my boss is stealing my lunch

Long-time readers may remember this letter that I’m revisiting over at Inc. today, since it’s hard to forget!

A reader writes:

I have a bit of a weird situation and was wondering if you had any advice on how to deal with my manager. I’ve recently been transferred to a new department, working in a new office environment, under a new manager. His diet consists mainly of fast food and take-out.

I have crazy allergies to a bunch of foods, as well as to chemicals found in most processed foods. Some are the swell-up-like-a-balloon-and-stop-breathing kind of allergy. I make most of my food at home and bring it with me to work. I’m really open about my allergies so that people understand I’m not being rude by not eating food they bring in. And most people get it. Except my manager.

He eats my lunch out of the staff fridge on an almost daily basis as if the food fairy left him a gift. I resorted to packing meals that I could keep at my desk, and he started raiding my drawers when I would be in meetings or away from my desk. When I try to address the fact that he’s stealing my food, he tries to butter me up by complimenting my cooking, and then walks away.

Any thoughts on how I can handle this situation? I’d especially like strategies that don’t have me going above him to complain to his manager (also, we have no HR department to turn to).

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 192 comments… read them below }

      1. Laurel Gray*

        The Amazon reviews are quite comical! It’s a product where people feel they must explain their particular circumstance that warrants needing this device. Hilarious!

        1. fposte*

          Oh, great reading tip. You can also see the stories behind some of the questions: “Will this fit a regular size bottle of coffee creamer?” Somebody’s definitely tired of finding that empty mid-week!

            1. SerfinUSA*

              Great idea!
              I like to hoard my treats but my partner uses the feast or famine rationing system. This would be hilarious!

              1. INTP*

                I think every man I’ve allowed into my lair has done that. If was not unusual for my ex to eat my baking hazelnuts and my good Parmesan as a snack.

          1. No Longer Passing By*

            Ok, these were not as much fun as the invisible unicorn reviews or the wolves on t-shirt reviews but I enjoyed this:

            I tried labeling food with my name, leaving threatening post-it note messages, even hiding my snacks but nothing worked! ….I thought the Fridge Locker would be the perfect way to send a message to my thieving roommates who still won’t come clean! Now all my snacks are safe, and my roommates can be reminded of their shameful ways every time they open the fridge! :)

            Yes! Remind them of their shameful ways!!! Although the boss in the original story apparently was shameless.

    1. Sigrid*

      Ooooooh, that is cruel and glorious. I want to use one even in situations where no one is stealing my food.

    2. Monodon monoceros*

      It’s so sad that this thing even has to exist. What’s wrong with people?

      1. fposte*

        We are basically squirrels. Some of us manage to repress our squirreldom, but not everybody can.

        1. Formerly The Office Admin, Now Full Time Job Huntress*

          I snort laughed and then I cried laughing.
          “We’re basically squirrels”
          Yes. Yes we are.

      2. abby*

        I agree completely.

        But at the same time, I think I would like one of these so my husband could lock up his treats and I would not eat them all!

    3. KJR*

      My boss needs to get one of these for his office! I keep sneaking in there and eating his cashews. I wish he’s lock the damned things up!

      1. Mallory Janis Ian*

        Ha. I do the same thing with my boss’s trail mix snacks. I stock them for him in his office, but just as surely as I giveth, I sneaketh in there and taketh away.

    4. Vicki*

      Sadly, the bad news is that this product doesn’t work very well. From the Q&A

      Q: I got this product, set the lock number and it didn’t work!!.. I am putting the right code I had first set but somehow it is not recognizing ?

      A: This locker is the worst product ever. You are not doing it wrong. The problem is that the locker is very poor quality and will not open again. It happened to many people who bought this crap, including myself. =(

    1. kozinskey*

      I love the stock photo so much! Someday I want to work for a company that produces stock images, just so I can understand the decisionmaking that goes on as to which photos get taken. Like, what other situation could that image possibly apply to??

      1. Kyrielle*

        I wonder if they start with “let’s do a people-around-a-table shot and a bunch of socialization” and then descend into “okay, it’s a digital, I’ve got plenty of photos – what can you come up with that’s silly or fun”? Now that photos are comparatively cheap, I could see staging a shot for generic people-eating-food moments and then branching out for a few minutes in random directions because it’s easy.

        But yeah, it seems like a wildly specialized image.

      2. Elizabeth West*

        This guy who was one of my best friends from high school is an actor and has posed for a bunch of stock photos. He’s a burly dude with a greying beard. If you’ve seen the Birthday Fairy with the guy leaping around in the tutu and t-shirt, that’s him.

        He’s been posting weird occurences of his photos on Facebook. Recently, one of them showed up in a John Oliver video and another one in a Bill Maher thing. Some of the places they appear are wildly bizarre, but whoever pays for the use of the photo can do whatever they want with it.

        The best thing though, was when my sister sent me an e-card with the Birthday Fairy on it. I laughed like a loon and then I emailed her back and told her who it was. She freaked out– “NO WAY!”

    1. oldfashionedlovesong*

      I miss the Thatz Not Okay column! Actually I miss Caity Weaver’s pieces in general, I wonder what happened there.

