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This may seem pretty trivial, but it really bothers me. In my cubicle I have an area set aside for my personal effects, nothing expensive. Among those items is a carton containing packages of peanut butter crackers.

I eat one package per day during my lunch hour while I walk two miles for exercise. It's usually the only thing I eat for lunch because I am trying to lose weight.

Anyway, I had begun to notice that the crackers were diminishing quicker than they should have, so I naturally suspected that someone was helping themselves. My first thought was that it was a member of the cleaning crew (one had stolen an iPhone from someone's desk a while back).

Last week I set up a webcam that will trigger on motion, and then went on an extended Thanksgiving holiday, taking Wednesday off. When I got back in this morning, sure enough the camera caught the thief, but it wasn't a member of the cleaning crew. Turned out to be the guy in the next cubicle. We have been working together for maybe 8 years, someone I have always thought to be a decent guy.

Am I obligated to report this to my boss or to HR? Would it be better to confront him about it -- and thereby creating a very uncomfortable atmosphere in which to work? Should I forget about it? If I do not report it, would there be some liability for me? If I do report it and they take corrective action, do I open myself up to criticism or possible retaliation from other employees for being a snitch? What if he gets fired? I don't want him to lose his job. There are so many things to consider.

EDIT: I just thought of another question: is there any liability for me for having set up the hidden camera?

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    Maybe he's simply misunderstood the situation... I bought bulk candy and put it on out my desk -- I have not once said to anyone that they could help themselves, and yet, that's why I put it there. Re: the other snooping -- I, for the life of me, cannot find the store of office supplies -- you may find me poking around another's cube for a spare paperclip. Personally, I think snitching on the peanut butter bandit would be an overreaction. – bdimag Dec 1 '14 at 22:10
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    Have you thought about simply asking the guy "are you taking crackers from my desk?" – Chris E Dec 1 '14 at 22:36
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    Why not just put the crackers in a drawer? Leave the camera up. If he goes through your drawers then definitely report him. – paparazzo Dec 1 '14 at 22:45
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    You might get a lockable cash box. That should get the point across. – GrandmasterB Dec 2 '14 at 6:37
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    The problem with open/shared space is that some people may help themselves without asking. You've been given good answers I'm just adding that my advice is to lock/hide whatever you can or put your name on it to indicate privacy (and you'll still loose some). – Sigal Shaharabani Dec 2 '14 at 8:46
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Last week I set up a webcam that will trigger on motion

This is actually a much bigger issue than the theft of your food. Depending on where you live it could very well be illegal to film someone without their permission, and the management at your company is almost undoubtedly not going to like it if they find out you were filming in the office without their permission. Most companies expressly forbid this, because of the risk that something confidential may be caught on film and distributed outside the company, never mind the legal risks and the damage to your relationship with your co-worker should he find out you were spying on him. I also suggest changing your display name on this site, since if it is a real name it could be used by someone at your company to ID you and get you in trouble.

Now I know that it's only an occasional package of peanut butter crackers, something I would happily give him if he asked for it, and it certainly doesn't amount to much, but it makes me wonder if there is other stuff that he has picked up that I don't know about, or if he's done it to others in the company.

In general, innocent until proven guilty is the best approach. You shouldn't just assume he was taking any more things if there is no evidence of this.

My questions here for consideration are, am I obligated to report this to my boss or to HR?

Absolutely not. Not only will "theft of crackers" seem like a trivial thing to report someone for, and the sort of thing that can generate whispers about you at the office, but you would have to admit that you filmed the whole thing, which will cause a lot more trouble for you than your co-worker.

Would it be better to confront him about it -- and thereby creating a very uncomfortable atmosphere in which to work?

You should talk to him about it, but not in a way that implies that you KNOW he did it (otherwise he will wonder why, and the camera issue surfaces again). Simply inform him that you noticed that your supply of crackers was dwindling, and ask him if he knows whether anyone has been taking them. This way, you're not confronting him directly, but he'll get the message that it's not appreciated. If he admits to it, let him know you'll gladly share some with him, but he should ask you first if he wants some. If he stays silent, don't pursue the subject. Chances are he knows he did something wrong, and will stop. You can take further action by not keeping your crackers at work, and choosing to bring a package there from home every day just for you. This should prevent further thefts.

