November 16, 2007
Fridge wars: Thievery and throwaways leave bad taste in the workplace
Sometimes just the word "communal" is enough to set co-workers on edge. Add "fridge," and they start spewing stories.
That time Matt from marketing brought fish and stunk up the breakroom for a month.
That lady Sofia, who tosses everyone's leftovers after less than a week.
That guy who hogs a whole shelf with his grocery bags. That woman who borrows salad dressing and peanut butter. Whoever is taking bites from sandwiches and swiping Cokes, V8 and Vitamin Water.
What is it about the office fridge that tempts its users to behave so badly?
We asked Anna Post, a business-etiquette presenter with The Emily Post Institute in Vermont, for tips on sharing an office refrigerator without sharing a bellyache.
Label food: Whether with stickers, a Sharpie or sticky notes, take ownership of your stuff, so others know to keep away or can alert you to your food's condition.
Common courtesy: If you didn't put it in the fridge, don't take it out. This goes for office refrigerator managers, too. An e-mail warning to workers at least a day in advance of trash time does wonders for camaraderie.
Don't skimp on the Skippy: If you finish something, like a co-worker's jar of peanut butter, replace it. But before you even dip that knife, ask whether he is willing to share his food in the first place.
Think before you confront: If you are certain you know who swiped your food, discuss it privately, not in front of the entire breakroom. "I think folks know how to get the message across without saying 'You stole my yogurt, you jerk,' " Post said. "You want to get to the solution, which is hopefully to have it replaced and not happen again."
Don't be a shelf hog: Leave space for others to stash their lunches, too.
Wrap well to avoid the rap: Tightly wrap aromatic food like fish, curries and pickles, or seal it in a container so its scent won't seep into the lunches of others.
Source: The Emily Post Institute
"It really amazes me how desperate people can get," says Venus Ma. She's talking about the day her leftover sandwich disappeared from the office fridge at AT&T in Bothell, bite marks and all, two hours after she stowed it. But that's small potatoes compared with the last time someone swiped her plastic Safeway bag.
Lost forever were a Tupperware filled with delicious leftover spaghetti – and her daily medication.
"I was pretty upset, so I went back to my desk to write up a sign and basically asked if the person could at least return my meds to me. I posted it on the fridge for about three days. Nothing," Ma said. "Luckily for me, my meds weren't life threatening. But that was what bothered me, was that whomever took my lunch wouldn't have known that."
It seems some disregard common courtesies when it comes to co-workers, or even find a certain satisfaction in stealing someone's piece of birthday cake out from under its napkin cover, in not cleaning up spilled soda, in stockpiling enough yogurt and frozen entrees on already crowded shelves to feed all of Human Resources.
Maybe we have forgotten the Golden Rule. Or maybe, like last week's tuna casserole still tucked behind the huge bottle of cranberry juice, we just forgot.
It's Rebecca Zagorski's job to let no one forget. She's tossed too many expired containers of yogurt to have much patience anymore.
As part of her duties, the conference-room coordinator at Seattle architecture firm Callison spends four hours a week cleaning and organizing the office's 13 communal refrigerators. Dated green stickers reveal how long each item has lingered, whether potluck pizza or Grandma's gazpacho.
Yes, she says, some have criticized her gusto for throwing out anything past its prime. She understands they put time into making lunch. But she prefers this method over the alternative: moldy science projects.
"A lot of people put a sign on their food that says 'Don't even tag this.' They don't like the green dot. They don't like anybody touching their food, but we have to have a way to do this," Zagorski said.
One man confronted her, furious she'd thrown out his lunch.
"I said 'Gosh, I'm so sorry.' And then I said 'You know, when did this happen?' Thinking that it happened a couple of days ago. He said 'I left it in there eight months ago.' "
"Another person was like, 'You threw my milk away. I was home sick with pneumonia for three weeks.' " Zagorski told him she probably saved him from getting something worse.
Few companies have official policies regarding communal fridges. But nearly all workplaces have some sort of management system. Some rotate cleaning duty or post signs urging everyone to keep things tidy. Some decide on a monthly (or even daily) purge of all contents. Some subscribe to chaos theory, where the fridge's cleanliness depends on the will of the group to impose order.
Office fridge wars also have prompted various coping mechanisms: opaque containers to offer less temptation, misleading labels to throw thieves off the trail (clam nectar, anyone?), traversing an entire office to use the cleaner fridge on the other side. Sometimes though, it's easiest to just bring a cooler from home.
Amazon.com technical program manager Lara Kwartin still hesitates to use the communal fridge. She and other friends have lost too much food at night, when folks who remained after hours would "forage" for snacks.
Most people don't wake up in the morning wanting to be rude, says Anna Post, a business etiquette presenter with The Emily Post Institute in Vermont. But the fridge is ripe for trouble, mainly because it's on your honor to take only what's yours.
"Most times, it probably belongs to someone they do know, and you think, 'Well, she won't mind, she's so nice,' or "He's got tons of carrots, he won't notice.' "
"You don't always pick your co-workers. You might not even like them very much. Then, to add insult to injury, they took your peanut butter and jelly for the day."
And, when faced with a thief, your best bet is to ask for mercy rather than try to outwit the culprit.
Take the lunch of Steve Matlock, an Amazon.com employee who used to leave cut-up bell peppers, celery and carrots in the fridge in a plastic container. One day he went to get his lunch and found only a few scraps.
"I didn't know who did it, so I couldn't just approach that person directly. So the next time I came in with my lunch, I left a note on top that said, 'I licked one of these vegetables.
"When I came back to get lunch, the note was edited to add, 'I licked one, too.' "
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