a coworker stole my spicy food, got sick, and is blaming me

A reader writes:

We have a fridge at work. Up to this point, nothing I had in it was stolen (I am quite new, and others have told me that this was a problem).

My food is always really, really spicy. I just love it that way. Anyway, I was sitting at my desk when my coworker came running out, having a hard time breathing. He then ran into the bathroom and started being sick. Turns out he ate my clearly labeled lunch. (It also was in a cooler lunch box to keeps it cold from work to home, as it’s a long drive.) There was nothing different about my lunch that day. In fact, it was just the leftovers from my dinner the night before.

Fast forward a day and my boss comes in asking if I tried to poison this person. Of course I denied that I had done so. I even took out my current day’s lunch and let my boss taste a bit (he was blown away by how spicy it was even though he only took a small bite). I then proceeded to eat several spoonfuls to prove I could eat it with no problem. He said not to worry, and that it was clear to him that I didn’t mean any harm, my coworker shouldn’t have been eating my food, etc. etc. I thought the issue was over.

A week later, I got called up to HR for an investigation, claiming that I did in fact try to do harm to this person and this investigation is still ongoing. What confuses me is there was nothing said about this guy trying to steal my lunch. When I brought it up, they said something along the lines of “We cannot prove he stole anything.” I am confused at this. I thought the proof would be clear.

My boss is on my side, but HR seem to be trying to string me up. Their behavior is quite aggressive. Even if my boss backs me up, they just ignore everything he says. (As in, he would say “That’s clearly not the case” and the HR lady wouldn’t even look in his direction and continued talking.)

On top of this, HR claims that it would be well within said coworker’s rights to try and sue me. The way it was said seemed to suggest that they suggested this to him as a course of action.

How can someone be caught stealing my lunch and then turn around and say I was in the wrong? I don’t understand it at all! I don’t know what to do, I am afraid that I will lose my job over this. Is there any advice you can give me?


This makes no sense.

You are allowed to enjoy a unusually high level of spiciness (and as a fellow spice enthusiast, I commend you for it). You are not required to make sure that your own personal lunch doesn’t contain anything that might offend a coworker’s palate, as your coworkers should not be eating your food without any invitation.

The only way their stance could possibly make sense is if they’re alleging that it wasn’t your lunch at all, and that it belonged to your coworker and you secretly dumped a toxic level of spice into it. Is that what they’re saying? Because otherwise this is bizarrely illogical. And what’s your coworker saying in all of this? Is he trying to claim that it was his lunch all along?

In any case, I think the way to handle this is to go a bit on the offensive, which is warranted based on how aggressive HR is being. I’d go back to them — possibly to the boss of the person you spoke with earlier if that’s an option — and say this: “I’m extremely concerned by what’s been said about this. The food in question was my personal lunch, brought in for me and me only. The spiciness of my food shouldn’t be anyone’s concern, and I’m distressed that I’m being accused of in any way intending harm toward someone else because of what I pack in my personal lunch. I take my professional reputation very seriously, and I’m concerned that this bizarre story is impacting it. I’d like your assurance that the company does not intend to penalize me for eating spicy food at lunch.” I’d also put a similar message in writing and email it to them “to document our conversation from earlier today.”

Sometimes ridiculous people back down when they see that you take standing up for yourself seriously.

I’d also ask your boss what the hell he thinks is going on. Does he think you have anything to worry about? If he’s confident that you don’t (and if his judgment is usually pretty good), then I suppose you can just let HR’s weird spiciness policing play out and ignore it as best you can.

Your company’s HR is terrible.

You can read an update to this post here.

{ 881 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous Poster*

    What is happening.

    Geez, I have no idea why this would fly with any sort of reasonable person. It’s not normal, OP!

    1. Katie F*

      This makes me wonder if the Lunch Stealer isn’t friends with the HR person. I can’t see any other reason for HR to be acting is such a clearly biased manner.

      It also makes me wonder if it’s always the same person stealing lunches, since this has apparently been a problem for others in the past and nothing’s been done about it.

      1. Christopher Tracy*

        This makes me wonder if the Lunch Stealer isn’t friends with the HR person. I can’t see any other reason for HR to be acting is such a clearly biased manner.

        Friends or family because nothing else makes sense.

        1. RVA Cat*

          Agree that HR and the Lunch Thief must have some kind of relationship… Given the utter craziness of the situation I wonder if Thief and HR Lady are having an affair.

          1. Jenn*

            Not much else makes sense with no idea If there is a racial or cultural intolerance at play.

        2. Jantique Fielding*

          Oh, I’ll tell what makes sense. Is Ms. Spicy Food by any chance non-white, and the Thief a white person? OF COURSE it’s her fault for infecting the office fridge with anything spicier than grilled cheese on white bread! (Me, I personally can’t take the heat. But I don’t steal anyone’s lunch, either!)

      2. designbot*

        Your second point is an interesting one–if it was an open secret that this person was lunch thief, then the notion of someone putting something inedible in the fridge as a deterrent could be the assumption they’re operating under here. It seems like something we’d joke about at my office but not expect anyone to actually do.

        1. Blue Anne*

          My aunt did that once. She used to bring in treats for herself to snack on at work and some guy used to always come up to her desk, talk to her, and help herself to whatever she had.

          One day she went to a specialty chocolate store and left the box open on her desk, and when he had been munching for a minute asked him whether he liked the chocolate covered crickets, because a lot of people didn’t?

          Never had the problem again apparently. :P

          1. Greg*

            As I recall, Bubbles on “The Wire” did something like this, with tragic consequences.

        2. LizEnFrance*

          This! I have read sooooooo many “my coworkers wouldn’t stop stealing my food so I spiked it with Ex-Lax/spat in it/messed with it in some other way and told them about it afterward” stories.

          1. RKB*

            I hate this idea, but only because I’m afraid I’d forget and either mess with myself or an innocent coworker to whom I’m offering half my lunch to.

            1. Bergman*

              That’s why you pick a food you like but will disgust others. Do try to avoid additives to food that don’t belong there though, since poisoning people is a felony charge.

              1. Average Joe*

                At one of my jobs, someone had left some super hot hot sauce for everyone. It was so hot, the guys who often went out for suicide wings couldn’t handle a small dab at the end of a toothpick. Sometimes people would try to prank others, but there wasn’t many foods that it didn’t very clearly change the color of. Sometimes people would forget and put a quarter cup on their own food(was about how much of the normal hot sauce they’d put on). Several meals wasted that way. Usually people would spend hours on the counter with their mouth under the faucet afterwards, and “They had some of the hot sauce” was a valid excuse for them to be there.

      3. Annonymouse*

        My thinking is HR is thinking this:
        Lunch stealing is a problem
        You know this
        You deliberately super spice your food to find out who the lunch thief is, teach the stealer a lesson and/or keep your future lunch safe
        Your boss asks about this and you prove this isn’t the case


        The fact you are bringing up that stealer stole your lunch actually “supports” their case.

        You need to get your boss to say something like “I’ve eaten some of OPs food before and they indeed eat super spicy food everyday. They were not and have not ever tried to poison or hurt anyone with their personal food. This is how they eat it everyday. ”

        (Notice the repeat.)

        HR might be reacting this way because someone has done something like this before.

        In any case they aren’t being fair to you and if possible you need to go above them.

        Or have lunch stealer/HR randomly steal/check your lunch again. If it’s spicy a second time after catching them out you’ve proved your point.

          1. Jon*

            “That still does not explain HR’s complete indifference to the lunch stealing.”

            Unfortunately, HR departments generally only exist to protect their employer, so here’s how they probably see that:

            – one employee has possibly been physically harmed by another by eating food that made them sick. This has slight potential for a lawsuit against the employer or some sort of damaging story that would cost money to deal with. The fact that the food was “not for them” and that the employer wasn’t involved doesn’t necessarily negate this.

            – one employee has had their lunch stolen by another. This is a thing that happens every day in workplaces all over the country without it resulting in lawsuits or any sort of publicity. As such, HR is unlikely to care.

            1. mpm*

              Then make them care by threatening to call in the Police RE the theft in teh workplace which HR’s own documentation backs up. Or, by just doing it :)

              1. Noobtastic*

                Rich people can shrug away a stolen lunch.

                Poor people, or people with severe food allergies, who have no other choice than what they brought themselves, and therefor cannot get any sort of substitute meal, if their own is stolen cannot shrug it off. It feels like a true violation, just as being burgled would.

                Rich people just don’t. get. it.

                Poor people really just want to call the cops and get the thief arrested. But that won’t fly in our world, because people in power think it’s no big deal, and an we’re overreacting.

                1. I'm Not Phyllis*

                  This so much. I have been in situations where I literally had no money to my name, and if I happened to be fortunate enough to have a lunch in the first place and someone had stolen it I would not have been able to go and buy something else.

                  Plus I don’t understand the mentality that stealing someone else’s belongings (no matter what it is that you’re stealing) is no big deal. It’s no big deal to the thief, but it’s almost always a big deal to the victim.

                2. Camille Chaustre McNally*

                  I’m not poor (although I do bring in my lunch to save money), but I’d be furious if someone ate my lunch. I look forward to my boyfriend’s okonomiyaki. Not having food I thought would be there makes me feel really upset too.

      4. Frantz Merisier*

        I think it has to be that they are friends with the HR person. It’s a horrible thing to have your lunch stolen from your place of work. It has happened to me; not once or twice, but three (3) times in the past 2 months here at this major corporation and I have been here 13 years this coming June…so sad! I feel your pain and know how violated you must feel coupled with the anxiety of being blamed because the “lunch burglar” is getting away with it and you are being looked upon as the “antagonist” in this whole thing, when clearly you wanted was to go to work and enjoy your lunch you have been craving all day. I am sure he would have kept going and you wouldn’t of been the wiser, just for the fact that you love spicy foods…like myself. This is such a shame. I truly believe that someone who gets caught doing that should be put on noticed.
        You would think other people’s food (from home especially) would be something to think twice about when attempting to steal, but some people have no shame. Once again…sorry.


    2. Elle*

      I can’t even picture the initial conversation that took place. “You won’t believe what happened! I stole someone’s lunch and it was way to spicy for me!” I mean, REALLY?? I have no idea where this HR person is even coming from. This whole situation makes NO sense.

      1. Katie F*

        I simply cannot believe Lunch Stealer told the truth, because there is no sane HR person on earth who would handle this situation this way if that was the case. Maybe it was something like:

        Lunch Stealer: “You won’t believe what happened, Ophelia offered me half her lunch and when I tried it, she had CLEARLY put something in it to make me sick! If you don’t discipline her for this, I’m going to to my lawyer! She’s totally going to say I stole it, too, I guarantee she’ll pretend I STOLE it so she doesn’t have to admit she OFFERED it to me!”

        And all HR heard was “lawyer” and panicked.

        1. One of the Sarahs*

          This is the only way it makes any kind of sense (and even then, it should have the radar pinging)

        2. Amber T*

          Not that I usually advise to use the threat of a lawyer, but in this case it’s so extreme and just so stupid (on HR’s part, though on the lunch stealer’s part too), you might want to mention the idea of retaining a lawyer in addition to what Allison said. “Since you mentioned the threat of a personal lawsuit from Coworker, I’m in the process of retaining my own lawyer who will be reviewing the case.” If your idiot HR person is in cahoots with your coworker, this would potentially make them drop it. If it is like Katie F said… well, maybe they’ll try to mediate it for you (without taking sides).

          1. fposte*

            Yeah, I wouldn’t have thrown the first lawyer, but once a lawyer has been thrown I think that’s a reasonable response. (Though obviously you really do consult with the lawyer rather than just saying you will.)

            1. Gene*

              I wouldn’t have thrown the first lawyer

              Player: I throw lawyer.
              DM: Roll for first pleading.

              1. Josh S*

                DM: roll for whether lawyer is thrown off cliff or into industrial meat grinder.

                /I kid I kid. One of my best friends is a lawyer.

            2. Noobtastic*

              I just wanted to respond to the threat of a lawsuit with “Oh, please sue me. Please do. That way, I can countersue, and get so. much. money. And I can get my co-workers to join me in the suit, because they tell me that this theft has been going on for a long time, and clearly you, HR worker, are in on the thefts, or at least actively encouraging theft, so you’ll be named as a co-defendant.

              “And while we’re on the topic of actively encouraging theft, Oh, HR person, can you prove that you have not been involved in any embezzlement from this company? Because if I have to prove that my lunch (which was clearly labeled with my own name and inside my own cooler) was meant for me, and me alone, and not meant to be eaten by a thief, then you have to prove that you have not yourself embezzled, nor actively encouraged another employee to embezzle. Because that’s the same logic. And there are oodles of hungry employees, who have had to miss lunch because they couldn’t afford a replacement after being robbed and violated, who will be happy to take that money from you, and eat happily for the rest of their lives.

              “Also, you’re lousy at your job and should be fired.”

              Yeah, I’d really like to say all that. It probably wouldn’t fly, though. But it’s a nice pipe dream.

              Seriously, the HR person makes me even more angry than the original food thief, and as someone who has had to live on $10 grocery budget for a whole week, for months at a time, and still had to share my food with others, the fact that someone would steal food just irks me SO MUCH. To have HR turn that around into an accusation of poisoning is just maddening.

        3. Charlie*

          I can see it, but what I don’t get is why HR is so aggressively in the Lunch Thief camp.

          1. Lex Barringer*

            I know from experience of this happening to me. However, I was smart enough to ask around who knows who and what their relationships were before this happened to me. I heard there was nepotism going on in the company. It turns out the woman that was stealing my lunch was also the cousin of the Human Resources Director, however, both parties were related and did the same thing, they both stole lunches.

            Only a guilty party would act so aggressive to protect themselves and their own. Unfortunately for them, I was in charge of installing high end 4k cameras with wide viewing angle and had nightvision built-in for security purposes, had access to the security room and equipment. I caught them red handed, grabbing not one lunch but three each. I took the video to the CEO of the company and said, I have proof that the lunch thieves are related and are in positions of power, that I have no power to remove them from the company because of their ranking positions. He saw the video and shook his head, he figured that they were doing this but could never prove it.

            He also had me announce over the intercom to have everyone come to the lunch room. To jack up the pressure even more on the two culprits, he showed the video to the entire company on a large screen monitor, the two people culprits were fired on the spot. He then asked if anyone had any particular alergies to foods, some people came forward (including myself), he then came up with a list of different places to get food from. He paid for a company lunch where everyone was provided for. He made a speech about stealing lunch is still stealing and that it won’t be tolerated, an offense that people get fired over. Because it’s about something much more than just theft, at the heart of the matter. It’s a willingness to hurt others in more than one way and that’s pure evil. He said he didn’t want evil in the company, that having someone in Human Resources that exemplifies this behavior is unbearable and intolerable.

            Interesting to note; the people who had the allergies were reimbursed for the mileage they put on and time to eat by the CEO, I was shocked and amazed that he’d go this far to help his employees. We eventually recovered from a late product launch and the next launch went off without a hitch; no more lunches were stolen.

            1. Ricci*

              That’s amazing that the CEO cared enough to do something about it and not shrug and do nothing like I’m sure so many other bosses do.
              I used to work at a warehouse of a company that has stores all over the US, and they tolerated ZERO stealing, including other people’s food. If there was proof you took someone’s food, you were out the door. I did see someone get fired for stealing someone else’s drink that had been caught on camera.

              1. Elle*

                when I worked in retail a guy was fired on his first day for opening up another worker’s locker (we didn’t use locks, they were just sort of cubbies) and stealing a single cigarette. He was caught on tape, and it showed that he opened up every locker and went through everyone’s stuff until he found cigarettes.

    3. heyYou*

      I started from a grunt to management. Most companies demand management to lie to keep their jobs and will say one thing to You and can’t be accountable. Text yourself once it happens. Once you and management talk. Sit there and text yourself again and send it to yourself. Why? Any data sent through the internet is a document and used as back up. Once YOU leave their office, shut your mouth and STOP talking about it.
      *Before computers were being built, I was around when “the earth is still cooling” and learned to deal with many different people and their lifestyles in one building. Stop playing the victim.
      Besides, if you ate some of my foods you may get sick because you do not have a tolerance level. Extra Spicy to Extreme Hot is different and not the same. I get it. Educate others is the better way instead of whining about it.

  2. Liz*

    I’ve heard of situations where someone’s lunch kept being stolen, so they dumped a ton of spice in the food to deter that other person (but the lunch’s owner didn’t intend to eat the spicy food herself). However, that’s obviously not the case here because a) the OP wasn’t aware of any lunch-stealing going on, and b) the OP eats her food like this all the time.

    OP, your HR department is officially The Worst.

      1. Sound Insanity*

        This reminds me of a story I heard once where a burglar broke into someone’s house and got bitten by the family dog. The burglar then tried to sue the family he attempted to burgle for physical damages. -_-

        1. Amber T*

          Ugh I remember that story? Didn’t he win too? There was another story about a burglar who tried to break in via the chimney or air vents and ended up getting stuck for hours and injured. He sued the bodega owner and won. Bodega owner lost everything and had to shut down. The world is ridiculous sometimes.

        2. Natalie*

          FWIW, a lot of these “crazy lawsuit” stories that go around are either entirely imaginary or very different than the urban legend version. And the handful that are real are usually dismissed.

          I’m not saying this has never happened, but it’s fairly unlikely.

            1. Honeybee*

              Man, I used to sit on Snopes all day long and read about Internet urban legends. Every time somebody swears up in down they had a kid in their class/hospital/whatever named “Le-a” (le-DASH-uh) I just roll my eyes.

              1. CarolD*

                I would roll my eyes too, but I Honest to God saw the name written down on roll call when I was working at my mother’s school.

                (I used to teach drama at one of her schools, and volunteered at the other when I had summers off.)

                It’s a thing.

        3. Feo Takahari*

          That myth is more than two thousand years old! The earliest form I know of is from ancient Egypt. The burglar breaks in, but breaks his leg thanks to a shoddily built window. The homeowner blames the workman who installed the window, who blames a woman in a beautiful red dress who distracted him while he was working, who blames the dress-dyer who dyed her dress red. The dress-dyer is too tall to fit in the jail cell, so they find a short dress-dyer and hang him to death in the cell. Sadly, I can’t find a copy of the myth online.

    1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      Ohhhhhh. Thank you! This gives me a frame for understanding what HR must be thinking. (If it HAD gone down like this — and I know it didn’t, in this case — that would be a problem. You don’t get to try to harm people, even if they are stealing your lunch.)

      1. Apollo Warbucks*

        I disagree, the person stealing the lunch wouldn’t have a problem if they hadn’t been stealing.

        People can’t complain about others if they haven’t got clean hands themselves.

        1. Raine*

          I’ve worked places that clearly post you can be disciplined up to and including being fired for stealing someone else’s lunch.

        2. Kit*

          You can disagree, but the law protects people from revenge and unreasonable deterrence all the time. Kids aren’t supposed to be in my yard, but if I filled said yard with hidden razor blades and some kids ~*just happened*~ to step on them, no one will defend my actions. It’s illegal to set traps for human beings.

          (Note that I am aware the OP did not do this. But the fact that OP was unaware of the theft and genuinely prepared the spicy food for her own consumption is in fact super important and relevant.)

          1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

            Law, ethics, and morality. You don’t have to be perfect (i.e. “People can’t complain about others if they haven’t got clean hands themselves.”) to be treated safely and kindly. At least, not in the world I try to live in.

            1. Apollo Warbucks*

              Clean hands is a legal concept that says otherwise where someone is not entitled to obtain a legal remedy because they have acted unethically or in bad faith.

              Also there is the concept of “to a willing person, no harm done” I’d argue that by stealing a lunch and eating they acept the risk of eating it.

              1. TuxedoCat*

                I agree. Some people have food allergies- they shouldn’t steal food and expect it be safe for them to consume.

              2. RobM*

                Absolutely agree, to the extent the OP has prepared a lunch that’s too spicy for the thief, or that might have contained ingredients they were allergic to.

                It wouldn’t be a defence against ‘setting a trap’ with food that was knowingly unsafe to eat… but that isn’t the case here of course. OP’s HR people are being more ridiculous than ridiculous. I’d go above their head and complain about both the HR person and the thief.

                1. sstabeler*

                  it’s more that in a lot of revenge cases, the adulteration also makes it impossible for the person who is getting revenge to eat. IOW, the stolen lunch was intended to be stolen.A similar justification applies to if you deliberately bring in something a food thief is allergic to- the Mens Rea- guilty mind- of trying to hurt the thief is still there, so theoretically, what you are being punished for is the attempt.

                  In the OP’s case, she apparently always eats extremely spicy food- and the food stolen was no spicier than OP usually eats- so it is not an attempt at revenge. However, the HR person probably has it in their mind that it is a classic case of tampering with food to get back at a food thief. What I would do is give the HR person one more chance- tell them that
                  1) you had been unaware your co-worker had been stealing your lunch
                  2) you always eat food that spicy- and your boss can confirm this.

                  If the HR person blows you off, complain to the HR person’s boss.(specifically, the complaint would be that the HR person is dismissing evidence that would exonerate youy.

          2. Apollo Warbucks*

            The reference I made to clean hands is a legal concept so the law does make some allowance for natural justice.

            I’m not advocating for a free for all allowing for serious harm to be done to people but I’d find it funny if someone experiences a bad consequence for their own bad behaviour.

            1. Green*

              The law is generally not OK with setting disproportionate traps for humans. Please don’t put harmful things in food knowing that people will eat it. Stake out a fridge, address the problem or get a locking lunchbox. (I know OP didn’t do this, but this is obviously what HR is worried about.)

              1. Apollo Warbucks*

                I agree with you. Just to be clear I’m not suggesting its ok to Seriously harm someone and there does need to be some sense of proportion, but some minor discomfort isn’t a problem to me.

      2. Jadelyn*

        Why would it be a problem? In that situation, that’s *my* food, which *I* brought with me to work, so I’m perfectly entitled to throw a bunch of crap into it, and I don’t have to justify what I add to *my* food to anyone else, regardless of why I did it (unless I over-spiced it and then offered it to someone as a prank or whatever).

        1. Alton*

          The problem is if a reasonable person would anticipate that the hazard could hurt someone else. You’re not free of liability for hazards associated with your property, especially if you intend for someone to get hurt.

          If you have a sprinkler in your yard and a trespasser trips over it and gets hurt, you probably won’t be liable because there was no intent to hurt the trespasser and a sprinkler is not especially dangerous. But if you put a bear trap down because you have a problem with trespassers, you would be liable for that because you meant for someone to get hurt and bear traps are dangerous.

          1. Chris*

            But OP didn’t put broken glass or razor blades in the food. They put… spices! Which belong in food! More than some people might expect, but this is hardly equivalent to setting bear traps.

            1. Alton*

              Right. But I’m responding to the idea that you can do whatever you want with your lunch, even if it’s hazardous. That’s not true. Obviously in this case, the OP wasn’t doing anything intentionally or unintentionally harmful. It’s analogous to the sprinkler example. But the fact that the lunch was their property wouldn’t absolve them of responsibility if they had been acting out of revenge or putting something obviously poisonous in their food.

            2. TempestuousTeapot*

              Think of the bear trap likened to spices in this way:

              Option 1 – a hunter oils his/her bear trap and sets it on the floor by the window so the sunlight can ‘dry’ the oil. IF someone were to trespass, break-in, and land on that trap, the injury is of the trespasser’s own making.

              Option 2 – due to a series of break-ins a hunter starts setting his/her bear traps on the floor by the window to catch any trespassers. Even though a break-in is a crime, and defense of one’s home is allowable, doing so by bear trap is not as that could prove lethal.

              There is a limit to deterrent force beyond which the deterrent is the case of harm. Eating heavy spice, awesome. Deliberately heavy spicing to teach a lesson, crappy and potentially harmful, even lethal. I’m all for the spicey food, but my gentle-stomached coworker eating my level 10 curry is a recipe for disaster.

              1. Julia*

                Wait. You can shoot trespassers, but you cannot use traps to defend yourself before the trespasser might even get close enough to you to pose a risk to your life?

                1. Rayner*

                  No, you cannot use traps.

                  Part of it is because you can *choose* who to shoot or whether or not to shoot if someone is robbing your house. You can also make the decision to retreat if necessary. You don’t get that luxury with a bear trap hidden under leaves – it goes off and gets them or it doesn’t.

                  In addition, if you leave traps, you have no way to know who will be caught in them. For example, that bear trap in the back yard might indeed be for a burglar but it could also catch the kid who comes looking for his ball that got tossed over his fence, a police officer doing a routine check on the property, or a family friend dropping off a parcel. You have no control over it.

                2. Northern Library Worker*

                  Generally speaking, you can’t shoot trespassers, either. IANAL, but my understanding is that is not legal in any state to shoot someone simply for walking onto private property. Now, depending on the state, if the trespasser is acting in a threatening manner or is already inside your home, that may be a different story (that’s probably what you meant, but I just wanted to clarify).

                3. lost academic*

                  No, there are numerous states in which you can ‘just’ shoot a trespasser. You don’t even necessarily need to warn them you are going to, or have been threatened physically. I know there are some places that allow you to shoot them in the back as they are fleeing if they are still on the property. Disturbing, I know.

          2. Augusta Sugarbean*

            Well, dammit. There’s goes my plan to build up an immunity to iocane powder.

            1. afiendishthingy*

              trying so hard to suppress laughter in the office

              HAHAHAHA (falls over dead)

          3. Linguist Curmudgeon*

            Right – spices : Ex-Lax :: sprinkler : bear trap.

            Spiking your food with a laxative is illegal/malicious, but putting spice in it is not.

        2. TrainerGirl*


          That is like a vegetarian stealing someone’s lunch, then going to HR to complain that there was meat/meat products in it. It isn’t up to the individual whose lunch was stolen to ensure that what they bring in is palatable to the thief.

      3. Cyrus*

        In this case, it would not be a problem.

        It’s not like you can do anything you want with your own property, regardless of consequences. Responses have to be proportionate. Someone trying to catch a lunch thief couldn’t put a bomb in their lunch. Murder by booby trap is disproportionate. (In the hypothetical case where someone added an allergen to their food instead of spices, it would depend on weird details like how strong the allergy was, and how sure the lunch-owner was of who the thief was. But that’s weird and not relevant here.)

        However, someone could definitely overspice their food. That just causes the thief a little pain, embarrassment, maybe indigestion. Totally fair.

        1. Isabel C.*

          I totally considered putting Ex-Lax or dishwashing soap in my food back in college. Would have felt totally justified, too–if you steal someone’s food, you deserve what you get, IMO, especially if you’re a college student or co-worker who can damn well afford your own–but didn’t do it because it occurred to me that the sort of asshole who steals food is also the sort who abuses the communal toilets. Alas.

