my new employee argues even when he’s wrong

A reader writes:

I have a newly hired employee who is bright and creative. This role is a new one for him, and it requires him to interface with the same people regularly both internally and externally.

He has a habit of arguing that he is right even when he is shown to be wrong or just refusing to entertain a different point of view. To give just one example, he argued that his spreadsheet was perfect even though I found input and formula errors it. It was a complex worksheet so errors are likely to happen — that is why I was looking at it with fresh eyes. He argued I was wrong until I showed him the raw data compared to the worksheet. His excuse was that he had taken a cold tablet but otherwise it was perfect, except it wasn’t — I found more errors in my second review. This happens frequently.

Others have commented on this habit and he has already alienated another senior person. We have a client that he cannot work on for the same reason. He has been here less than three weeks. I admit this gets my back up so I am need a script to address this calmly explaining why this (not malicious) habit could hinder his growth.

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

Other questions I’m answering there today include:

  •  Employees keep stealing food for meetings
  • Can I let employees know I’m willing to be a reference for them?
  • I want to stop networking with a vendor

{ 192 comments… read them below }

  1. Wildcat*

    The detail that the guy had only been there 3 weeks just floored me. He managed to alienate a senior employee, coworkers and a client in just 3 weeks? And he still has a job?

    1. Heidi*

      Found the original letter. The OP says in the comments that they told the employee that this pattern of behavior was going to limit his career prospects and he was shocked to learn that there was anything amiss with what he was doing, but seemed to recognize why it was problematic when it was pointed out. They agreed that he shouldn’t be doing client-facing stuff for a while. Maybe this was a success story?

    2. WellRed*

      You have to work hard to be that awful! Also, the old “medicine made me do it” excuse is not nearly the great excuse that so many people think it is. Totall eyeroll.

      1. Selina Luna*

        I literally just took a DayQuil, and so far, I have not even once argued that I was right in the face of insurmountable evidence. Maybe I should start? I mean, I would probably lose all the relationships I’ve built with my high school kids…

      2. Salymander*

        Yes, the “medicine made me do it” was bad, and when he followed it up by saying that it was “otherwise perfect” I rolled my eyes even more. So, he isn’t responsible for the mistakes because he took medicine, but the work was perfect anyway so there were mistakes? This person sounds like he is covered in Teflon, and all suggestions, criticism and reasonable expectations just slide right off of him.

    3. OP1*

      OP1 here. As people predicted, it did not get better. He continued to struggle with understanding client needs and argue with other team members who tried to correct him. It was exhausting and I spent most Sundays going through his work. In month eight, he asked me when he would get his own accounts so that no one would review his work and “change” it (as in making sure it is correct). When I explained that no matter what all work is peer-reviewed before it goes to the clients. Further, the work product was no where near the level that it needed to be in order to give him the lead on any account.

      I was actually negotiating a severance package for him as it was clear it was not a good fit.

      He was shocked. He came in the next day and resigned and walked out without notice. He had no job lined up but lied about it.

      After that, two of his prior employers (small industry) told me he had been in the same position — left before he would be fired. He had told me a third company had fired him (it is known to be a tough place so I did not blink).

      I think it was more clueless than malicious but it was easier once he left.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

        Thank you for this update! There does come a point where cluelessness travels over to deliberate sabotage and I think being canned from more than one job is hitting that point, even in a tough industry.

        One can only hope he’s gained some reason.

      2. CatBookMom*

        Back in the late 70s at our CPA firm, we got stuck with an intern like this #1 character. Kid aced the CPA exam the first time, but had no actual workpaper skills and really minimal social skills. His handwriting was so bad we couldn’t figure out how he passed the CPA exam, which was then done in pencil on actual paper, and you had to show your background calcs. He added hours and hours to the time to finish jobs (over the prior year), over his refusal to admit that he didn’t know how to use an adding machine or calculator, over how he made such messes of his spreadsheets (remedial erasing class was needed), and the time arguing with him, getting him to re-do the work. We successfully begged the partners not to hire him, to make our lives easier going forward. He didn’t last more than a year at his first full-time job, and they had similar stories.

