I've been working at my present job for 5 years now, and I maintain very good relationship with my colleagues.

Last week I accidentally took someone else's catered lunch, thinking it was left-overs.

This week the company sent an internal email because they received complaints of people getting their lunch stolen from the fridge. They said some generic stuff as a warning, and then specifically mentioned that caterer's boxes are not to be taken from the fridge because they can be reserved for someone else.

I really want to come forward and apologise, offering to pay back the caterer's fee.

Or would it be better to not mention it, since they don't know who did it?

What would be the correct way to approach things from your perspective?

Edit :

Hi everyone! I would like to thanks all for your answers and your help! I came out clean and was honest with both HR and my boss.

Guess what? I wasn't the culprit and the e-mail wasn't entirely targeted toward me. We had multiple people in the past few weeks get their entire lunchbox stolen.

The caterer's plates that i took were in fact meant to be given away later that day, but HR thought they got stolen by the same person too, hince the aforementionned e-mail.

Both HR and my boss accepted my apologies and the fact that i was honest, despite it being a none-issue.

Crisis averted!

  • 2
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Use the answer box for answers, the linked chat room for commentary/discussions. Thanks.
    – enderland
    Oct 3, 2018 at 19:03
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    Out of curiosity: What made you think the boxed food were leftovers intended for everyone to consume as desired in the first place? Oct 4, 2018 at 9:32
  • @Hagen von Eitzen In my original question (without edit), i explain that we frequently have boxed food to bring home since they order more boxes than there are guests for courses. Oct 4, 2018 at 9:37
  • I'd suggest including the outcome of your decision to follow an answerer's advice as a comment on the answer whose advice you followed, instead of editing it into your question (as it's not actually part of the question).
    – V2Blast
    Oct 5, 2018 at 3:08

8 Answers 8


I really want to come forward and say something among the lines of "I'm really sorry, I meant no ill intention, it was all a mistake and I can even offer to pay back the caterer's fee if you want.", since I'm a very honest person.

That is exactly what you should do. You are an honest person and honest people admit their mistakes. And everyone makes mistakes.

A heartfelt apology is all that is needed here. And almost without exception honest, heartfelt apologies are accepted graciously.

But I've talked about this to several people outside my job and all of them told me to basically "shut the hell up about it and to not mention it. They don't know who did it, learn about your mistakes and never do it again".

I agree with the part about learn from your mistakes and never do it again. The rest isn't honest enough for me (and perhaps for you).

  • 55
    +1. FWIW, given the bit in the message "that caterer's boxes are not to be taken from the fridge because they can be reserved to someone else", I suspect that everyone already understands that this was just a mistake.
    – ruakh
    Oct 1, 2018 at 22:26
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    I'd like to add that you should not be all apologetic beyond reasonable. You made a mistake, it happens. Own up your mistake, but dont let it be a big thing.
    – Martijn
    Oct 2, 2018 at 8:05
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    If they won't let you pay for it, you could donate a big box of donuts and label it appropriately.
    – RedSonja
    Oct 2, 2018 at 8:14
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    I'd also add that in addition to being the right thing to do because it's honest is that someone may be feeling upset and slighted. Simply knowing it was a mistake and not a purposeful theft will probably make them feel a lot better.
    – Kat
    Oct 2, 2018 at 16:06
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    There's always the chance that if you 'fess up, you will not be forgiven and punished (perhaps fired) instead. That's not the right thing for them to do. But just because you're willing to take the moral high road here, don't make the mistake of assuming that others are willing to be as noble as you are trying to be.
    – Jennifer
    Oct 2, 2018 at 17:30

What would be the correct way to approach things from your perspective?

You say you want to come clean, so I suggest you listen to yourself and do it. I am sure that if they wanted to find out who actually grabbed those plates they could, so no point in denying it (as per the ill advice some people gave you).

Ask your manager for a talk, and explain the situation. Do it similarly to the way you did it here with us; explain you did not intended to take anyone's lunch, and mistakenly took that plate assuming they were leftovers.

After that you can discuss with your manager how to work this out, possibly resulting in just a reminder of the use and rules of the food and cafeteria, or well in you replacing the dishes you took. Anyways, not a life or death situation...

Next time, try to be more careful when taking food from the fridge, and double check if it has no owner. When in doubt, it's best to leave it and avoid a possible misunderstanding.


There seems to be two issues here:

  1. The food is being stolen regularly for a longer time.
  2. OP has accidentally stole one of the food boxes.

The first is indicated by the quite bitter internal email. Usually one does not use this tool if it happened once a year or for the first time.