          1. Bergman*

            The problem is that the law disagrees with you. If you put ex-lax or soap in your food with the intent of mildly poisoning a food thief, the justice system will be equally comfortable with putting you behind bars.

        2. Noobtastic*

          OK, so if I know the food thief is allergic to seafood, and I have a tuna sandwich every single day, that’s somehow wrong of me? Because it’s an allergen and I know it?

          This is so messed up.

          1. Glen*

            No, but if you add tuna to your chicken sandwich and conceal the tuna, with the intention of triggering the thief’s allergy, you could – quite rightly! – be charged with a crime.

            If the thief died of their allergy, you would quite possibly be charged with manslaughter – your unlawful act, intended to cause harm, resulted in death.

    2. themmases*

      I would guess that’s what the HR department thinks is going on here, since they asked if the OP tried to poison their coworker. They tacitly acknowledged that the coworker was sickened by the OP’s food, not by his own, but made it clear they don’t think it matters.

      Personally I would stay away from reiterating that the coworker was stealing, and stick to Alison’s script about the OP being penalized for the spiciness of their own food. If their HR department thinks OP was trying to punish a thief, then I don’t think it benefits them to bring up that the coworker wronged them, even though it’s true. The script makes the situation sound a lot more ridiculous and does a better job of highlighting the coworker’s lack of standing to complain, which would be the same whether they were stealing or just accidentally ate someone else’s food.

    3. Nobody*

      Whenever the subject of coworkers stealing food comes up here, I always worry that someone is going to take it seriously when people suggest putting laxatives or spoiled meat or super hot sauce in food that they expect to get stolen. That really could be considered poisoning, and I can see how HR would be concerned if they thought this is what happened.

      In this case, though, it seems very clear that the OP intended to eat the spicy food herself, and even proved it by eating the rest of it. I would think that would put to rest any idea that the OP intended to harm the food thief, and it looks like the OP’s manager is satisfied that the OP did nothing wrong, so it’s crazy that HR is continuing to pursue it.

      1. Adam V*

        Technically, they ate the next day’s lunch in front of the boss as the “proof”, not the “poisoned” food. Still, that should have been enough.

        1. Jinx*

          I’m so confused by this. The guy *stole* her lunch. How can it be poisonous if you weren’t supposed to eat it in the first place?

          1. SL #2*

            HR may think that OP was aware of Lunch Stealer and intentionally dumped a ton of spice into her lunch as revenge and as a deterrent. At that point, HR’s seeing it as OP causing intentional harm to a coworker, whether or not Lunch Stealer was supposed to be eating that food.

            1. Jinx*

              I feel like that’s easy to clear up though – OP’s food is that spicy every day. She already proved it to her boss.

        2. Busytrap*

          And how can she eat the “poisoned” food to prove she didn’t poison it when the other guy STOLE IT AND ATE IT?! My goodness. And I thought people stealing my clearly-marked salad dressing was a problem…

          1. Troutwaxer*

            Also, I’d be curious about the OP’s racia/cultural background. Can the OP threaten HR with a lawsuit because their (for example) South Indian culture traditionally uses very spicy food, and HR is engaging in a racist attack against the OP?

            1. pennywit*

              Oh, I hadn’t thought of that one! I was thinking go directly after the lunch stealer for defamation.

            2. Violet721*

              That’s exactly what I was thinking. Asians (many countries), Indians, Ethiopians, Jamaicans, etc. eat very spicy food. Depending on the ethnicity of the OP, I think she can frame this racial/ethnic discrimination.

      2. Temperance*

        Would hot sauce count as poisoning? I don’t eat other people’s food generally, but I assume that if you’re stealing someone else’s stuff, you’re accepting the risk.

        1. Megs*

          This is getting into really iffy pseudo-legal land and that’s just not a safe place to hang out. “Assuming the risk” is a specific defense to specific situations and I wouldn’t count on it applying here. It’s just not a great idea to use someone else’s bad acts to justify purposefully doing something that you know might injure that person. The whole idea of “rule of law” is that we agree not to take punishing wrong-doing into our own hands. Violating that norm might feel really satisfying, but it opens you up to all sorts of liability.

          1. Temperance*

            I’m a lawyer, so that’s kind of why I’m so interested in the the hypotheticals. Hot sauce isn’t poison, or cat food, or laxatives.

            There’s also the concept of self-help. It doesn’t apply to messing with your food, but she could have ran up to the jerk coworker and took her stuff back from him while he was eating it, as an example.

            1. Megs*

              I’m a lawyer too, and while I agree that the hypotheticals are fascinating, I also think it’s a really bad idea to try and justify “taking the law into your own hands” in situations like this one where a lot of people (as evidenced by this thread) think there is absolutely nothing wrong with what they are proposing doing. It’s entirely possible that there are defenses here, but the far better course of action would be to avoid purposely doing things to harm others and just keep your lunch in your desk or your car or something.

              1. The Strand*

                I would suggest a sign be added saying, “Haribo Sugar Free Gummy Bears have been added, read reviews on Amazon here” – with a scanner code.

              2. Heaven's Thunder Hammer*

                Do those things actually work? I’ve been morbidly curious to buy some and find out, but just am not sure.

                1. Megs*

                  I was just this past weekend talking about this to a couple of nurse friends of mine, and they assured me that these do in fact contain a chemical which many people can’t digest and often leads to explosive results.

                2. Ellie H.*

                  My feeling is that the effects are real but most (almost all?) of the anecdotes are fiction – do others agree? I really don’t like gross-out humor, but a couple are actually extremely well written (I remember the “private plane” one as a stand out, although I kinda wish I didn’t) – I think some people really find their genre with the “Amazon Review (Comedy/Musical)” category.

                3. dawbs*

                  Sugar alcohol as an ingredient is to be feared.
                  (Not the gummies. other candies. yes. they worked)

              1. Megs*

                Appropriate, as the July exam started today – I grade bar exams as a side job so I’ll find out if they got anything this interesting in a couple of weeks!

                1. Curious*

                  Off topic–I’m an attorney and I would love to do this as a side job. How did you get started?

                2. Megs*

                  @Curious: I got into it through word of mouth when I was working as a law clerk, but if you didn’t know anyone in your state who could put in a word for you, I’d try reaching out to whoever your grading authority is and asking about it. In my state at least, I’ve been watching the job boards like a hawk for several years now and have never seen a posting for exam grader, so unless your state is different, you’ll want to be proactive if you’re interested.

            2. Alton*

              It’s also possible to be held liable for unintentionally severe reactions. I could see someone being sued if they put laxitives in food intending for the thief to suffer mild discomfort, but it turned out they had a serious reaction and had to be rushed to the ER. Not knowing that they would get that sick isn’t always a defense.

              But if someone doesn’t get that sick, the list of damages they can potentially receive gets smaller. I mean, if you end up in the hospital in terrible pain, you can pursue damages to cover lost wages, medical bills, etc. If you were just sick briefly and you didn’t incur any expenses, that’s a harder case because then you have to put a monetary value on your temporary pain and suffering.

              1. Green*

                Extreme spiciness can cause severe respiratory distress, particularly in people with allergies or preexisting asthma. (Same issue with pepper spray.)

                So the concern with HR is likely that OP put it in on purpose, which regardless of the law, the employer can act on.

                1. RKB*

                  I have Crohn’s and extreme spice is a trigger food for me (unfortunate, as I’m Indian.) Spiked spicy food could be Very Bad News.

                  However, I’m an adult who doesn’t steal other peoples lunches.

                2. Julia*

                  Yes, but you can’t just demand that people keep their food mild so you can steal and eat it.

            3. Bergman*

              Putting Ex-lax in someone’s food is considered poisoning from a legal standpoint because it is a medicine that can cause harm if misused. It’s worth noting that Ex-lax generally does not inflict pain, though it can inflict suffering. Deliberately inflicting pain — such as an extreme pepper burn — would seem to be a more severe act since it does inflict both pain and suffering.

              It’s also worth noting that the active ingredient that makes peppers hot is also a medicine in itself.

            4. Noobtastic*

              Only if she knew it was happening. If she’s at her desk, and he’s in the break room, chowing down, thinking no one knows it’s him, how is she supposed to “self-help” in this case?

          2. anonderella*

            hmm.. under the logic of your sentence “The whole idea of “rule of law” is that we agree not to take punishing wrong-doing into our own hands.”, in as far as OP could be punished for these perceived crimes, I’m having trouble differentiating between (a) blatant vengeance and (b) intentionally/unintentionally creating a set of events that would leave others possibly harmed if they didn’t heed the rules already established by all (ie, not eating other peoples food).
            Isn’t this the same as someone wandering into a clearly-marked No Trespassing construction site and getting hurt (or the dozens/hundreds of other examples other commenters have given)?
            In this case, would it just be that the perceived wrong-doing (poisoning) just ethically outweighs the morally smaller offense of eating someone’s food when it was clearly against company policy (if it wasn’t against company policy, then I guess this argument is moot)?

            1. Megs*

              You’ve listed three different situations here: (1) purposeful vengeance, (2) intentionally creating a dangerous situation, and (3) unintentionally creating a dangerous situation. (1) and (2) are far more likely to open you up to legal liability than (3). In terms of the trespassing example, you’re probably thinking of very specific situations where the law has decided that the property owner owes a duty to the public to take extra steps to ensure that people do not come to harm, even if those people are also committing a wrongdoing.

              Here, number (3) would almost certainly not be an issue because the lunch-owner would not appear to owe any particular duty to ensure that their lunch is safe for other people’s consumption. However, that does not mean that the law is going to look favorably on booby-traps (as discussed elsewhere).

              As for your last point, the law is not about one wrongdoing ethically outweighing another wrongdoing, so if we’re talking legal liability, that’s just not a useful line of reasoning. Generally speaking, purposeful vengeance is simply never justified, which is why we have fairly complicated law built up around the ideas of when self-defense is allowed which do not hinge on the relative morality of the actions involved.

              1. anonderella*

                would you mind discussing more the legal (both the reasoning and repercussion) differences between (1) and (2)?
                And yes, for (3), I am replaying this quote from KOTH:
                Security Guard: “But.. you climbed our security fence.”
                Lucky: “THAT attractive nuisance is what I call Exhibit A.”

                you’re totally right about my last point. I knew it wouldn’t be worth much to the argument purely practically; maybe I was thinking along the lines of how rules are enforced by law vs how they are enforced by public.
                I love law, but (turns out, : ) )I do not like not being right, or not winning, therefore I try to only engage in it discussionally. Tis much like my relationship with chess, *sigh*, only chess enjoys the addition of alcohol.

                1. Megs*

                  To be honest, I’m stretching my torts knowledge here and am not 100% sure how much of a difference there is between purposeful vengeance and purposefully creating a dangerous situation, especially if the latter is intended to harm a specific person you know is likely to put themselves in the way of that harm.

                  In terms of the repercussions of civil liability, your primary form of damages are based on the actual cost of the injury (medical bills, lost work), so the act itself isn’t so much a factor. You then get into the question of punitive damages, which is where moral culpability actually comes into play, but in really complicated ways I’m not feeling capable of summarizing in a good way here. However, this could be where intentionally creating a danger might open you to more liability than targeted vengeance, if you exposed third-parties to danger as well.

                2. anonderella*

                  @ Megs – that’s pretty interesting.
                  I guess I am thinking in terms of, say, an employer *not* going the extra mile to enable/enforce safety measures (either to intentionally hurt someone they knew wasn’t abiding the rules, or if it were to unintentionally just happen). To stick with the construction site example, it’s like an employer (who actually owns the site) having a series of break-ins resulting in loss of property, and taking certain measures to make the workplace… not *intentionally* unsafe for workers, who would be given the proper means to not be harmed while working during appropriate hours…. but by design of the act unsafe for those who broke in.

                  To Looney-Tunes it up : an employer spreads nails down near the fence where break-ins keep happening (because in this example, the nails are actually a deterrent), but all workers are given and made to wear when on-site a pair of steel-bottomed shoes. One day a burglar breaks in, doesn’t know about the nails, and harms themselves while climbing over the fence. Could employer claim, “well, this is just where we keep our nails [on the ground], and had the thief not been breaking the law and clearly violating our No-Trespassing-Under-Penalty-of-Nails sign, they wouldn’t have gotten hurt. Ergo, the damages are not mine to resolve.”? Clearly, the nails would be more safely to everyone kept in a box somewhere; but in this example, I’m wondering if employer would be held liable for thief’s injuries.
                  (might be mistaken but I think you have gracefully bowed out of this conversation, so I am totally not expecting a response, here – thanks for the info!)

                3. Megs*

                  @anonderella: I was consuming some delicious, delicious sushi, sans spicy because, like the lunch-thief, I’ve got no taste for that kind of thing.

                  An employer’s liability for not enable or enforcing safety measures gets into a lot of really complicated federal and state regulations, but I have a very hard time imagining that any of those extend to requiring that individual lunches not contain anything that might offend a lunch-thief’s palate. A lot of times this hinges on knowledge, though – it’s possible that an employer might get in trouble if an employee tells them they have a severe peanut allergy and the employer doesn’t take any sort of reasonable steps to keep them safe in common areas. That kind of thing is very, very fact specific, though.

                  I don’t think the nail situation would fly for the same reason as booby-trapping a home generally wouldn’t fly – there are lots of ways to protect one’s property that don’t result in injury to intruders. It’s fine to do things that deter intruders, but you’re in pretty shaky ground when it just looks like you’re trying to injure people as punishment for trying to steal from you.

                  Construction sites are an interesting example because they have been known to fall into the “attractive nuisance” doctrine, where they are considered so dangerous but enticing to intruders that they have a special responsibility to deter/prevent injury to trespassers. Thus construction sites often having not only high fences, but active security during non-working hours.

          3. aebhel*

            Right, but hot sauce isn’t poison. It might be unpleasant in sufficient quantities, even bad for the health of someone who’s inclined to heartburn, but it isn’t poison. It’s food. If you steal someone’s food that they brought for themselves, you should be prepared for it not to be to your taste (or even, as a few other posters have pointed out, for it to contain medication that’s bad for you).

            If someone is putting rat poison or Drano in their food, that’s an entirely different story. But over-spicing or over-salting it? I don’t really think that’s the same thing.

            1. Megs*

              Assuming you’re responding to me, yes, hot sauce isn’t poison, but I don’t think that actually makes as much difference as you think it might. If you (1) purposefully put something in your food, (2) with the knowledge that someone else was likely to steal and eat it, and (3) they suffered some harm from eating it, then you could be legally liable to them for that harm. The fact that over-spicing or salting doesn’t cause most people harm doesn’t matter, and the fact that it caused more harm than you intended doesn’t matter either. Substitute hot sauce for peanuts and you have the same issue, even if you had no reason to know the person you were pranking/booby-trapping had a peanut allergy.

              From a practical standpoint all of this is very hard to actually prove and again, there is no knowledge that any of it applies to the OP’s situation except that possibly it explains HR’s mindset. But a lot of people have been saying that the thief deserves what they get regardless of the OP’s intent, and I do think it’s important for people to know that the law is not necessarily on your side any time you take matters into you own hands like this.

              1. C Average*

                I’m not trying to be argumentative here, I swear, but it seems to me that the upshot of this logic is that if you work in an office where there are known lunch thieves, you’d have to label your lunch in order to avoid liability in, say, a peanut allergy situation. That seems insane to me.

                1. Megs*

                  Well, all of this back and forth is extremely hypothetical because a lawsuit is really unlikely to happen here. If you did want to sue someone over a situation like this, however, your case would probably hinge on intent, and I don’t see that any attorney worth their salt would take a case like this unless there is (1) clear harm, and (2) VERY clear evidence of intent to do harm. I guess it would be a good idea to label your lunch if you knew one of the thieves had a peanut allergy and was super litigious, but unless you went around bragging that you were totally going to get that dang thief with your PB&J this time, you’d still probably win that hypothetical lawsuit even absent said labeling.

                  All of this really is very hypothetical, of course. Absent knowledge of a litigious lunch thief with a peanut allergy in your office, I don’t think anyone needs to worry about putting a warning label on their PB&J. That said, just because some really, really absurd situations might result from a particular law under very specific set of facts doesn’t mean the law doesn’t serve a purpose. And in this case, the purpose, generally, is to discourage people from intentionally harming people in retaliation for bad acts.

                2. Noobtastic*

                  I can just picture this.

                  “Noobtastic’s lunch. Don’t touch. Contains peanuts, wheat and milk products. Bread was produced in a factory that also processes soy and tree nuts. Contains gluten. Please note that raw shellfish is dangerous. Meat and eggs that are not cooked to a high enough temperature can contain harmful pathogens. Starfruit is deadly to anyone on renal dialysis. Contains coconut, strawberries, and green peas. Lunch container may have been exposed to radiation at some point. Please don’t sue me.”

              2. aebhel*

                Right, but then they have to prove that you deliberately put it in your food in order to harm them specifically and that you weren’t actually planning on eating the food yourself. Which is probably pretty easy in the case of, say, rat poison or even laxatives, but seems like it would be pretty hard to prove in the case of spicy food, because plenty of people do eat spicy food. So absent someone publicly announcing that they booby-trapped their food, I fail to see how the thief could reasonably prove that the perfectly edible food in question was booby-trapped.

                From a moral standpoint, I think that poisoning people is wrong (obviously), but I don’t see how bringing in unpalatable food when you know it’s likely to be stolen is poisoning.

        2. aebhel*

          I can’t see how it would be. Nobody is intentionally going to eat spoiled meat or food laced with laxatives, but plenty of people like very spicy food (or over-salted food, or odd sandwich combinations), so it seems like a stretch to say ‘your food was not to my taste, therefore it was poisoned.’

          1. sunny-dee*

            It’s really like Lunch Stealer had a food allergy and then faulted the OP for packing a lunch that Stealer was allergic to. Um, okay…

            1. HotHotHot*

              Yes! I have been thinking this all along. Unless they took the food to a lab and found it laced with rat poison I am not sure how he can stand on 2 legs in court.

              1. OhNo*

                You know, that’s not the worst note for the OP to have in their back pocket. “Can you prove it was my food? Can you prove it was poisoned? No? Well then why are we even talking about this?”

              2. Temperance*

                Even that is shoddy evidence, because he could have adulterated it after the fact to “prove” this.

              3. Megs*

                I absolutely agree that it is very unlikely that anyone could succeed in a lawsuit based on this scenario absent some very specific facts that aren’t available here. I will continue to argue that revenge-food-tainting is a bad idea, however.

      3. Nervous Accountant*

        I don’t know–I think a food thief deserves the consequences. But that’s just me.

        1. TuxedoCat*

          I agree. Not like rat poison consequences or dangerous levels of spice, of course.

          I’m thinking about friends who have a lot of dietary restrictions and are on tight budgets. If someone stole their lunch, they might not be able to have lunch that day.

        2. Temperance*

          I agree. Then again, I hold the unpopular opinion that if you are out there, intending to steal from or harm other people, you reap the consequences, no matter how severe.

          There have been some break-ins in my neighborhood as of late, so this is on my mind.

          1. JB (not in Houston)*

            I don’t think your opinion is that unpopular, actually, but I’m personally never going to be ok saying that stealing something deserves an automatic death sentence.

        3. Isabel C.*

          Not just you: see above. I am not a lawyer, and it does seem like there are legal issues, but morally? It seems like the problem with setting booby traps is that you might get accidental trespassers. Nobody accidentally steals someone else’s lunch.

          1. Oops*

            I’ve accidentally stolen lunch :( I took home a takeout container that looked identical to mine. I left a note on the fridge with a chocolate bar and $10 the next day.

            1. Isabel C.*

              This is nice of you!

              And yeah, I realized downthread that unlabeled bags/takeout/etc would be the exception here. So morally “only booby trap if you also have clear labels,” is my stance. ;P

      4. Stranger than fiction*

        I’m actually wondering if they’ve (HR) got other axes to grind with Op so are using this to push her out?? Hope he or she jumps in to answer whether they’ve had other disciplinary events at this job that they’re using to combine with this to build a case.

    4. INTP*

      Yeah, that must be what HR thinks happened. It sounds like lunch-stealing is very common at this company, so maybe that’s a thing that happens regularly, and they’re trying to scare people out of doing it (instead of, you know, telling people to STOP STEALING FOOD BECAUSE YOU ARE ADULT HUMANS, NOT DACHSHUNDS).

      Even so, it’s super weird that they aren’t listening to OP or OP’s boss at all when there is clear evidence that this wasn’t an intentional thing, even if other people do it intentionally sometimes. It’s not like OP is trying to convince them she always puts Ex-Lax in her lunch or something, it’s just spice.

      1. Jane*

        A bit tangential, but I’ve known people who do have to take Miralax or fiber supplements with most of their meals (although they usually mix it in drinks, I guess) so really, adult humans should not steal other adult humans’ food and expect to never experience unintended consequences.

        1. SAHM*

          Actually, I eat a lot of food sweetened with Xylitol and a Stevia/Ethritol mix, that can cause a laxative effect if your stomach isn’t used to it. If someone stole my muffins or treats, they would most likely be suffering for a few hours.

          1. AnotherAnon*

            Xylitol is a wonderful, wonderful thing. :) The laxative effect is even a bonus for me – it counteracts *two* medication side-effects at once! :) and it’s good for my teeth!

            and if the research about artificial sweeteners causing increased appetite applies to xylitol, then it counteracts a *third* side-effect! :)

            I just wish it was covered by insurance; I think I’m spending nearly $15/month on it, which is small compared to some of my prescriptions, but it all adds up…

      2. WhichSister*

        Ha ADULT HUMANS AND NOT DACHSHUNDS. I am watching my mom’s dachshund right now (and I actually have her litter mate as my own dog.) Mom’s dachshund crawled up into my 17 year old son’s lap last night (we were eating dinner watching a movie) and took a big bite of of his tortilla right out of his hand. We call her the fat ninja cause she is a tubby little thing but stealth. My dachshund doesn’t do this BUT we have never ever given him table scraps, My mom (and until he passed, my dad) would “accidentally” drop food all the time. My point, is raised right, even DOXIES know not to steal food.

    5. Ad Astra*

      I suspect this must be what HR thinks happened, to which my response is: So?! If you steal someone’s lunch, any negative effects from eating that lunch are solely your problem. Maybe I’d make an exception if there was, say, rat poison in the food. But spiciness, even malicious spiciness, is a risk you take when you decide to eat something that doesn’t belong to you.

    6. vivace*

      Yep, I can totally see Lunch Thief accusing OP of purposely trying to harm him by means of excessively spicy food, the same way burglars have successfully sued homeowners for booby trapping their homes. Since HR is throwing around suggestions of lawsuits, OP really needs to stick to simply insisting her intent was to eat the food herself. The whole “but he stole my lunch!” actually works against the OP at this point :/

      It seems so dumb though to imagine a panel of HR taste testing OP’s lunch and then watching her eat it to prove her innocence.

      1. Bigglesworth*

        Is it sad that this is my mental image for solving this situation. – (Meeting with HR) “He stole my lunch. I brought another lunch and it’s the exact same thing that I brought the day he stole my lunch. Here are portions for you and here’s mine from the same bowl. You try it and let me know what you think of the spice level while I finish eating. I’m still hungry since someone stole my lunch.”

      2. Stranger than fiction*

        Since they’re throwing that around, it may be worthwhile for Op to get a free consult from a lawyer just to see what they advise.

    7. SophieChotek*

      Yes, the lunch-stealing scenario makes HR reaction make more sense but HR reaction is unbelieavable.
      Honestly, if you steal someone’s food…
      As Ad Astra wrote–any negative effects are your problem

    8. Mike C.*

      Yeah, if I knew my lunch was being stolen and I decided to put capsaisin crystals or rat poison in it, I would be in serious trouble. That’s obviously not the case here.

      In addition to everything else going on, I’m really pissed off at the cultural ignorance of the HR person such that they believe there is no possible way something could be this spicy.

      1. Three Thousand*

        I was thinking the same thing. The blandness of some palates is astounding to me.

        1. A. Nonny Mouse*

          My palate isn’t bland, it just can’t handle peppery-spice. Give me all the ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom you got, I will eat all of it. But jalapenos? NOPE.

        2. Temperance*

          I have an actual allergy to certain types of peppers. I don’t like bland food, or expect bland flood, I just avoid almost all peppers because I can’t trust people to know the types at a restaurant etc.

          1. Megs*

            I am allergic to all peppers with capsaicin in them (so, all except bell peppers), so I feel your pain. I live in terror of pepper-spray. Wasabi is my jam, though.

            1. Athena C*

              I’m even allergic to bell peppers. :-/ It’s miserable, constantly having to edit food.

        3. Mander*

          Me too. Even if we leave aside hotness I have known people who would not eat any sort of herbs and spices with the exception of ranch dressing.

          I also wonder if the OP is from a cultural background that tends to have spicier cuisine. For instance, I grew up in a place with a lot of people of Mexican and Korean descent. Most of my school friends and later colleagues routinely brought lunches that would make the ranch dressing crowd’s heads explode.

      2. Joan Callamezzo*

        Same here. I can’t handle food that’s very spicy at all, but I know LOTS of people who put Sriracha on literally almost everything they eat. Your palate ≠ everyone’s palate.

        1. Jill*

          Um, yea. “Flaming hot” isn’t the only way to add flavor to food.

          I get irritated by people who immediately douse their food in hot sauce without even tasting it. Many times they’re just pouring heat over what is actually very flavorful food. (That’s you, ExBoyfriend). Slightly less irritating to me are the people who insist on melting cheese over everything.

          1. nerfmobile*

            I would happily take cheese melted over everything. But add a smidge of hot sauce to anything and I am not touching it – even “mild” sauces are often very spicy for me.

          2. Mike C.*

            If you’re accustomed to heat, then you can taste the other flavors just fine. Also, you can taste a whole lot of different flavors in different peppers – habeneros are actually quite fruity for instance.

            Also, Sriracha isn’t that hot – the manufacturer rates it around 1-2.5k scoville units. A jalapeno runs between 3.5-10k and commonly used serranos are 30-100k.

            The idea that most hot sauces are ~*~flaming hot~*~ is a bit overstated.

            1. AnotherAnon*

              yeah, I *love* the flavour of chipotles. I will lick the can lid and then go “ow ow ow” and then lick it again because it’s so delicious.

              habaneros still just taste like pain to me, though- thank god my husband warned me, I thought they were like the jalapenos I usually buy in the same packaging, and was going to put several into dinner… instead I put a tiny sliver on top of my portion, and then accidentally ate it all at once and needed a lot of milk. :P surprisingly the pain was a lot less… suffering-y… than the last time I accidentally had way too much spice, though. Like, it still hurt like hell, but I wasn’t also miserable, I was just calmly waiting for it to end.