        1. oldfashionedlovesong*

          YES I loved that series, I forced myself to read it slowly over a few days during my lunch breaks and I’m sure I looked a right loon giggling to myself in the lunch room.

      1. Lily in NYC*

        She got promoted to senior editor so she rarely writes these days. Which is a shame; many of their newer female writers try to copy her style and they just aren’t talented enough to make it work. Caity was a rare gem.

        1. oldfashionedlovesong*

          Ahh well that’s great for her, a promotion is well deserved but yes, I miss her voice!

      2. Allison*

        I had no idea that was a thing! I only skimmed the headlines just now (wouldn’t want to get in trouble for too much web browsing at work), but I’m gonna have fun digging into the archives tonight!

    2. No Longer Passing By*

      Look what you did to me…. I’m now reading these and snickering like a mad person. I have so many favorite parts of that post but I could not decide between:

      You have to confront your roommate directly about eating your food. Don’t start trading notes like two infatuated members of the landed gentry.

      OR

      You must proceed with caution when confronting your roommate, because both of you absolutely sound capable of killing someone. She is mutilating cookies like Jack the Ripper. You are setting traps more meticulously staged than a Victorian taxidermy tableau and devoting what sounds like a lot of time and effort to stealth field observations. (I will say that I never wanted your cookie dismemberment log to end. It was a true pleasure to watch you lose your mind as the case got away from you.)

      TL;DR: Food wars and incompatible co-existence will lead to eventual insanity

  1. Stephen King's Constant Reader*

    Lol what the hell.

    In what way, shape, or form is this normal? I like Alison’s advice. I would probably go with number two myself, and if he has the audacity to question it, I’d hit him with some verbiage from number one. But seriously, this is a strange man.

    1. Stranger than fiction*

      I like Alisons advice but i wouldn’t merely focus on the medical aspect, hes also taking money from her and i assume her food isn’t cheap

      1. INTP*

        I think the medical angle is handy in the office to be inoffensive but I agree that it shouldn’t even be relevant here. He’s stealing food she paid for and wants to eat instead of other food, that should be enough in a reasonable price world.

        1. Bunny*

          Based on the manager’s “jokey” response to it. I’d almost be tempted to hand him a bill for the cost of the groceries he’s been eating his way through!

          Seriously, a friend of mine has a bunch of serious food allergies, and beyond the inconvenience and time and social difficulties she has to deal with is the bare, simple, COST of buying ingredients to make food that is palatable and safe.

    1. Lucky*

      And a couple of snapping mousetraps in her desk drawers.

      And an exploding dye pack in her lunch bag.

    2. Lanya*

      Ugh, my husband recently thought he could handle eating an entire ghost pepper. Of course he didn’t tell me he was going to do this, and when he began vomiting, sweating profusely and going into shock, I had no idea what caused it. We almost went to the emergency room. Luckily everything turned out fine…but ghost peppers are serious business!

      1. Cautionary tail*

        I grow and eat Carolina Reapers, Scorpions and other chile peppers that are double the heat of a mere ghost pepper. ;)

  2. The Cosmic Avenger*

    Too bad the OP has so many food allergies. As a lover of spicy foods myself, I would just pre-douse my food in hot sauce for a few days, to levels that would make me only slightly uncomfortable. I wonder if the OP can eat cilantro? A lot of people hate it. I would add it to just about everything if I had a magical, pre-chopped, unlimited fresh supply!

    1. TheLazyB*

      Cilantro=coriander in England. I kept phoning the local curry house to tell them their take-out curry tasted of washing up liquid. Took me months to figure out that coriander leaf tastes of soap to me. Yeuch.

      1. The Cosmic Avenger*

        Ah yes, we do call the plant or the seeds coriander here in the US, but when the leaf is used as an herb we pretty much always call it cilantro. So glad I don’t have that gene that makes it taste nasty!

        Also, we would call it dishwashing liquid (like Palmolive) or liquid soap (more for hand washing) here. :)

    2. Ezri*

      I wonder if she could leave a bait lunchbox in her desk for a few days with a) food traps as mentioned above or b) notes that say ‘THIS IS NOT YOUR LUNCH’. Carry your real lunch in your purse on your person until he gets the hint. I think if this was me I’d buy ten lunchboxes and hide them throughout my cubicle and the break room.

      This is, of course, only if the straightforward approach doesn’t work. Then I wouldn’t feel bad being passive-aggressive. :3

  3. BRR*

    Ugh I remember this one.

    I just imagine it now as an ADA things. “I have food allergies and I’m requesting a reasonable accommodation for you to stop stealing my lunch.”

    1. Turanga Leela*

      This is kind of a brilliant way to phrase it. I have no idea if the ADA covers food allergies (you’d think it would, right?), but the boss probably doesn’t know either.

      1. BRR*

        Then the boss responds that it’s an “undue hardship.” I’m just entertaining myself now.

      2. littlemoose*

        I would assume it would – the ADA applies to impairments that affect major life activities, of which eating is certainly one.

      3. Mimmy*

        I just checked the Job Accommodations Network (AWESOME website with tons of information on disability accommodations on the job) – they have a short document on accommodations practices for food allergies.

        1. Ama*

          Yeah, I remember the update making it very clear the boss has absolutely no boundaries or shame.

