update: my boss is stealing my lunch

Remember the letter-writer whose boss was stealing her lunch, even after she’d asked him to stop? The original letter was printed in October 2011, but I reprinted it this summer over at Inc. (where I’m revisiting old posts from here), which prompted this update.

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!

{ 59 comments… read them below }

    1. Charlotte Collins*

      Me, too! I know some people with pretty severe dietary restrictions, and I wish they could find the same!

  1. Snarkus Aurelius*

    Yet another destructive case of being likeable winning out over being professional.  This is what criminals do to ingratiate themselves with their victims.  I’m not saying this guy is a criminal, but rather he’s using the standard tools of the manipulation to get what he wants and power trip.  He was brazenly going through your stuff, eating your food, and ignoring your requests to stop.  That’s not a likeable, nice person at all.  

    Oh but I bet he never did that to anyone who was higher up than he was, right?  That makes it all the more deliberate and twisted. 

    Far too many times, I’ve seen personal feelings towards a person blind TPTB to so many awful, damaging work habits.  There’s an in-depth article on Obama staffer Larry Summers that is a guidebook on how to be a jerk and have US presidents love you no matter what. If a job is about being elected homecoming king and queen, do let me know so that I may find work somewhere else.

    1. Three Thousand*

      There’s something so fundamentally gross about stealing someone’s lunch because you can and there’s nothing they can do about it. You need a lot of deliberate imperviousness to other people’s feelings and experiences.

      This is the kind of person who “likes” you as long you’re useful to him, and if he has power over you, he can violate your boundaries as he likes because why not. If you’re not useful to him, he’ll be nice to you because it benefits him to be seen as a friendly person, but there’s no point at which he’ll think “This person doesn’t like what I’m doing, and I should stop doing it solely because of that.”

      1. Charby*

        Agreed. The fact that the boss kept taking the OP “with” him (presumably in part to save him time/money on meals?!?) is pretty absurd too. It’s not quite as bad as cannibalism but it’s up there.

        1. MK*

          Eh, I think what the OP means is that she kept getting promoted along with him on his upward path in the company. And presumably he did it because she is a good worker and he liked her.

          It’s not uncommon for highly valued higher-ups to be able to choose their team and they sometimes have long-time associates who follow them to new positions.

          I don’t get what this has to do with canniballism!

          1. Artemesia*

            She is suggesting that the boss likes having someone to exploit as in ‘steal their lunch.’ One of the worst things about this already terrible story is that the OP has serious dietary restrictions and so stealing her lunch is an even greater hardship than it would be for others. Didn’t stop him though.

            I have lived a long time and one of the sadder things is that cheaters do prosper.

      1. Snarkus Aurelius*

        Sure I will in a few. Keep in mind it’s long, but it’s good. As in Larry was so awful but so good at making himself look necessary that even Obama didn’t want to fire him even after he’d done irreparable damage to the economy. The article is full of personal anecdotes from lots of people who went on the record. I mean THAT is bad.

        1. Artemesia*

          And on top of everything else, he has been consistently wrong about everything economic — but then so have all of the very serious people who keep screwing up our economy with Hoover like policies.

    2. INTP*

      Yep. And the fact that he keeps getting promoted shows how totally calculating it is. No matter how likeable he is, his superiors would not keep him around or keep promoting him if it meant “sharing” their own lunches with him. He’s stealing the food of people who can’t do anything about it, and then pretending like he thinks it’s a big joke to steal food and a normal thing to do. If you really think it’s normal, or you really can’t control yourself, you steal everyone’s food.

  2. Bio-Pharma*

    “He was personable and everyone who didn’t have to work for him loved him… He was promoted fairly regularly and is now the #2 in the company.

    I’ve worked for people like him. Will these people just always get away with it, and continue to be promoted because they play the game well? Or will karma get to them eventually? I don’t understand why the company (HR?) doesn’t notice a pattern of high turnover and complaints, see that as a red flag, and address it!!! The value that terrible boss has is MORE valuable than the cost of turnover and company reputation?!

    1. Charby*

      It’s probably an issue of measurement. If someone is bringing in sales or managing custmer accounts, they can easily quantify their value to the company. It’s much, much harder to quantiy the damages and losses of someone who is an unprofessional jerk. Measuring things like turnover is rarely possible to attribute to one individual (for example, someone who works for a jerk might not say that in an exit interview, even if one is given). Complaints are valuable but not every company keeps them and even then it’s hard to say that this employee’s complaint is costing the company $500 a day or $10,000 a year or anything like that. If this person is also generally popular or in a higher level role they have an easier time since they are closer to upper management and their POV is the only one being heard or acknowledged.

      Hopefully karma does catch up to them eventually, but that’s not a reliable enforcement mechanism. Bad things can happen to anyone, and if you’re just kind of waiting for something bad to happen to the office jerk you could be waiting for months, years, or even a lifetime. It took decades for mob boss Whitey Bulger to get taken down, and he was a murderer. A lunch thief could easily skate by if they have the similar value and cache in their environment

      1. Biff*

        Excellent point. It’s always easier to see the gains on paper than the losses. Losses are easier to ‘socialize’ too — “oh, we lost the White Cottage Tea Room account because their business was faltering” or “Suzanne’s designs just didn’t get the market share we expected.”