        2. I'm Not Phyllis*

          Right? I love spice, but not like other people I know. My brother will add about a pound of hot sauce to suicide wings because that’s just the way he likes them. I’ve accidentally taken a bite of his food before and immediately realized my mistake – but I’d never accuse him of trying to harm me!

      3. MashaKasha*

        I’ve met people who don’t believe raw tomatoes are food. Nothing surprised me these days. There are no limits to cultural ignorance. Though, agree, one would think that an HR person might know better.

    9. Feo Takahari*

      Reminds me of a post I saw on Bash. OP kept explosives in his shed, and a would-be burglar accidentally set them off. OP wondered if he could be charged with negligent homicide if the victim had to use bolt-cutters to get to the thing that killed him. First response: “I doubt it.”

  3. The Butcher of Luverne*

    Alison, your script sounds great, but there is no mention of “…the food I pack that someone took and ate without my permission or invitation.”

    Should this not enter into the rebuttal?

    1. Landshark*

      I’d obviously be careful about the wording since HR seems to be ignoring that facet of the situation, but I’m absolutely with you. Hell, I’d even consider bringing a sample of the food and letting them taste, then watching OP eat it. It worked for the boss, and maybe watching her enjoy the spice would get it through their heads that this wasn’t an attempt to take anything out on the coworker. (Really though, this is so dumb, OP. I’m sorry you have to deal with something that should’ve been cleared up with a simple explanation.)

    2. Fantasma*


      As another commenter said, it could be HR thinks OP was out for some kind of revenge. OP should be very clear that was their food, intended for them only, and it was eaten (stolen) without their knowledge. Which for some reason HR is ignoring.

      At an old job, my manager had celiac disease and when she was pregnant someone occasionally stole her snacks out of the communal fridge. (They were never caught.) It’s not like she could eat just anything so it really sucked. There’s always potential for situations like that — people with strict diets for their health — so HR should be wary of setting a precedent of siding with a food thief.

      1. Callietwo (no longer Calliope~)*

        And this is exactly why I bring a very large insulated bag that holds all my food. I have to stick to gluten free and non-dairy milks/creamers. Once I had a box of rice milk with a large tag taped to it that said “for the Personal Use of Callietwo” on it front & back. I saw someone use it for their coffee anyway and when I said something, they said “but I only took a splash”. I pointed out that 1) almond milk is not cheap 2) it is CLEARLY labeled as my personal property and 3) with 25 other coworkers in the room if everyone just took ‘just a splash’ there would be none for me to use! GAHHHH

        This is the one I have, which I bought at Amazon.. it holds tall, liter bottles of water as well as my lunch, snacks, carton of almond milk all at once.. but looks like a handbag. So many compliments and no one steals my stuff: http://picnicatascot.com/main/default/ProductsDetail.aspx?id=496

        1. Jennifer Hoyt*

          Thanks for that link! I currently telecommute, but am interviewing for a position where I’d be going back into my department’s office, and there is a known issue with lunch stealers there. Something like this is exactly what I need, but also doesn’t look like a big ol’ cooler.

          1. Libretta*

            How noisy is this mini fridge? I was thinking of getting one but worried it would be humming all day.

            1. Mabel*

              I used to have something like this at my desk, and it’s pretty quiet. It only lasted about two years, but I still thought it was worth it.

            2. Landshark*

              I keep a mini fridge from my college days in my apartment for beverages and such. It’s almost silent, FWIW.

        2. Stranger than fiction*

          Does it have a lock? Because Op said they already had it in a lunch box type thing.

          1. de Pizan*

            True, but insulated lunch bags/boxes really don’t need to go in the communal fridge. If they have an ice pack or have been kept in a home fridge overnight, they will usually do absolutely fine being out of a fridge for the few hours till lunch, and so could be kept at the OP’s desk where they can keep an eye on it.

        3. HotHotHot*

          She actually mentioned that it was in that type of lunch box and still got taken by the co-worker….

          “Turns out he ate my clearly labeled lunch. (It also was in a cooler lunch box to keeps it cold from work to home, as it’s a long drive.) “

          1. AnotherAnon*

            wasn’t there another story here about someone whose boss was stealing their food, and OP ended up buying a lockbox? or maybe it was on Captain Awkward…

      2. Sketchee*

        Definitely, having an accusation even if obviously true isn’t necessary. Just state the facts “This is my food which I intended to eat myself. I’m concerned that my personal eating habits are in question and this is really bizarre.” And as Allison said, escalate to this person’s boss with this problem. Because the HR person is not being reasonable.

    3. Chriama*

      Yeah, I would want to articulate this very distinctly: this was my clearly labeled lunch, the coworker took it without my knowledge or permission, and I would like them to clarify that they’re not asking me to prepare my food under the assumption that other people will be taking it from me on a regular basis and that I should know their preferences and/or allergies.

      1. Navy Vet*

        Let’s start with the fact that your lunch was hot enough to make your co-worker ill. When food is that spicy you can smell it (the spiciness) before you eat it.

        Why on earth would you still eat it if you could see (smell) how spicy it was?

        And let me note…I mix some of my meds in with my food. And if someone takes my meds…they will not be able to make a deposit in the bathroom if they take it.

        So to all the would be lunch thieves out there….some of us bring our lunches because of allergies. Some of our lunches contain medication. If my lunch gets eaten I’m completely SOL. Maybe bring that up to HR. (I now have my own fridge…so no problems any more…)

        1. Marzipan*

          I can’t smell the spiciness of food in the sense of chilli-heat. Is that something other people can do? I mean, I can smell from the *other* spicing what kind of food it is – this is curry, this is chilli, this is Thai food, and so on – so I could establish that the food is likely to be somewhat hot-spicy based on my knowledge of those cuisines, but not *how* hot. Smelling a curry wouldn’t tell me whether to expect it to be mild or really, really hot.

          Not that I’m excusing the lunch-thief, who is an arse.

          1. Rusty Shackelford*

            This. I can smell spicy-spicy but not hot-spicy. Which is unfortunate, because I can’t eat hot-spicy and it would be very helpful.

            (And again, not excusing the food thief.)

          2. Navy Vet*

            I guess it’s just me then lol…Something about how hot spicy foods scents make my eyes water a bit and my nose run. (Just from the smell) But I can eat them with little problem. I can tell with limited success if a food is spicy hot before putting it in my mouth hole.

          3. Stranger than fiction*

            Me too, unless it’s like a lot of ghost pepper. That one has a distinct smell to me, but that’s because I already know it.

              1. JustALurker*

                Yep! Nothing like that little tickle at the back of your throat to make you “proceed with caution.”

          4. Temperance*

            I can smell peppers in anything, but I have an allergy and a freakishly strong sense of smell.

          5. Anonicat*

            I’m pretty sure it’s a particular receptor that detects the spicy-hot smell – some people have a mutation in that gene that makes the finished receptor not work or not get delivered to the right part of cell.

        2. Gem*

          As someone who would be ill from eating too spicy food, I can smell really spicy food, and it psychosomatically makes me a bit nauseated. Even if I accidentally picked up food that wasn’t mine, the minute I smelt the spice I’d be NOPE

        3. mander*

          This brought to mind two things. One, some people have no or a poor sense of smell (my Mom, for instance, cannot smell anything at all). Not that this excuses the lunch thief in any way.

          Two, I am reminded of an incident in the UK a few years ago. A Thai restaurant was making a big batch of hot sauce involving charred chiles, and there was so much acrid smoke that it triggered a terror alert including evacuating houses and closing off roads. Also, there is an ancient temple in Peru whose name is escaping me at the moment which contained an underground room with remains of burnt chiles in a hearth. The interpretation is that the room would be filled with the spicy, irritating smoke as part of a purification ritual or similar.

          1. Cath in Canada*

            I had a 2-hour layover in Toronto airport last month, and our arrival and departure gates were both right next to a Thai food place. They’d just burned some chili oil or something, and my eyes were bright red and streaming within a minute. It was like chemical warfare, and I couldn’t really get away from it! The stores had already sold out of Visine…

            My eyes got really irritated again during the layover on the way home, although not quite as badly.

      2. Chriama*

        Hmm, actually reading through some of the comments and re-reading the letter I think Alison’s response is spot-on. HR is fixated on the idea that he didn’t ‘steal’ the lunch – don’t go further down the rabbit hole. Just articulate again that “this is the lunch I brought in for my personal consumption, and I’m concerned that my personal preferences are being used to question my professional reputation in this way. Please confirm that you’re not expecting me to cater to my coworker’s preferences when preparing my personal meals.” (ok the last sentence was passive-aggressive but seriously they’re pi**ing me off and I didn’t even have to talk to them!)

        1. MashaKasha*

          But, but… how? How do they explain that he took and ate your lunch if they think he didn’t steal it? Do they think you’re some kind of his work butler, that is expected to provide him with a lunch, clearly labeled with your name? I cannot understand the logic they are using!

          1. Chriama*

            Well apparently there’s a habit of taking other people’s food in this office, and we don’t know how the coworker is spinning it. Maybe he jokingly told the OP “I’m gonna take your lunch tomorrow” and is using that as ‘proof’ that OP did this knowing he was going to eat it. So rather than focusing on how or why he ate the food, OP should focus on the fact that she made it for herself and this is how she enjoys eating it.

  4. TL -*

    This…is weird. And if they continue bringing up the lawsuit thing, I would be tempted to let them know your lawyer will be in touch with them. My guess is they’re facing lawsuit pressure from Coworker (who seems unusually annoyed by what can only have been a few bites of spicy food). I don’t normally recommend doing this, but maybe letting them know they’re going to be facing equally harsh consequence from either side will make them reconsider what stance actually makes sense.

    (I don’t know if a lawyer would be actually able to do anything. But it might be they’re scared of lawsuits in general and don’t think through whether or not they’re feasible.)

    1. OhNo*

      IANAL, but it seems like the OP might have grounds for slander if this goes much farther. Especially if the supposition that this might impact their professional reputation turns out to be correct.

      Honestly, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to get a lawyer involved either way. If nothing else, having someone on hand will show HR that you are willing to stand up for yourself all the way to court if it ever gets that far.

      1. TL -*

        I just got a mental image of the OP, HR, and a few lawyers in business suits all seated around a conference table with a lunchbag and tupperware in front of them, marked Exhibit A.

        This is ridiculous.

        1. Grumpy*

          Possibly a misguided HR attempt to protect the company from a lawsuit brought by the thief… because the company… allowed dangerous food… and should have known…

          Yeah, I want to be the judge who hears that case.

        2. pennywit*

          It is ridiculous. On the other hand, if somebody is trying to chase you out of your job, it’s worth at least chatting with an attorney …

      2. Megs*

        I would not encourage the OP to think that she has any solid grounds for a lawsuit here, and even if she did, that kind of thing takes tons of time, money, and energy, and often for very little reward. However, many attorneys will offer free consultations, and if HR keeps tossing around the idea of a lawsuit, I absolutely think a free consultation would be worth it. Sometimes a $50 letter with a lawyer’s name at the bottom can go a long way.

        1. sparklealways*

          I don’t think there is a solid ground for a lawsuit, but the OP can easily have a lawyer stand up for the fact that STEALING is illegal. Packing spicy food for lunch is not.

          Those too facts written by a legal authority will hopefully get HR and the thief to back down.

          1. Florida*

            Stealing is illegal. If HR keeps saying that Theft is within his rights to file a lawsuit, OP might mention that she would be within her rights to file a police report.

            OP, I’m not suggesting that you call the cops on your stolen lunch. It’s about as ridiculous as a lawsuit. But if they are going to threaten a lawsuit, you can threaten reporting this crime.

            1. Marisol*

              I dunno, considering what’s at stake for the OP, I’m not sure calling the cops is ridiculous. She could get some acknowledgement from HR in writing that her lunch was stolen, then get a report filed. I don’t think they would have to come to the work site, would they? She could just discreetly go to the police station and keep the report in a file, to use down the road if needed? I’m just blue-skying here…

              1. Florida*

                In my city, for minor crimes (petty theft, vandalism, etc.), you don’t even have to go to the police station. You can fill out an online form. Once they look at it, they email you back a case number, report, etc.

            2. E*

              I agree. Any damages to coworker’s health subsequent to his theft of a lunch not his own are on his own head. Can you imagine if someone with nut allergies stole a coworker’s lunch and then threatened to sue for having a near deadly allergic reaction? Your lunch was in your lunch bag, which clearly made it your property.

              The focus on the spiciness of the food is less relevant than the theft of your property, in regard to HR. I’d suggest to them that you need your lawyer to get involved if they can’t resolve this theft issue, because the only liability I see is to the employer who isn’t addressing theft on the work site.

              1. stevenz*

                Yes, try to redirect the conversation to the theft since that is what precipitated all this, not the nature of the food. (Keeping in mind that it’s petty theft.) If this moron wants to sue someone – for temporary tummy upset! – let him. No judge is going to take it seriously. I don’t think you even need a lawyer unless you do lose your job and you want to claim unlawful dismissal.

                Alison is right, be more aggressive. You have right and the law on your side. And I wouldn’t dismiss the idea of a police report to hastily. You don’t need the company’s permission to do that.

        2. AndersonDarling*

          Agreed. I would consider paying an employment attorney a few bucks to write a letter. If they are throwing around the idea of a lawsuit, then an actual letter from an attorney should make them back down.
          But if the company is big enough to have a legal department, I’d just stop in and tell them what is going on. That should but an end to it. I’ve seen people talk to the General Counsel when crazy things come up, and then the attorney talks some sense into those involved.

      3. Jeff A.*

        Not a lawyer, but I would think that someone repeatedly and publicly accusing a person of an attempted felony without substantiation probably comes close to the legal definition of slander, particularly if it has an effect on the OP’s employment.

    2. Bend & Snap*

      I feel like this is a good time for a question with a head tilt.

      “Are you suggesting to the employee who stole my lunch that he sue me because he didn’t like what I packed, when it was never intended for him?”

      And let them come back with an answer.

      1. neverjaunty*

        This is perfect.

        Also, please tell me I’m not the only one thinking that maybe the HR lady is some level of buddies with the co-worker?

        1. AMG*

          And can this be escalated in HR, above the woman handling things currently? Also, start documenting everything and give up an update please!!

        2. MsMaryMary*

          I was wondering that too. Or is the food thief a high ranking person at the company? Top salesperson? The owner’s son? HR seems oddly invested in protecting the food thief.

          1. GreyjoyGardens*

            I’m wondering the same thing. Either Thief is some sort of HR pet, or a rainmaker, or else perhaps the HR department wants to try to build a case against OP for some other reason. In any event, HR is escalating it beyond all reason.

      2. Sans*

        Exactly. I would point out the obvious logical fallacy here that everyone seems to be downplaying. Basically, how can you intend to poison someone with something that was never meant for them, that they stole, that they had no right to eat? You didn’t offer them your food and you had no way of knowing they were going to take it without your permission.

        Basically, it’s like someone breaking into your house and then suing you because they tripped over an ottaman (Dick Van Dyke reference for us oldsters) and broke their leg.

        1. hubruvuc*

          What’s next? Threatening to sue someone who packed a PB&J because a food thief is allergic to peanuts?

          1. PNWJenn*

            That’s what I was thinking. Had this person been exposed to an allergen, would they be able to sue the person whose lunch they stole?

            1. Adam*

              I also was curious about this. If the person’s reaction to nuts was so serious they might have brought it up when hired and the company might have prohibited people from bringing them in. I’ve seen a number of public schools do something similar.

              But if no such rule existed and the allergic thief started pilfering people’s food who the heck are they going to blame?

          2. Katie F*

            It does seem like the logical next step, doesn’t it?

            How does HR penalize the person who is the victim of theft over the thief themselves? This situation is utterly ridiculous.

        2. Stranger than fiction*

          Actually, I think that’s happened. Not an ottoman but a thief got injured then sued the homeowner.

          1. Ineloquent*

            Yeah the guy who got trapped in a garage while attempting to burgle a house while the owners were on vacation for a few weeks and nearly starved. The judgement came in favor of the burglar.

            1. LawPancake*

              Actually, that “case” was part of a widely circulated chain email in the early 2000’s describing ridiculous and entirely fabricated civil outcomes. This was all during a big tort reform push and I have a sneaking suspicion that some reform supporter put this list together. The list also included that old gem (also made-up) about the guy who put his RV on cruise control to take a nap and sued the RV manufacturer.

              I know these because, as the only lawyer in my family, I am frequently called out for the supposed sins of the profession.

          2. Kelly L.*

            I want to say he fell through a skylight or something? I vaguely remember it from 15-20 years ago.

      3. Qmatilda*

        I actually really like this response. I’m not a fan of being “cute’ in most instances. But this is beyond ridiculous.

      4. HR Jeanne*

        Yes, this. HR is being ridiculous and should not even be involved. I think AAM is correct, if you push back on this and reach out to someone high in the HR chain with your manager’s support you should be able to put this to rest. This is insane. I think the HR person must be friend of the food thief.

      5. Sadsack*

        I wonder if the coworker first suggested he might sue the company, so they responded that the company is not liable and so he should instead sue OP.

    3. Patrick*

      Not a lawyer, but I don’t see what lawsuit pressure the employer could be under given the situation. No damages that we know of, and it’s not a pattern of behavior that would add up to harassment.

      Honestly something is very weird here – the part that sticks out to me is HR suggesting that the lunch thief sue OP. I can’t imagine any HR professional telling one employee to sue another employee (at least in a professional capacity.)

      1. Buffay the Vampire Layer*

        Depending on what the HR person told others, it might meet the legal standard of defamation. Suggesting that OP intentionally poisoned a co-worker is an untrue statement that OP committed a crime. However, a lawsuit really wouldn’t get her anywhere, because OP doesn’t have any damages at this point (hasn’t lost a job or promotion etc.).

      2. Temperance*

        I’m actually an attorney, and what I’m honestly assuming here is that the thief threatened a lawsuit, and the nonlawyers in HR freaked out and immediately started giving in to him.

    4. Preux*

      I’m betting he shovelled a bunch in his mouth quickly so as not to get caught stealing.

  5. Frances*

    I’m sorry. I really have nothing constructive to add but I must say — What the hell???
    This is ridiculous. Please stand up for yourself and do as AAM suggests. And your co-worker is a jerk.

  6. lamuella*

    I would really like to know what story this guy told HR in this circumstance to get this level of support. I strongly suspect it wasn’t an accurate summary of the events as reported here, but I’d love to know what he exaggerated and how to get their support, because as-is, this is ludicrous.

      1. lamuella*

        but depending on the level of storytelling involved could have been anything from that to “she offered me some of her lunch but doused it in hot sauce as a prank” or all the way up to “she poured rat poison in my sandwich and force fed it to me!”

      2. MissDisplaced*

        Well, he’s probably saying it was dosed with laxative or something else (hence the poison).
        But still that takes gall.
        If you steal food, you deserve what you get in my opinion.

      1. neverjaunty*

        I do. HR clearly doesn’t care about the truth. They’re just defending the co-worker.

      2. Myrin*

        Yeah, the When I brought it up, they said something along the lines of “We cannot prove he stole anything.” I am confused at this. I thought the proof would be clear. part of the letter makes me think that as well. The proof is in front of us as the readers of OP’s account, but if the guy said something about how OP shared her lunch with him, HR might well say that they cannot prove anything.

        On the other hand, this is so bananas and HR is behaving in such a weird way (aggressive, talking of suing related to a spicy lunch, completely ignoring OP’s boss) that I wouldn’t be surprised if coworker told it as it was and they still somehow found fault with the OP and not him.

        1. INFJ*

          Yeah… this is indicating to me that the food thief lied about the situation in some way. HR isn’t convinced/doesn’t realize that he didn’t take OP’s food.

          OP; next time you encounter HR and have to stand up for yourself, really emphasize the fact that it was your own lunch that you brought in with the intent to eat yourself and you had no idea that anyone else would be eating it.

        2. Chalupa Batman*

          Yeah, I can’t wrap my head around why “we can’t prove he stole it” matters. Um, he ate it, admitted he ate it because it made him sick, asked for retribution against the OP since he somehow knew it was theirs…that kinda proves he stole it. The only logical alternative I can think of is that he has a similar lunch container, somehow didn’t notice that ‘his’ lunch wasn’t his lunch, and ate *enough to make him sick* before he realized his mistake. Even in that case (which, c’mon, is a pretty big stretch), just because it wasn’t intentionally stolen still didn’t make it his, therefore the OP still did nothing wrong. I can understand taking an allegation of poisoning seriously even if the poisoned person was in the wrong, but OP’s willingness to eat the food seems to demonstrate pretty clearly that there was no ill intent, yet they’re still trying to manufacture it. OP, your HR department is bananas.

        3. E*

          The thief can’t prove that he didn’t steal it either. It’s one person’s word against another, and the food was only highly spiced and not tainted with laxatives or anything like that.

          Although clearly logic and levelheadedness aren’t this HR departments forte.

          1. sstabeler*

            more importantly, it wasn’t spiced to the level it was inedible by the OP. a highly spiced lunch can still be a problem IF it is spiced so high that the person who is supposed to have intended to eat it can’t actually eat it themselves, since then, the sole intention was for the thief to eat it.(it’s why putting laxatives or something similar is a problem- you’re rendering the food unfit for consumption, so the intention is more-or-less obvious that you intended the thief to get sick.(it’s similar to why it’s a problem to intentionally bring in food the food thief is allergic to- the intention to cause an allergic reaction is the problem.(that, and allergies can be of different intensities. If the allergy is bad enough to cause an anaphylactic shock, that would be a gross overreaction to food being stolen.(an anaphylactic shock is a medical emergency on par with a heart attack. Indeed, in 45% of cases, the heart is at least affected by the anaphylactic shock, and it can cause cardiac arrest.)

    1. hbc*

      Yes, if they haven’t been clear about it, OP should try to get them to acknowledge exactly what she’s being accused of. If it wasn’t her own “baited” lunch, then are they accusing her of actually tampering with his meal? Dropping some stuff in his coffee when he stepped away from the desk? Spiking the communal ketchup in a random act of violence and he was the unlucky victim?

      A specific accusation is going to be much easier to bat down than a generic one. If he folds and admits to the stealing, for example, there might be witnesses to OP actually eating her lunch that day.

    2. INTP*

      Maybe he claimed he never saw the label and thought it was communal food? But it’s unclear whether communal food even truly exists at this company, or there are just some food thieves that take all food whenever they want.

      1. Joseph*

        Frankly, even if communal food existed, I still don’t see how that justifies any of this response.

        If you have a food limitation (allergy, celiac disease, food preference, or “no spicy” as here), you are responsible for what you eat. If you’re not sure whether you can handle it, then either you do something to find out if it’s OK (check the label, ask the bringer, test a very small portion) or just decide to skip it entirely. What you *don’t* do is eat the whole thing, then blame the person who brought it in.

      2. coffeeandpearls*

        Speaking of lunch thievery – my friend’s office gets lunch delivered every day (very start-up style!). A couple weeks ago a whole group of people from the company downstairs got caught stealing lunches from the office kitchen! When they got caught THEY RAN AWAY, leaving one sacrificial lamb behind who claimed that he “did it all by himself”. Um . . . no, dude. Then the company sent a basket with a note that said ” sorry for the inconvenience caused by our staff members”. Doesn’t that sound like the lamest apology?!

        1. E*

          Wow. I’d have sent that company the bills and asked for reimbursement. Since they’d admitted their employees stole from your friend’s company, in their note. It’d be the least they could do, along with keeping their employees out of other people’s food in future.

  7. Yggdrasil*

    Get a lawyer, threaten to countersue the co-worker and the company, and watch this all go away real fast. Some people can’t be reasoned with.

    1. fposte*

      Sue for what? And how is the OP going to fund this suit, and why would the workplace keep her if she does?

      (I get that it seems like a satisfying go-to, but it’s really not likely to help.)

      1. Temperance*

        LW could counter-sue for defamation. She has been accused of committing a crime, which is pretty clear grounds. If she ends up losing her job over this ridiculous situation, she’d have provable damages.

        I probably wouldn’t advise her to do this, but at the same time, she’s working for assholes.

          1. Temperance*

            Oh I know how it works – but throwing down a counter-suit as a threat is a good strategy to get him to step down.

          2. FiveWheels*

            She wouldn’t be threatening to sue in order to have her day in court, she’d be threatening to sue to scare the feet out from under these lunatics.

            Normally people asking for an attorney’s letter are the bane of my life, as if one threatening letter is going to help anything, but if this landed on my desk I’d be delighted to deal with it for free (to a point anyway) for pure entertainment value.

        1. Elysian*

          It isn’t really clear grounds though- they haven’t told this weird story to anyone but her, as far as we can tell, and she hasn’t suffered anything she could claim as damages from it. Two wrong, frivolous lawsuits don’t make a right.

      2. fposte*

        I suppose that’s true on the threat, and I think talking to a lawyer isn’t out of line here if you can get a free consult. But the chances of an actual lawsuit being useful here are very, very small.

        1. Sarah Beth*

          Since the HR Lady encouraged Thief to sue, I think OP should also ask HR Lady to spell out her full name so she can make sure she’s named correctly on the countersuit to cover OP’s lawyer’s fees and court costs.

      3. LBK*

        I’m usually on board with the “sue for what?” reasoning but I think in this case since it seems to be the only tactic HR responds to, it’s fine to give a (completely empty) threat of lawsuit. It might be the only bargaining chip the OP has here since HR seems to be having a break from reality.

        1. fposte*

          Yeah, I agree with that–it was the progression in Yggdrasil’s statement that made me think she was talking about filing an actual suit.

    2. Mochafrap512*

      If you use your company, they don’t keep you. They find reasons to fire you. I’ve seen this

  8. UnCivilServant*

    This is the kind of story that makes me hope for an update later on.

    I already want to know what happens next.

  9. Leatherwings*

    Obviously your HR department is nuts. Besides the nutty “investigation,” under what conditions would this guy be able to sue you? His lawyer would laugh him out of the room on this.

    1. Dani X*

      Booby trapping is illegal. So if she really did put spices/laxatives/what not on a sandwich to get at the food thief she could have a problem. But as long as it is something she would actually eat then she is okay. And since that is the case the thief has no case. But I would consider talking to a lawyer – if HR is really emphasizing the suing aspect it can’t hurt. and they might back off once she says that she will discuss that with her attorney.

    2. Florida*

      Is it really? What is the legal term for booby trapping? I’m not questioning your assertion. I just had no idea that it was actually illegal.

      1. Megs*

        Since you put it here: booby-trapping may or may not be criminally illegal, depending on the specific act involved and what state you’re in, but it certainly could cause one to be legally liable to the injured party. In probably the most famous case (mentioned elsewhere in the thread), a property owner was held liable for battery after a would-be-thief was injured by a spring-loaded shotgun.