          1. Green*

            Re the update, I had a boss I really liked who would literally eat food off my plate (and we’d eat out a restaurant most days for lunch, and he often paid, and it was just the two of us, so… I didn’t feel very confident in saying HEY STOP EATING MY FOOD YOU PAID FOR). There are lots of nice people who have absolutely bizarre norms around something particular, but are otherwise great to work with. Sounds like this is one of those cases where otherwise the LW liked her job and her boss, just not this particular behavior. LW probably didn’t “fix” her boss, but she stopped boss’s behavior, everyone is still pleasant to each other, and that seems like enough.

  4. EJ*

    Allergies or not… who steals another persons lunch on a daily basis?!

    Lock box or keep your desk drawers locked if you can. Stealing is never right and there is no excuse for it!

  5. Ad Astra*

    I would love to know if the OP is still working for this guy four years later.

    You should eat food in the office fridge when….
    1. It’s your food that you brought
    2. Someone sends an email alerting everyone to the food in question
    3. It has a post-it note that says “For everyone!” or “Try one!”
    4. Someone explicitly offers you a piece/slice/bite

    We do have a “fair game” counter in our break room, but everything in the fridge is spoken for unless otherwise noted. (Lucky for me, otherwise noted happens a lot in my office.)

      1. No Longer Passing By*

        That’s terrible. I hope that it’s not same boss. You would think that, with the passage of time he would have improved. And I did mr like Prudence’s answer at all. At all.

      1. Anonsie*

        That’s right! I knew there was an update but I couldn’t remember what it was.

        Man that guy sounds so punchable.

    1. Liane*

      On my page there’s a link to the update below the post here & above the comments. Second under You May Also Like

  6. Sarah*

    “If you love my cooking so much, I am happy to make a second serving for you. My catering fee is $20 per meal” and send him an invoice for each meal he takes.

    1. Lizabeth*

      +1 but I’d bump it up to $30 to cover all the past lunches he’s stolen. AND file it with accounting besides giving him an invoice.

  7. KBo*

    Oh my gosh, this was me at my first job.
    My owner/boss AND the owners’ 80-something year old MOTHER would eat my lunches. My [terrible] office manager told me I just needed to start writing my name on my things. Even though I shouldn’t have had to do that in the first place, I did. I labeled a box of fruit popsicles I brought in with my name, on both flaps. I was able to enjoy only two out of the six popsicles; the rest were eaten by someone else. :(
    I don’t have allergies like the OP, but I would have to drive at least 15 minutes in the middle of nowhere to get to the closest food place: Sonic or McDonald’s. Not fun.

    If I would have known about AAM when I worked there, I’d probably write a letter a week. :)

    1. the gold digger*

      Someone was throwing away my leftover lattes and Diet Dr Pepper. (I would buy a big one on Monday and save the second half for Tuesday.)

      I had to put notes on the cup/bottle saying that I had ebola and DO NOT TOUCH.

    1. Sunshine Brite*

      That poor new HR person. Can you just imagine the thoughts going through her mind about what she just got into?

      Sounds even more like a compulsion since apparently he was stealing other people’s too if everyone started getting lockboxes. SMH.

    2. AnotherFed*

      It’s sad that the boss turned it into a joke instead of recognizing it was a problem. Any chance you can get an another update from the original LW and see if HR or more senior management ever did anything to resolve the problem?

      Between this and duck club there’s been too many unsat resolutions this week!

  8. JMG*

    I would probably carry my lunch bag with me to meetings and when people inquired, I would let them know that it would be stolen otherwise. Meanwhile, I’d leave something disgusting in my desk for the manager to eat.

  9. Jillociraptor*

    Just…what goes through the mind of a person to justify doing this? I can’t even fathom the story the boss was telling himself about why this was okay.

    1. fposte*

      I know! “I’m really hungry, so it’s okay to do it this one time” over and over again? “I pay their wages, so really what they purchase is mine”? “I think workplaces should be fun like adolescent dude movies and they told me to stop giving employees noogies”?

      1. Minister of Snark*

        I swear to you, I had a boss who thought of his employees’ money and purchases this way. (He retired shortly after I hired on, thank goodness.) If you bought a new car, he would smugly ask “How are you enjoying that car I bought you?” as if he was doing you some huge service by paying you money for the job you were doing. As opposed to paying you in chickens and a new steel plow, I guess . If you brought your lunch, “I’m glad your saving my money by brown-baggging it, instead of wasting what I pay you on fast food.” If you bought a new blouse, “That blouse I bought you looks really nice.”

        He only said the blouse thing once, because every woman in the room gave him such a profound collective stink eye that he realized it sounded inappropriate. I don’t know if he was fishing for praise or gratitude or if he just liked to remind us that he was our boss. But when I watched The Wedding episode of The Office, when Michael Scott started talking about how he was indirectly paying for Phyllis’s wedding and that made him “Employer of the Bride,” I shrieked, “NO! NO NO NO!”

        1. AVP*

          I have a client like that. He enjoys walking into hotels and announcing to the staff that he’s directly responsible for all of us staying in that hotel and giving the impression that he is the source from which the money flows for all of us.