      2. INTP*

        Definitely agree that it’s a question of measurement. It’s extra-hard for the people above these types to measure the cost of their bad management, also, because they seem so likeable and reasonable in person that it’s hard to imagine them driving people away, and they always have a convincing story about why their employees are leaving, and the employees are afraid to speak up about their well-liked manager. Or they offer just enough employees just enough to stop them from leaving (like the OP and her promotions) to keep their turnover rate from raising any red flags.

        1. Charby*

          True. In addition, people may not be comfortable even speaking up about someone who is popular or who is seen as a rain maker. Even if a company did have exit interviews — not all of them do, and not all of them really listen to what’s said in them — it’s highly likely that most people who leave make (somewhat useless) comments about “fit” or refer to “upper management” in generalizations without really naming an individual. They might not feel comfortable blaming one person (it’s often seen as unprofessional to criticize a former manager or supervisor) and they might not how to articulate something like this in a professional manner.

          They may even not be sure themselves who it is — if you’re in an environment where someone like this is being constantly enabled and promoted, does it even make sense to say that this one jerk is solely to blame for all of the problems? After all, unless this person is the original owner chances are they are being bolstered by a culture that rewards this behavior — what are the odds that everyone else at the office is professional?

      3. AcidMeFlux*

        It’s also an issue of who promotes and fires; guys just a little bit above and older than Schumckmeister. “Ah, let’s give the guy a break; he’s human/he’s improving/he’s young”…all the while thinking, “I was just like that”. Mediocrity is self-perpetuating.

    2. Biff*

      In my experience, the come-uppance for this tends to come later in life. They seem to skate the first 20 years of their career and then suddenly hit the wall and slide down. I watched it happen to my former boss. It seems to work like this: (btw, this is for men, because I don’t see women getting away with this. Not saying that doesn’t happen, just that I haven’t seen it.)

      1. The ‘jerk’ is painted as a brash young 20 year old who needs to get the wild hairs out of his system, but will ultimately bring his energy to the team. Usually at this point, they are still hiding certain behaviors, so there are no casualties yet. Clients are probably seeing a more reasonable side of this individual at this point.
      2. The jerk is later repainted as a bold leader who needs to lead in his own way to get results. Others are viewed as an acceptable losses for the work the jerk is doing. And in fact, the jerk may even present it this way to their own bosses. “I know that Jon feels harassed, but I really need him to get in line so this project can go forward. He needs to have faith in my vision and not fight against the good of the company.” There is constant equivocating that what is good for the jerk is good for the company. Clients might start seeing the rougher side of this person, but generally this is passed off as tough love, or ‘any client that doesn’t want to do it our way is a client we don’t want.”
      3. After several contentious projects, an important employee or client is lost because of direct action taken by the jerk. This may be allowed for a while, but there seems to be a sudden realization that the jerk is actually not really bringing energy to the team or leading boldly — the jerk is actually causing trouble. The years investing in the jerk have not really gotten the company the experienced, wise manager they thought they were training up. Cue the wall slam and the long slide down.

      I don’t think that it’s really that the company perceives the terrible boss as being worth the losses he creates so much as they don’t realize the terrible boss is, in fact, terrible and causing those losses until many, many years of damage has been done.

      1. Biff*

        I should also add — I think the comeuppance also comes in the thirties because that’s when people seem to start expecting men to stop being brasher/bolder/rough. When the jerk doesn’t slow down on those behaviors, it goes against societal expectations and that probably triggers the closer look at the jerk. I’m not saying I agree with how things are, just that this is what I have witnessed.

          1. Gandalf the Nude*

            I’ve always seen it happen a bit later than that– late 40’s, early 50’s. Not so much when they’re supposed to outgrow their brashness but rather when they’re supposed to be growing into their wisdom.

            1. Biff*

              I’m positive that the time frame varies depending on industry. I’m in an industry that is almost pathologically focused on men in the mid twenties to mid thirties.

            2. Bio-Pharma*

              In my limited experience, it’s been later as well, which is why I’m baffled as to how they’ve been getting away with it for so long!

            3. MissDisplaced*

              Yeah, I’ve usually seen late 40’s and 50’s as when this hits, and often they don’t see it coming because they’ve been coddled far too long.
              But I guess it depends on the industry.

      2. Three Thousand*

        I agree with this. It’s not about the actual monetary value these guys bring to their companies, because most people don’t have any way to measure that reliably. It’s about whether they fit into an existing narrative that makes us feel we can roughly predict what they’re going to turn out to be like and whether that’s going to be largely okay or not. Women of course don’t fit into this narrative, so this behavior from them isn’t tolerated regardless of what value they bring.

