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

I’m off for Memorial Day, so here’s an older post from the archives. This was originally published in 2016.

Don’t miss the update, which is also linked below!

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 and definitely should read an update to this post here.

{ 131 comments… read them below }

    1. Joan Rivers*

      Someone previously said this would make a good Coen Bros. film. but I thought it even could be a Tarantino one if it hadn’t turned out so well for the LW.

    2. London Calling*

      One of the ones that got me reading this site. As a contractor at the time it was such a comfort that there were workplaces that made some of the ones I worked in look boringly normal.

    3. Heidi*

      Were the other two the boss who wouldn’t let the Leap Day birthday employee have a day off every year and the guy who ended up working for his ex that he ghosted after living with her for 3 years? Both legendary. I still love the one about Hawaiian rolls, though. And the one where the OP had to leave work because she cried so hard because her co-workers celebrated her birthday and she’d never had a birthday celebration before.

      1. EPLawyer*

        I would put the one where the Manager didn’t let the employee off for her graduation but did let people off who had concert tickets. Then wanted to talk to the employee about her unprofessionalism after she quit rather than miss her graduation.

        1. Akcipitrokulo*

          That was the one that introduced me to the site!

          Although epic, I prefer this one because of satisfactory update.

      2. iceberry*

        There are some legendary ones, my personal faves include the ex that ghosted (the story to rule them all), and the young manager trying to be the fun/friend manager and made one employees life miserable she felt wasn’t the right fit. The employee left and reported the dynamics during her exit, which led to the manager and entire team getting fired – there was a bit of back and forth with Alison and the total lack of awareness and digging her heels in was something to behold.

        The OP who was a high school bully trying to break into an industry where her victim was a rockstar and didn’t want to work with her bully was another great.

        1. Elizabeth West*

          Wasn’t there a letter or a story about a trophy made from a Barbie doll painted gold and given to someone as a trophy? Or am I imagining that one?

          1. PollyQ*

            That’s definitely real! Some kind of Xmas or end of the year prize of some sort.

            1. londonedit*

              And then someone in the comments turned up and said ‘Er, this is weird…but I met the people with the gold-sprayed Barbie doll awards in a bar that night…’

        2. Doxiefan*

          Do you remember the title of the young manager one? I don’t think I’ve read it!

        1. Grizabella the Glamour Cat*

          OMG, yes. Definitely one of my faves. The best part of that was the string of updates. It was like a soap opera, and then that terrific ending!

      3. Cat Tree*

        My favorite is the employee with “initiative” who waited until her boss was on PTO, then went to her grandboss for permission for something her boss didn’t want her to do. Then she was fired and felt that she was the aggrieved party.

        I don’t think I’ve come across the ghosting ex though. Off I go to search.

        1. tangerineRose*

          You have something to look forward to! And check out his reply later. Yikes!

        2. Lecturer*

          OMG you haven’t seen the ghosting ex? Read the updates as well, that is just as dramatic as the original letter!

        3. Heidi*

          I envy you being able to experience the saga of the ghosting ex for the first time. It’s an emotional rollercoaster that veers between horror and hilarity.

        4. Akcipitrokulo*

          Oh yes! The one where “initiative” had me wincing all the way through… each time thinking it couldn’t get worse, but no…

      4. Grizabella the Glamour Cat*

        And Hanukkah balls! Remember that one? One of my faves for the sheer, lighthearted absurdity of the whole thing.

        Now that I think about it, “Hanukkah Balls and Hawaiian Rolls” would be a good title for an AAM greatest Hits collection. Or maybe “Hawaiian Rolls and Hanukkah Ball.” Take your pick!

      5. Safety Dance*

        Another favorite: The manager who created a clique, pushed out the hardest working employee because she didn’t participate in the on-duty beer runs and then complained because the employee was too good with clients. An update showed the manager had done a lot of soul searching after being fired.
        Also, the one where the mom managed her daughter and wanted to hunt down the person who had anonymously (legitimately) complained about the daughter violating work rules.

    4. 30 Years in the Biz*

      Mine too! I think I’d put the quacking “Duck Club” as #2. Not sure about #3.

  1. Amber Rose*

    Make sure to tune in to today’s episode of “Why Did They think They’d Get Away With This?!”

    Really. It boggles the mind that the HR person in this story thought everything would end that easily.

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      Yeah – if the lawyer hadn’t been contacted and sent the letter then HR definitely would have been able to pull this off. Makes you wonder if HR had pulled something similar before.

      (And the whole depth of craziness from the letter makes me think that this particular HR person want the height of professional to begin with.)

    2. Rav*

      Makes me wonder how many times they’ve gotten away with it. I wouldn’t be surprised this isn’t the first time she did this, not necessary to protect Lunch Raider, but other situations.