          The funny thing is that he has a client to report to as well. So even if the case was that we all owed extreme gratitude to people for employing us, he would not be the beneficiary of said gratitude.

    2. Confessional*

      Speaking as someone who has struggled with compulsive eating, though never to this degree, what was going through my head was the words “this is terrible, you’re a pig, you shouldn’t do this, you’re a terrible greedy person” and the compulsive, irrational emotion that if I did not get That Food Right There Right Now, I would have missed out on food I needed to survive and would be left starving.

      But I never got beyond grabbing more than my fair share of communal foods, and I certainly never would have joked it off if someone had called me out on it. Lied through my teeth, possibly, but never openly acknowledged and laughed it off — and all the shame and self-directed anger would have gotten even stronger.

      1. Ad Astra*

        I had wondered if maybe there was a compulsive eating angle to this because it’s so far from what’s socially acceptable that it couldn’t possibly be a conscious, deliberate choice, right? But given that he seems to live on fast food and takeout, it seems more likely that a compulsive eater would just binge on that stuff, perhaps in the privacy of his car or office, since shame is such a big factor in in the disorder. I don’t know, I’m puzzled.

        I’ve struggled with overeating in the past and definitely taken more than my fair share of communal foods, and would be mortified if someone ever said something to me, but I never even considered taking someone else’s lunch.

        1. heyanonnynonny*

          I’m inclined to agree that the lack of shame makes me think it’s not compulsive. As most compulsive eaters do, I have a lot, A LOT, of embarrassment about my compulsive eating (that stems from parents not allowing me to eat household food unless they served it to me). I was never starving, but there was never quite enough either. I still remember feeling like I wanted to disappear when an elementary teacher once kept me in the room at lunch to tell me to stop asking classmates for food. And when I was in college I, terribly, awfully, stole food from my roommates’ snack box. They never openly confronted me, which was so kind of them, but they did leave a note in the box asking me to stop and that alone was terribly mortifying. I have a lot of food issues and a weight problem as an adult and always the overarching emotion is shame, so it’s hard to imagine someone being this blase about this particular compulsion– it actually makes me kind of angry to think about.

        2. Confessional*

          I think it’s very possible. Sometimes being jokey, belligerent, uncaring, whatever, can be a cover for someone feeling very bad about themselves. So the boss could be (even not-entirely-consciously) using ingrained social mores to try and alleviate his guilt — “ah, see, if I make a joke about it and OP gives even the faintest cue of being amused by the joke, what I’m doing isn’t so bad after all!” Since after all, when the boss makes a joke, you’re supposed to at least pretend you’re not horrified.

          One of the greatest lessons I learned in struggling with mental illness is that what goes on externally can be very, very different from what goes on internally. It’s really made me look at other people very differently.

          Disclaimer: None of this is being said to excuse the boss. If he’s got a problem, then he needs to fix it. I got therapy and I make sure to keep a crapton of healthy-but-satisfying snacks in my desk to deal with the occasional urges that still crop up. It’s your own job to deal with your crap, not foist it off on underlings, especially underlings who really, really can’t afford it!

          1. misspiggy*

            Good point. We had a guy at work who would shamelessly take any food that was left in view, and would rove around the office loudly requesting food and jokingly telling us that we women didn’t need it because we’d only get fat. I thought he was awful. Turned out he was diabetic.

      2. Blurgle*

        Really? What I would have suspected was, “I’m the boss. I am your infinite superior. Anyway, if I keep eating your lunches you’ll (sigh) FINALLY go eat in a restaurant like a normal person and accept that your ‘allergies’ are all in your crazy, crazy, neurotic little head.”

        That is the only thing I would hear in the LW’s case. Ever. And if I were told otherwise I’d never believe the person was telling the truth.

  10. manybellsdown*

    This one made me so incredibly angry. She needed this food to NOT DIE and her boss thinks it’s a joke. I’d be sitting at my desk sobbing after the second time my food vanished and the boss thought it was funny. In fact, I like that as a tactic. Straight-up hysterical sobbing “ssoooomeeeonnnee aaate my fooooood!” right in his face. His stupid boss-face. Make him uncomfortable as all hell.

    1. fposte*

      I don’t think he’d have been uncomfortable, though. That seemed to be his hallmark–total shamelessness.

      1. Minister of Snark*

        But I think the shamelessness was supported by everybody “laughing it off” and the lack of hostility in the OP’s confrontation. (I don’t blame her there, I wouldn’t have been very hostile toward my boss, either.) She asked him politely, in a way that he laughed off, so he could still pretend that it was all a hilarious prank and he was just a harmless scamp. If the OP had burst into tears, which I would have after the second or third day, he could no longer pretend this was all a funny running prank. I would hope when confronted by the genuine discomfort he was causing he would be able to grasp the consequences of his actions.

        1. fposte*

          Could be, but I’m pretty skeptical. I think the OP knew the office and would have gone for upset if it was likely to stop things. He’s kind of in the sibling zone–if you cry it’s either part of the joke or a bad inability to take the joke.