    3. Fafaflunkie*

      Then again, there could be a lawyer who will come up with some ridiculous grounds for Lunch Thief to file a lawsuit against Spicy Lunch Lady. I believe even in the United Suers of America, there are grounds for filing suits in bad faith, which not only allows the defendant to come back for the cost of defending the suit, but go after the plaintiff’s lawyer and could get said lawyer disbarred. With a situation as ridiculous as this, this is something OP should consider. Then again I live in a country that has “loser pays” laws for civil litigation.

  10. Izzy*

    Hmm – suppose this coworker has been stealing lunches for quite a while. They think you used your lunch as bait and deliberately spiced it up to trap and punish them – kind of like lacing brownies with Ex-lax, knowing they will be stolen. That might make sense of the accusation, but it’s still their fault for stealing your lunch. I don’t understand HR. Is this person related to someone, or someone’s bestie or SO?

    1. Leatherwings*

      That is probably what they’re thinking. EVEN IF this is what happened (and it’s obviously not), if I were HR I would laugh and tell the guy he deserved it. It’s not like he was seriously injured or something! B.A.N.A.N.A.S

      1. Young'n*

        It’s not ok to booby trap food. Even with spices. My husband went to a chili cook off in college where a contestant thought it would be funny to over spice his food and not tell others. My husband vommited on the spot and suffered a serious esophagus injury as well as a stomach ulcer. It’s not ok to prank food. Even to get even with a food thief. The company could be liable if this level of harm was done to a food taker. Also it is feasible to confuse lunches innocously. Especially in a large crammed kitchen. I did this to someone’s creamer once. As adults we do not take the law into our own hands and harm others to get even.

        Op did not do this but my guess is that hr thinks he did.

        1. aebhel*

          Okay, but if you steal someone’s food and it’s very spicy… how is this the fault of the person who brought the lunch in? And why on earth would we expect someone to ‘prove’ that they like spicy food? Spices are not poison, and those of us who like very spicy food are not obligated to never eat it just because someone else might steal/accidentally take our lunch.

          1. Marisol*

            And I wonder, did he eat the *entire* lunch? If so then it seems to me that a claim of booby trapping has less merit than if he took a single bite, felt ill, and couldn’t continue to eat.

        2. Jinx*

          But this isn’t a booby trap – that guy spiced someone else’s food, and OP spiced her own food. I don’t think you can prove that the spice on its own is a booby trap since spice tolerance is something that varies from person to person. In this case, OP already brings spicy food every day.

          As to whether this was an innocent mistake on the part of the lunch thief… I don’t buy it. OP’s food was so spicy that this guy had to run to the bathroom, something had to have looked or smelled off before he put it in his mouth. Especially since OP said it was the remains of her dinner, I can’t imagine we’re talking about food that resembles an ordinary lunch meat sandwich.

          1. Dani X*

            Last time I ate something way too spice I was at a BBQ. Someone brought what I thought were green peppers. They were really jalapenos. My mouth was burning – it was way too hot for me. But it did look totally normal and I had no reason to suspect that it was spicy. Could be the same with the OP’s lunch.

            1. Jinx*

              Maybe, but regardless of the obvious spices, it’s still highly unlikely he accidentally took and ate someone else’s lunch. Individual lunches and containers are pretty easy to identify as yours or not yours. He knew he was stealing.

              1. Person Y*

                True story:

                I was at an all-day meeting with a boxed lunch brought in. We were all asked to indicate our lunch request in advance so that each person would have the right lunch. The secretary who ordered the lunches had to send out several e-mails reminding everyone to send in his/her lunch request so that each person would have the right lunch. When the meeting broke for lunch, we were all directed toward a table with fifteen individual boxes and told to pick up the box with our [full!] name written on it. I ran a five-minute errand, secure in the knowledge that my lunch would be waiting for me. When I got back, there was one box left on the table with Person X’s name on it, and Person X was eating my lunch. After some discussion we established that my name was on the lunch that Person X was eating and that Person X’s name was on the box still on the table, but she never seemed to grasp that the names were on the boxes for a reason.

                I sincerely doubt that was the problem with the OP’s coworker, though.

                1. Jinx*

                  Maybe I’m a jerk, but in the adult world I don’t really think that kind of cluelessness excuses you from the consequences. :P Sorry that happened to you.

                  Still, we’re talking a brought from home situation, not a provided boxed lunch situation. OP’s food was in her own individual container, presumably.

        3. Raichu*

          Ok, but 1. your husband didn’t steal anything, and the person who pranked him is clearly 100% in the wrong and 2. it’s unreasonable to ask people to conform to specific standards for their PERSONAL lunches just because someone else might mix it up. And adults should take responsibility for making sure they eat their own lunch; it’s not hard to double-check your food.

          1. HotHotHot*

            Not to mention he took the food out of HER LUNCHBAG. I know paperbags and to-go containers can get mixed up, but an entire lunch bag? And then opening it and it not being what you packed? Don’t think so

        4. TL -*

          It is okay to prep your food how you want (and if someone is consistently stealing food, I’m okay with adding tons of spice or even laxatives). The thing is, people don’t go to lengths like that because someone else accidentally grabbed their lunch, opened it, and put it back once or twice. People do it only when someone is consistently eating their lunch.

          1. aebhel*

            Yeah, and that’s like… I don’t actually cook very spicy food that often, because my spouse has a sensitive gut. But I’m perfectly happy to eat it, and if someone repeatedly stole my lunch, I would probably add a bunch of jalapenos to it. I’ll still eat it, but it would probably make any potential lunch thief think twice about trying it again.

        5. Leatherwings*

          I’m obviously not suggesting it’s ok to intentionally make someone eat something unpleasant (which as other people have pointed out, isn’t the case here).

          That being said, if I found out one of the employees at my workplace at something too spicy that wasn’t his, I would laugh and tell him he deserved it and to stop stealing lunch or else he’s fired. It’s not like it was drano, he’s going to be fine and he shouldn’t steal people’s stuff.

          Is that a nice thing for me to hypothetically do? Maybe not, but I can’t abide by taking loonies like this guy too seriously.

        6. Aloot*

          “It’s not ok to prank food. Even to get even with a food thief. (…) Also it is feasible to confuse lunches innocously. Especially in a large crammed kitchen. (…) As adults we do not take the law into our own hands and harm others to get even.”

          I feel like these statements are in total opposition to each other. Grabbing the wrong lunch box by mistake is not pranking in any way for either party, nor is it taking the law into one’s own hands. I cannot see how you can reconcile “accidentally grabbing the wrong one” and “deliberate prank done by the person whose food was accidentally taken.” Please elaborate?

          1. fposte*

            I don’t see the contradiction–the innocent lunch mixups are another reason why you don’t prank food.

          2. Ultraviolet*

            I assume the point is that if you “take the law into your own hands” (i.e., sabotage your own lunch to get revenge on lunch thieves), you might accidentally hurt someone who didn’t actually intend harm (i.e., someone who accidentally mistakes your lunch for theirs, or for a communal supply). And also because you might not realize just how much damage you can do with your revenge plot (like in the example about Young’n’s husband–presumably the contestant who radically overspiced his chili had no idea how much it could hurt someone).

            1. Young'n*

              Exactly. And this is why hr may be freaking out.

              It’s the old adage two wrongs don’t make a right.

        7. Observer*

          I don’t think that the company would be liable in any way. And, while I don’t think it’s appropriate to booby trap food, I do think that there is a significant difference between over-spicing food as a random prank vs doing it to stop someone from taking your food on a regular basis.

    2. Izzy*

      Simultaneous post – I see someone else also suggested this. There were 0 comments when I started typing.

    3. TL -*

      I mean, if someone wants to eat a lunch laced with Ex-lax or habenero peppers, it is well within their rights to do so. You can’t prove somebody left it as a trap for someone else!

      1. fposte*

        You can make a damn good guess, though, and the law isn’t stupid; “They can’t tell what I was thinking” isn’t the out people like to believe.

        1. Alton*

          Right. And in civil law, you don’t have to prove that a claim is true beyond a reasonable doubt like you do in criminal cases. You just have to establish that it’s more likely than not true, and build a convincing case. I don’t think the OP has too much to worry about since they regularly eat spicy food. But a lot of times revenge is pretty obvious.

        2. KellyK*

          Yeah, ex-lax brownies are so common a revenge trope that you’d have a really hard time convincing a judge that they were for your consumption. Habaneros aren’t even among the spiciest of peppers, so they’d be more believable. (Not a judge or a lawyer, but if someone said, “Oh, yeah, I totally put a whole ghost pepper on my sandwich,” I’d be highly suspicious unless they were willing to eat it in front of me.)

          1. TychaBrahe*

            I have heard of a woman who was pregnant and anemic, whose doctor prescribed iron supplements. Iron supplements frequently cause stomach upset, so she bought a liquid suspension and baked them into brownies. She took them to work, kept them in her desk drawer, and sent an email around saying she had medicated brownies that were not for public consumption.

            Iron supplements have the opposite effect as Ex-lax, and the guy who stole them ate several days’ worth. He then tried to blame her for adulterating the brownies.

            1. spinetingler*

              If I emailed my workplace saying that I had “medicated brownies” in my desk drawer they would disappear the first time that I stepped out of my office.

        3. aebhel*

          Right, but habanero peppers are a thing people actually eat. ‘Nobody could actually be intending to eat such a thing’ is… kind of ridiculous in a case like that.

          1. JessaB*

            Yeh, just look at the membership of those insane crazy mega hot sauce clubs. They do a delivery of the month of some of the most insanely hot sauces ever. This is a major thing for people who like spices. Also I have been told by a nurse that I trust that some older people lose some ability to taste as they age or due to certain diseases and tend to eat more spice just so the food has any flavour. That doesn’t even cover certain ethnic cuisines that are spicy by default. Adding spice to food is not retaliation, it’s a thing.

            The mother of a former boyfriend used to carry a bottle of Tabasco in her purse. It went on every damned thing she ever ate.

    4. Liz*

      Agreed. I think the lunch thief is trying to convince HR that the OP baited him with the spicy food (which the OP obviously did not).

      The whole thing should have come to a screeching halt when he admitted that the lunch wasn’t his, which makes me think that he’s lying in some other way, too.

      1. Raichu*

        From other comments it sounds like the lunch thief told or implied to HR that OP offered to share their lunch or something. Though why they are flat-out ignoring the assertion that this is false is beyond me (I’m going with the “HR lady is a friend/family member of the lunch thief” theory)

    5. Gandalf the Nude*

      I imagine it’s much like thieves who sue their victims when their dog bites them. Like, you would’t have gotten bitten if you hadn’t broken the law.

      I’m embarrassed for this HR department. I hope it’s just one incompetent rep and not the whole team.

      1. Raichu*

        I have to wonder if those suits are successful. To me that is not the same thing as booby trapping your home – you are allowed to own dogs, and dogs can act on their own to defend their “pack”.

        I wonder if this is the origin of “beware of dog” signs – if you post them and someone still breaks in, is that what’s supposed to remove your liability for potential dog-inflicted injuries?

        Overall I kind of can’t believe the leeway the law gives burglars. If you break into someone else’s home, you may suffer unexpected consequences…

        1. Stranger than fiction*

          Someone I know had a drug addict neighbor next door who went into their yard (trespassed) to supposedly see if they could calm the dogs down (who were only barking because a bunch of meth heads were partying in the back yard) and they got bit (nipped, nothing serious). while she ultimately won, her poor dogs were quarantined for a month while they investigated :(

          1. HotHotHot*

            A friend of mine had a guy come onto his property while we had his dog out in the front yard playing frisbee; the guy’s car had broken down and he needed to use the phone. (Am I dating myself?)

            The dog had no history of harming anyone, but she was wary of strangers and barked her head off anytime one came up unannounced on property. My friend kept yelling STAY ON THE STREET, I’LL COME TO YOU, WAIT FOR ME TO GET THERE, DON’T COME ONTO THE PROPERTY UNTIL I GET THERE….signs were up that said “Beware of Dog” (seriously, they were a scare technique).

            So the idiot yells, “Don’t worry, dogs like me” and walks right up to Nova and tried to pet her. I didn’t have a good hold her on and, well, she latched onto his arm and the dude needed about 40 stitches. Tried to sue and lost. But it sure was time consuming and stressful.

            1. Raichu*

              He tried to sue?? The nerve of some people. I’m sorry you had to go through that but I’m glad he lost and Nova is okay.

              I was walking my parents’ dogs once and had a similar incident with a neighbor ignoring my warnings. They are both greyhounds, have a high prey drive, and tend to interpret any small loud animal (including small dogs) as squirrels. Neighbor approached me with small yapper on leash; I warned her “they are NOT small dog safe, please do not approach!” iirc I was standing still holding onto their leashes to make sure I had full control/attention while she walked by. She ignored my warning, cheerily saying “oh, they know [small dog whose name I forget]! They’re friends!” (Apparently they bark at each other through the fence a lot. Yeah, friends.) Before I could react she was standing right in front of me. The girl, who has better leash manners, simply stood there at full alert staring, but the boy, within seconds, had his jaws around the little dog’s neck.

              Fortunately we were able to pull them apart with no injury to the little dog. And then she goes “heh, I think I’ll walk over here now!” I don’t want to think of what would have happened if we hadn’t gotten them apart. Big boy was trying to kill the little dog, I have no doubt, and could have done it easily.

              tl;dr when someone TELLS you to stay away from their dog…LISTEN!!!

              (PS my parents’ dogs are very sweet and love people, though the boy isn’t super great around small children. But they are not bad dogs. You just have to know what is and isn’t safe.)

        2. KellyK*

          I think it might depend on the specifics of how the bite happened and what the dog’s prior history was. If you set foot on the property and the dog, who isn’t chained up or closed inside, runs out and bites you, then the fact that you were about to break in isn’t relevant. A neighbor kid chasing a ball or a UPS guy delivering a package could’ve had the same result. If you climbed over a fence, heard the dog barking and growling, and proceeded to break in anyway and get bitten by a dog who was contained inside the house, I would *hope* you wouldn’t be successful in a lawsuit.

          1. Paquita*

            My brother once had a Rottie. The dog wasn’t vicious but he was not real friendly, especially to strangers in the yard. The power company put a new meter in that could be read from outside the fence. Clear instructions for the meter guy. Fenced yard with padlocked gates. Beware of Dog and No Trespassing signs. New meter guy, with clear instructions IN HAND, decides to CLIMB THE FENCE since the gates were locked. Brother was home looking out the window at the time. Watched the guy climb the fence, walk a few feet to the meter. The dog, who was napping in the bushes, woke up and came out to see what was going on. Guy practically JUMPED the chain link fence, and then tried to sue. Not happening. You ignore instructions, signs, locked gates and clearly trespassed by climbing the fence? No lawyer would even take his case, AND he got fired to boot.

    6. fposte*

      In general, you can’t legally booby-trap, so I do think that’s where they’re going. But this wasn’t a booby-trap–it was just somebody stealing something they didn’t like.

    7. Arielle*

      Which makes some kind of sense until you consider that the boss accusing the OP and tasting the lunch didn’t happen until the NEXT day. OP, can you point out to HR that if you were trying to poison your coworker there’s no reason your food would have been spicy on the day after as well?

      1. JessaB*

        Particularly since the OP had no warning someone would be coming to ask about the lunch thing. It’s not like they mentioned this the day of. They came after OP the next day and lo and behold there was spice and OP ate spice and loved it.

    8. The Cosmic Avenger*

      Crap like this always makes me wonder if the HR person is also a lunch-stealer, and therefore has a personal stake in defending or dismissing it as harmless or acceptable.

      1. CCi*

        Heh, I can just see the HR person tearing up while listening to Lunch Stealer’s story and thinking “There but for the grace of God…”

    9. Not Karen*

      There was an episode of Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide where the kids deliberately spiced up a sandwich in order to get One Bite to stop stealing their food and they didn’t get in trouble. Not that this show was the most realistic, but I don’t think they would demonstrate such a thing on a kids’ show if it was legally questionable…

      1. Megs*

        I believe one “Loony Toons” would beg to differ. Kids shows are full of legally questionably nonsense. As are adult shows, for that matter.

      2. Happy Lurker*

        I can’t believe no one has mentioned “Friends” when Ross has a lunch thief in his office…not that I remember how it ended up.

        1. LBK*

          Ross eventually found out that it was his boss who stole the sandwich. Ross freaked out and screamed at him, so they put him on sabbatical while he learned to manage his anger.

        2. Tequila Mockingbird*

          Ross left an hostile, profanity-laden note in his lunchbox threatening to harm the food thief. (I believe Phoebe was the note’s ghostwriter.) When the food thief found it, Ross was turned over to HR and suspended with orders to go to anger management.

      3. Christopher Tracy*

        Not that this show was the most realistic, but I don’t think they would demonstrate such a thing on a kids’ show if it was legally questionable…


    10. Sparrow*

      That explanation only makes sense if the thief had made a habit of stealing OP’s lunch, though. OP tells us this hadn’t happened to them before, so there’s nothing to retaliate against. And to make the retaliation claim stick, the thief would have to admit to regularly stealing his co-workers’ lunches, which HR should agree is Not Okay.

  11. Allie*

    This is so bizarre. At my workplace there are signs on the fridge warning against eating someone else’s food. And this is just insane. For instance, I am allergic to peanuts. If I stole someone else’s food and it contained peanuts, that would not be their fault. I don’t get it at all.

    1. Mononymous*

      Right! What the crap? I can’t handle spice and am gluten intolerant, but if I stole and ate someone else’s habanero sandwich and got sick from it, that would be my own damn fault! The food didn’t belong to the complainer and wasn’t intended for them at all–end of story.

    2. The Cosmic Avenger*

      We had someone steal a VERY well-labeled soda out of the fridge. This was an issue because my friend, the owner of said soda, has type 1 diabetes, and kept that soda as his emergency sugar source. I believe he even wrote THAT on the label. He might have been able to find another source of sugar, but when you have huge blood sugar fluctuations, time can be of the essence.

      1. WIncredulous*

        I keep a juice or soda at work for just that reason. It works the fastest!

        Special place in hell for that soda thief! Dang!

    3. MissDisplaced*

      Apparently though, that would probably be the case in schools, right?
      KidA packs a PBJ for lunch. KidB “steals” lunch bag and eats the PBJ and discovers they have a peanut allergy and gets very sick from eating the PBJ.
      It is the fault of KidA for bringing the PBJ to school in the first place, and NOT the fault of KidB who stole and ate someone else’s lunch, essentially protecting the thief.


      1. Allie*

        I think schools expect kids to be dumb and do stupid things, because they are kids. I one ate something I knew contained peanuts when I was a kid because I was stupid and sick of my allergy and couldn’t remember how I got sick. Fortunately, I don’t react as seriously as some people. Adults, on the other hand, should be responsible for their own allergies.

        1. Allie*

          I mean the justification beyond peanut free schools. If there is no anti-peanut rule, then blaming the parents of the kids who brought peanuts is wrong. I slipped up as a kid, but learned I have to police my own allergiea.

        2. Jinx*

          I was actually thinking this when I read the letter, that it sounds like something you’d get in trouble for at school (“Billy stole someone’s lunch and got sick from the peanuts, nobody is allowed to bring peanuts anymore”). But with an adult food thief who should know better? Come on.

      2. The Cosmic Avenger*

        What? No! I mean, not unless the school, to protect Kid B, makes their classroom or entire school a peanut-free zone, in which case Kid A’s parents would have known they were putting Kid A in mortal danger, and they should be sued.

      3. Florida*

        Agree. By this logic, if you rob a bank and slip on the way out, it would be the bank’s fault. HR woman is off her rocker.

        1. Karo*

          In some states it would be considered the bank’s fault. I’ll add a link in a response because moderation, but according to a 2015 blog on FindLaw, you don’t have to worry about trespassers getting hurt on your private property…unless it’s a known trespasser (“if there are signs of a frequent trespasser, the homeowner does have a duty to warn about known dangers on the property”) or a booby trap (“homeowners can be sued for willful and wanton conduct that injures a trespasser.”)

          It’s ridiculous, absolutely, but it exists.

          1. KellyK*

            That seems to go back to the “No taking the law into your own hands” rule discussed earlier. You have the right to protect yourself from a trespasser, but not to use traps to punish them. There’s also the fact that it’s possible to trespass without any ill intent. A drunk can stumble into the wrong house, for example. Heck, I’ve had to chase my cat across three people’s backyards when he got out. I don’t feel that putting a bear trap on their side of the property line would’ve been a reasonable response to that.

      4. FiveWheels*

        What case would one kid have against the other? Eating peanuts of itself isn’t illegal, and without the intent to harm there’s no criminal act. If the school was a peanut free zone and the kids were aware of this it’s a different matter, but even then I’m not sure that Kid A owes Kid B a duty of care.

        The school obviously does and is likely to have insurance so a far better mark to pursue.

      5. tink*

        This is part of why some schools have bans on students bringing in peanut products? Either because KidB stole KidA’s lunch and was allergic, or because KidC shared with KidB and didn’t know about the allergy. Also because some people are so sensitive to peanuts that even the smell will start triggering their allergic reaction.

  12. Another Spicy Food Lover*

    Am I being overly paranoid or hostile to suggest seeing a lawyer about this? I’d be really concerned by HR suggesting a lawsuit and at that point being caught unprepared/having said anything unwise because you thought it was too ridiculous to take seriously.

    Don’t get me wrong, it is ridiculous, but it’s time to CYA and I have to think it’s at least a good idea to get some legal consultation to see how to protect yourself.

    1. AndersonDarling*

      The rule of thumb is, if they say “sue” then you get a lawyer. They brought it up so they can take the consequences.

    2. Lana Kane*

      I thought the same thing, I’d absolutely be consulting with a lawyer as soon as I started to get the feeling I could be fired over this. And especially when the word “sue” came up.

    3. INTP*

      If your HR is essentially telling you that they’re encouraging a coworker to sue you, then I don’t think it’s paranoid to consult a lawyer no matter how petty the actual issue is.

    4. stevenz*

      Yes, it’s very heavy-handed of the HR people. They should have better things to do with their time. (Though I think HR is generally a waste of space anyway.)

  13. sparklealways*

    Since this seems to be an ongoing issue with him stealing lunches from other coworkers, is there anything they can say or do to support you?

    1. OhNo*

      If it’s been going on for a while, I would guess that it’s because no one knew the identity of the lunch stealer (although they certainly know now). Plus it sounds like HR is so far out of line that they aren’t even listening to anyone on the OP’s side. Even their boss is getting ignored!

      Being the vindictive sort that I am, I wonder if casually mentioning the thieving coworker’s reaction to spicy food might not inspire some similar tastes around the office… Not that I would suggest that or anything. :)

      1. Kyrielle*

        I wonder whether someone else – a third coworker, said, “Hah! It’s Percival! And he got exactly what he deserved thanks to OP!” And Percival thought it was some sort of plot on the part of OP and other coworkers who had been stolen from.

    2. Mononymous*

      Now I’m wondering, since you mentioned the ongoing issue, if this particular person has accused other employees of spiking their lunches with spice/ex-lax/whatever to deter the food thief. Maybe that’s part of HR’s weird reaction, if he’s been claiming everyone is ganging up on him with poisoned lunches and is threatening to sue the whole company??

      (Even if so, the only reasonable response here is still STOP STEALING LUNCHES, JERKFACE.)

    3. Bend & Snap*

      Eh, I’ve worked in a place with a lunch thief. Everyone knew who it was. Management never did anything about it.

      1. sparklealways*

        Right, but because this person is trying to flip it back on the OP, I would *hope* that 20 people standing up for her saying “Hey, HR, this crap has been going on for a long time and nothing has been done and now the lunch thief has the nerve to try to get OP in trouble because he stole her lunch?! This is BS… blah blah blah.” I recognize that HR is being unreasonable, so I’m not sure that this will help, but the goal of my suggestion is to get HR and the thief to back down on the threats, not to get the lunch thief punished.

  14. J.B.*

    Ooh, ooh, can you get a lawyer just for purposes of submitting to the site that had the bombs/lunch pooping/etc construction boss?

    Sorry, OP I think this is utterly ridiculous. It would also be fascinating to know what the perp told HR. I would start by calmly reiterating my side of the story in an email to whoever you spoke to in HR and cc your supervisor. Something about being puzzled as to the issue.

        1. Hlyssande*

          Thank you!

          When that was posted, I ended up ranting to my mother on the phone about it for 20 minutes during our usual daily call.

  15. Newby*

    Would it be helpful to file an HR complain of her own? Complain that the coworker stole her lunch and is now harassing her because it was not to his taste?

    1. BRR*

      This is what I think is best. One to the coworker and one to HR. I don’t agree at all with everybody else getting into law suits. It almost sounds like HR is just stirring the pot and a lawsuit is part of that.

      Also to the “can’t prove he stole anything.” If he didn’t steal the food he doesn’t have a complaint. Not sure if that was brought up as a response.

      1. Happy Lurker*

        “Can’t prove it was my lunch”, especially if he didn’t see OP’s name on it! *sarcasm*

  16. Robin B*

    I agree with the others– contact a lawyer, at least for a prelim discussion. This is so weird and unjust– like getting into trouble for protecting your own home against burglars.

    1. addlady*

      “How was I supposed to know not to drink the draino under the sink in the unmarked bottle!! Clearly this homeowner was poisoning me.”

    2. Katie F*

      Lawyers can be magic magic people when it comes to disputes with HR. Sometimes simply a single consultation and a phone call/letter written on official letterhead can make stupidity like this ~magically disappear~.

  17. ZSD*

    If this person was actually having trouble breathing, then I’m guessing they have some sort of food allergy. If you know you have food allergies, why would you steal other people’s food? (I mean, why would *anybody* steal anyone’s food, but people with food allergies most of all.)

    1. OhNo*

      This plus the comment just after it made me think: any chance that the thief is threatening to sue the company for exposing them to an allergen at work?

      That or some other threat to the company is really the only reason I can think of for HR to be this aggressive about it – they want to pass the blame on to the OP and get clear of the lawsuit threat.

      1. Juli G.*

        Interesting thought. That’s the only that really (and I use this term extremely loosely) would make their actions sensible.

    2. Allie*

      That was what I was thinking. As someone with food allergies, it’s straight up dangerous, but it is also just a jerk move. I once had my lunch stolen when I was broke and right out of college and I literally didn’t have money to buy a replacement because my first paycheck hadn’t gone through. It was a terrible day.

    3. neverjaunty*

      No, “couldn’t breathe” could just be a reaction to the spiciness, especially if he accidentally inhaled some food out of shock. I’ve had it happen.

      1. Myrin*

        Exactly. I can’t handle spice at all (and not because of an allergy) but I do like mild pepperoni on my pizza from time to time. I once ordered pizza from a place I hadn’t been to for some time and apparently they’d substituted their usually mild pepperoni with (to me) extremely spicy ones. I ate one and seriously started panting, crying, getting a runny nose, and yeah, I really did have an extremely hard time breathing; it had nothing to do with allergies and everything to do with being very sensitive to spicy stuff.