      3. takeachip*

        I’m curious how this pattern didn’t come up in reference checks. I know lots of companies will only confirm dates of employment. Was the information withheld, or did someone drop the ball on the hiring end?

      4. Wildcat*

        Yikes, poor you.

        I train people at work and a hard lesson I had to learn is that you can’t fix people at work who aren’t willing to fix themselves. I had one trainee who was constantly fishing for me to do his work for him and I realized I had to stand firm. All those Sunday hours were you putting in the work this guy wasn’t willing to put in himself.

      5. anon thx*

        This story actually infuriates me as I’m currently dealing with a manager who is trying to fire an excellent employee who the manager has bullied for several months straight, for non-existent reasons that will probably land us in court. If only more managers were as dedicated, patient and excellent as you, OP1.

      6. Ozzac*

        I would have ejected him way sooner. Making mistakes is normal, but denying them is what a kid would do. A not smart kid.

    4. Stoppin' by to chat*

      Also makes me wondering about the hiring process. This person sounds very immature as well, so have to think at least some of this behavior came out in the interview. I know this is an old letter, but would love to hear about the interview experience.

    5. Louis*

      In a previous job I had, a new-hire alienated everyone on the team within a matter of days.

      They parted ways with the company within about a week of being hired, which let’s just say was for the best

  2. General von Klinkerhoffen*

    It’s a really good thing I’m not a manager, because I would have zero patience for #1 or #2.

    I hope #1 was resolved very quickly.

    I think sometimes #2 situations happen when employees are severely under-compensated or under-valued, so they try to claw whatever benefit they possibly can, in a literal feeding frenzy. Assuming LW2 knows this not to be the case, I think the yardstick solution might not have been a bad idea.

    1. Cait*

      What is WRONG with the #2 people??? Who just helps themselves to food that is obviously not for them?! It’s one thing if it was apparent the food had been offered, attendees took it, and now the meeting is done and there are leftovers waiting to be thrown out. But to just see catering laid out and dig in when you’re not a part of the meeting? What’s are the thinking???

      1. KHB*

        I can see it as a situation that’s spiraled out of control over the years because nobody has ever been willing to tell these people “no.” One day, somebody’s lizard brain just takes over, and he sees a pile of bagels and can’t resist sneaking one. Nobody seems to mind, so he does it again the next time, and the next. Over time he gradually gets bolder, his colleagues see what’s going on and start joining in, and so on.

      2. velomont*

        Would it be wrong for management to look at the food issue as theft? And I don’t mean in terms of calling the police, but in terms of weight of the issue when some sort of counselling (and possible dismissal if eventually appropriate) is required.

        1. KHB*

          If the perpetrators have been directly told to stop and they keep on taking food nevertheless, that’s certainly grounds for firing if management wants it to be. (The problem, in the original letter, is that management didn’t seem to care.)

        2. Antilles*

          Yes, it’d be wrong to do that.
          Calling it theft and going to formal discipline (what I assume you mean by “counselling”) is way too drastic for a first step. It would come off as a massive overreaction when OP seemingly hasn’t even tried to solve the issue through a simple “hey please stop” request.

          1. Antilles*

            To be clear, if OP did try to address it, then it continued to happen, you’d be fine to elevate it to their manager (or possibly your own manager, depending on power dynamics). But it shouldn’t be your first step until you can at least say you tried the polite and reasonable approach.

        3. Dust Bunny*

          No. It’s theft. It’s a set of materials that should have gone to someone else.

          Which doesn’t mean the LW can’t address it with a talking-to first, because not all thefts require the nuclear option, but it’s still theft.

          1. Dust Bunny*

            We had an intern who kept taking the bottled water we keep for patrons. She was told several times that it wasn’t for her/us (employees don’t take it, either) and that she should either drink the tap water or bring her own water if tap wasn’t to her liking. She kept doing it until my boss told her to stop or he’d cut her internship off and she wouldn’t get her [professional degree], at least not with our help.