    1. The Cosmic Avenger*

      Meh, a bottle of ghost pepper hot sauce is cheaper. If you don’t like hot food, you can make an extra sandwich, and it’ll still be cheaper. :)

  11. Amy*

    “people understand I’m not being rude by not eating food they bring in”

    If it’s customary for people to bring food to share, perhaps he’s hinting that she should be doing that.

    1. fposte*

      I don’t think so; he ate other people’s food too, and presumably some of them brought food in to share or else the OP would have mentioned the commonality.

      I think you’re understandably trying to find meaning here, and I think that’s a doomed effort.

    2. Allison*

      That’s a seriously terrible way to hint at that. Wouldn’t it be better (and easier) to jokingly say “did you bring enough for the rest of us?”

  12. Aunt Betty*

    Okay, this is obviously the nuclear option and I know it’s just a fantasy (because I can’t imagine actually doing this – or anyone else actually doing this – over food) – but what if the OP had called the cops and had her boss arrested for theft? Would anything have come of it? Could she lose her job because she had a thief treated like a thief? Would this come under “anything in your desk is company property and you don’t have any expectation of privacy”? As I said, I know it’s just a fantasy and certainly not the first place (or even the last place) I’d go. The whole thing about her boss laughing at her as she went foodless for the remainder of the workday made me that mad! (Especially reading the update and realizing nothing was actually done and there were no repercussions. Though I think that’s the way it usually is for food thieves – nothing happens to the thieves and the foodless have to go to bizarre lengths to protect their own property.)

    1. fposte*

      Well, the cops really aren’t likely to arrest him. Or even care–they wouldn’t even show for this in a lot of places, and if they did, they’d probably sigh and tell the boss to keep his hands on his own lunch in future, okay? in order to placate the caller, and that would be it.

      And yes, she could lose her job for doing that. She could lose her job for reporting him as a thief when he stole her purse, too; it’s nothing to do with the justification for his actions.

      1. sstabeler*

        I’m not sure, actually- in this case, when she stopped putting her food in the office fridge, the boss actually went looking for it. That elevates it above the more casual office food theft, where the thief “stole it because ti was there”- the boss more-or-less deliberately ate the LW’s food specifically. THAT might get the police’s attention.

  13. Amy*

    Just caught up with the comments on the follow up: I’m surprised people called it a “band-aid” to use a lockbox. You can punish a supervisee, but if your boss is the malefactor, you are much more limited in your choices. He clearly didn’t respect boundaries or his supervisees. The fact that other people had the same problem indicates it wasn’t personal, which must have been some comfort to the OP writer.

    1. fposte*

      I felt the same way, but I think people were really angry at the boss and wanted him to get some comeuppance, and they took some of that frustration out on the OP.

      1. OriginalYup*

        Astute observation. I felt my own blood pressure go up when I re-read this post. (I still remember it with horror from the first time.) So it’s not a stretch to imagine the commentariat were so enraged by the boss’s behavior that the frustration bled onto everything peripherally involved.

        Personally, I still want to find this boss and beat him into crying apologies with a box of frozen Lean Cuisine.

    2. sstabeler*

      it’s a band-aid in the sense that it prevents the LW’s lunch getting stolen, but it doesn’t prevent the boss from stealing other people’s lunch. Sort of like when someone is bullied, teaching them self-defense might stop bullies from bullying them, but unless the school properly deals with the bully- as in, either teaches them not to bully, or expel the bully- the bully will find a new target

  14. Kvaren*

    About 10 years ago, I was pregnant and working at a small company. I kept a bag of my favorite bagels in the kitchen because I was INSAAANE for carbs during that pregnancy, especially in the mornings.

    One day, I arrived to work and expected to see the last bagel from that week’s bag waiting for me. But it was nowhere to be found. I figured one of my peers ate it, so I sent out a humorous but shaming company-wide email about stealing food from the pregnant lady.

    But then the CEO confessed to it and apologized up and down. He felt so bad about it. His wife was the co-owner and controller, and she made him buy me a bag of replacement bagels. I’m pretty sure no one in that company touched another person’s food for years after that.

    1. Happy Lurker*

      That’s a good story. One that makes me feel good about all those “horrible” business owners.

    2. MissDisplaced*

      Understandable. He probably didn’t know whose it was and ate it one morning figuring it was “community” property. LOL! I admit to doing the same thing with a frozen meal once (I had something similar I thought was still in the freezer) or an apple or yogurt cup or something, so honest mistakes happen. But this guy is simply beyond belief to keep doing it after he’s been told to stop. Plus, who the heck eats other people food in plastic containers… Ick! I wouldn’t touch that, you don’t know what or when they made it. I’m sure OP puts their name on it too, as there is a food allergy issue.

    3. Robin B*

      We gave up using the main office’s ‘fridge, the chairman of the board would come in and eat/drink whatever he wanted on a regular basis. Now we take an insulated bag every day with those reusable freezer cubes to keep things cold.

  15. Menacia*

    It never ceases to amaze me that some people have absolutely *no* boundaries, or common decency…there are jails filled with these types of people, unfortunately, there are others that we get to work with every day!

  16. Beancounter in Texas*

    The boss’ behavior reminds me of my toddler who laughs & thinks smacking me in the face is a game when I tell her not to do it. :|

  17. dawbs*

    The ‘broke college student’ solution to this was to put high value items (ice cream) in a paper grocery bag, tape it shut, and clearly label it something like ‘tofu’ or ‘kimchi’ or ‘beef stock’.