        1. Arbynka*

          I was never much into spice (where I come from cuisine is fairly mild). Living in the Southwest and with DH who likes it hot :) I have developed higher tolerance. But – there is this one Indian snack, dry dumplings that I just love. However, I can always do one small dumpling at once, glass of milk ready in my hand and while I don’t have trouble breathing I do end up being red with teary eyes. I seriously love those dumplings :) I still remember when I came here for the first time and DH, then my friend, took me to a Mexican restaurant. I grabbed the chip, dunked it into the salsa on the table and took a bite. OMG, after all these years I still remember the burn. I was grasping for air.

        2. Jinx*

          Oh man, I LOVE spicy food but I can’t tolerate it at all. Sweating, digestive issues, difficulty breathing, your body can have some really weird reactions to spice when you aren’t prepared. Not to say that it’s impossible for coworker to have a food allergy in this case, but it’s believable to me that spice alone could cause that reaction.

          Also, he could just be a ham. I know we are told to assume the worst, but this is a guy who steals lunches then tries to sue the person he stole it from. Faking extreme symptoms isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

    4. Kyrielle*

      Enh, could be. Doesn’t have to be an anaphylactic reaction, it could just also be that they were highly, HIGHLY distressed by that level of spiciness and “felt the burn”. I’m a complete wimp for spiciness (before going on the low FODMAP diet, Nalley’s mild chili could sometimes be too spicy for me, depending on the day!), and I can imagine being left gasping and frantic and ill by the level of spice the OP is implying they use in their food.

      Fortunately, I don’t think the OP would deliberately serve it to someone else, and _I don’t steal lunches_, so I’m safe from that.

      But, it’s possible that he has an allergy to something he didn’t know about (that OP used in their food), and it’s also just possible that “hard time breathing” was at the ‘really miserable due to spice burn’ stage and not the ‘throat swelling up’ scenario that could arise from an allergy.

    5. Elizabeth West*

      Well, if the food were really super spicy and the thief wasn’t used to that much seasoning, it could provoke a gasping sort of reaction that isn’t necessarily an allergic one. I’ve taken a bite of food that was too hot for me before and spent the next few minutes going “Hahhhhhh!” and practically crying. I suppose if it were ghost peppers or something, that might make me choke a little or even puke.

      The HR department is overreacting. Annoyingly so. Grrr.

    6. Temperance*

      Yep. I have a pepper allergy, and I know that most other people like peppers .. and I’m not a jerk, so I wouldn’t do this.

    7. Ellie H.*

      I don’t really get throwing up as a reaction to spice either. Is it common? I like heat but definitely not THAT much heat, but still not sure I can imagine throwing up (rather than just being absolutely miserable).

      1. Ultraviolet*

        Have you ever had a coughing fit and/or sore throat that made you feel like throwing up? It happens to me once in awhile, and I can imagine it happening after taking a bite of something unexpectedly spicy. Especially if you choke a little out of the surprise and it hits the back of your throat.

      2. Hlyssande*

        It’s likely that they were coughing so hard they puked. I had some bug or other in middle school that led to exactly that. No nausea, just coughing fits that ended up with puke. Vastly unpleasant.

        That said, I feel like thief deserves it for stealing. Maybe he’ll learn not to steal other people’s food.

        Maybe everyone in the office should start eating spicy food. :D

    8. Not Karen*

      Not necessarily. I can’t handle spice, and if something is too spicy I can’t breathe.

    9. ZSD*

      Thanks to all for the clarification that it might not be an allergic reaction. I hadn’t realized spice could make people without allergies have trouble breathing.

  18. College Career Counselor*

    This is the company’s HR trying to make the problem person (the food-thief who is complaining) go away, at the expense of the actual wronged party. We see this a great deal around here: people (weak managers who don’t like confrontation who placate the loudest complainer in order to achieve “peace” or those who wind up working around “the rock in the stream” because it’s easier. Your HR has decided the complaining thief is the rock in the stream, and it’s easier to come after you than it is to discipline (or fire) him for stealing your property. They may also be concerned about being named as a party in a suit (which I think is unlikely to happen).

    TL; DR: HR’s job is to do what’s best for the company. And in this case they’ve decided that this means not taking on the thief (because escalation?).
    HR may also be worried about being named as a party in the thieving employee’s lawsuit. (So,

    1. Adam V*

      They’re not making him go away, though – they’re inviting him to keep bringing them nonsense complaints because they’re taking them seriously. Making him go away would be to say “you’re officially on notice for stealing other people’s food, and if we hear about you doing it again, you’re fired for cause.”

      1. AnonEMoose*

        If they were thinking long-term, yes. I don’t think that they are.

        I think they’re just trying to make the immediate issue go away, and not thinking about the long-term implications. Which is something that happens at my workplace at times, and it drives me NUTS. Because, when I see it, I tell my boss that X isn’t a good idea because of Y long-term consequence. They ignore me, and then are oh, so surprised when Y happens.

      2. College Career Counselor*

        Sorry, I meant “they’re making this complaint go away.” I agree that in this case, it’s completely short-sighted thinking because they are basically saying “bring your nonsense to us in the future, and we’ll back you up.”

    2. Katie F*

      Yep. I had a Psycho Boss who was “the rock in the stream”. He had about a thousand write-ups over the course of his years with the employer in question, was called into HR just about every three months or so, his employees had a higher turnover than the rest of the employer, etc etc. HR just… never did anything but keep writing him up and then sit back and wait for the next time he screwed up.

      After one of my complaints, I was essentially told that unless he did something to a member of the public who WASN’T a fellow employee, nothing would ever happen to him.

      When he eventually was fired, it was precisely because he finally did something terrible to someone who wasn’t a fellow employee. HR decided it was ‘safer’ to keep him on and keep losing employees or having to write him up than to deal with the trouble he would cause if he was fired.

        1. Katie F*

          You’d be surprised. He’s currently got my ex-organization (I quit months before he was fired) in the news because he’s accusing them of firing him on a pretense in order to “hide his zeal for the truth” and accusing them of a whole bunch of random financial ethics violations. It’s just a big ol’ mess.

    3. Artemesia*

      With the OP’s job threatened and the HR encouraging the thief to sue the OP she needs a legal consult; she is being threatened and defamed. I would think letter from a lawyer going higher in the food chain than HR, perhaps the boss of HR, clearly laying out the facts and asking for redress and to cease and desist from threatening the OP over her lunch might be in order. Or at least advice from a lawyer about that.

      When they threaten you, it is time to get aggressive back and go over the head of this feckless HR person.

  19. Izzy*

    I have read about (long time ago) someone booby trapping their house so that a burglar breaking in would be shot, and being successfully sued by the burglar. So possibly a legal consult is in order.

    1. Megs*

      Other people have mentioned the booby-trap scenario and that’s really the only thing that makes sense to me to explain HR’s thinking. I’m generally not in favor of running to a lawyer for every damn thing, but I’ve got to think that plenty of attorneys would find the situation unique enough to be worth the free consult. I know I’d love to see something like this come across my desk, because seriously, WTF?

      Since the OP didn’t actually “spike” their lunch in an attempt to catch/punish a thief, it might be worth preemptively bringing that up with HR in case that’s what they think happened. But seriously people, don’t do that. It might seem hilarious at the time, but the (American, at least) legal system is not a fan of “self-help” solutions like this.

      1. Biff*

        What about a case where someone packed a lunch that inadvertently was bad? Say, it was leftovers from a few days ago, and the fish had spoiled or the lunch had otherwise gone bad. I feel like acting in favor of the thief could set an awfully bad precedent.

        1. Megs*

          In terms of legal liability, intent is often key. Unintentionally packing a lunch that makes someone else sick, either by including things they can’t tolerate or something no one can tolerate (like bad food), should not be an issue. Intentionally packing something that could harm another, knowing that they are likely to expose themselves to it, is another issue.

          I mentioned this in another comment, but the thing with legal liability is that it is usually not a question of “who did the worse thing” in a particular situation. There are very specific situations where the bad acts of one person can effect the legal liability of another person, but this is not a blanket rule.

          1. Mike C.*

            Yeah, there’s a big difference between food going bad and “spiked with rat poison”.

            1. Biff*

              This is absolutely true, but if someone really can be bamboozled by a lunch thief claiming that something spicy was, in fact, POISON and intentionally left out to kill him, I feel like that same person could be bamboozled into thinking that someone else “tricked” him into eating bad shellfish.

    2. Temperance*

      Yep. I read that case in torts class. I think it’s silly – it’s your house, you should be able to do what you want with it, but that’s the law.

      1. Liz*

        I think one of the ideas behind it is that genuinely innocent people could be caught in the crossfire. If the home owner is having a heart attack and an ambulance is dispatched, one of the emergency workers could get shot while trying to get into the house.

        1. Megs*

          The other idea is that we as a society have agreed to leave punishing wrong-doers to the state, not to individuals. Leaving justice to private individuals has been known to get very ugly, very fast.

          1. Retail HR Guy*

            If I am remembering the burglar booby trap case correctly, the shotgun trap was set up because burglars kept repeatedly robbing the same small business and the police refused to do anything about it.

            That’s part of the tragedy of that case to me; the state refused to do their part which is a huge invitation to vigilante justice.

            1. Busytrap*

              Yup, that’s right. I remember this case too, and this being one of those “but it’s not fair!” moments I remember pretty clearly having in law school. Oh, to be a naive 1L again. :)

            2. Kerbygirl*

              That case was an abandoned house (10 years and no one lived there) that the defendant inherited that local kids liked to break into sometimes. Background to that case, the reason that the home owner lost was because the guy who owned the place didn’t live in the town or near the area (small town), and the kid who broke into the house was well liked. It was a jury trial case and he was a stranger in a small town who rigged a gun to shoot a local kid. So it was a biased case.

        2. Allie*

          It is also the idea that you aren’t supposed to use lethal force in defense of property. There are exceptions, of course.

          1. Elysian*

            Yeah, this is the problem. If you’re in your home and threatened, lethal force is one thing (though still prohibited in some states, if I recall correctly). If you’re defending your empty hunting cabin with lethal force, that is another thing entirely. Booby traps aren’t themselves illegal, it is kind of a matter of degree. The law has decided you can’t try to kill people for wandering into your empty house – it just isn’t an appropriate or proportionate response.

            1. catsAreCool*

              So in some states, if a burglar comes into my house and threatens me, if I told him that I would shoot him if he came any closer to me, and he did, and I did, then I’d be in trouble? Or once he comes too close, is that personal threat which might be OK?

              Because I think I should be able to protect myself. I don’t actually have a gun, but if I lived in a neighborhood that was frequently robbed, I might think about it.

          2. Temperance*

            I live in a state with castle doctrine, so we have no duty to retreat if someone threatens our home. IIRC, I think Florida has the most expansive law.

      2. iliadawry*

        How does that intersect with castle laws, do you know? (I’m just curious!)

        Also, could a thief sue for, say, a broken step that you haven’t fixed? Or, more analogous to this one, for especially tall stair risers that you prefer because your legs are super long, but that made them fall down the stairs?

        1. Megs*

          Castle laws are one of those exception-to-the-rule situations where some state legislatures decided that they did not like the common law (i.e. court-established) rule against using deadly force to defend personal property, and created a statutory exception where it comes to a homestead. How that interacts with the no-booby-trap rule is going to vary by state, although generally speaking, I suspect that castle laws will not apply to un-manned traps, which could pose a danger to state actors like police, firefighters, and emts who could have legitimate reasons for being in a house without the owner present.

          1. aebhel*

            Yeah, I think castle laws are mostly with the idea that anyone who has broken into your house has shown *by that act* that they pose a threat, and that you have no reasonable responsibility to retreat from your own home.

            If it’s an unmanned booby trap and there is no one home (so it’s not an extension of self-defense), that’s not the same thing.

  20. Crissy from HR*

    Jesus. OP, your HR department is terrible! Cosigning with the *please talk to a lawyer* if the AAM script doesn’t work well for you. I’ll be checking daily for an update!

  21. Jubilance*

    I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone – this has to be the most bizarre HR story I’ve ever heard.

    Is the lunch stealer the son of the CEO or something? I can’t imagine HR going to this length for just an average employee, and one who is known to steal other people’s property at that.

    But on the bright side, I bet he learned a painful lesson.

    1. neverjaunty*

      I put $5 on the square marked “HR lady is banging the co-worker”, but I think your CEO explanation makes at least as much sense.

      1. Adam V*

        My money’s on “complainer made a complaint about the HR person, and offered to drop it if HR person would do their bidding moving forward”.

      2. Dynamic Beige*

        I put $5 on the OP being a person of colour and both Lunch Thief and HR Lady are not. Which I admit is extremely cynical of me. I saw that video of the Colonel Sanders wannabe threatening a black woman on the subway for refusing to give up her seat to him this morning, and that has been on my mind all day. What is wrong with people?

        It takes a special kind of nerve to formally complain about someone once you’ve stolen from them. Why didn’t he go to the manager first? Why straight to HR? If there’s one ray of sunshine here, it’s that everyone in that office now knows (if they didn’t already) that Lunch Thief is a thief, so now they can monitor their possessions accordingly.

        1. GreyjoyGardens*

          Dynamic Beige: You are not the only cynic here – I was thinking the exact same thing! OP is a person of color, and/or from a different country and culture, and Thief and HR Lady are not. And they are trying to scapegoat and blame One Of Those People. (If so, this is way dumb, because HR Lady just opened up the company to a big discrimination lawsuit, but, there are lots of dumb people in the world and some of them are in HR.)

        2. neverjaunty*

          I think you have also made a wise bet. “How dare you have food that’s too spicy for white people to eat!”

          1. Curious*

            Couldn’t also be the other way around? Lunch Thief and HR are people of color and OP is not?

  22. Yep, me again*

    That’s just wrong. Really wrong.

    How in the HELL does a man who was clearly caught stealing your lunch end up getting HR to take his side? Sounds to me he played a stupid game, and won a stupid prize.

    I’d add in that summary email you’re adding ghost peppers (or ghost pepper sauce the equivalent thereof. I don’t know what the hottest spice is out there but sub in that if ghost pepper is too mild. I’m not a fine spice connoisseur and I happen to enjoy having a tongue.) to your next lunch and wish him Bon Appetit.

    Okay, probably not. The summary email might be enough but still. I am SO outraged by this. And I’ve had my lunch stolen a couple of times.

  23. Allison*

    “When I brought it up, they said something along the lines of “We cannot prove he stole anything.” I am confused at this.”

    But he admitted he took your lunch, didn’t he? And how would it be plausible you’d even want to over-spice your food to poison him unless he’s a known lunch stealer? Or is he trying to make it seem like you poisoned his food with a bunch of spices?

    This makes my head hurt.

    1. lamuella*

      that’s the thing. At this point we (and maybe the OP) don’t know what he told HR. He could have said the OP offered him overspiced food as a prank, for example.

    2. JustALurker*

      My question at this point would have actually been “Then why are we here?”

      How could the co-worker have been “poisoned” if he didn’t actually eat OP’s lunch? Why would anyone openly “poison” a co-worker? If you are a psycho going around poisoning your co-workers wouldn’t you at least try to cover your tracks? The HR person is a complete idiot!

  24. Caledonia*



    Surely the fact that your food was clearly labelled helps you.

    At this rate, I would be taking photos of my food in the fridge so you have evidence of it being labelled and you know, *clearly* your lunch.

  25. Snarkus Aurelius*

    If HR is saying that this could turn into a lawsuit, I, in all seriousness, encourage you to call their bluff.  Tell them, with a straight face, that if it does get that point, you’ll contact a lawyer to get the matter resolved.  Bonus: tell them you’re confident a resolution can be found that way.

    That gesture coupled with AAM’s suggestion will probably get them to back down a bit.

    My guess is that your coworker is supremely pissed and he’s taking out his embarrassment and anger on HR.  What else can you say about him outside of this incident?  

    I’ve got a couple of ideas for his motives.  He thinks the best defense is a good offense?  He’s rightfully worried he’s going to get in trouble because the chain of evidence and subsequent reaction is so obvious?  He’s scared the crap out of HR?  (I’ve seen that happen.)  He dropped the word “lawsuit” and scared the crap out of everyone?  He’s mortified so he’s acting out?

    Who knows, but I wouldn’t even bother discussing the issue with him, and I doubt he’ll try to with you.  He knows what he did, he knows that you know, and he knows that everyone who knows that got sick knows.

    I try to reserve this bit of advice for rare cases, but it applies here: after a few months/weeks, this will be a hilarious story you can’t stop telling people.

    1. Katie the Fed*

      Totally agree on the first part. If someone mentions lawsuits to me, I’m calling that bluff and bringing in my own lawyer if I need to.

      1. PeachTea*

        Exactly! Though my brother is a lawyer so this is rather easy for me. But a free consult is not out of order!

    2. SAHM*

      Honestly, I’m wondering if Lunch Thief was “poisoned” before by someone dosing their lunch knowing he would steal it and he was able to get them fired or disciplined for it. If he had prior experience of being protected from his bad choices than of course he’s not going to change, and it would make sense why he escalated it so quickly.

  26. Adam V*

    Wait, wait – they can’t prove he stole your food, but if he didn’t, then how did OP “poison” him?

    Here’s how you fix this – bring in the spiciest thing you can handle tomorrow morning and take it to HR’s office. Bring two spoons. Let him decide how to divide up the food and put it onto two plates.

    Tell him “Here’s the deal. However many bites you can eat before puking from the heat, I’ll eat twice that many. You take the first bite.”

    Heck, I bet he starts sweating just thinking about it.

    1. Adam V*

      By the way, is there someone above this “HR lady” that your boss can go to? The fact that she’s “ignor[ing] everything he says” when he’s talking in these meetings should be enough cause for complaint – “Phoebe isn’t allowing me or Joey to bring up any points, and since this could seriously impact Joey’s position, I want to make sure he’s getting a fair shake here. Can you sit in on the next meeting?”

    2. Jennifer*

      This is suspiciously reminding me of iocane powder.

      Actually, this whole thing is reminding me of iZombie, because in that world the OP WOULD be a zombie.

      1. LibraryChick*

        Maybe this person has spent years building up a immunity to iocane powder (or spices) just to get revenge on the company lunch thief.

  27. Katiebear*

    Alison, you raise a good question, that I hope the OP can answer. Did the thieving coworker claim it was his own lunch that got spiced? Does HR have a history of behaving strangely? Does the coworker have personal connections that makes him harder to discipline or more likely to be taken at face value or believed during incredulous accusations?

    I really liked your advice, but I am still incredibly curious about parts of the background. Looking forward to an update or, if possible, some questions answered by the OP.

  28. snuggery*

    Am I the only one who’s aghast that the boss tasted the lunch as well and made OP eat it in front of them to ensure it’s always spicy? Like how on earth is that a relevant variable when the coworker outright STOLE OP’S POSSESSION?

    1. Kyrielle*

      If that’s how it happened, I agree with you – but OP’s letter doesn’t say the boss demanded that. It sounded to me like this happened the following day, and when OP’s boss came to talk to the OP, OP said, “No, my lunch is always that spicy. I can show you with today’s, if you’d like.” And then brought it out and let the boss try it and see the OP eat it (thus proving it is always that spicy – why would someone trying to poison their coworker bring in another oddly-spiced lunch the day after succeeding?).

    2. LSCO*

      I assume it was to see if OP deliberately overspiced her food in order to “catch” the lunch thief. If OP can demonstrate she can handle that level of spice, then it’s a reasonable assumption that the stolen lunch was just that. If however the OP couldn’t handle the level of spice in front of the manager, then one would ask why the stolen lunch was so spicy in the first place and the “to catch a thief” motive is more likely.

      However, it’s all completely ridiculous. OP’s lunch was stolen, the thief didn’t like the heat, that’s somehow OP’s fault? Absolutely mad.

      1. A Bug!*

        It never fails to amaze me how often it shakes out this way. Someone’s obnoxious or outrageous behaviour goes relatively consequence-free, but any push-back to that behaviour brings down the hammer hard. It’s a weird mentality. Rather than addressing someone’s antisocial behaviour directly, it’s easier to make everyone else accommodate it.

          1. aebhel*

            It was originally Cliff Pervocracy (whose site is delightful, but I strongly recommend against looking it up at work).

      1. TempestuousTeapot*

        HR could be presuming/assuming that OP anticipated a check in and had another spicy lunch as a defense. It might be needed to keep doing that until it gets through HR lady’s very thick skull that this is normal spicy for OP. And at this point with HR pointing out they recommended an attorney to lunch thief, at east a consult with one is a really good idea, no matter how undesired that route might be. Never be unprepared.

      2. Lissa*

        Yeah, it read to me like the OP and boss were on pretty good terms, and this was good-natured, not coerced.

  29. Katie the Fed*

    Yeah, my guess is that they’re thinking OP knew this person was stealing lunches and deliberately decided to get revenge on the lunch thief. But unless they can prove that, I have no idea what they’re thinking.

    I agree – you need to get very direct with them. I like Alison’s script, but I might add something about the legal aspect. “I’m concerned that I’m being investigated and have been told by HR that I could face adverse employment action and/or lawsuits because of the lunch I prepared for my own consumption. Do I need to be taking legal steps to protect myself at this point?”

    One other thought, OP – if you’re a minority and this was food typical for your ethnicity, that might be something to consider when discussing with them. Like, Indian food is just spicy – if you’re Indian and they’re giving you grief for what you brought in, that’s a whole other layer of terrible.

    1. Adam V*

      I might bring that up – “that sounds suspiciously like I’m being discriminated against because of my ethnicity. I’m sure that can’t be the case because that’s all sorts of illegal”.

    2. Annie Moose*

      It also would make the lunch thief even dumber… I work with a number of Indian guys, and believe me, if I saw some curry, etc. in the fridge, I’d just assume it’d be crazy spicy.

    3. Myrin*

      Yeah, my guess is that they’re thinking OP knew this person was stealing lunches and deliberately decided to get revenge on the lunch thief.
      I’m thinking that as well and at the same time find that it’s a weird thing to think about OP specifically since she’s “quite new” still, hasn’t ever had anything stolen herself, and only vaguely knew from what her coworkers told her that there’s apparently a food-stealing issue going on. One would think that the person trying to get revenge on the thief wouldn’t be someone who hasn’t ever had someone take their food before.

    4. Anonicat*

      Thai and several regional Chinese (Sichuanese, Hunanese) cuisines can be scorching hot too. I’ve got recipe books from each of those cuisines and if I cook for a friend from them, I usually at least halve the amounts of chilli/pepper.

      Nothing like a nice bowl of ma po tofu to clear out the sinuses.

      1. DMented Kitty*

        I just came here to say that I love, love ma po tofu. Mix it with rice… * drools *

  30. Shannon*

    I wonder if the OP belongs to a culture famous for its spicy food. That would put things in an entirely different light.

    1. PT*

      That was my thought – what the ethnicities involved are. Is OP Indian and the Lunch Thief and HR white? Racism wouldn’t make it ok, but would at least explain the idiocy of it.

      What’s confusing to me is why the stealing of other peoples food isn’t the issue that HR is addressing. I get “borrowing” a coworkers half-and-half or peanut butter (not that it’s ok, but just that I understand how one could do that), but opening someone’s lunch and eating it is beyond me. I wouldn’t do that to my spouse, much less a colleague. Why is it ok in the office culture to steal food from other peoples’ mouths?

      So strange.

      1. fposte*

        Though, as noted upthread, if ethnicities are involved it would give the OP some serious legal leverage.

      1. Dynamic Beige*

        Doh. Me too. And I should really read all comments before posting… which is hard to do when there are over 400 of them!

    2. TheSnarkyB*

      My thoughts exactly. I thought I was crazy but I’m not the only one who thought that so yay!
      I’m concerned that there’s a cultural element here, just because of how the HR person is so quick to see this person and this person’s food (read: culture) as a threat. I think if there’s a cultural element here, OP is more than within their rights to be extra pissed.

      1. Artemesia*

        If the OP is hispanic or Indian or from a racial or ethnic group not caucasian American then she has tremendous leverage and should bring that up as possible discrimination. That should get them to back down pretty fast. And get a lawyer’s advice on how to proceed. HR should get nervous at the threat of an EEOC complaint.

    3. animaniactoo*

      I was thinking about that and the fact that if the colors all line up right, s/he should not be afraid to start screaming discrimination right now. But I didn’t know if I was heading down a path of assumption better left alone.

      1. sunny-dee*

        It may be a race thing, but my husband is super white and has a higher tolerance for spicy foods than the Hispanics he works with. (He’s told me that they think it’s funny to cook up the hottest thing they can, give it to him to try, and then see if he can handle it.) Some people just really like spicy foods.

        1. animaniactoo*

          I know, my BIL is like that too, and he’s whiter than white as well. Which is what stopped me from going there in the first place. But it is a possibility to look and see if it’s in play.

        2. TheSnarkyB*

          I don’t think anyone is arguing that it’s the only – or even most common – reason that someone would like or tolerate extra spicy foods, but just an important factor to consider if it is relevant. As a POC, I’ll say that I’m not always comfortable bringing up race, and I think it’s can be validating for OPs when commenters call it out first, as POC are often accused of “pulling the race card.”
          Also we just love to talk about all the interesting stuff that could be going on in a workplace situation :)

  31. Murphy*

    This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. How is ANY of this the OP’s fault?

  32. Rebecca*

    Just wow. How in the world could this be the OP’s fault in any way, shape or form?

    So what if this person had a severe peanut allergy, and stole a dish made with peanut sauce? Is this somehow the coworker’s problem, because they brought a container of food containing peanut products?

    This whole thing is ridiculous, and I hope the OP can give us an update. HR should start with disciplining the lunch thief, not hassling the victim of the theft!!

  33. Art_ticulate*

    I have literally one hundred questions about this.

    Your lunch was clearly labeled, yet they can’t prove he stole it, yet they’re claiming you ‘poisoned’ the food with youe name on it that was obviously not his?? That is impressive mental gymnastics.

    I’ll never understand people who steal lunches. How can you take someone’s food with no remorse? It takes a special kind of jerk to do that.

    1. Grey*

      Yes. That’s what’s most bizarre. How does the lunch thief even file this complaint without saying, “I ate my coworkers lunch and…”?

      1. TempestuousTeapot*

        By saying OP told me it was for me, OP switched it with mine, we have the same container, it was in my spot in the fridge, OP moved things around, OP…

        Folks like this don’t really feel any shame in compounding the issue. The way this is coming out with such heavy blame just stinks of lunch thief crying victim. After all, no one buys a story without someone selling it.