Should I forget about it? If I do not report it, would there be some liability for me? If I do report it and they take corrective action, do I open myself up to criticism or possible retaliation from other employees for being a snitch? What if he gets fired? I don't want him to lose his job. There are so many things to consider.

There shouldn't be any liability for you for not reporting it, seeing as the crackers are your property and it's up to you whether you want to report it. If it was company property on the other hand, it may be a different matter. It certainly won't help your relationship with your co-workers if you report someone to your manager for stealing your crackers. It's a pretty minor offense. He wouldn't get fired if he did get reported unless the managers are extremely unreasonable, but you could if you had to admit to filming the incident, so it's best to keep quiet about it all.

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    If he does ask you why you think he did it, simply say that you were asking him since his desk is nearby, and you thought he may have seen something. – Tyzoid Dec 2 '14 at 2:34
  • If were a real attorney you would not be giving out legal advice. – paparazzo Dec 2 '14 at 2:41
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    Very VERY good answer, especially about setting up a camera, which you should really not mention (see here). – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica Dec 2 '14 at 7:26
  • Some research on the legality of video monitoring: (1) Our company policy manual, which each newhire is expected to read and sign-off on, clearly states that "Employees should have no expectation of privacy . . . while on company property. (I believe a standard policy in most companies.) (2) State law allows workplace video recording if at least one party consents (me). (3) Federal law (privacyrights.org/…) says video recording is legal if it is to prevent theft, even if the employee does not know about it. – Bill Norman Dec 2 '14 at 20:54
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    Those statements are all pointed to permission for the company to record employees, not employees to record other employees or the company. A lawyer, specializing in privacy laws, could certainly explain them in greater detail and how or if they relate to your particular situation. Only you can decide if peanut butter crackers are worth a retainer fee but from a non-lawyer perspective. Filming people in the workplace secretly is creepy. Regardless of legality, if you were a coworker of mine I would be creeped out. In at-will states this could certainly be a reason for a company to let you go. – Nahkki Dec 2 '14 at 22:06
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I do not think you should report this to HR, because it is too minor. I still think you should do something about it, because it probably would always be on your mind, if you don't resolve it.

As you fear confronting him directly, this is what i would suggest:

  1. Next time leave a note on the crackers:

    "Dear unknown, please stop eating my crackers. They are my only food for lunch and i really do not appreciate anyone taking them. Thank you"

This would work in case he thinks you are not noticing the missing crackers. If he's only taking a few he might think you don't even know.

If it continues:

  1. Ask him, if he has seen anyone taking or eating your crackers and accept it if he says no. (As filming without permission is illegal, it's better not to tell him about it.) Having to lie about it might be already enough pressure, to stop him from ever doing it again.

If it still continues:

  1. Tell him you've seen him take a cracker, (when you went back to go to the toilet... or whatever you can think of). Then ask him, why he doesn't buy his own crackers. Maybe he doesn't know where you buy those. ;)

Best of luck

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    Or, your note could just ask for a little money so you can buy twice as much next time. Everyone needs the occasional snack and lack of availability can be really annoying late at night... – Bill K Dec 4 '14 at 3:30
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The first thing I would try in your situation, which Blam mentioned in a comment, would be simply moving the crackers to a desk drawer if you have one. Food items that are left out in the open, especially something like individually wrapped snack-packs of crackers, may seem like fair game to your fellow office-dwellers, something you actually mean for them to share. Storing them in a closed drawer removes any doubt on their part and is a totally non-confrontational way to potentially solve the problem. If the thief goes through your drawers, then I'd say something (directly to them, not to management at first).

But as others have said, surreptitiously recording your coworkers is a bigger deal than the theft of some crackers and you should try to avoid revealing that you've done it. As you say, you and the cracker-snatcher have been working together for years and he seems like a decent guy. If he is, just moving the crackers to a closed drawer should be more than enough to solve the problem.