If you know whose meal you ate or if it is possible to find the one (somebody has written the send-to-all email and somebody has to complain about it) you can go find them, make the apology, clearly state it was a mistake that you do not want to make again. You can offer a meal back of their choice.

If they are sane, they will understand and accept the apology. If they storm you should avoid them.

In both cases it is win scenario for you.

  • Well spotted that this probably wasn't the first time. +1. If OP admits, then there's going to be suspicion over all the other times...
    – Tim
    Oct 2, 2018 at 13:21
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    @Tim While it may not have been the first time, I doubt this was a long running issue. Likely what happened is the victim complained and HR wrote an email in response that avoids naming any specific party involved and instead reminds everyone of a policy that applies to all lunches. I can't see it making sense for HR to respond to this by writing an email saying "Please don't eat John's lunch in the future".
    – iheanyi
    Oct 2, 2018 at 22:51

"I accidentally took a lunch from the fridge, thinking it was leftovers. I'm sorry for the mistake. To whoever's lunch it was: Can I buy you lunch or reimburse you for the lunch I took?"

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    this seems to merely repeat points made (and much better explained) in top answer that was posted several hours before. See Back It Up and Don't Repeat Others
    – gnat
    Oct 2, 2018 at 13:11
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    Welcome to WP SE! While your suggested course of action is a good one could you provide some differentiation from any of the other answers that are similar? If you actually just want to show you agree with another answer it's better to upvote their answer instead.
    – motosubatsu
    Oct 2, 2018 at 14:54

I would simply apologise anonymously. You could leave a note to explain that it was an honest mistake and that it won't happen again, which will give them the comfort of knowing that it wasn't out and out theft, but without invoking the complication of them knowing who it was - which they don't need to.

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    This could lead to misunderstandings as someone else might be stealing routinely and OP assumed wrongly that the email was about that deed.
    – Džuris
    Oct 2, 2018 at 20:44
  • This would be a safe approach and people can assume anything they like. You can make sure the apology and replacement meal get prominence by finding it yourself with witnesses around.
    – KalleMP
    Oct 5, 2018 at 9:36

Admitting a mistake and making it right is a good thing to do when it is not disruptive. If HR will allow you to repay the cost of the meal through them without revealing the identity of whoever complained, then that could be done without ruffling any feathers.

If you must publicly own up and your complainer must also make themselves public, this becomes a much more difficult situation and it may be too disruptive to make right.



Tell them.

You didn't do it maliciously, it was a genuine mistake, so you don't have anything to hide.


I really don't think you can call yourself 'a very honest person' so easily :)


  • didn't come forward,
  • you consider not coming forward "since they don't know who did it",
  • had to ask a question on StackOverflow about what to do.

On the other hand, you're searching for the right way to move forward and that's good.

I'm not saying this in a vacuum. I once heated up someone else's lunch. It was in an unusual container identical to mine and I didn't open it before chucking it into the microwave. I found the person, explained what happened, apologised, and moved on.

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    You're assuming a lot. Please look up the question's edits. I couldn't have possibly come forward since i didn't know i took someone else's lunch prior to HR's email. Also, i did not consider myself not coming forward. My friends did. My original plan was to come clean and be honest. I asked a question on stack because i wanted to be sure what was the correct course of action to take. Oct 3, 2018 at 18:32

It was just a lunch - a slight one-time annoyance. You may have been the straw that broke the camel's back regarding a problem which already existed at your workplace.

You should have apologized when there was an opportunity to do it under harmless conditions, before the situation received a certain level of escalation. It won't improve with you admitting a singular mistake. If anything, you'd become the first to be accused in the future and your reputation may receive an unfair taint - even though you could be the smallest perpetrator.

Deal with your consciousness without sabotaging yourself for immediate relief. Simply avoid doing that mistake again.

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    Would this approach not harm you much more if someone later finds out that you (1) were the one who took the food and (2) lied or never came clean about it?
    – Therkel
    Oct 2, 2018 at 5:58
  • Yes it would. But given the scenario it seems likely that it won't ever come out. And if it would, the other perpetrators (assuming the situation wouldn't escalate like that due to only one single occurrence), who would have done it more often would be the ones to be found first (or solely). Generally it's unlikely there is any investigation, and even if, that it would succeed. If it would succeed, a confession would likely still be necessary. I'd estimate the risk to be minuscule to near non-existent.
    – Battle
    Oct 2, 2018 at 6:10
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    You say that they should have apologized efore it was escalated, but they didn't know they did anything wrong until it was escalated. Oct 3, 2018 at 3:41
  • @さりげない告白 - If there is no such time frame, then it was not possible of course. Still, there must have been a reason for the situation to escalate, and the main reason was unlikely the OP.
    – Battle
    Oct 3, 2018 at 6:06

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