        1. Biff*

          I hadn’t thought of the whole ‘young buck’ narrative that is so ubiquitous, but you’re right. My previous boss had a hazardous hankering to find ‘young bucks’ and help them become ‘majestic stags.’ Women and ‘beta males’ were treated very differently, and I wondered about that. Your comment really lends some perspective – we were outside the narrative because we weren’t young bucks.

        2. Stranger than fiction*

          It also could be due to the tribal knowledge that person has so they keep em around despite their other shortcomings.

      3. CM*

        Yes, this is brilliant! Except I don’t always see the come-uppance — what I see is these guys taking their routine elsewhere to an organization that only knows them by their positive reputation.

    3. Stranger than fiction*

      Yes, sadly, I know so many instances where this is the case, I think there’s even a term for it called ‘failing up’. Karma? Not sure but in one instance the company was sold for pennies on the dollar because the CFO refused to progress the product line in keeping with current technology

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        Ps- I see the term failing up being used two ways- one like we’re talking about here, likeable enough people with mediocre talent at best that keep getting promoted; and the second way is people learning from huge mistakes and applying what they learned to move past them. Just wanted to clarify.

        1. Biff*

          I’d only seen the latter. This is the first time I’ve heard it used to describe someone of middling talents getting lots of promotions.

      2. Newsie*

        Oh man, I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen fail up. Although, in my industry, I think it’s pretty evenly men and women (as opposed to what Biff mentioned earlier). Terrible management skills, terrible results, and you blink and there’s a promotion.

        Stranger than fiction, I’ve never heard it used in the positive way – does that say something about my workplace? Hah.

        1. Stranger than fiction*

          I did a very quick google just to be sure I was remembering right and just at a quick glance there were articles that appeared to be using it both ways. There was also something in a similar vein called the Peter Principle.

          1. Liza*

            The Peter Principle differs in that it describes people who do good work until they get promoted past what they’re able to do. Like an excellent teapot handle designer who’s promoted to spout design, but it turns out that they’re awful at spout design even though they’re really good at handles. Then (in the Peter Principle) they stay in the job they’re awful at, because nobody wants to demote them.

            1. TK*

              The Peter Principle is the explanation for Michael Scott on The Office; Michael was an excellent salesman (as shown several times on the show) but an absolutely horrible manager.

              1. Three Thousand*

                The Office got a lot of things right without calling undue attention to them.

                It took me a long time to realize that the show was subtly aware that David Wallace’s constant favoring of Jim Halpert despite Halpert’s lackluster performance was problematic, and seemed to exist largely because Wallace showed a marked preference for promoting people who reminded him of himself.

                Bringing on the Charles Miner character really highlighted this. Suddenly Jim had a boss who wasn’t going to favor him just because he was a young, genial, conventionally attractive white man. Miner himself had no opportunity to become obviously sympathetic, and the audience is invited to fear and loathe him, so it took me a while to realize what was going on with him.

              2. Three Thousand*

                I went back and read the letter again, and it fills me with such a visceral hatred for this guy that I want to find him and pull out his front teeth with a pair of pliers.

                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 then walks away.

                1. Jazzy Red*

                  Yeah, we are getting off track here, aren’t we.

                  The OP’s former boss was a bully without the violence. Using one’s power as he did was ugly and disgusting. I wish there was some way we could witness his future downfall.

                  OP, I’m just so happy to hear how happy you are in your new job! You deserve it, and I’m sure many people are going to benefit from your work.

    4. MK*

      I think people who are mediocre workers, but get promoted based on their personality do hit a wall eventually; they come across a manager who isn’t buying their charm or the manager who promoted them comes out of the ether and sees them for what they are or there is a situation where their mediocrity cannot be hidden any more.

      The ones who combine this with being brilliant at what they do though, often retire with laurels after a glorious career.

  3. Workfromhome*

    congrats OP on escaping from that ridiculous situation.
    Its a sad commentary on the work world we live in today that so many of us have at least one (usually many) regarding incompetent/crazy people climbing the ladder,making huge salaries while the normal people who actually do the work suffer.

    I truly believe that people eventually get what they deserve but far too often it takes so long that people like the OP usually leave before they ever see people get there just desserts.

  4. OriginalEmma*

    Part of me hopes you were able to use your struggles with educating your boss as both as explanation of you leaving AND why you’d make a good educator (because you can deal with non-compliant folks and are a problem solver).

    Also: yay health educator!

  5. Lizzie*

    “The snacks here are great!” This, for some reason, had me cracking up out loud at my desk. I don’t know, it’s Friday.

    I’m happy you’re happy, in any case. :)

  6. Alma*

    OP, curiosity has the better of me. 1) Did boss lose any weight after you began locking up your food? 2) Did he continually move on to another lunch-packing target? 3) Did he say anything to you when he saw the lockbox in the fridge?

    And congratulations on landing a really exciting (and healthful) position. That is victory!!

  7. muhammad*

    two peaplework

    in acompany one him to steal company property what shall i to to stop not steal

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