  34. Patty*

    The ONLY way you could have intended to harm the thief is if you made your lunch intentionally spicy, knowing he’d likely steal it. Even then, this is still his problem because he stole your lunch,

    An analogy may help. Say you tampered with your own car’s brake lines, then the person who stole your car got in an accident and wants to sue you.

    1. Adam V*

      That might actually be illegal, though. You intentionally made your vehicle unsafe, and any consequences as a result can be traced back to that. What if the person who stole your car crashed into a bus? You didn’t intend the people on the bus to get injured, but they did, and it’s due to your actions, so I’m pretty sure you could be the one sued in that case.

      I think the better analogy is that the thief has a peanut allergy, and steals your food, not realizing peanuts are an ingredient, and attempts to sue you for his allergic reaction.

      In any case, we should let an actual lawyer weigh in and let us know.

      1. fposte*

        I think that’s Patty’s point–booby traps are illegal, but having your lunch be something that you regularly make and that causes distress to a thief is not.

        1. Liz*

          But it sounds like Patty was saying the tampered brakes wouldn’t be a legal problem, which is possibly wrong (unless I’ve misunderstood Patty’s original point).

          1. fposte*

            I read it the other way–that this is her example of the only way that the OP *could* be in trouble.

      2. Liz*


        The brake-tampering analogy would only make sense if, for example, the OP had put rat poison in her lunch.

      3. Temperance*

        I think a more accurate analogy was that you removed your brake lights to change the bulbs, some jerk stole your car, not knowing that the brake lights were removed, and someone rear-ended the car because they didn’t see it. It’s not your fault in that scenario, because you didn’t give permission or assume that the lowlife would steal your car.

        1. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          Well, it’s not your fault because you were partaking in a reasonable and expected activity.

      4. Faith*

        Except the analogy here is that OP is driving a car with manual transmission. Someone steals their car, but the thief cannot drive a stick and was expecting the car to have an automatic transmission. So, they crash the car and want to sue OP for not owning the car that would have been safe for them to drive.

    2. One of the Sarahs*

      I guess a better analogy would be regularly riding a fixed-gear bicycle with no brakes, and someone stealing it, and crashing it on a hill because they didn’t know how to stop it.

  35. The Cosmic Avenger*

    I’ve currently got a big bottle of sriracha, a small bottle of chili pepper sauce, and a jar of chiu chow chili oil in my office. I must be planning on poisoning my coworkers! (I can think of at least 3 other coworkers off the top of my head who I know keep hot sauces in their offices for their lunches.)

  36. Spectra*

    Serial lurker here, but I had to comment because:


    I’m completely baffled. What on earth is that HR rep thinking?!

  37. Indigo*

    I would probably be calling a lawyer ASAP and at least paying to have them draft a letter to HR outlining the situation and urging to situation to be put to rest…. chances are that the coworker is tooting a legal threat in hopes of getting compensated for his ‘injury’ from the company and HR is just running around like chickens trying to muster an apology out of OP.

    It would be also helpful to find out precisely what HR was told. I can see him putting together a story of how OP had brought in a similar looking container and put it where his lunch was in a blatant attempt to trick him into eating the spicy food.

    1. fposte*

      That’s my suspicion as well–HR is panicking and the OP looks like the course of least resistance. I think it’s time to become the course of most resistance.

  38. Adam*

    ……………….WHAT IN THE ACTUAL HELL?!?!?

    Someone steals your food and is now accusing you of being the one with the malicious intent here?

    What if the person who stole your food had an allergy to something that was in it (but was still allowed in the office) and had a bad reaction to it? Who are they going to wag the finger at for that? Your HR is run by loony toons, OP.

    1. Floral Laurel*

      I was thinking the same thing!! Also, as a person who is wimpy when it comes to spices, wouldn’t you SMELL the spicyness before eating it? There have been times where my boyfriend will order something ridiculously spicy and the smell will make my eyes water. But he delights in the spice factor.
      Lunch Stealer had it coming and HR has lost a couple of their marbles… or maybe their marbles were stolen too?

  39. LBK*

    This is one of the most frustratingly bizarre letters we’ve received – but on a side note, is anyone else seriously craving spicy food now? I would kill for some chicken biryani from my favorite Indian place, which is sadly 400 miles away in DC.

      1. Katie F*

        Yeah, I read that letter and thought to myself that super spicy pho sounds like the perfect dinner option…

    1. the_scientist*

      I ate this while eating my lunch, which happened to be spicy Indian leftovers from last night’s dinner.

      OM NOM NOM.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        I’ve been thinking about chicken vindaloo lately (Patak’s sauce is the hottest I can possibly handle) and now I believe I need to go get some chicken. :)

    2. periwinkle*

      My first reaction was WTF. My second was a serious craving for Korean stir-fried spicy squid. The only reason I don’t bring extra-spicy lunches is that it can overwhelm the microwave with fragrance.

      Maybe squid for dinner…

    3. Friday Brain All Week Long*

      I made some tandoori-spiced cauliflower rice this morning and can’t WAIT to get to it now. But it’s 9:25am; too early for lunch. :(

    4. One of the Sarahs*

      Same – I want some gorgeous Gujarati food from this amazing vegetarian restaurant in Leeds right now…. Gah!

    5. Witty Nickname*

      After reading some of the earlier comments, I went out and got tacos with two different kinds of really spicy hot sauce on them for lunch and ate them while I read the rest. Then I warned my coworker to be careful because one of those sauces was what I call “actually hot.”

    6. Anonicat*

      It’s 10.30pm here and I’m seriously considering making some Hunanese twice-cooked pork. Or mapo tofu since the pork belly is frozen.

  40. addlady*

    Is the guy related to someone in HR? That’s the best plausible reason I can think of for their reaction.

  41. Pwyll*

    You know, if it weren’t for the monumental waste of time this would be for them, I’d consider filing a police report about the stolen lunches. And then submitting a copy to HR “I actually filed a police report for theft of my property from the workplace and thought you might want a copy.” It’d certainly be one way to further escalate an already over-escalated situation.

    It’s not entirely outside of acceptable behavior for HR to be investigating and notifying you, but the appropriate way would have been to be entirely neutral: “We received this complaint, we’re looking for your information regarding the incident. Thank you.” But advising the coworker to sue? Pretending there’s no proof? Craziness.

  42. Namast'ay In Bed*

    Even if your boss is on your side now, I find it in poor taste that they came at you with a “you tried to poison your coworker” right off the bat, instead of a more neutral discussion to try and get all of the facts.

    1. LBK*

      Yeah, right? I cannot imagine an employee coming to me claiming they were poisoned and taking that at face value instead of with an extreme grain of salt while I figure out what actually happened.

    2. Stitch*

      I read that as boss coming to LW and saying “Joe is claiming you tried to poison him, what’s your side?”

  43. AnonEMoose*

    If he’s not related to or otherwise in a relationship with someone in HR, my best guess is that the lunch thief has incriminating photos of the HR rep with farm animals. Or something like that. Or the HR rep fell for whatever lie Lunch Thief told them, and doesn’t know how to back down. People like this are one reason that I do my best to get in with my side of the story first, whenever possible.

    1. Master Bean Counter*

      I am so happy I have my own office now. I’d hate to explain why I laughed so hard.

    2. Dynamic Beige*

      has incriminating photos of the HR rep with farm animals

      Sometimes, that can be the only explanation. I have used that as a “reason” when discussing the odd treatment of someone who is completely off the rails yet is never called on the carpet. When all else fails, blackmail photos must be the reason!

  44. Purest Green*

    This does not help your current (and bizarre) situation, but perhaps it’s time to purchase a lunch container with a lock on it.

    1. Lizabeth*

      Ben & Jerry’s has a lock to use on their pints…SO used it to keep me out of it, but if you are REALLY motivated nothing will keep someone out. Didn’t we hear about a lock box for when the boss was stealing the lunches?

      1. Chinook*

        “Ben & Jerry’s has a lock to use on their pints…SO used it to keep me out of it, but if you are REALLY motivated nothing will keep someone out.”

        Goes to show how we all have our limits. I swear I forgave the cheating spouse partially because there is no way he would ever eat my ice cream, chocolate or special whatever. I know because he once whined that there was no ice cream left and, when I pointed out there was still my pint of Funky Monkey in the freezer, he looked at me like I had to heads and said that it was mine. That is true love. :)

        1. Sparkly Librarian*

          I am a fiend for ice cream, and still a pint of Chunky Monkey or Cherry Garcia would (and has) stay untouched by me in the freezer for months. My wife finds flavors she likes that I don’t, and that makes it “her” ice cream.

    2. Dynamic Beige*

      Somehow, I don’t think OP will ever have to worry about anyone at her company stealing her lunch again. This is going to become a company legend that gets passed around and retold for years.

      “We had noticed that our food was going missing, but we could never figure out or prove who was doing it. When Lucia started, we didn’t know that she likes really spicy food. One day, Cecil came running out of the kitchen like his hair was on fire. He ran to the bathroom and everyone could hear him puking. Afterwards, he was sweating and had red eyes, he was a mess. He then went to HR and filed a complaint against Lucia because eating her lunch made him sick! After that, we *all* knew who was stealing our food and no one would let Cecil alone in the kitchen by himself.”

      1. catsAreCool*

        This story is probably already going the rounds at work, and I’m guessing the co-workers are on the LW’s side.

      2. Desdemona*

        There’s a chance that her lunch will become a challenge, with people lining up to prove how much of her food they can stand.

  45. CM*

    I’m a lawyer (but not an employment lawyer) and my reaction to this situation would be to write a letter to the company, addressed to the head of HR, and both mail it and send an electronic copy through email.

    The letter would say:

    Dear [HR Person],

    I am writing this letter to document a recent incident at [company name]. On [date], I brought my lunch in a zipped cooler clearly labeled with my name, and left my lunch in the shared refrigerator in the break room that I normally use. I prefer very spicy food and had packed my leftovers from the previous night’s dinner.

    Later that day, I saw my coworker [coworker’s name] running out of the break room. He appeared to be in distress and I heard noises coming from the bathroom that sounded like he was vomiting. I did not know why this happened. However, when I went to eat my lunch, I discovered that part of it had been eaten.

    The next day, my manager [boss’s name] asked if I had tried to poison [coworker’s name]. I said no and explained that I like to eat spicy food [add, if true: and that I had no idea that coworker would eat my clearly labeled lunch]. I gave him a bite of that day’s lunch, which was also spicy, and ate a few bites in front of him to demonstrate that I had no problem eating food with that amount of spice. He told me that he understood that I had no intention of harming [coworker’s name], that [coworker’s name] should not have been eating my lunch, and that I shouldn’t worry about it.

    On [date], I received a call from [HR person’s name and title]. [Go on to document your contacts with HR, what they said to you and what you said to them, including how they said they couldn’t prove that coworker ate your lunch.]

    I am concerned that I am being targeted for an adverse employment action, even though I did nothing wrong. Liking spicy food is not a crime. I did not expect anyone but me to eat my lunch, and I would never intentionally harm [coworker].

    I ask that HR cease this investigation immediately. If I continue being asked questions about this incident, or if I continue to be accused of intentionally harming [coworker], I will pursue any necessary legal action.

    [Your name and title]

    1. Pwyll*

      I’m not sure I agree. The company is certainly within its rights to investigate the situation, and to question its employees about the incident. It’s going about it all wrong, for sure, but I’m not sure I would tell the company they must cease their investigation. And I’m not entirely sure what legal action OP could take against the company absent an adverse action. Such a letter is premature.

      I think Alison’s right here: the answer isn’t to further escalate this situation, but to fully document the facts with HR.

      1. Kyrielle*

        I could see that letter, minus the last paragraph, being potentially very useful, though. Again, though, if OP can consult with an employment lawyer in their area, that would be the best thing, I think. (Not in planning to bring legal action, but just in making sure they don’t do anything they may later regret.)

  46. Pwyll*

    Slightly OT, but depending on your political leanings you’re in good company. According to an old coworker in DC, Hillary Clinton is also an avid spice lover. Apparently she literally eats peppers like they are potato chips.

    Coworker who worked with her as a Senator once told me he almost died when he accidentally got a little bit of the juice on his fingers, and is still boggled by how she could eat the whole peppers.

    1. Elizabeth West*

      My grandfather smoked like a chimney and he apparently had no taste buds–he could allegedly eat entire hot peppers like they were candy. I put my tongue on a jalapeno and I need to drink a gallon of milk.

        1. Pwyll*

          Truth. Not advocating for her either way (and certainly not based on her food preferences.)

      1. Liana*

        I really don’t think Pwyll was saying this to endorse a presidential candidate – it’s just an interesting story. Politicians can have quirky eating habits too.

    2. Serafina*

      Yeah, I seem to recall she has her own stash of hot sauce that she carries everywhere. I thought that had to be a joke until we started talking about it at my workplace, and several colleagues (different ages, races, and both genders, to boot) said they do the same. I hate spicy food, so I had no idea hot sauce was such a big deal to some people.

  47. Chelsea*

    I almost feel as if this is not the whole story, as the whole thing is completely nonsensical.

    1. Allie*

      I love that this post has generated multiple IZombie references.

      That is a thought experiment. Say your coworkers was a zombie and in this hypo, eating brains is legal. If you ate your coworker’s lunch and ate brains, could you complain about the food? I’d say no. It would be the same as a vegetarian complaining the lunch they stole contained meat.

    2. KellyK*

      Ravi knows better. It’s Clive you’ve got to worry about. Yes, sure, shrimp….that’s totally what’s on that pizza.

  48. Happy Hunter*

    Oddly, I can kind of relate to this. We seem to be having some more-than-usual lunch theft going on at my office recently (including items that had been obviously munched on). Just last week, I was leaving my lunch in the work fridge overnight since I had forgotten about a team lunch and didn’t even touch it. There was a bit of concern over it disappearing since I had had multiple comments over the admittedly delicious looking pasta salad (with chili oil). I literally labeled, “Happy Hunter, 07/23/2016, WARNING: DO NOT EAT – EXTREMELY SPICY”. I have no idea why I even thought to put that on except maybe as a subconscious deterrent. It worked though!

    1. Allison*

      We’ve seen an uptick in this behavior as well, someone had to send around an e-mail about it a couple weeks ago. They made it sound like people were taking other people’s lunches by accident, but we all knew the e-mail was targeting people doing it on purpose and trying to be all nice and non-accusatory about it. But seriously, what the hell? Why do people do this? How do they justify taking other people’s food?

      In fact, I’ve noticed an increase in entitled, obnoxious, inconsiderate rule breaking in my daily life. Is it the heat making everyone insanely self-absorbed? The political climate? What is it??

      1. Not Karen*

        I don’t even understand how one can take someone else’s lunch “by accident.” Did they forget what they packed for lunch? Not process the fact that the food they’re eating or container they’re eating out of isn’t theirs? This is inconceivable to me.

        Thankfully we don’t have a lunch-stealing problem in my office, but the other week there was a lunch labeled “DEAD DOVE – DO NOT EAT” (which is apparently a TV show reference?). Maybe that would help in others’ offices.

        1. Biff*

          Oh, I can understand the accident thing and I can even explain it! I pack the lunches at my house, and we have extremely common Rubbermaid food storage containers. (Several coworkers have the exact same set.) Lunch for my spouse is often a surprise. (I get midday messages to the tune of “ooh, pot roast” or “when did you make this?”) I also don’t use consistent bags. Sometimes I don’t use bags at all.

          I can see how, in this scenario, if someone didn’t remember which bag they grabbed, and they don’t know exactly what was in the lunch bag, and simply recognized their ‘tupperware’ set, they might accidentally snarf someone else’s lunch, especially if it matches the style of food they are accustomed to. Though generally I’ve found in smaller offices that everyone has different tastes, in larger ones, I do think there is real risk of accidentally grabbing the wrong bag.

          1. AnotherAnon*

            That’s a good point – I ended up writing my initials on the lids and bottoms of all my rubbermaid containers so I could stop worrying that I’d accidentally kept some of my MIL’s (or vice versa). Before that, I’d somehow never considered that someone else might buy the exact same very-popular tupperware – despite having labeled my rubbermaid water bottle years ago. :)

        2. Allison*

          Yes, it’s an Arrested Development reference! I actually just started watching that show on Netflix!

        3. Menacia*

          This actually happened in my office many years ago. My coworker accidentally ate the lunch of our other coworker. How, you may ask? Well, his *mother* packed his lunch for him, in a brown paper bag, so he had no idea what she had packed that day! Our coworker must have also packed her lunch in a brown paper bag (no one wrote their names on them). In this case, when he realized what had happened, he apologized profusely to our coworker, not sure if she ate his lunch though, but his mom was a good cook…so…

          1. fposte*

            I did that myself to somebody’s frozen lunch–it was a brand I was buying at the time and just didn’t realize that one wasn’t mine.

            1. Elizabeth West*

              That happened to me too. Someone ate mine–there were a couple of the same brand, though not the same variety. I wrote my name on the front and back after that.

            2. AG*

              This happened to me – someone ate my frozen lunch. We bought similar/the same things, and my initials were on it. My initials were her maiden initials. She spaced and took mine by mistake. She made a couple times what I made in salary, though, and although I received an apology I didn’t receive a replacement…

        4. Witty Nickname*

          Our head of HR once stole my lunch on accident. It was a lean cuisine in a plastic grocery bag. It had my name on it, but that would have been easy to miss. There wasn’t another of the same variety in the freezer, but obviously she either forgot which one she brought that day or didn’t pay attention when she grabbed it out of her freezer at home or whatever.

      2. Isabel C.*

        I was gonna say: mixing up similar bags/you both have those little cheese things/etc, sure, once, maybe twice. But if it’s an ongoing thing? Noooope.

        At least everyone in the office knows who Lunch Thief is now. Hopefully they’ll act accordingly.

    2. One of the Sarahs*

      When I worked in large, open plan civil service offices, with communal kitchens & each team responsible for their own milk, the IT support team were famous for the warnings they’d put on their team milk. Every day, a different fake extra ingredient, sometimes illustrated. It was one of those little things I’d look forward to seeing every day – and apparently sometimes they’d put a decoy milk dosed with salt/lime juice, just for that extra level of deterrent…

    3. Witty Nickname*

      I once brought leftover fried chicken in for lunch, had someone take a piece out of the box, eat it, and then PUT THE BONES BACK IN. It was so gross, and of course, I couldn’t eat the rest of it after that.

      1. Liz in a Library*

        ARGH! I just typed a long story about the notorious lunch thief at my old library and the page reloaded. Highlights:

        1. Boss had someone finish off her half eaten (and obviously bitten from directly) quesadilla when there was a whole one in the same box.

        2. Someone opened a colleague’s sandwich, ate the meat out of the middle, and then re-wrapped and returned the remainder to the fridge.

      2. AG*

        I have seen someone eat someone else’s left over pizza slices and put a box back in the fridge with just the crusts.

  49. AndersonDarling*

    This is why we have cameras in the breakroom. It sounds like a crazy idea, until crazy happens and you need to check the tapes.

    1. Pwyll*

      Not gonna lie, I was very tempted once to stick one of those wireless surveillance cameras in my lunchbag to address just this issue. Very tempted.

    2. KT*

      …I read this as “this is why we have cameras in the bedroom” and I thought that was a really strange comment to leap to. Then I realized what it really said and was ashamed of how my brain works.

      1. AndersonDarling*

        Haha! If we had a bedroom at work, we definitely would need a camera in it. :)

      2. LadyKelvin*

        I thought it said bathroom. I’m not sure which is worse. But my first thought was “how does cameras in a bathroom solve things?”

  50. Katie F*

    I have to say, I am GOING to need an Update Letter for this one. Allison, tell the OP they are legally required to send us an update later on. Legally. Required.

      1. Serafina*

        Yep. In every state and most Western countries – it’s intentional infliction of emotional distress to leave us on tenterhooks without knowing how it ends.

  51. animaniactoo*

    I’d also like to see you go back to HR and specifically ask them how Lunch Stealer claims to have ended up eating your food. Is Lunch Stealer claiming that you shared your food with them?

    Also, fwiw, when the people below me were being unreasonable and threatened to call the cops on me, I ran out of patience for trying to reason with or accommodate them and told them to go right ahead. They eventually did, and um – were not happy with the results. Sadly for them, they were explicitly told that how they chose to use their apartment in no way dictated how I was allowed to use my apartment and that people were allowed to have visitors over at 11 pm. To play Scrabble. In their own living rooms. Even if the walking and moving around made noises on your ceiling. So in your case – I would absolutely tell HR that LS is welcome to sue you, go right ahead. You are looking forward to him trying to explain how he managed to consume your food. Call their bluff.

  52. Bowserkitty*

    I’m wondering if OP is a secret zombie.

    I’m sorry, that’s not constructive at all. I’m just super baffled by this and really hoping for an update. It’s wrong on so many levels that the thief is doing this!

  53. Mark*

    This story seems too bizarre to be true and yet I’ve heard a similar story before. A former coworker (he’s Indian) said that at the company he worked at in India, all lunches were required to be vegetarian as a matter of policy. This was so that when a vegetarian steals your lunch, he doesn’t accidentally eat meat. I was shocked to hear this, and told my coworker that I’d bring beef every day, and he said that that would just get me fired.

    1. Cruciatus*

      Even if you wrote “This has beef!” on the container? (Which, I agree you shouldn’t have to but…)

    2. Menacia*

      So what that is telling us loud and clear is that stealing someone’s lunch is just fine, but if that lunch harms the thief, you are in all sorts of trouble? Sounds like the case for OP as well. This is the same as burglars or kids getting hurt in the act of doing something unlawful on your property (whether you are home or not) have the right to sue the homeowner for their injuries. If that is the case, then why the hell doesn’t *everyone* just go around burgling and eating things that aren’t theirs, because, thankfully, most people aren’t asshats.

    3. Victoria, Please*

      Different culture. Doesn’t surprise me a bit. My (Indian) mother-in-law was a vegetarian her entire life, never had a bit of meat or fish, ever, and didn’t like it when we would have meat in the refrigerator even though we certainly never served it to her.

      I AM surprised that people were even bringing their lunches and storing them in a common area.

  54. Cruciatus*

    I’m gonna need an update on this one! The whole IF it was sabotage (to their own food!) argument means the stealing coworker might not be 100% in the wrong is so interesting (and then horrifying). I hope you get your name cleared soon, OP!

  55. Dust Bunny*

    It shouldn’t matter if she spiked her own lunch with Clorox and hemlock–he wouldn’t have been affected if he hadn’t eaten what wasn’t his. But, since she didn’t have a problem until this with her food getting stolen, she didn’t have any reason to retaliate, so this whole situation is bonkers.

    1. AMT*

      Booby-trapping your food (or anything) is actually illegal. Mens rea matters here. If the letter-writer HAD adulterated her own food with intent to harm the coworker, she could be in legal trouble in addition to the occupational consequences. However, it seems like OP is in the clear because she didn’t intentionally harm the coworker, in the same way that you’d likely be in the clear if the neighbor kid fell into a hole you were digging for a pond vs. intentionally digging a trap hole.

  56. Anna*

    Egads, although lunch stealing isn’t a common practice at my current job (yet), it makes me very glad I’ve gotten into the habit of putting my food in my desk in an insulated lunch bag with ice packs.

    Kudos to you for the spices btw. I’m with you on that one – spice fanatic! That guy shouldn’t be stealing people’s foods!!

  57. TT*

    This is ridiculous and it reminds me of an incident at my old job. I was once accused of burping at work. And not a “hey, that was gross TT” kind of way. My manager at the time sat me down with a written document and told me that two weeks prior someone heard a burp, came out of their office and saw me sitting at my desk. The conclusion was that I was the one who burped, even though I sat at the reception desk (read: high traffic area). She then asked me to sign the document saying I would no longer burp at work. At the time I was young and my first thought was that I couldn’t even deny or accept that accusation because I don’t generally make note of my personal gas.

    I didn’t know this, but she’d been told to reduce the size of her team and I was apparently her choice for being let go. She was just laying the groundwork for a performance-based dismissal. Unfortunately for her, she was the one they let go. Apparently trying to write staff up for something as silly as a burp didn’t speak well of her management skills. The phrase I used was,”Any further communications or requests regarding this matter will be handled by my attorney.”

    OP, at this point I’d be very leery of speaking to HR again on this matter. I’ve seen first-hand how verbal communications can be twisted and/or misunderstood.

    1. Allison*


      I have no words

      Now if you excuse me, I need to move to Alaska because I’m sick of people.

    2. Bowserkitty*

      That’s downright silly. Even if it had been you who burped, that’s not exactly controllable.

    3. Katie F*

      I love the idea of a manager who just randomly wants to fire an employee, and the employee’s performance is so exceptional/without fault that they have to resort to “YOU BURPED ONCE MAYBE” as the basis for a writeup. That is such a comedic level of desperation.

  58. Master Bean Counter*

    Here’s what I would say:
    If coworker really wants to sue me, for eating lunch out of my clearly marked bag, that contained a level of spiciness that is normal for me, the he is with-in his rights to find a lawyer that will take that lawsuit. I’m sure I will have no problem find one for defense.
    Now can we address the fact that someone stole my lunch? Is there something that can be done in the future to cut down on the thefts off lunches out of the fridge?

    I find that pointing out facts to bullies tends to make them back off. And note that in the topic of the lunch theft you are not accusing anybody and trying to find a solution to the problem.

  59. Argh!*

    Sitting here eating my very bland lunch thinking WTF?

    I wonder if threatening to charge the person with theft or with slander would shut up HR.

  60. AR*

    I am the HR for my company, and my boss and I discussed a lunch thief several years ago. The determination was theft is theft and if someone was caught stealing someones clearly marked lunch they would be terminated, period.

    And yes, I agree with Allison, your HR person is awful

    1. KT*

      Love that! I wish other companies recognized the seriousness of it instead of dismissing it as no big deal.

  61. Poohbear McGriddles*

    Maybe the HR person thought this fell under the “attractive nuisance” doctrine. Poor Fergus just couldn’t resist the OP’s lunch, so his violent reaction to it is all the OP’s fault.
    Normally this doctrine applies to children, but we’re talking about a lunch thief who goes crying to HR so maybe it’s not that far off.

  62. Chriama*

    “We cannot prove he stole anything” – I think this is a case of someone being dumb. Regardless of whether or not he “stole” the food, are they alleging that OP put spiciness in the food that he brought for himself? Because if not, whether or not he “stole” it in a legal/chargeable sense doesn’t matter. I think the coworker just made a really loud fuss about it (maybe bringing up the fact that food stealing is known in this office and so OP could have expected him to eat it) and they’re just trying to cover their bases in a super incompetent way. OP, I would really try to focus on the idea that they want to penalize you for preparing *your* food the way *you* like it and throw this back on them. Stolen, taken, offered, whatever. This was your food and intended for your primary consumption. If they acknowledge that fact then all this other stuff is groundless.

