Stop, thief! When colleagues steal from the office fridge

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As a wedding planner, Jeanne Hamilton saw her share of very bad manners — people who made her think, "There should be an etiquette hell for people like you."

And bingo! That was the beginning of her eponymous website, Etiquette Hell, a repository of more than 6,000 first-hand accounts of bad behavior people witness in their fellow peers.

And the most frequent complaint? Fridge theft. It's rampant, apparently, in offices all over the world.

"It's the number one problem that people complain about," Hamilton says.

Including, I might add, myself.

Office fridge theft runs rampant here at NPR. Leftover sandwiches disappear. Frozen meals with names on them vanish. Apparently, half an orange holds appeal to someone. And all-staff emails occasionally attempt to shame the perpetrators.

My favorite email concerned someone's stolen leftover barbeque ribs. This shocked even the etiquette-hell lady. "Ew! Most people pick up ribs with their fingers and gnaw on them," Hamilton says.

This raises a question: Who does this?

Well, Molly Heiser, for one. Last week, she stole a Greek yogurt out of the office fridge. The ironic thing is Heiser works as a video editor for a Bible software company in Bellingham, Wash. That means she deals with sermons and religious material all day.

So what inspired such a sin?

Hunger, she says.

Heiser forgot her lunch and figured someone had abandoned the yogurt. But her petty criminal enterprise backfired; the yogurt was rotten. "It was a moment of instant karma and I don't think I'll ever do it again," she says.

What is it that makes otherwise decent people think it's OK to steal food from their colleagues?

Hamilton, who is now a manners consultant in North Carolina, thinks part of the problem is that people confuse "community fridge" with communal food. Some people might convince themselves they aren't stealing ... just borrowing.

But she speculates the real issue is that some people have an incredible sense of entitlement.

"Nobody ever has a story of coming back saying the thief compensated me for what they took," she says.

And there is no perfect system of office justice. Victims often leave "nastygrams" pasted to the fridge. Some even claim to have made cat-food sandwiches as decoys. I'm personally tempted to install a hidden camera.

As for recommendations from Hamilton, she says it depends on who your food thief is. "If it's your boss, you've just stepped into a political landmine," she says.

That was precisely the problem for Heather Chambers, who noticed a couple years ago that her frozen dinners kept disappearing. When she posted a note on her San Diego solar company's fridge, a co-worker tipped her off that the suspect was none other than the CEO.

"I went into his office, and lo and behold, there were two of my frozen dinner things in his trash can," she says.

Plus, this man was brazen about it. He made no attempt, in fact, to conceal his food theft. "One of my co-workers was eating something and while he was typing on his computer, the CEO took his fork and tried his food while he was right there," she adds.

Everyone felt hamstrung, unable to muster the courage to confront him. Chambers says she was annoyed enough about having to subsidize her boss's lunch.

But there were health costs, too, as one of her female co-workers discovered. "He had a huge cold sore and took a swig of her drink," she tells us. "And then she ended up getting a cold sore, like, a couple weeks later.

Unfortunately, the practice isn't confined to just one office. At travel firm in Minneapolis, Missy Hamilton says she still works for a boss who, until recently, routinely ate sandwiches and soda that had other peoples' names written on them.

"I don't know if it was a power thing for him, or he just didn't want to go out to the store and go down the road just a few blocks to get the thing he wanted to have," says Missy, who has no relation no relation to the etiquette consultant, except in her shared sense of outrage.

Even after confronting him, the behavior continued. That's when she and a group of co-workers decided they would fight back and approached human resources with the problem.

Since then, she says it's been a little awkward, but at least the number of food thefts is down.

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