My friend Peter’s boss always eats lunch in the office—it’s just not always his lunch. If his boss finds a sandwich lying around, he scarfs it down without a second thought. People warned Peter about this when he took the job, at an aerospace tooling company near Seattle. Once his boss snatched an apple right off his desk; Peter has now taken to hiding his snacks in drawers.
Everything is up for grabs in office kitchens: soda, coffee creamer, potato chips, it doesn’t matter. I once stored homemade chocolate bread pudding in my office’s fridge with a note explaining that I was taking it to a potluck dinner party after work. When I went to retrieve it at the end of the day, someone had eaten a third of it. They had even poured on the vanilla glaze that I’d stored in a separate container.
Asked for advice on how to combat office food thieves, business etiquette expert Lydia Ramsey wasn’t very helpful. “Have you labeled your food?” she asked. Yes, I had. “Posted the rules of the fridge on its door?” Yes. “Sent out an e-mail asking people to not eat food that’s not theirs?” A very whiny one, yes. “Then I can’t think of any other way you can address this.”
That’s the problem with office thieves—they know the food belongs to someone, but when it’s just sitting there in the fridge, they also know that they probably won’t be caught if they take it. It’s the office version of the tragedy of the commons, a theory developed in 1968 by ecologist Garrett Hardin as a way to explain why shared resources are often ruined. The answer, in short, is that no individual feels responsible for them. Hardin’s idea explains why public bathrooms are so gross, why people litter, and, according to his original example, why farmers will let their cows overgraze communal fields. It’s a simple, if depressing, facet of human behavior. If I were Hardin, I’d rename the theory People Are Jerks.
So what do you do when your food is stolen? The quickest and easiest response is to leave a passive-aggressive note. “I don’t know who these people are who are eating their co-workers’ lunches,” says Kerry Miller, creator of the blog passiveaggressivenotes.com. “But I can tell you, the note you left complaining about it probably isn’t going to do much.” Miller receives so many office-food-related submissions that she can’t even post them all. Her favorites, she says, are the ones that try to give the thief a guilt trip or resort to scare tactics. “They’ll be like, ‘I’m broke and you just ate my lunch for the week!’ or ‘My husband has H1N1 and he prepared this sandwich,’ ” she says. “Someone even put a jar of iced tea in the fridge and labeled it ‘Urine.’ ”
There are more creative solutions, of course. You can buy “antitheft lunch bags” that come covered in fake mold to deflect possible fridge scroungers ($8 for 25 bags). You can plant a decoy lunch full of dog food. You can lick your lunch as you prepare it. Or you can do what the Deer Park (Tex.) Police Department once did: Install a security camera, catch the culprit, and charge him with a misdemeanor for stealing Monster Energy drinks.
But short of a stakeout, you’ll probably never discover the identity of your food bandit. Miller can only recall one time when an office note actually elicited a confession. “It’s one of my favorites,” Miller says, “They sent out an e-mail pretending that the Lean Cuisine someone had taken from the office fridge was contaminated and had been recalled by the company. They were simply e-mailing to say that if you ate it, you should seek medical attention. They actually got a response from someone saying, ‘Oh my gosh, it was me! What do I do?’ But that’s the only time I’ve ever seen it work.”
So there’s your answer. You can’t stop your co-workers from stealing your food, but at least you can pretend that whatever they ate was poison.