    (But the better solution was to find roommates who weren’t jackasses. Seems to still hold true…)

    1. Mallory Janis Ian*

      At home, I wrap my chocolate chips that I’m saving for a recipe (or for myself, if I’m absolutely honest) in foil and put them in the freezer. People think they’re a disgusting, boring leftover and leave them alone.

  18. MissDisplaced*

    What a jerk! Having him do this once or twice would be bad, but understandable in an “Oops” kind of way. But for this to continue and even spread to invading personal desk and drawer areas is astounding. He’s obviously doing it on purpose, but for what reason who can tell. It’s extremely aggressive and rude. Seriously, what the hell goes through people’s heads?

    1. manybellsdown*

      That’s part of what made me so angry. OP went to some trouble to hide her food and he *hunted it down and ate it anyway*! Opening the fridge and eating what you find is jerk behavior, but hunting through desks when you don’t find something in the fridge is a whole ‘nother level.

      1. Abby*

        Exactly! The first few times from the fridge was somewhat understandable (though by no means acceptable) because some people have it ingrained in their minds that “communal fridge = communal food,” but hunting through her desk and drawers in search of food? That’s insane.

  19. Lizabeth*

    Did the book “The Help” go through anyone’s mind like it did to me? The pie????

    1. Minister of Snark*

      OK, while I did laugh at the random notes, Francis’s actions were extremely douchey and I hope he was reprimanded.

      1. mel*

        Am I the only person who sees this as one person printing out an imaginary conversation and taking photos of it on his/her fridge at home?

    2. No Longer Passing By*

      As an unaffected person, it was hilarious. I would not be amused as the employee whose sandwich was stolen or as the HR person trying to control the situation.

  20. Allison*

    How can people do that? I could never imagine taking another person’s food, no matter how good it looks or how hungry and strapped for cash/time I am! For one thing I’d be terrified of getting caught, and even if I managed to pull it off, I’d surely feel terrible that now there’s a coworker with no lunch who has to buy something at the cafe downstairs.

    Then again, I don’t really understand stealing in general. How can you justify it to yourself?

    1. OriginalYup*

      My theory on office food thefts:

      35% simple accidents. Two people in the office drink the same type of soda, bring it in from home. Person B accidentally takes the bottle belonging to person A, thinking it’s their own and forgetting that they finished their own stock 2 days ago.

      35% misunderstandings about communal food. You know leftover food & drink from meetings is shared with everyone? Someone sees turkey wraps in the fridge and thinks “Awesome! Community leftovers!”

      25% jerks. People who don’t give a sh*t about boundaries, politeness, stealing, etc.

      5% extreme circumstances. People with food compulsions or eating issues, not having enough to eat due to home life or poverty, etc etc.

      The OP’s boss is the “25% jerks” category.

      1. Allison*

        Fair enough on the first two. I always play it safe with communal food and only eat it if it’s out in the open. If it’s in the fridge and I’m not sure, I just don’t touch it! It helps that, at least at our old office, we had a special fridge for communal food, and another fridge that was lunches only. And they were very clearly labeled.

  21. L*

    Last week a colleague stole a cookie from me and I was so angry. I’d stayed at my parents’ house the night before and my mom packed me two cookies in a Ziploc for work. I took them out of my bag and was about to have my snack when I unexpectedly had to rush off and do something, so I left the bag on the table. When I came back 15 mis later, instead of two cookies I had one cookie and a Post-It saying “I owe U one cookie! :)”

    She bought me more cookies the next day but I was still pissed.

    1. Minister of Snark*

      The smilie would have pushed me over the edge into murder-eyes territory. Don’t freaking condescend to me with emoticons while you’re stealing from me.

  22. LisaLee*

    I would be seriously tempted to start invoicing the boss for the cost of the food. But I’m a jerk like that :)

    1. LisaLee*

      I also wonder if the boss is one of those people who doesn’t believe food allergies are real. I run into them ALL THE TIME, and they’re awful. It wouldn’t surprise me if he completely dismissed the fact that this is a real medical issue for the LW.

      1. Emmy Rae*

        That’s what I was thinking. My friend’s coworker used to lie to her that items were gluten free, and aggressively try to share them with my friend. Friend was clever enough never to fall for it, but yikes! Diarrhea at work would not be fun.

        My theory is that this guy is trying to “prove” that her allergies are made up by forcing her to eat the stuff she says she can’t eat.

          1. Blurgle*

            Anyone who still worships at the feet of that odious George Carlin. His words have led to so many illnesses and deaths.

    2. E*

      Alternative would be to ask for the company credit card to go buy a replacement lunch at the company’s expense. On the clock of course.

  23. Gandalf the Nude*

    This was actually the column that got me reading AaM on the regular! I was looking for advice on something else, stumbled on this, and knew I had to add it to my daily reading! And anytime I recommend this blog to someone, I use this post as an example.

    The GM at Old Job stole my zip-lock baggie of cookies from on top of the fridge and, when I asked, told me that space was typically community space. I would have bought it, too, if he hadn’t made the mistake of telling me this in front of the owner and my manager who both immediately gave him what-for!