      1. Katie*

        Bad HR Rep: And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!

  2. Keymaster of Gozer*

    Best friend at my last place used to absolutely love ghost pepper jam sandwiches (jam from an amazing deli about 10 miles from here). When one guy decided to nick her lunch to try and ‘prove’ that she was totally a weak woman who was lying and it was ordinary jam…

    …well, he got no sympathy for the amount of time he spent in the kitchen afterward pouring milk down his throat while crying.

    Thankfully, that all blew over without the insanity of the spicy food AAM post!

    1. Elenna*

      Now I’m imagining your friend taking a second sandwich and pointedly eating it in front of the thief as he swallows milk. Preferably with lots of comments on how deliciously spicy it is. :D

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        She did!

        (Got to admit to being a bad influence on her: I was kind of a mentor to her – me a senior tech and her just starting in IT – and she definitely had a real evil streak by the time I left!)

    2. Dancing Otter*

      Speaking of peppers…
      My BIL made remarks about my mother’s “bland” cooking while a guest in her home one Christmas season.
      I hadn’t bought his gift yet, so I went to a candy shop and bought jalapeño jelly beans, and another place to get a big cowboy boot-shaped jar. The jelly beans were bright green, just like lime flavor, and of course there was no label on the jar.
      Don’t insult my mother.
      Hey, he SAID he liked spicy food! Nobody forced him to put a whole fistful of candy in his mouth at once.
      We did not hear any more complaints about the cooking.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        I made the mistake of thinking those pepper gummy sweets were regular sweeties once – I like spicy food (chicken madras yum) but the shock of unexpected mouth burn was embarrassing!

  3. EmKay*

    I have a university undergrad degree in English, yet I cannot express how much I love the dénouement of this saga.

    It’s just so beautiful **wipes away tear**

    1. London Calling*

      It pretty much covers every heroic theme in one letter. False accusation, being an outcast, realisation that the hero/ine has been wronged, restitution, re-instatement (on better terms) after a period in the wilderness and punishment of the real culprits. Perfect.

  4. VI Guy*

    The first time I read AAM was the update to this one. Not a surprise that I stayed with it!

      1. Unkempt Flatware*

        I’d love to hear from the HR lady who was fired. What was she thinking?

      1. Grizabella the Glamour Cat*

        OMG, yes, the update is The. Best. Part!

        Seriously, the outcome was even better than I remembered. SO satisfying. *sigh of contentment*

  5. AlexandrinaVictoria*

    This is the post that introduced me to AAM, and I was, of course, totally hooked.

    1. Queer Earthling*

      Same! I feel like you can’t read this kind of absurdity and not want to stick around.

    2. PhyllisB*

      One of the first posts I read on AAM was from a woman who’s office was being renovated. They were laying new floors and she was invited to come take a look at one of the completed floors. Well, she stepped in some wet concrete and went skidding down the hall (in short skirt and high heels) past other offices “half shrieking half apologizing” and slammed into a wall. This image cracked me up so that my family came running to see what on earth was so funny. (Not her slamming into a wall of course, just the idea of screaming and apologizing as she went skidding down the hallway.) Have been an AAM reader ever since.
      Before you ask, I don’t remember exactly when this was published, but it was quite a while back. I believe 2007? 2009? If anyone is interested I’ll try to locate. Or if Alison is reading this and remembers, perhaps she would be kind enough to share the link

  6. Mike on the Mic*

    Someone stole this on Reddit’s “Am I the A-hole?” recently. But they added a twist that the food thief and the HR rep were having an affair. Lol

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      I almost wonder if it was a case of the original person just being so baffled that they wrote into more than one column for advice. I’ve seen that before.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        Second thought occurred just after I hit post: the office lunch thief is unfortunately way too common of a problem, and those of us that like spice are the ones that get yelled at when it’s our turn to be stolen from.

      2. twocents*

        I’ve heard it’s fairly common for people to write the same thing to multiple columnists, as the likelihood of getting an answer is fairly low.

        And IANAL, but I have heard that if you deliberately sabotage your lunch to punish a thief (e.g. add laxatives), there actually could be some liability.

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          Oh I can totally see how if you deliberately sabotage something for it to be stolen and get the thief sick, you getting in trouble. But in the OP’s case, it was just Mr Vanilla Thief stole food from Mr Ghost Pepper Chef. In this case I think it’s more a case of the thief getting their “just deserts.”

          1. NotAnotherManager!*

            Agree – my first question to Mr. Vanilla Thief would have been, “Why are you eating Mr. Ghost Pepper Chef’s lunch?”

        2. it's-a-me*

          I recall a story about someone stealing some peanut butter popsicles from the office fridge. Problem was, they were dog laxatives the owner had recently received from the vet. They sent out an open email to the office to recommend that person see a doctor.