  • +1 for "something you actually mean to share..." As is customary in my office I bought some cakes for my birthday at lunchtime, and I went home at the end of the day, noticing there were quite a lot left. I thought I would share them with my friends/colleagues on the other floor at breaktime the following day. When I got in next morning i found the WHOLE LOT had gone, leaving just a dirty tray. I was a little annoyed but I really couldn't complain, as I'd left them out.... – Level River St Jun 18 '15 at 22:05
  • Every office I worked in in the last few years had a place where you leave things meant to be shared. For example, you may have a kitchen table, and anything left on the kitchen table is meant to be shared. Anything on my desk is not meant to be shared. – gnasher729 Feb 6 '18 at 23:32
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A few years ago at a previous employer there was a staff member who was fired after being discovered wandering the building after office hours and helping his self to food from people's drawers and cupboards. Why do I mention this? Because, someone who thinks it's OK to steal from you, probably thinks it's OK to steal from everyone else. Thinks it's OK to rummage through other's desk and drawers. You should discretely ask around and see if any one else is having issues. If so, then you should report the guy. Why put up with a dishonest co-worker? It's all slippery sloping to major stealing.

A staff member who can't be trusted, causes tremendous disruption in an office. Just consider how many disputes arise from stolen food in shared fridges.

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First of all, placing a webcam anywhere with the exception of obviously public places like squares, streets, and not putting the warning is illegal in many (most?) countries, and placing it on someone's private property without permission is even worse. That what you've made could qualify as industrial spionage, and may result in immediate fire and criminal prosecution. Better to hide any traces that you've ever made that!

Firing someone for taking your crackers? Be serious, it's highly unlikely to happen. It's more likely you'll get sued for calling him a 'thief' for taking a few crackers. If they were at least in your locker, it would be the other issue. But calling someone 'thief' for taking something of trivial value lying on the desk in the open space is usually exaggerated. It's a social issue, it's annoying, but 'thief' is usually considered a very harsh word, inappropriate for 'borrowing' a pencil without permission or 'borrowing' one cracker. You'd have to prove he was doing that on regular basis or he've broken into your locker. Otherwise, you'll be the guy who 'insults' other guy by calling him 'thief' for taking 'one' cracker.

The best way is to embarass that guy in the indirect way, for example asking if it's possible that there are some animals in the workspace because something is eating off your stuff. You can even ask that guy, but with the innocent voice.

Asking if he've seen someone eating off your crackers may (depending on the local culture) be already considered making indirect accusations so you should be very carefull with that, however it may be necessary if the less indirect ways don't work.

Then you can talk with the other collegues. You may be surprised, but it may happen, that in that workspace eating anything that is left available is acceptable, or at least tolerated, and you need simply to lock your stuff when leaving.

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Back in 1985, I brought in a huge chocolate bar, had unwrapped and was about to destroy it when one of the users went to my cubicle to ask for tech support. So I leave the chocolate bar on top of my desk and walk to the computer room with him. I returned within 15 minutes but I was 15 minutes too late: almost the entire bar had been consumed and I was left with just two squares of chocolate and the giant, empty aluminum wrapping which they hadn't bothered to dump into my trash can which was right by my desk :)

No, I didn't take it personally :) In fact, one of the kleptos stopped by my cubicle to chastise me that I had been so cheap that I had brought in only one bar instead of two :)

Personally, I think you are making a mountain out of a mole hill.

The fact that you went so far as to set up a webcam is thoroughly disturbing to me and I can assure you that if I as a manager were to know about your web cam, there would be consequences for you. Your "cure" is worse than the disease. In my eyes, much worse.

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    So for whatever reason your colleague felt it was all right to confess. The comments made along with your reaction indicates no one thought this was stealing, something worth reporting or setting up a camera. This isn't the case with the question. – user8365 Dec 2 '14 at 2:10
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    I'm having trouble seeing how this anecdote about a one-time incident answers the question about an ongoing issue. – Monica Cellio Dec 2 '14 at 21:34
  • @MonicaCello I mentioned this incident because it was the first incident during my tenure at the firm. This incident was representative of quite a few similar incidents which, while they happened to me, did not bother me at all. I built up my stockpile and i took as a given that many of my colleagues would have a fatal attraction to it :) – Vietnhi Phuvan Dec 2 '14 at 21:53
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    @JeffO: it also points out that they may have a different understanding of items left in the open (Vietnhi calls them kleptos, but one complained that he didn't bring more, doesn't sound like a thief, that sounds like someone that felt not only justified in taking the chocolate, but entitled to do so). – jmoreno Dec 3 '14 at 6:46

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