    1. No Longer Passing By*

      Yes. Plus ghost pepper sandwiches. I’ve seen both in the comments

    2. Nobody*

      I know you’re probably joking, and this type of prank has been shown on many TV shows and movies, but I would like to point out that this is a really bad idea, in case any food theft victims are getting ideas here. I remember in the comments the first time this letter was posted, a lot of people suggested things like this, but it looks like you’re the first this time… Deliberately tricking someone into consuming laxatives or other drugs could be considered poisoning, and it could do serious harm. As much as you could argue that the jerk who steals someone’s food is asking for it, it would not be so funny if the food thief ended up in the hospital, or heaven forbid, dead.

      1. Sarahnova*

        Yes, this solution would leave you criminally liable for deliberately poisoning someone. It’s a bad, bad idea.

  24. Biff*

    Allison — I love this, not because of the advice, but because the update provided a change I can do myself to make my workplace more bearable. I admit it doesn’t fix the root of the problem, but it prevents the employee from having to deal with the outfall of it. I’d love to see a column from time to time dedicated to changes one can make oneself to make a dysfunctional workplace manageable when efforts to attack the problem from other angles are either infeasible or have already failed.

  25. schnapps*

    So two stories, somewhat related.

    In my (local government) office, we’re pretty respectful of other people’s food. If it doesn’t belong to you, ask if you can have it (I am notorious for this for salad dressings because I always forget it). We have one staffer who is obsessive about the age of food in the fridge. We’re supposed to label (names) and date our food. If there’s no name on it, she’ll stick a label on it (black letters, highlighted yellow, all caps) that says “BELONGS TO ANYONE?” And since no one else really wants to clean out the fridge and she does quite regularly, no one really complains. We laugh a bit about it and then thank her for organizing and cleaning the fridge.

    On the other side, we have a bunch of committees that are made up from community volunteers. This fridge cleaning coworker, as a matter of courtesy, sent out an email to one of the committees she works with (it’s a committee for people with disabilities), asking about food allergies for catering purposes. She got back a note from one member with no fewer than 30 items on it. One of the items: “Mould, so [she’s] allergic to any food that’s not really fresh.” Also, she included a note that she has to have three days between eating the same type of food so even if something is ok, she can’t the same for three days after and all her meals need to be planned.

    She’s also allergic to plastic (but can eat sushi off of plastic trays and drink through plastic straws) and the odor of sharpie and dry erase/flipchart markers. I ended up going out and buying a pack of Crayola kids markers because they’re non toxic. She was not impressed and tried to get us to buy more expensive ones.

    The first time I met her, I was using a sharpie for something and she started complaining about it saying her throat was closing. At the time I was a first aid instructor, so I capped the pen and started taking her vitals and asking her if she had some benadryl and epi pen (or needle) with her. She asked for a glass of water and said she was fine.

    1. No Longer Passing By*

      Your colleague seems like a loon. She’s the reason why people don’t take food and environmental allergies seriously. Because some people try to manilupate and know that if they say that they’re allergic, the coworkers will attempt to compromise.

      Meanwhile poor Jimmy has people trying to sneak peanuts into a salad despite his mother saying that he’s allergic.

        1. schnapps*

          Oh the volunteer’s a loon (that may be the Pinot Gris speaking – It’s a holiday here in Canada). My coworker is also a bit of a loon, but she means well. And she cleans the fridge, microwave and toaster oven regularly, so we’ll keep her :)

          And as for the volunteer – the reaction you described is specifically the reaction that was prompted in our office. No one takes her seriously. The problem is, since we’re government we’re expected more than most to accommodate (accommodate within reason, where within reason usually means amount of resources expended). It was handed over to our EEO office, whose recommendation was that she bring her own food and we reimburse her up to $10 per meeting (they meet 4x/year).

          I suspect that she is mildly allergic to these 30 things, and when combined it’s a bad scene. However, our catering is usually sushi (vegetarian and non vegetarian, with ginger, wasabi, soy sauce and that orange mayo stuff they put on it, on the side. We find that usually covers most allergies and more often than not, the people who can’t handle it will bring their own, without even saying anything

          1. Blurgle*

            I have tons of allergies – more than she has, actually, and all medically documented.

            I don’t eat what other people make. Ever. I would decline the meal; if pushed, quit the job.

            1. schnapps*

              Oh I’m not denying that some people have numerous allergies. I just doubt her because of how she handled the reaction to the sharpie. When she says she’s allergic to plastic and therefore can’t drink out of plastic cups and comes in to the meeting with a Wendy’s meal complete with a plastic straw in her drink that she sticks in her mouth, I find a lot of it hard to believe.

              And this is what the previous poster was saying about how things like this endanger people with real allergies because it leads to them not being taken seriously.