        3. I heard it both ways*

          boobytrapping is illegal in many (most? all?) states. But eating things others don’t eat is not. So as long as it is something that you would eat yourself (hardly anyone really eats laxative brownies but people who like spice have spicy sandwiches) you are okay.

          1. 10Isee*

            I worry about this sometimes because I have to limit my carb intake and sometimes eat sugarless candies in very small amounts. When other ask to try one, I always warn them only to eat one or two… but I know when I’m not around people will sometimes grab a handful and munch away. I know from unpleasant personal experience what damage that may visit upon their bowels. I’m afraid some day I’ll be accused of laxxing someone when the truth is… moderation is key.

          2. Dancing Otter*

            My daughter likes to make Raisin Bran muffins to share at work. The recipe makes a huge batch, and they’re moist and delicious. (Now I want to go make a batch. Num, num!) Look up Six Week Bran Muffins.
            It’s not as though you can’t tell what they are. As long as you’re polite and only take one, the bran won’t do you any harm.
            There’s always that one person in every workplace, though, isn’t there?

    2. Office Rat*

      Yes! that is where I saw this before. I knew I had seen it, and it was missing the affair part.

  7. Mainly Lurking (UK)*

    YES! One of my all time favourite updates!

    (And I’d still love a Favourite Updates post one day …)

  8. feeling old*

    One of my my all time favorite post and updates from AAM! But whoa, it was posted almost five year’s ago?! I remember it so clearly when it was first posted I could have sworn it was only a couple years old.

    1. Certaintroublemaker*

      Yes, same!

      Later I was catching up via the links at the end of posts and realized I had come across the column before—the woman who had interviewed for a well known non-profit where she had to team up with 20 other candidates and put together an impromptu party for the board at the ED’s home. Also a wild ride! I realized that I had been well justified getting hooked on the column.

  9. Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii*

    A part of AAM lore, well known, crazy and satisfying in the end.

  10. Bookworm*

    As someone who has had “minor” things (soda) stolen and once worked at a law firm where it was fairly obvious a new hire was stealing people’s lunches (and even a particular tea I liked! :( ) this post had me from O_O to :D after reading the update.

    I’m glad the company went above and beyond to make things right

    1. Windchime*

      I used to keep a box of diet Coke under my desk and would drink it warm (yeah, I know. Gross.). I only drank 2 a day so I knew how many should be in the box, yet periodically one would go missing. Finally I put a note on it that said, “Stop stealing my pop. It’s not yours.”

      Turns out it was a night housekeeping person. She saw the note and told one of my coworkers that she had only taken one because her blood sugar was low. Um……it’s *diet* coke. It doesn’t contain sugar. At least they stopped disappearing after that.

      1. Iron Chef Boyardee*

        “I used to keep a box of diet Coke under my desk and would drink it warm (yeah, I know. Gross.).”

        Not gross. I used to keep 2-liter bottles of soda at work, at room temperature, and drink directly from the bottle.

        I’ve since changed from soda to Crystal Light style drink mix (because it’s cheaper and I don’t have to worry about schlepping 2-liter bottles of soda), but for the purposes of this post the important thing is that warm soda, or at least room temperature soda, is not gross.

        1. Bryce*

          You get different flavors. I know Coke has a bit of cinnamon I don’t taste cold. These days I usually use ice to pace myself though, too easy to chug soda without thinking about it unless I keep refilling a glass.

      2. PollyQ*

        Def. not gross. Some fizzy drinks taste better at room temperature, e.g., La Croix flavored sparkling water.

    2. WS*

      I don’t usually wear lipstick, but when someone was stealing my partner’s soda at her work, I put some on and kissed each can on the (closed) ringpull/opening area. She didn’t have any problems after that.

  11. Yvette*

    I am jealous of all the people that are reading the original for the first time today and get to read the update right away.

  12. Lizy*

    I still have so many questions. What happened in the HR meeting where OP was fired? What did the HR person tell their boss?? What did Food Thief tell their boss??? HOW IS THIS NOT THE GREATEST AAM STORY EVER????

    1. D3*

      For me the GOAT of AAM is a tie between this one and the dude who ghosted his live-in girlfriend (moved to another country while she was out of town without saying a word!) and years later discovered she was his boss.

      1. Alice*

        Oh wow I had somehow missed the story of the dude who ghosted his girlfriend, that was a TRIP. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. I hope the girlfriend is doing well.

        The spicy food thief is of course a classic. But my vote for greatest AAM ever has to go to Guacamole Bob.

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          Guacamole Bob was my introduction to AAM, and I’ve been hooked ever since. I actually went back an read almost the whole archive too.

    2. The Starsong Princess*

      I also liked the interns who submitted a petition protesting the dress code.

