How to deal with a food thief in your office

Theft is bad.

But lunch theft from an office fridge takes crime to a whole different (and pretty bizarre) level.

It’s a violation that truly makes you think twice about the people you sit next to every day – and is enough to question not only your colleagues, but your sanity too.

What would possess someone to do such a thing? How can someone have so little remorse? I definitely put my sandwich in the fridge… didn’t I?

It’s pretty ballsy to pinch someone’s food in broad daylight – with other colleagues just metres away. Let alone the thought of getting caught in the act, in front of your entire office.

Who would do such a thing?

But before you unleash ‘Ross from Friends mode’ on your colleagues, what actually is the best course of action, when it comes to an office food thief?

Passive aggressive notes might make you feel better but could reflect badly on you, whereas an angry round-robin email may seem a little dramatic. 

Also, ‘catching them in the act’ might not be as simple as setting up a hidden camera, due to data protection laws.

As a result, experts share some advice to keep in mind.

Know when to tell your manager

Kate Palmer, a HR advice and consultancy director at Peninsula, said: ‘Going to the fridge on your lunch break to find that someone has taken your food can be a common annoyance in the workplace.

‘Often this is a simple mistake and it may not be necessary to involve HR. But if this keeps happening, employees should raise the issue with their employer, who can consider the best course of action. 

‘If the employee knows who has taken their lunch, the employer could suggest that the employee has a quiet word with the person concerned, if they feel comfortable doing this.’

However, if it’s unclear who is taking food, and this keeps happening, it might be time to flag it to your manager – so they can take action.

Kate adds: ‘It may be appropriate for the employer to send an email reminder to all staff not to take their colleagues’ food and to be respectful to each other. 

‘The employer could also stress that if this continues it will lead to disciplinary action under the employer’s disciplinary procedure.

‘If this does not resolve the problem, or if an individual continues to be targeted, this can make the matter more serious and a disciplinary investigation may need to be carried out.’

It all sounds very serious, but theft is a crime after all – and ongoing lunch theft (particularly from the same person) could be seen as harassment or bullying in the workplace.

Don’t assume the worst

It’s a good idea to think about the reasons why someone might be stealing food.

Christopher Paul Jones, a Harley Street therapist, explains: ‘Stealing food from work can be a sign that someone is struggling, financially or emotionally, and can signal two things. 

‘One is a cry for help, in a way it is a form of attention seeking, the other is that they genuinely cannot afford to buy food and it is an impulsive act and they are hungry.  

‘The best way to deal with it is to create a space within the workplace where food can be donated – like a lunchtime food bank and see if this resolves the problem.

‘If not then it might be time to address things differently.’

Think about how to get around it

Sadly, it seems food thieves operate in offices across the country.

As a result, life coach Natalie Trice suggests some things to try, to avoid drawing attention to your lunch.

She says: ‘One way of getting over this is to take food that doesn’t need to be in the fridge. For example, soup in a flask is great and doesn’t even need to be placed in the often grotty communal microwave. 

‘Also, if you do need to use the fridge go old-school with a lunchbox and your name on it. 

‘Or put it in a reusable bag and place out of sight and out of mind on a bottom shelf. Food thieves tend to be in and out fast – so make it hard for them to take your pasta salad.’

Be wary of trying to ‘catch them’

While it might be tempting to set up a hidden camera, or to even lace your food with spice or laxatives to catch out the thief, it’s important to be mindful of workplace rules – so you don’t get into trouble yourself.

‘Installing a CCTV camera to catch the culprit is not as simple as it sounds because of data protection laws,’ adds Kate.

‘Employees need to be informed if their images are going to be caught on camera, and the reason for the recording. You need to be able to justify using surveillance methods and only use it for the purpose it was intended for.

‘Additionally, employers need to register with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) if they are using CCTV and pay a fee unless exempt. Covert surveillance should only be used in exceptional circumstances where wrongdoing is alleged, in accordance with strict ICO rules.’

And you might think that putting things into your own food is surely allowed? It’s your own food, after all.

But experts advise against this too.

Kate continues: ‘Employers should discourage employees from using their own detective methods, like adding laxatives, to their food to identify the thief.

‘This could put the safety of the individual at risk, especially if they have any allergies or other conditions which are triggered by certain medication.’

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