    1. BRR*

      Can they even prove it was the LW’s lunch then? This is so dumb it shouldn’t even happen in the first place.

      1. Chriama*

        Well if they can’t prove it was her lunch they also can’t prove it wasn’t, and they can’t prove any malicious intent. They can’t say “we don’t know he stole it” and turn around and say “but we know you sabotaged it”. Pointing out the logic gaps might be helpful.

        1. Dynamic Beige*

          If they can’t prove that he ate her lunch, then why is he insisting that it was her lunch he ate? I assume there were no witnesses, nor cameras in the break room and thieves generally like to steal in private. The “evidence” was flushed. So, technically speaking, it could have been *any* article of food in the room that caused the reaction — sour milk, a ThinMint, one stray peanut.

          The fact that the Lunch Thief is insisting that it was the OP’s lunch he consumed is proof of his theft and this whole escalating it to HR is further proof that the food was taken without permission — because otherwise, OP would have been able to say “Are you sure you would like to try it? It’s very spicy!” He’s simply embarrassed he got caught out and in the manner of bullies everywhere is throwing it back on the OP to continue to preserve his self image as a “nice guy” or “honest” or whatever.

          What kind of defense can he offer up? “I’ve been stealing my coworkers’ lunches for *years* and none of them ever made me sick until this one! Just last week, I stole Levi’s pastrami on rye and it was delicious! Delicious, I say! So good, I didn’t have any uncontrollable urge to purge it right then and there. Yum!”

          1. Chriama*

            I think HR (and maybe also OP) is getting hung up on the “stolen” terminology. That’s why OP should redirect them to the fact that this was her food. However he received it, it was prepared by and for her. Everything else is kind of a red herring.

      2. WhichSister*

        I imagine the could say OP’s name was on it but then the question would be if OP’s name was on it why did Lunch Thief eat it?

  63. Kristine*

    I want to ask a stupid question: if HR honestly thinks that one employee was trying to poison another, why not just call the police? Also – if they can’t prove that the thief stole anything, then how does HR know that the “poison” wasn’t “intended” for the OP? I’d throw that charge right back in their faces and talk about contacting the police – maybe that would scare them. What a load of malarkey.

    1. Chriama*

      I don’t think they’re thinking that clearly. Coworker probably made a big fuss and they’re trying to cover their bases by showing an internal investigation was done and the culprit reprimanded. It’s civil liability they’re worried about, not criminal.

  64. ThreeQuestionsSubmittedNoneAnswered*

    Frustrating that this fake-sounding ridiculous stuff gets answered and that real questions about admittedly less-sensational matters are ignored.

    1. Aurion*

      Alison gets a large number of questions and not everything will get answered. You could try the open thread on Fridays or try digging through the archive.

    2. KT*


      First, it’s her site and she can choose what to answer and what not to.

      Secondly, she gets hundreds of emails with questions. Not everything will be responded to.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Well, the majority of questions submitted to me don’t get answered simply because of volume. I get way more than I can answer. I choose questions to publish based on a combination of how interesting I personally find them and think others will find them, how often/recently something similar has been answered, whether I think I have something useful to say in response (I don’t have a useful response for everything, obviously), and what happens to grab me at the time I’m writing.

      1. Dynamic Beige*

        Looks like you’ve got proof of concept for your idea about just having posts with the questions from the letter writer without your comment and allowing the commentariat to weigh in.

    4. animaniactoo*

      You mean this issue that is so ridiculous that if not a fake story (and I believe the OP fwiw) leaves the OP with just about nowhere else to get well-regarded advice on it? Whereas less sensational issues are covered here all the time, regularly, and a similar enough issue and advice on how to handle it is probably present in the archives or through other internet searching?

    5. TCO*

      After years of reading this site, a lot of the “less-than-sensational” questions get repetitive. They’re things that Alison has answered multiple times before and/or frequently get discussed in the Friday open threads. The crazy questions like these keep me as a reader and commenter.

      Being upset about not getting free advice from a busy person isn’t exactly gracious or rational.

      1. AMT*

        I’m just here for the lunch bag pooping and greeting card genitalia! Seriously, though, I love it when the niche or bizarre stuff gets answered. Usually, it illustrates some general principal in addition to providing entertainment, so it’s not like it’s sensationalism for its own sake.

    6. disconnect*

      Yeah, because Alison is totally beholden to you for writing in with your Important and Pressing and Real matters. If it’s that important to you, seek legal counsel or hire a therapist.

    7. Biff*

      I think it’s the ridiculous stuff that people need the most help with, because well, people don’t believe. But it sure happens.

    8. Jessie*

      This one doesn’t sound fake to me at all. As several people have already mentioned, someone in HR probably got it (unfairly) into their minds that OP had booby-trapped her food to injure this person on purpose.

    9. Katie the Fed*

      You could ask for a refund.

      But seriously, there are not-that-interesting questions here all the time. She runs 7 questions a day, and maaaaybe 1-2 are noteworthy. They’re all important, but not that fascinating :)

      1. Dynamic Beige*

        1-2 per week. With there being about 1 a month that are completely off the hook and generate a lot of comments. Interesting, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

    10. LBK*

      I’d guess at least 50%, if not 75%+ of the questions Alison receives have already been submitted and answered (or there are very similar situations where the advice she provided could be applied). There’s only so many times and ways you can answer basic questions about whether you need to wear a suit to an interview (yes), whether you should follow up on your application (no), whether you need an objective in a resume (no), how to handle your coworker’s annoying habit (talk to them), etc.

      From the perspective of being a resource for people seeking job-related advice, there’s no merit to answering the same questions over and over when the archives exist. From the perspective of being a blog that updates several times a day, questions that haven’t been answered are obviously going to be more likely to get published, both because they add something new to the site’s bank of advice and because they keep it interesting for the people who read every day. And yes, sometimes that means it’s the sensational ones, because they’re the least likely to have a similar answer somewhere in the archives.

    11. NoWhiteFlag*

      It may seem ridiculous to you but this stuff happens. I know 2 people who have been fired in retaliation over the petty issue of lunch stealing. One coworker deliberately added pure capsicum power to his meal. The thief ate it, got mouth burns and went to HR. The offending employee was sacked and the lunch thief was only written up because he claimed that he made a mistake. The second time the coworker beat the crap out of the lunch thief and was fired. The thief was not even written up. However, he was verbally warned and told to be more careful. Many people don’t know that it is illegal to retaliate in this way. It is definitely a work issue and it can result in the loss of employment.

    12. OlympiasEpiriot*

      Heavens. Have you tried doing a search of the site? A lot of topics have been covered from multiple angles.

      This is an extreme story, but, hey, there are extreme office situations now and then. (Fortunately, I think they are rare.)

  65. Boss Cat Meme*

    Why would the lunch stealer tell his boss that it was YOUR food? Why didn’t the boss or HR ask the lunch stealer how it is that he came to be eating YOUR food? You didn’t give him permission to open your own lunch bag, paw through your food and just start helping himself to the items he wanted. But when there is a problem, he is stupid enough to go to his boss and TELL HIM he ate YOUR food!? That should have been the end of it right there. Your boss should have told him right then and there that theft isn’t tolerated in the office.

    I give you a lot of credit, OP, for keeping your cool, because if this had happened to me, and things continued after I explained it TWICE, I would no longer be a happy, cooperative “witness” any longer. Maybe you need to get a little angry at the next meeting and say outright this man is a thief, he violated my privacy, he stole from me, and now you are trying to protect his abhorrent behavior. He’s not the wronged party, YOU are. If the company is now going to start issuing policies about what you can and can’t pack in your own personal lunch, then I would suggest HR has a bigger problem on its hands, possibly with some discrimination here if your particular style of spicy food has anything to do with your ethnicity. Maybe this lunch stealer was trying to poison YOU if he’s putting his dirty fingers into your tupperware. The good part is, you know who the lunch stealer is now, and any one of you can go up to him and say, “Did you steal my food like you stole OP’s?” Then I’d give him a bill for the cost of your lunch.

  66. Ever and Anon*

    Alison, I’m not certain about your response. (Note: I am not a lawyer.) If LW had done this intentionally, or intentionally not labeled his or her food, there might very plausibly be a case. For example, if LW had set up a potentially harmful booby trap on his or her property without a warning displayed, and a burglar got injured in it, burglar could sue her. (Yes. There are real cases like this.)

    Since it was unintentional, the case may be shakier, but who knows. It is possible that the thief can allege that the “poisoning” was intentional and drag LW through the court if he or she really wants to.

    It’s amazing how often what a judge says and what makes sense diverge.

    1. Chriama*

      Yeah, I was thinking the same thing if the coworker was alleging that lunch-stealing was common and OP could have reasonably suspected someone would be eating her food. But I honestly doubt that the coworker is planning to sue. They’re kicking up a fuss because they’re PO’d and HR is afraid, incompetent, in-cahoots, or any combination of the above.

    2. HR Caligula*

      Alison’s response was spot on, remember we accept the OP’s word in what they post.

      1. Chriama*

        I’m pretty sure E&A was speaking from a legal standpoint. Technically anyone can sue for any reason, and HR might be worried about being somehow held liable. And there are somewhat relevant precedents. I don’t think the coworker is planning to sue, but if they did it’s not necessarily true that the case would get quickly tossed.

  67. KT*

    I was in a shockingly similar situation, but for a more bizarre reason.

    A friend of mine at work adopted a bird that was refusing to eat anything but seeds, and my friend was concerned about its nutrition.

    I make a mean “birdie salad” that tempts even the pickiest bird avian eater, so I brought in a tupperware labeled with her name. Birds love spicy foods–they will eat ghost peppers with glee–so this mix was made with many ghost peppers, jabaneros and other veggies.

    AGAIN, I labeled it with my friend’s name.

    Someone else decided it was salsa and decided to take a taste…burning his mouth in the process. He had to go to the hospital.

    Days later, he said I tried to prank him and threatened to sue. HR confiscated the tupperware, but once they saw the label on it, and that it was meant for someone else, dismissed his concerns and issued him a warning.

      1. KT*

        They are weird. They don’t have the same taste bud receptors as humans, so what is burning hot to us is sweet to them.

        My tiny parrotlet eats full ghost peppers daily–she consumes her own body weight in them haha

        1. Cathy*

          And Deity help you if you forget the bird is eating peppers and allow them to rub their beak on your face. Or worse yet, kiss you!

          (Birds don’t understand why Mommy is frantically washing her face/lips after this – they were just being loving and nice! LOL)

        2. Kelly L.*

          I want to say this came up a few weeks ago in the news! Someone figured out that super hot stuff repels some kinds of critters, but birds don’t care, and so some plants’ seeds evolved to be super spicy so they would be eaten by birds and not by other animals (IIRC, because the birds could travel farther with the seeds before…ahem…they came out the other end).

          1. Happy Hunter*

            I heard a story the other day about a volcanic island that had developed in the middle of an ocean. A tomato plant had cropped up and no one had any idea where it came from since birds able to fly the distance to the next island didn’t have access to tomatoes. Turns out, it came from a scientist’s scat. Disgusting? Yes. Fascinating? Absolutely!

    1. Katie the Fed*

      That is amazing. I also didn’t realize spicy foods could cause hospital-worthy injuries.

      1. KT*

        Shockingly common!

        There was a chef who came up with a special hot wing sauce, and at its debut party, every person was rushed to the hospital

      2. Stranger than fiction*

        hahaha now I’m picturing a whole different meaning to that song from Carmen.

    2. Katie the Fed*

      Also, it takes an enormous pair of, um, habaneros to threaten to sue someone after you stole from them.

      1. Gazebo Slayer (formerly I'm a Little Teapot)*

        Yeah. If I were that HR person, I’d just have given the guy a final warning for stealing the lunch – but I’d have fired him on the spot for stealing the lunch and then *threatening to sue because the food he stole was too spicy.* Someone with that much chutzpah is going to be nothing but trouble.

  68. boop*

    Well this would certainly piss me off. This is probably because OP is new. If HR is going to throw “we can’t prove it was stolen” in as their strongest argument, I would have to demand that they prove it was intentionally poisoned. The proof is the burden of the accuser. Sometimes remaining calm and professional and asking reasonable questions (How did this happen? What did he say? What evidence do you have?) is the only way to go, especially if you’re so new that everything you say is untrustworthy.

  69. Menacia*

    Why hasn’t a meeting been called with OP, coworker, manager and HR to get this straightened out before it goes any further? If this post is real, OP should demand that be done immediately. OP should also submit a counter-complaint to HR about said coworker for defamation (slander). Rational minds will hopefully prevail.

  70. AF*

    Even if the person thought it was their lunch (and grabbed it by accident), and even if the OP poisoned his lunch, how would he know immediately that it was the OP who had committed this act (and not any of your other coworkers)? So that proves that he took a lunch that wasn’t his. I guess they could know that the OP likes spicy food, and claim that that’s how they narrowed it down to determine the culprit, but even that is a huge stretch.

    But now you know who’s stealing the office food. OP, good luck and please update us!

    1. Leatherwings*

      Only a little bit of laxative. It would serve him right.

      Disclaimer: I’m kidding.

    2. Hlyssande*

      I’m more in favor of the kind of prank you can do with cadbury cream eggs – carefully open them with a hot knife, scrape out the filling, refill with some viscous sauce or other (ketchup/mustard/something unexpected that tastes horrible with chocolate), then melt it back together and rewrap.

      But no, I’m not in favor of actually setting out to harm someone for real.

      Now, if the whole office started bringing in really spicy food for lunch, I’d be all in favor of that.

    3. Floral Laurel*

      When I was younger and perturbed by my older sister, I used to do a magic trick to her soda, which would include whispering terrible things (“I hope you have diarrhea!” “I hope you get frizzy hair!”) on the ice cubes and wave my left hand over it. Perhaps we can figure out Lunch Stealer’s soda of preference and wish him a lifetime of spicy lunches!

    4. C Average*

      Back in high school, one of my friends (whose mom always packed him a delicious lunch) was targeted by a lunch thief. So one day his mom sent him to school with money for hot lunch and a booby-trapped lunch. The booby trap? A sandwich and several cookies, each with a square of fake fur inside. The thief wasn’t harmed, but he was definitely grossed out and publicly humiliated, and my friend had no further lunch theft incidents.

    5. Isabel C.*

      Hee! Yes in principle, no if you have to share a bathroom. ;P

      Also liking the non-toxic but revelatory booby traps suggested below.

  71. vivace*

    HR “can’t prove” that LunchThief stole the lunch, but they sure seem fairly confident in their ability to prove that OP’s intentions were malicious. Wow.

  72. Michele*

    I would get the higher ups involved in this matter. It’s ridiculous. If you’re not known for sharing your lunch, then you didn’t share it with this man.

  73. Bob*

    I can’t imagine saying anything other than “Good. Sounds like karma at play.” if I was questioned by my boss about someone getting sick after stealing my lunch.

  74. peanut butter kisses*

    I tend to be a passive aggressive person and I am trying to not be that way but after reading the responses here, I have noticed that the posters feel that both HR and the thief are in the wrong here. So here is my passive aggressive response – I would think seriously about letting other co-workers know what happened and let the thief and HR’s reputation take the proper hit here. I would also mention to the boss who has their head on straight that with HR’s action, you are starting to think it is a hostile work environment.

    1. animaniactoo*

      Fwiw, that’s not passive aggressive. That’s just aggressive. Passive aggressive indicates a lack of action in a way that can be interpreted as a nuisance. i.e. You agree to be responsible for bringing in milk for the shared coffee station, but regularly forget* so that somebody else has to go do it.

      *Either accidentally or purposefully.

    2. Aisling*

      And “hostile work environment” does not mean “hostile” in the usual sense of the word. It means a work environment where q person is being descriminated against for an illegal reason: race, gender, religion, etc.

  75. Al Lo*

    This reminds me of my elderly great-uncle. When he was still living alone and refused to have help, he ate very poorly – very little fresh food, not much solid food (because all dentists are evil, so his dental health [and quantity of teeth] was lacking), and so on. He is also a very paranoid person, prone to thinking that everyone in the family is out to screw him over. Well, after one family dinner, he accused a cousin of poisoning him, and no amount of reasoning that his system was just unused to rich holiday food, which made him feel ill, could convince him otherwise. Some rickety family bridges were burned during that incident (which came on the heels of accusing family members of conspiring to steal his estate and withhold medical care from his recently deceased sister [my great aunt]). I don’t think he’s the person that OP’s coworker wants to emulate.

    1. EvilQueenRegina*

      Reminds me of my old flatmate at university. She was vomiting on the last morning of term once and immediately thought our other flatmates had put something in her pasta sauce. Thing was, she had been very drunk the night before. If I had been that drunk I would have blamed the alcohol initially for vomiting and even if I hadn’t been drinking I would have thought it had gone bad before I accused anyone of tampering with it!

      Relations were bad between them but I genuinely doubt any tampering went on there.

      1. fposte*

        There was an AAM poster who had a horrible manager and who suspected the manager of putting water from the toilet into the OP’s drinking bottle. (OP came back and admitted she hadn’t realized that water bottles can get foul on their own, but the OP’s manager still sounded pretty horrible.)

        1. Hibiscus*

          There was at least one MIL poisoning the DIL on Carolyn Hax (maybe this was in Dear Prudie when Yoffe was Dear Prudie, but I think it was Hax), and it turned out the husband stilsided with his mom. And the great Vice story about the growing up with a grandmother who poisoned various family members and probably killed some.

          1. Dynamic Beige*

            There was some story about a SIL or a MIL not believing that allergies were a real thing. So they made something with the allergen the letter writer carried an Epi-pen for and didn’t tell anyone. When the letter writer started gasping, wheezing and eventually had to be taken to hospital, the SIL/MIL person was aghast, but still wasn’t 100% convinced that allergies were real.

  76. Cass*

    Wow, that’s unbelievable! Feel really bad for the OP in this situation…

    Maybe HR thinks it was a revenge-type situation – I saw recently online something about someone’s coffee creamer always getting used so she swapped it out with her breast milk?

      1. AnonInSC*

        I cannot express the RAGE I would feel if someone stole that hard earned liquid gold.

    1. Bend & Snap*

      I nursed so I’m not grossed out by it but drinking someone else’s breast milk when you don’t know the state of their health or anything at all is NOT the same as putting hot sauce in food when you suspect a food thief. That totally grossed me out.

  77. Sheryl*

    If this was me, from now on, everytime I packed something spicy for lunch, I would clip a waiver of liability to the outside and a note that says “Caution- very spicy today. If you are going to steal this lunch, please sign the attached ‘hold harmless’ agreement”.

    1. OlympiasEpiriot*

      While the OP’s letter actually made me gasp, THIS response made me laugh out loud. Thank you. This is a TERRIFIC idea! Maybe thus could become a product available at Staples or through WB Mason…on a pad, post-it note style, with some kind of adhesive that works despite condensation.

    2. Salyan*

      With small print that promises a $20 reimbursement for consumption of said lunch. ;-)

  78. Sophia Brooks*

    This kind of reminds me of a situation that happened at my part time job, in which I work with college students. One of my coworkers was let go (his position was eliminated) , but they allowed him to work until the end of the year. Apparently he got sick after drinking something one of the students gave him. A few days later the student and the department got a VISIT FROM THE POLICE, because he called them to tell them he had been poisoned by the student!!! I am not sure what exactly came of it, but because our HR was fairly on the ball, I know the coworker was let go immediately and escorted off the property. But he really thought the student was trying to poison him, although I don’t understand the logic, as they got along quite well!

    1. Not Karen*

      It’s possible. When I was in middle school, some of my schoolmates poisoned the art teacher by pouring Windex in her coffee.

      1. addlady*

        I’ve heard of stuff like that happening, but my good teacher friend actually thought that sort of thing was usually an accident that kids got too frightened to admit.

  79. Menacia*

    Something I forgot to add…we seem to be missing what the OPs coworker said. He is accusing OP of poisoning him, but there is no mention of why he thinks this, why he thinks it was her and how he came to this conclusion. Obviously there was some mention of how spicy her food is, and she proved she could eat spicy food in front of her boss, but is the argument that he took her food, had a bad reaction from it, and assumed she made it that way on purpose so as to poison him specifically? And yes, your HR department sucks because it’s not taking the actions of OPs coworker, over whom she has no control, into account at all. I REALLY hope there is an update (and/or the OP posts some responses to our questions).

  80. Boss Cat Meme*

    I am REALLY sensitive about this issue, because we had a thief at one of the places I worked. Every month, we had a full organization staff meeting, and every month, they would report that there was a “theft” in the office. Money had been taken out of Susan’s wallet, in her purse, in her closed drawer, in her office, when the door was closed, when Susan was away from the office for a few moments, so don’t leave your valuables in your desk. The next month, Jane’s money was stolen out of her wallet, and her office is next to Susan’s. The funny thing is, we only got paid once a month, and the thefts were always on a day or two after payday. After the third announcement of a “theft” in the office, people just sat there shaking their heads. I had to say something.

    I said, “Look, I know nobody wants to hear me say this, and nobody wants to admit it, but we clearly have a thief in the office here. Somebody in this room is stealing from us, and that stinks. There is no one who came in “from the outside” and there are no “visitors” who are going to sneak in and steal money from a wallet. You all know this is an inside job, and that makes this theft all the more tragic. We all work together closely, and we all trust each other, and you know what we all make and how we’re all struggling to make ends meet, and yet you would steal money from people out of their wallets, knowing they have kids to feed and bills to pay and need cash for the subway, but you are going to steal money from their wallet? There’s no excuse for that. You should be ashamed of yourself. Just STOP IT! Stop stealing from your co-workers because we know it’s someone here and you can’t hide behind the idea that it could be a stranger any longer. We all know it’s somebody in this room.”

    And everybody just sat there not saying a word with their heads down, which I thought was kind of funny. Like everybody already knew who the thief was but didn’t want to look at them and give them away, or so I thought. A few days later, my office assistant, who shared with me all the juicy office work-related secrets, told me that people were angry with ME because I had accused them all of being a thief. I said, “well, that’s just ridiculous and you all know it.” We never had another theft after that, but I was annoyed that so many of my co-workers were perfectly fine with being a victim. I have ZERO tolerance for office theft now.

    1. Katie F*

      Ugh. The number one part of office politics I hate is the diffused responsibility thing – how far everyone will go to avoid “standing out” or sticking up for themselves because there’s this intense unspoken pressure to “let it go” or “just go with it” or “don’t make waves”. Ugh ugh ugh. I hate it so much.

      I can’t believe your coworkers decided to all turn on you as one unit. That’s just not even understandable to me.

    2. Jessie*

      I had something very similar to me. I had over $100 stolen out of my wallet at my old workplace and mentioned it to my direct supervisor who then announced it in a meeting with the larger team that there had been a theft. His boss then proceeded to lecture me about not securing my wallet because it ’caused the theft’ and led to everyone being suspicious of each other (never mind the issue of the fact that someone took money out of my wallet.)

      1. A Bug!*

        Ugh, that’s disgusting. “We’re a trustworthy workplace, and you spoiled it by trusting your co-workers. For shame.”

      2. Brandy*

        my dumbass brother used to take his wallet out and just leave it on his desk. He’d walk off. Be gone. Anyone could’ve gotten into it. I lock my wallet up. He could’ve at least put it in a shut drawer.

    3. Petronella*

      Actually, I’ve come to believe that the vast majority of office OMG THEFT! FROM MY DESK! MY LOCKER! MY PURSE! are just people misplacing things themselves, or forgetting them at home. Been through a few witch hunts in my time.

  81. Stranger than fiction*

    Can I just say, what is up with people going into other people’s Tupperware and eating their food? Because that is just gross! They may have already eaten out of it and so it contains some strangers spit, among other things people have mentioned here like medications. You also would have no idea if it’s fresh or spoiled. I could see someone stealing mustard or some creamer, but this is just yucky.

    1. Biff*

      I’ve always figured it was generally either the case that someone was too broke and could no longer deny their hunger (I’ve had some remarkably poorly paid jobs) or that they had some form of compulsive/disordered eating. I think it’s fairly rare for this to stem from pure jerkiness, though it clearly sometimes does.

      1. LCL*

        My food used to be sampled regularly. It was especially disgusting when it was good cheese spread, you know they were just sticking their finger in the container. Of course everyone blamed the (lower paid) security guards, because security gets blamed for everything. I almost caught someone in the act; he was opening containers, looking in them, and cussing at them and putting them back. He was not a security guard.

        1. Meg*

          Someone used to eat my string cheese at my old job. Drove me crazy. Not so much because they ate my string cheese but because the thief would leave the empty string cheese wrapper trash in the bag, which I would never do. I wouldn’t have even noticed the missing string cheese (I bought the giant bag of string cheese from Costco) if not for the trash left in the bag! I really wouldn’t have minded if someone took my cheese as long as they cleaned up after themselves.

    2. Allison*

      Right? Someone else has touched that food and you have no idea what kind of conditions it was prepared in!

    3. Katie the Fed*

      Yeah seriously. I might swipe an abandoned Hot Pocket in a pinch. But not someone’s home-prepared food. That’s beyond gross.

      1. Biff*

        Or on the other hand — if someone has made one of those dishes that is basically ALL substitutions (mostly soy.) It can taste pretty convincing, but it will clean you out. Super clean. Nothing in your guts.

    1. Not Karen*

      Someone put up a similar “your mother does not work here” message at my office, which confused me, because there is an employee whose mother also works here.

      1. KellyK*

        Both my current company and my last company are fond of hiring coworkers’ family members. At the last place, there were two mother/kid pairs, plus a woman who was the CEO’s daughter in law. Here, there are a *lot* of couples, at least one pair of siblings, and two parent/kid pairs that I know of. If I’m ever in charge of putting the passive aggressive note on the fridge, it’s likely to say, “Even if your mother does work here, you still have to clean up after yourself.”

  82. FiveWheels*

    I would be tempted to tell HR “If he wants to sue me, please let him go ahead. I will counterclaim for trespass to property and harassment and will seek to fix him with both costs and punitive damages in respect of his absurd and vexatious litigation. As proceedings have now been threatened I will not discuss this with you further. This is my attorney’s address. Direct all correspondence there and please ask my colleague to do the same. Even if proceedings are not issued, I will expect him to pay any and all costs incurred. Good day.”

    These people are being ridiculous and the mention of suing you is either delusional or a bizarre attempt at a threat. Play their game right back at them.

    That said I’m not necessarily a good source of workplace advice.