    3. Iron Chef Boyardee*

      The story that sticks in my mind is the one about the boss who would fire anyone who didn’t sign up to be a liver donor for his brother (4/27/16).

      Link in the first reply so this post doesn’t get stuck in moderation.

      1. Slinky*

        That was the post that introduced me to Ask A Manager. There were a lot of off-the-wall letters in 2016!

        1. Elizabeth West*

          2016 was a very weird year altogether, and then 2020 said “Hold my beer…”

          1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

            Yeah – crossing my fingers that nobody dares 2021 about anything………

      1. hlyssande*

        Ah, love that one so much. I think there needs to be categories for GOAT. Happy Endings, Bad Boss Behavior, Ridiculousness, etc.

  13. AnonInCanada*

    I always love happy endings :-). The guy and his HR fling got burned in more ways than one! Just as satisfying to read the update today as it was four years ago.

    1. Chidi-Janet & The Tarantula Squids*

      Maybe Alison could do a round-up of happiest updates.
      – This one
      – Go get your dog
      – I racked up a $20k debt on the company credit card
      – My boss wants to give me his kidney

  14. Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii*

    Would be nice to have an update on this one, did the OP climb the ladder, move to another company, run into the perps outside work?

    1. AnonInCanada*

      Maybe you missed the update link in the original post. It’s a doozy, trust me!

      1. Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii*

        I read it, but since then if the OP got promotions, moved on, ran into the bad guys, who knows.

  15. That's my food*

    I agree with Allison about going on the offensive, but I would do so in a much more aggressive way. I’d genuinely go file a police report for theft. Obviously nothing of value justice wise would happen with that, nobody will prosecute a single theft over a sandwich, but its something. I’d also go get a lawyer to write up a letter telling the company to cease and desist their harassment of me. To be honest, I’d jump the gun a bit and do this before it reached the level of actual harrassment. I’d then take both the letter from the lawyer and the police report and email literally every senior person in the company I could think of. My boss, his boss, the CEO, president, every member of hr for the whole company, the legal department, everyone. Tell them you were the victim of a crime and believe you are being harassed because of that and it needs to stop immediately. Go hard, this victim blaming is not ok, and it’d be my goal to find somebody with at least an ounce of brain matter who is in a position of power to do the right thing.

    1. NerdyKris*

      That sounds like a fantastic way to burn every professional bridge you’ve ever made.

    2. Grizabella the Glamour Cat*

      Did you even read the update? The OP did get a lawyer, he wrote a letter to the company, and…. oh, just go read the update. You’ll be glad you did!

    3. Jamie Starr*

      That sounds like a great waste of the police’s time. I’m in New York and I think they’d probably laugh if someone wanted to do that. I once had to file a report for attempted larceny for work (someone hacked into our bank account and tried to wire funds out of state) and they barely cared. Good luck with a stolen lunch.

      1. Jamie Starr*

        Perhaps I should add that in my company’s situation, the amount of the attempted theft was in the tens of thousands of dollars. Not a huge amount in the grand scheme of things, but also not small enough to simply overlook.

  16. Lecturer*

    How about a ruling of no suing when it is ducking stupid? Like trespassing in someone’s garden and then suing when you get injured. HR should have been terrorising the thief (theft is against the law)!

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      Ah yes – but the update let us know that per the office grape vine, HR was dating Mr Vanilla Lunch Thief. It made a bunch of things in the first letter make so much more sense.

  17. Elizabeth West*

    Somebody on a site completely unrelated to this one mentioned this post not long ago without saying where they read it. Of course, I recognized it immediately! Definitely one of the more memorable letters.

  18. CoveredInBees*

    I have thought about this letter at least once a month since it was published. It is so wild.

    1. The Rural Juror*

      When describing this site to my mother, this was the story I referenced. We were both rolling laughing! She’s had an office thief in her office before and she thought it was so funny!

  19. Marion Ravenwood*

    This is still one of my favourite AAM letters ever.

    Also it has led me to the ghosting ex story (oh wow) and the origins of Guacamole Bob, for which I am very grateful!

  20. June First*

    This is my all-time favorite post on my favorite site and Alison revisited it on May 31, my birthday.

    I’m delighted.

  21. Camellia*

    If the OP still reads this site, please consider giving us an update now – are you still with the same company, happily moved on to another, gone to live Your Perfect Life after winning the lottery? Please let us know!

  22. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

    One of my favorite AAM stories. Out of all the characters/plot twists, I find the HR-thief fling the most baffling one – there are four (or eight? I don’t know this HR rep) billion people of your preferred gender in the world, and you choose the one that works with you, steals his and your coworkers’ lunches, and puts you in a position where you have to defend him in a professional capacity and risk losing your job? Just why? People are such a mystery to me sometimes.

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