up, BUT-"- just go with it. Like any meeting you have with someone senior to you, you'll feel how the flow is going and work with that. If they're going to chew you out, they'll do it. If they're reasonable, they'll let you talk.

Do your part to get over your side of what went on- but be sure to make it clear that this was a success, it was the "aftermath" that rolled downhill. Point out that this is a learning exercise and from this you've thought of how it can be developed further with....Hoodies, hats, shirts- whatever, but with some degree of customization or something, or suggest a labelmaker be made available as well next time.

There's positives to every negative- remember if they ask you who's "fault" it all is and your response is to open the curtains in the room and just gesture at everyone and whisper "Idiotssss!" it looks like you're shifting everything onto someone else and avoiding anything yourself.

Add that you acknowledge a mistake was made, you didn't forsee the lack of identification as leading to the issues that spiralled out of control, but that you've learnt from it and the experience has broadened things for you, that you can develop and enhance this idea further now that you see some of the pitfalls, etc.

Play it, own it, you can come out of this meeting not looking like you've had a foot up you, but a pat on the back.

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  • Thanks, I am really emotional about everything right now. I just can't believe it would manage to backfire over something so little. – Rahmun Flayur May 1 '18 at 15:02
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    "The scale of the disaster is just a testament to how greatly popular it was!" I gotta admit, that had me rolling... – Norm May 1 '18 at 19:13
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He then sent me a 1-on-1 meeting with a subject of "Discuss Lunchbox Fiasco".

Use of the word "Fiasco" is troubling. He is pissed and you need to hope he cools down before the meeting.

You should be able to tell early if he is blaming you or just wants to talk about how it played out and how to avoid something like this in the future.

If he does blame you then:

I would not pass blame to the employees. But, they are the ones to blame here.

This is a consequence that I know I would not have thought of. It was obviously a popular swag.

Any swag can be suffer from this type of confusion. Hat, coat, bag .... I would not lead out with this but if says we need guideline for future swag tell him unless it is personalized then any swag will suffer from this.

I would just tell him:

This was an outcome I did not foresee.

I assume a manager approved and purchasing bought. Multiple parties did not foresee this problem.

If he is going to blame you for this then not much you can do. I don't think you should apologize for your actions. I don't think I would use the word "sorry" as in sorry for what you did. You can say sorry for the outcome. I would prefer the word outcome over consequence. Consequence might imply the lunch box caused this.

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My first thought was what's wrong in a company that needs to promote itself among people who work there. For the next project you might want to see if this is just a gift or there is something burried inside that could be solved better.

Your CEO's argument could be wasn't it predictable that if everyone brings this lunchbox then all the same lunchboxes are all over?
Don't tell them you had no idea this happens. They will doubt if you were the right one for this job. Say yes you had a clue that more than one identical lunchbox could be found in the fridge. But (shape this phrase to make it fit) in case your company is not the local kindergarten I assume you have to deal with adult people. Shouldn't the 2nd or 3rd person who puts a lunchbox in the fridge see there already are others looking the same and put her/his name on his/her box without getting this advice from the management?
Let's think further, shouldn't people put their name on by default, even if they all look different?
Shouldn't someone who finds multiple boxes or unknown food in his box try to examine which is his and which is not instead of just eat the first thing they grabbed?

Don't let them make you responsible for their lack of social skills. You tried to do good and it's not your fault if (again, rephrase this) they are too stupid.
For the next project try to ask around who might see any problems like that. Involve CEO, at least send them your suggestion and ask about their opinion.

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  • +1 Do people just eat random food even if they know its not theirs? The people who got food poisoning - they obviously grabbed something that wasn't theirs. Maybe this will teach the immature coworkers not to steal lunch... – Catsunami May 1 '18 at 17:31
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Prepare a detailed plan to solve the situation to present during the meeting even though it wasn't your fault.

That's basically it. You can't do more. Accept the accountability but don't let anybody convince you it was your fault.

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