  83. I'm Not Phyllis*

    This is insane! So, if you had put peanuts in your lunch and Lunch Thief were allergic would they suggest you were trying to kill him? The Lunch Thief obviously admitted to eating your lunch since HR came directly to you to complain … but yet they can’t prove it? Yikes, man. If this wasn’t such a serious accusation I’d be laughing. I would definitely loop your HR and management back in confirming that he stole your lunch which was labelled and not intended for anyone but you … I guess there’s not much you can do if they choose to pursue this except to show that you’ve taken it as seriously as they do and state as often as possible that it was YOUR lunch that he stole and that you didn’t intend to harm anyone. Good luck!

  84. HotHotHot*

    This might have already been address (haven’t read all comment) but regardless of reasoning, attempting to poison someone is a big accusation. He had a strong reaction and got sick because of too much cayenne pepper, not arsenic. Good lord.

  85. FiveWheels*

    As well as getting legal on them, I would definitely make a formal complaint as follows :

    1 Colleague stole my lunch and admitted same. Theft of personal property.
    2 HR acknowledged that colleague stole lunch but is refusing to discipline the thief or do anything to protect me from having my property stolen.
    3 Colleague is harassing and bullying me by making unsubstantiated and unsustainable complaints about me.
    4 HR is harassing and bullying me by attempting to punish me for being the victim of theft, while supporting the self-identified perpetrator.

    Every meeting will be with your attorney and/or union rep present, and you will all take detailed notes of everything said. If your attorney attends they’ll pay for his time. And unless you get an immediate apology from the thief and HR, for both the original theft and subsequent harassment, you will pursue this matter further.

    Sometimes you might as well go nuclear.

  86. Ellen N.*

    To the posters who don’t understand how HR is saying that it isn’t clear that the lunch was stolen. First, don’t shoot the messenger. I know that there are lunch thieves at most workplaces and that stealing other peoples’ food is despicable and, of course, I know the original poster is being truthful. Here is a possible scenario. The thief doesn’t want to be known as a thief, so he/she tells HR that the original poster offered some of his/her lunch and it was so spicy no reasonable person could eat it.

    1. fposte*

      Doesn’t fit with the OP or the reaction, though–HR’s response to that would be “Why are you telling me this?” and not “You probably have grounds for a lawsuit.

    2. fposte*

      Sorry, I think I misunderstood what you were saying–that this was the OP pranking the co-worker.

      1. Ellen N.*

        Yes, you misunderstood. To clarify further, when I worked in an office I would offer to share my lunch if someone had forgotten theirs or if I was making something I thought the coworker would like. Conversely, I had coworkers share theirs if they’d made something they thought I would like. If HR is saying that they don’t know for sure that the lunch was stolen, my hunch is that the lunch thief untruthfully told HR that the original poster offered to share. Lunch thieves are sometimes more than just jerks. At one office where I worked there was a woman with an eating disorder who compulsively stole other peoples’ food. She was equally compulsive about lying about stealing food. As a funny aside, my food never got stolen. I am a vegetarian who cooks my own food. When I told a coworker that my food was never stolen, he said, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure nobody wanted your vegetables.”

        1. fposte*

          Now I’m confused again. I can see HR being annoyed with the OP if they thought it was a prank, but not if it was shared sincerely.

          1. Ellen N.*

            If HR thought the food was shared on purpose and that it was at a spice level intolerable to most and the spice level was not disclosed. some people would consider that poisoning. I do believe that the food thief lied, but HR seems to be looking at it differently.

          2. Myrin*

            I think Ellen is saying what several others said above, as well: That the only way HR could have concluded that the lunch might not have been stolen would be if the coworker had said that OP had actually willingly shared her food. Coworker would basically say: “OP offered me some of her lunch, which I accepted, but as soon as I took a bite, I couldn’t breathe anymore. Clearly she put something in the food and only offered it to me in the first place because she had planned on poisoning me!”.

        2. Katie the Fed*

          I have never heard of people sharing their lunches with coworkers who forgot theirs.

          1. I'm Not Phyllis*

            It happens – I’ve had someone share theirs with me before when I lost my wallet and had literally no money with which to buy anything. It was kind. And if the food had been too spicy for me, I would have politely said so – not accused them of trying to harm me.

  87. LadyCop*

    My experience with HR tells me none of this is surprising. Also, while adulterating food is a felony…this person has no legal grounds to stand on. No different than if their reaction was due to an allergy that you didn’t know they had…even if you had offered the food.

  88. Pennalynn Lott*

    Not work related, but my ex-step-dad used to eat all of my food. I was 17, had a job, and was expected to buy all of my own food. (Yep, it was a crazy situation at the time). But then he would eat literally *everything* I bought, leaving me with nothing I could eat (because I was under threat of being thrown out if I ate anything that he or my mom had bought for themselves or for the rest of the family, which included my older brother and my younger step-brother. . . I was the only one who had to fend for herself). He would mainly eat my prepared foods, because he hated cooking and had no idea what to do with raw ingredients.

    Anyway, I found out my step-dad hated cayenne pepper. So — boom — I learned to love chicken salad with cayenne pepper. Mac-n-cheese with cayenne pepper. Roasted chicken with cayenne pepper. Potato salad with cayenne pepper. Ground beef with cayenne pepper. I even dumped some of it in my canister of instant hot cocoa so that he’d quit using it.

    I’m so glad now that he never accused me of poisoning him.

    1. Pwyll*

      That sounds terrible, I’m sorry.

      But, bright side: All of those foods with Cayenne are delicious.

      1. Pennalynn Lott*

        I now don’t think mac-n-cheese tastes right unless it has some Cajun seasoning in it. :-)

        1. Pwyll*

          I’m all about the crushed red pepper freshly ground from a peppergrinder, myself. On top of Trader Joe’s Mac and Cheese. It’s so good.

    2. GigglyPuff*

      I had something like that, not that horrible or to that extent. But for part of grad school and after I lived at home with my mom and my adult brother. He has a mental illness, so when it comes to certain things my parents tend to well “coddle” him, even if it’s something he could handle that’s a complete normal part of being a human and living with other people.

      I tended to do most of the grocery shopping, my mom hates it. But I’d still use my money for certain things that weren’t going to be communal. Never failed, he would also eat them. Whether in the middle of the night or while I was at work, etc. It annoyed the sh!t out of me. In the beginning because I would shop at stores further away, like on the way home, that would have different foods/brands than the ones my mom went to. So no matter how many times, she was like “we’ll go pick you up what he ate at the store”. No you would have to drive 20-30 mins to get it at the only grocery store that sells it, and usually she wasn’t willing to do that.

      Later it became about the fact that I saw it as stealing and both my brother and mom didn’t seem to grasp that wasn’t something he should be doing. Because I would tell them if he just asked, I would typically let him have it, but he never would. (Kinda a sore subject for me, because my mom isn’t going to be around forever for him to live with, and while she tells me, I don’t need to be responsible for my brother. He’s still my brother, so I want him to be able to function outside of a family dynamic. Argh)

      1. Lily Evans*

        My sister (who was just a straight-up brat when we were younger) would do that with ALL OF MY THINGS. And it would make me so angry, because I was old enough to have a job so I had to buy all my own soap, shampoo, clothes, everything, whereas my parents would still buy all of her stuff. And somehow I was the one who’d get in trouble for bringing it up and “causing trouble.”

        1. Dynamic Beige*

          That was what was happening with a college friend of mine. She was required to buy all her own clothes, toiletries, cosmetics etc. from the age of 15 but her younger sister would then just help herself to them. If my friend brought it up or told her no, loads of tears and angry parents accusing her of being selfish and that she should share with her younger sister. I told her that wasn’t right, she had bought it with money she had earned and therefore it wasn’t community property. And that she should get a lock on her door, which I believe she eventually did.

      2. FiveWheels*

        I just want to say – you share my life. I’m in a very similar situation with an adult brother who has undiagnosed mental health issues which may be the cause of some challenging behaviour. But the challenging behaviour isn’t what makes him difficult to live with, it’s difficult because he won’t accept that someone else might have a point.

        If you constantly eat special cupcakes apparently left by the cupcake fairy and people constantly get angry about it, perhaps consider that while YOU think it was fair game, other people might not and their anger is predictable.

        Argh. It sounds petty and unfeeling when I, as an adult, get so upset about my brother eating me food. But after years and years of similar issues it’s just exhausting.

      3. Alix*

        My brother did the same damn thing – to make it worse, he likes everything, so there was no way to just find foods he hated. I finally had to buy myself a mini fridge to keep all my food in my room, then had to replace the lock on my room so it was an actual solid lock.

        He then took me aside and repeatedly told me about how in his view, if he had something and I wanted some I could just take it (lies! he’d’ve pitched a fit) and so therefore if he wanted something of mine he could just take it and I couldn’t complain because that was selfish. I pointed out to him that that was commonly called “stealing” and his response was that there is no stealing from family or friends.

        Still never let him near any of my stuff the rest of the time I lived there.

      1. Pennalynn Lott*

        Aw, thanks ArtsNerd and Minister of Smartassery. I had a childhood that was waaaay worse than the couple of years I spent under the same roof with that particular step-dad. [Ha. I had 5 step-dads, in total.] My mom was a boundaryless, narcissistic, bi-polar alcoholic for most of my life, so the whole “Men and boys come first, and should always be coddled; while you, girl-child, do their work for them and toil away in extreme neglect” thing was just one of many, many injustices and unfair things visited upon me by her. She is better now, but still incredibly self-centered and narcissistic.

        But that’s what therapy and learning self-care and how to parent yourself is for. :-)

        1. AnonAcademic*

          You sound like such a resilient and grounded person. I am continually impressed by the recovery possible from narcissistic parents. My in-laws qualify as such and I’ve seen how hard some things are for my husband as a result; knowing some patterns are common in these situations is both reassuring and sad.

  89. Pennalynn Lott*

    Also, this is where I re-tell the story of how my Diet Cokes kept being stolen out of the communal fridge at IBM. I tried labeling, I tried putting them in one or two at a time (so the thief wouldn’t feel as though they were only stealing a small portion of a big thing), I tried putting one in the freezer about 30 minutes before I thought I’d want it. . . nothing worked. So finally I went out and bought the brightest red lipstick I could find at the drugstore, grabbed my six-pack of Diet Cokes (which were held together top-up with those plastic ring-thingies) and kissed each can right over the pop-top opening, reapplying my lipstick in between “kisses”. No one ever stole my sodas again, so long as I remembered to anoint each with a bright red lip print.

    1. Purest Green*

      “Remember to thank Pennilyn Lott just for being Pennilyn Lott!” Sorry, couldn’t help it. I enjoy your username.

  90. Kriss*

    Stealing lunch is a firing offense at my employer. we had a problem with someone taking lunches & so there was a meeting pointing out that this was theft & the company policy on theft was immediate dismissal. the lunches stopped disappearing

    1. Grumpy*

      I worked at one place that told new hires during orientation that security wanted to know if lunches were being stolen since it usually means that the same thief is stealing other things from the company. It’s like a warning system for more serious theft.

      Also, hee. OP, would love if you’d share the recipe for the truthful-spicy dish!

  91. anon (the other one)*

    The thing that makes the least sense in this story is the level of spiciness and the thief’s apparent contention that he ate the entire lunch, thus getting sick. If the food was THAT spicy, wouldn’t one bite put you off? Who keeps eating something super hot and spicy if they don’t like hot food?
    Someone has it in for the OP.

    1. Alix*

      I will say some spiciness doesn’t hit you immediately – slow burn rather than immediate heat. It sometimes depends on how fast you eat, too – if he’s bolting the food down to avoid being caught with it, he could conceivably eat the whole thing before registering what he ate. (I mean, I can eat a whole sandwich in four bites, and my brother can do it in two.)

    1. Aisling*

      Why? The OP wasn’t planning on it being stolen. OP wouldn’t have to warn herself that it’s spicy.

  92. Lily Evans*

    This whole thing is so ridiculous, it could be a sitcom plot line. It would fit right in with, “I found a sandwich in your park and I wanna know why it didn’t have mayonnaise.” and “There’s a sign in Ramsett Park that says do not drink the water, so I made sun tea with it and now I have an infection.”

    I hope things work out in your favor, OP!

    1. aebhel*

      The saddest thing about Parks and Rec is how very not exaggerated some of the scenarios are.

    2. JPlummer*

      Right on, Lily! I thought this topic had the makings of a truly epic Seinfeld episode but Parks and Rec, also awesome.

    3. Liana*

      That’s one of my very favorite scenes from Parks and Rec – as soon as Ron starts frantically swivelling away, I lose it every time :)

  93. Chris*

    This has spawned some interesting discussion, but my big takeaway is that you better freaking update us, OP. Seriously.

  94. ChristmasCarol*

    Old joke goes something like this: Note written on lunch bag–Please don’t eat my soup, I’ve already spit in it. Reply written in different handwriting–That’s OK, I spit in it too.

  95. Coolb*

    Maybe the lunch stealer has a condition that must be accommodated under the ADA, like a compulsion to eat people’s lunches. LOL

  96. Ben*

    If this true, I believe there is something deeper here than a superficial complaint to HR. My guess is there is sexism, racism, or some other discrimination against this individual that is being perpetuated by the “food-stealing” coworker or the company’s HR department. We don’t have much to go off of without knowing the gender or race of this person.

    This could also explain why the boss was silent in this, racism is a touchy subject, especially if they fear for their job too. In my previous company, we had something similar with an Indian coworker was verbally attacked by some other coworkers about her food she brought for lunch

    1. Biff*

      Attacked?! Why? Seriously, how screwed up do you have to be to chew someone out on account of THEIR LUNCH??

      1. Coolb*

        Somebody who is offended by the smell might stop there and not consider that it could be considered racist to only asks Indians, or Asians or Hispanics to not bring THEIR smelly food in.

        1. Biff*

          Oh, if we were banning foods on smell, Indian food would NOT be high on my list. Hotdog mac-n-cheese however…… (horf)

          1. Alix*

            Right? For me (whitey mcwhitegirl) the nastiest smelling food on the planet is sausage gravy, followed very closely by cream of mushroom soup. I’ve had to leave the room before because someone was cooking a casserole with cream of mushroom (fortunately, that someone was my sister and she was very understanding).

            OTOH, I will cheerfully eat all the Indian food, and I love the smell of kimchi.

            1. Julia*

              This White Girl cannot stand the smell of tuna (it was the last food my cat would eat before she died), but loves curry etc. I blame my Japanese boyfriend who really loves spicy food.

        2. Not Karen*

          What are they going to with me, the 100% white person who eats tons of Asian food??

  97. Tangerina Warbleworth*

    I’m wondering if Lunch Stealer has certain attitudes about who should be in the workplace. Specifically, I’m wondering if the OP is of Asian descent. Have you ever had kimchee? It can knock your head right off. So, if you’re a lunch stealer, then you’re going to steal from the person you don’t think will make a fuss — a stupid person might see an Asian woman has someone who won’t speak up. So he eats her Six-Alarm kinchee, then goes to HR with his redonkulous complaint when his real agenda is that {racist word} {sexist word} shouldn’t be allowed to work anyway. HR might also then look to the woman all “Why aren’t you passive and obsequious and apologetic like you’re SUPPOSED to be?”

    It’s ugly, but entirely possible.

    1. Biff*

      I agree with you that it is unfortunately plausible, but I gotta also say that just reading that made my skin crawl. :(

    2. La*

      This was my thought too and I was surprised that no one else mentioned it! I’ve read a lot of stories of people of color, particularly from asia (oh what a broad descriptor that is) who have been harassed about their “weird foreign food” or their “absurdly spicy food.”

      Racism (possibly worsened by sexism) is really the only thing I can think of to explain why HR is holding someone who’s clearly in the right accountable and not holding accountable someone who’s clearly in the wrong.

    3. Maria*

      I don’t understand how Lunch Stealer can complain without implicating himself. Either it was an accident, because the food was meant for LW, or it was intentional, because Lunch Stealer has a known history of workplace theft.

  98. Anonamousy*

    Like everyone else, I’m baffled that HR is taking this complaint from Lunch Stealer seriously…

    A-ha! I know! Your HR is ALSO made up of a bunch of Lunch Stealers. A Coalition of the Lunch Stealing, if you will. No doubt that a significant number of them have also been ‘victimized’ by unpalatable spoils in their lifetime of culinary piracy, and so they salivate at an opportunity to clear yet another fridge of contact mines laid within the bounty of sandwiches, snacks, and salads. You know that scene in the beginning of Pirates of the Caribbean where Jack salutes the remains of his fallen brethren as he sails into port? HR is Jack Sparrow, holding their caps over their hearts as they drift past your coworker.

    If only your coworker’s barf-stained clothing *could* be hung near the fridge as a warning to all…

    (OP already got plenty of solid advice from Alison and the comments here so I felt like trying to lighten up a shitty situation. I’m otherwise just appalled by all this)

    1. Troutwaxer*

      A coalition of lunch stealers. That sounds like the “Coalition of the Swilling.”

    2. catsAreCool*

      My thoughts are that the thief is related to someone important at the office and this HR person is in a “duck club” with him.

      Or the thief knows something about this HR person that would get the HR person into hot water.

      Or the HR person is blackmailing the thief and wants him to stay employed so he can pay the blackmail.

      Or the HR person was hypnotized by the thief.

      Or the HR person was in some kind of traumatic accident that has affected the brain, hopefully temporarily.

      Or the thief and the HR person were going to eat that lunch together.

  99. Amber*

    And HR answers like this are why I started writing “I licked this” on my lunches a a previous job (and part of why it is a previous and not current job.)

    Even if your job is safe, start job hunting. If they are this crazy, do you want to stay?

  100. Fluffer Nutter*

    Someone took our unpaid intern’s lunch last week. Talk about low down! In addition to everything previously mentioned, How does a Lunch Stealer know that the person’s food wasn’t already half eaten and then packaged? I do that all the time- get full, bring the rest for lunch. Sometimes don’t even eat if for a few days. So you’re eating someone else’s saliva + whatever Germ Du Jour?!? Insane. That said, at Worst Job Ever I was told on my first day not to leave any food on the desk since the company’s founder walked around and took bites of whatever he felt like.

    1. Christopher Tracy*

      That said, at Worst Job Ever I was told on my first day not to leave any food on the desk since the company’s founder walked around and took bites of whatever he felt like.

      Whaaaaat?! Lol

      1. catsAreCool*

        At the very least, they should tell people that during the job interview.


        I work at a company where the founder was in charge for quite a while (until he retired), and (fortunately) he wasn’t anything like that. I’m grateful that not everyone lets power go to their heads.

        1. Fluffer Nutter*

          Yup. It’s great that we’ve invented, you know, cars and pizza but as a species we’re exhausting.

  101. Narise*

    Sit down with HR and ask about the coworker stealing the lunch. If HR states they can’t prove the lunch was stolen my response would be then you can’t prove the coworker ate it and the subject is closed.

  102. Johanna Smith*

    I’m so disgusted by this. I’m sure you feel like you’re in the twilight zone. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE update us. I don’t even think I can wait for the conclusion. Send an update every day!


    There are too many comments I’m going to get infuriated before I get down the thread.

    I can’t help but wonder if OP is a “minority” where culturally their food is known to be spicier… black, Indian, Latinx, and OP is white/HR is white/Company is majority white. Willing to bet, based on my own tastes what a lot of white people I know consider spicy isn’t even a 1 on my spice scale. That just tends to be a cultural difference.

    The problem is how HR is handling this. If there is a race/cultural difference here I can’t help but believe that has a lot to do with why entitled ass bob is being left off the hook for being a THIEF while you are being threatened for being different. I hope you take HR to task for this! How dare they.

  104. Vicki*

    OP –

    Invite the HR person to join you for lunch.
    Share a bite of your lunch.
    Proceed to consume the rest.

  105. Milton Waddams*

    I know about the problems the field has been facing — the scam of a certification process (the drama between SHRM and HRCI during the split is pretty juicy, if you are interested), the collapse of basic research after sociology radicalized in the 70s… I mean, most of the folks I’ve met in HR seem to be admin assistants who made a lateral move, rather than anyone who has studied the discipline with any academic rigor, but everybody just laughs it off and says, “I know — HR, right?” in the same way that people make jokes about lawyers. It seems like every other day there’s some story of “HR behaving badly”; why aren’t industries taking this more seriously?

    1. Callietwo (no longer Calliope~)*

      I just scrolled through all the comments with control F for “OP”… fyi there are currently 577 references to “OP” in this thread but no updates from said OP. Sad Panda!

      1. OlympiasEpiriot*

        I started to do that this morning when there were only 120-something ‘OP’s. Quickly decided I’d just wait for an update to be highlighted or called out by Ms. Green. I’d like an update, too.

  106. Adele*

    I was mulling this over yesterday, and one possible explanation that I thought of is that the coworker is trying to claim some kind of workman’s compensation for an “on the job injury”, like maybe he had to go to the doctor after throwing up the spicy food. Hence, the “HR investigation”. Otherwise, I can’t think of anything that makes an iota of sense. Either way, the obvious answer is to stop stealing people’s lunches! I hope the OP sends an update.

  107. Wolf*

    We had a guy at my old job that would always take other people’s food and whenever we would order something altogether, he would always say he didn’t want any and then eat anyway.
    We got super sick of it, so one day I brought in two pounds of sugar free gummy bears and left them in a bowl on a table in the office. He probably ate a full pound of those gummy bears, commenting that they seemed sweeter than any gummy bears he had ever had.
    Then it hit him.
    He stopped taking other people’s food after that.

      1. Adara*

        Not the poster, but sugar free gummy bears are made with sorbitol and too many can cause diarrhea. Same with sugar free cough drops.

  108. Ben*

    Another scenario: let’s say you were a diabetic with celiac’s disease, and your lunch was the only food in the office that you could eat. Coworker steals your lunch, your go into a diabetic coma. Now you are hospitalized, and this thief is not dismissed. Does the company pay your hospital bills?

    Ask the hr what the company policies are concerning theft. Ask if it is grounds for immediate dismissal. Ask if by failing to dismiss this employee for theft are they putting the burden on you to file a police report of the theft to protect yourself. Ask if your mutual boss (you and the HR person) wants a uniformed officer coming to your place of business to take said report, or if you can work it out amongst yourselves.

    This HR person needs to go.

  109. Kim*

    If they can’t “prove he stole anything”, then they are not acknowledging that the food was yours (or more specifically, that it wasn’t his), and therefore you are not responsible. To admit the food is yours is to acknowledge was stolen, which makes a very weak case. So, unless he is lying and saying that you GAVE him your lunch, they have no case. Also, as the food was clearly edible, there was nothing actually harmful in it.

  110. To Turn Dirt Into Gold*

    Well, first off, advocating the same that many others have here – cover your butt, OP, and seek a free consultation about this. Nothing lost in doing so, and it may save a whole lot of hassle in the long run.

    On a lighter note, I did have something similar (though accidental) happen with me – a coworker and I had both brought in tacos in nigh-identical tupperware, both labeled with our first name… Which happened to be the same very common male name. When I cook tacos with company, I have to make a separate batch for myself, because I enjoy my food spiced to what my family refers to as ‘nuclear’, despite the fact there’s nothing in my cultural/ethnic heritage that would leave me inclined to it, and this was known to the people I worked with. My coworker mistakenly took mine, and made it through about two bites before regret set in with the vengeance of a thousand suns (and six different varieties of pepper ranging from ‘banana’ to ‘jalepeno’ to ‘ghost’, along with salsa and hotsauce). So, as with others in the comments, I can see how it could be accidental (were it not for the comment for coworkers in OP’s post about food theft that OP was vaguely aware of) – even something as simple as chicken wings can do it, if the person eating it is expecting teriyaki or mild buffalo sauce and gets mouthful of Frank’s Extra Hot, Louisiana Extra Hot Buffalo, and Good ‘n Evil hotsauce.

    The only (rational, and how I wish co-workers were) way the Lunch Thief can claim he was intentionally ‘poisoned’ by the OP that I can see, is if the container was labeled with his name, or the OP directly gave it to him. With HR stating that they ‘can’t prove he stole it’, then it would logically follow that they also would not be able to prove that what he ate belonged to the OP, unless, as stated previously, he has lied to HR and stated that the OP gave it to him. So perhaps it would be worth it for the OP to speak to coworkers located near them in the office who would have been there at the time the food was consumed and can therefore vouch for the fact that the food was not given to the Lunch Thief by them?

    As with the rest of you lovely folks, I look forward to an update. (And also hey, first post, I hope ya’ll enjoy the $0.02 I put in – I’m more familiar with property/mineral rights laws than anything with my current job, which is immensely satisfying – sit on the river, drink whiskey, and pan for gold and make three times what I did working a ‘real’ job!)

  111. Ange*

    I think I would tell HR that they, along with the co-worker are making for an unpleasant work atmosphere and that you are considering legal action for this. This is harassment, clearly and hearing it might turn legal might be what it takes to stop this. You may also seek a public apology from them since they have made this personal and everyone in the office knows it. You may also say that there should be something in the co-workers records that show him as a thief.

  112. Bran*

    If HR takes it any further, I’d recommend hitting your local CBC Radio – Or other journalist points. Make it public. Defend your honor.

  113. Cg*

    What if the thief had a food allergy like to nuts or something, and they had a reaction to the food they stole from you. Is that now also your fault? How far does this go? It’s like if someone breaks into your house, falls and breaks a leg… They can sue you. So ridiculous and infuriating.

  114. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

    As with many before me, my assumption is that since lunch thievery is a known problem, HR thinks the letter writer over spiced their food on purpose to catch/deter the lunch thief from further illegal behavior. Putting something like ex-lax or eye drops in your food in the hope that it will harm a thief is technically against the law. So, HR probably thinks the added spice was done with malicious intent. But again, once the employee and HER MANAGER explained that’s just how she eats it, the whole thing should have been dropped and the thief should be in trouble.

    I wonder if the thief is friends with HR, if there is a racial component (letter writer is Indian or some other culture that eats very spicy food and discrimination is happening), or what else could possibly be in play here that HR is acting so unreasonably.

    Allison, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE email the letter writer and get an update – I NEED to know what happened!

  115. Jantique R. Fielding*

    And I’m thinking possibly Miss Spice should contact Legal Aid. It wouldn’t hurt to at least walk into the HR office with an official legal opinion from a real lawyer.

  116. Judge Foody*

    I would make a police report for theft. If that was your lunch and your lunch was labeled then that coworker knew without a doubt that it was not his or her food. A lot of people steal peoples lunches and more and the person has the audacity to sue you and make it a issue with HR. I would file a police report and they will take a report for it. It’s clearly theft, no matter how petty and all of a sudden that civil law suite b.s. turns into a criminal matter. Case closed. That thief got exactly what they deserved and I bet it’s not the first time that ever happened.

  117. Judge Foody*

    One more thing to note, I would get a copy of the complaint this coworker is making with HR and great allow him to try to take this b.s. to court. You mentioned that the office was having a issue with “someone” stealing others food out of the refrigerator and there you have it. His ass got busted. The b