            2. No Longer Passing By*

              Blurgle, I’m confused if you misunderstood our comments or if you just generally making a statement for the world at large. From the precise situation described, the coworker apparently is having other issues that may not actually relate to allergies. For example, if you cannot eat from plastic, you then don’t turn around and say that you can eat the sushi that is on plastic (cross-contamination being a thing, of course). Especially when you do not know what types of plastic is used in that particular sushi restaurant. Or if you are allergic to Sharpies and after someone accidentally uses a Sharpie in your presence and then offers you medical care for their mistake, you wouldn’t casually reject the offer and proceed as if nothing happened. It appears that she is. making. it. up. in order to get her way. Which then creates a problem when you come with your legitimate list of allergies and then everyone just rolls their eyes and lumps you in with that co-worker.

              This is a big problem for people like me who actually are allergic to multiple stuff (fortunately not related to food but unfortunately related to environment) so when I decline to participate in party cleanups, I look like I’m lazy when I actually am allergic to the dust that the activities will kick up. I have seen people roll their eyes when I say that I am allergic to dust. And I’ve also had people jump in and say, “oh, me, too,” as an excuse to abstain from the cleanup activities while they sit in the same room where the dusting is occurring. So, yes, I am giving the side eye to people who claim allergies when their own activities would indicate otherwise. Because I hate when other people insist that I in fact *can* do xyz because so and so, who also has that allergy, does the precise thing that I am declining to do. Or when people insist that I should just try to do xyz because I may see that it no longer bothers me because so and so was in the room and eventually started helping when they saw how much they were needed.

              1. Jessa*

                OMG the people who are all “just try this,” or “you can too do x,” drive me nuts. I’m allergic to mustard, now horseradish is in the same general family, I have no idea if I’m allergic to it, but it’s close enough that I’m going to stay away from it. Also wasabi (partly because the plant IS in the same family, and partly because a lot of places especially in the US use fake wasabi which is basically horseradish and mustard, so hello trip to hospital.)

                If someone even at a very respectable Japanese restaurant told me “oh go ahead and eat that wasabi, it won’t hurt you,” I’d be very annoyed.

    2. Elizabeth West*

      My response to her would have been, “Oh, Hortense, I’m so sorry; we cannot guarantee that the caterers can accommodate this extensive a list. You’ll have to bring your own food that day if you want to be sure it’s safe.”

    3. Jessa*

      Um some people with mould allergies cannot eat, for instance bleu cheese and other items that have moulds in the making of them (also some people with penicillin allergies, it’s not the exact same mould as that makes penicillin, but it’s in a somewhat related family.) So even if this particular person may be…iffy on being honest about what they can’t eat, not everyone who says that is wrong.

  26. John Cosmo*

    This reminds me of a cartoon or a joke that someone posted on the fridge where I work where a clueless man said something along the lines of:

    “They’ve started the strangest habit at work. People are naming the food. Today I ate a sandwich named “Alison.”

  27. Anonymosity*

    We had a lunch thief at work. They put a camera in the break room and left it there for a couple of months. One day, it was gone, and someone said they heard that they had caught one of the cleaning crew (contractors–they don’t work for the company) taking food. They also said stuff had been disappearing out of people’s desks. I never leave anything I don’t want to lose at work–if I did, I have a drawer that locks and they’d have to force it. I’m just glad it wasn’t one of my coworkers.

  28. Worker Bee*

    How could one forget..
    Rereading it reminded me of my first week at Oldjob. Had to learn the hard way that if food wasn’t labeled it was up for everyone.. It was my birthday that week and I received some really nice chocolate from my new coworkers and I like chocolate to be cold.. so I put it in the fridge… BIG mistake. It was almost completely gone by the time I got back for my chocolate and coffee break.. Lesson learned!

  29. OP*

    Wow, the responses here are overwhelming! I’m sorry I’m late to the game on this one – it was reposted the same week that I relocated my entire life for a new job and I still don’t have internet (nothing like a small town to show you how limited your consumer choices really are)!

    I used the locking box to store my food and it worked like a charm to address that particular issue. As many of the readers guessed, though, my former boss had very little boundaries, didn’t exactly address issues, and failed to manage in any meaningful way. He was personable and everyone who didn’t have to work for him loved him. He was very well-known throughout the company because of his humour and casual nature with everyone – from the cleaning staff right up to the CEO. He was promoted fairly regularly and is now the #2 in the company. I stuck it out far longer than I should have because he liked me and took me with him as he kept getting promoted. I did get to learn some new skills and pad my resume along the way. However, I moved on from that company almost entirely because of him and his management style.

    I’m now working in an entirely different field as an educator for one of the very diseases that cause (some of) the restrictions in my diet. The snacks here are great!

  30. Dawn*

    I have had the same problem. Although my boss denies entirely that she has stolen my food despite me catching her a few times (and when she is on holiday my food miraculously lasts much longer). I have tried to approach her about it but she flat out denies it. It doesn’t seem a big enough issue to leave my job or report her – i think that people would just laugh it off. I think it is rude, controlling and I can’t get my head around why it is so common for others to steal food – get your own you fatty!

    Dawn :)

  31. Edward Cantarella*

    I had boss who would do this a -we’d all go in on a pizza and he would help himself to last piece or two, but never would he go in with us on it. Soooooo, we dumped about 4 packs of salt under the cheese on the last 2 pieces. He never helped himself again. Oh, one day he ate the janitor’s entire lunch, thinking it was someone’s from day shift who forget it?(we were on nights). Janitor went “ape” :)

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