            There were other issues, but some people are just like this.

            1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

              “There were other issues” yes jerks rarely confine themselves to one thing.

        4. WellRed*

          I think a warning not to do this as well as a gentle query on possible food insecurity (which I doubt is the case in most instances) could go a long way. Those who need help could get some, those who are greedy should frankly be embarrassed.

          1. Forrest Gumption*

            Yeah most people do this out of plain old greed, and a smaller subset out of food insecurity, but I did know one guy many years ago who used to regularly scoop up ALL the leftovers after every meeting. And this was a large company with DOZENS of meetings every day, so this guy was gorging himself. I found out after I left the company that he had suffered from compulsive overeating for years. Not sure if he every got disciplined for the food pilfering, or if he ever got help for his overeating problem…

            1. GrooveBat*

              I think some folks do it just because it’s something different and exciting in and otherwise routine, boring day.

              I used to work for a large financial services company that did a really good job catering meetings, and we had to put signs reading “DO NOT STEAL” on all the food. Still, people would lurk outside the conference rooms waiting for meetings to break up so they could swoop in and scarf up the leftovers.

              Many years ago, I read a really funny column in The Boston Globe by a guy who had come to the gradual, horrifying realization that he was becoming “that guy” who hovers near the conference room waiting for the leftovers. To him, it was just the break from routine rather than the free lunch that motivated him.

            2. AcademiaNut*

              There’s also the justifications.

              “It’s just *one* bagel, no-one will miss it, and I’m hungry.”
              “I work hard and my employers are jerks – I deserve this bagel.”

              A lot of bad behaviour can be explained by people genuinely thinking that they are special exceptions to the rules, and not realizing everyone else thinks the same way too.

          2. Salymander*

            This seems like a kind way to handle things. I used to take leftovers from work when I was young because of serious food insecurity, though I would have waited until the end of the day after the meeting so that it wasn’t a problem. And I always asked first. I wanted to be considerate, and I felt too ashamed to do anything so bold and unmannerly as stealing the food before it had even been served. I wouldn’t have wanted to draw attention to myself.

        5. The Starsong Princess*

          Some years ago, we had problems with the food ordered for classes disappearing before the people who ordered it had a chance to eat. Our director sent out an email that going forward, anyone taking the food would be sanctioned, up to and including dismissal. He ended firing a guy over it. Eventually, the mandate was extended to leftovers as we were ordering too much food because we had no idea how much to order. We were able to cut the food budget by a third so it worked out well.

          The policy was anything placed on the round table in each kitchen is fair game. Taking anything else was considered theft. But there’s lots of food that’s fair game – I don’t think anyone has the right to complain.

      3. Heffalump*

        It’s always been clear to me that when the food has just been put out, you don’t take any unless you’ve been invited to that meeting.

        In my experience it’s pretty normal to put the food out and up for grabs by all and sundry once the meeting is over. But in that case it’ll be clear that the food has been picked over. You’ll also see people exiting the conference room, or an empty conference room.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          This. Where I am, nobody touches anything until the all-staff email gives the all clear.

            1. Elizabeth West*

              On my floor at Exjob, we did the same. After the food day or a meeting elsewhere on the floor was over, leftovers went to a specific table in the break room. Everyone knew anything on that table was up for grabs.

          1. WantonSeedStitch*

            Same. We have a “vulture list” that people can get on if they want to be notified of leftovers after parties or meetings. At least pre-COVID, we’d all jump as soon as the e-mail came out, but no one pounced until then.

        2. ScruffyInternHerder*

          I’ve worked in a few places where there’s been one employee who did not grasp this concept. Catering laid out for a meeting, obviously stated that its for people in XYZ meeting which will be out at lunch-o’clock, and still? There’s that “one guy” who’ll grab food when he’s not in the meeting…

        3. The OTHER Other*

          This is clear to most people, but as with many things, a few bad actors can ruin it for everyone. I worked in a call center where stealing food was a recurring issue.

          When we were busy, the company would provide lunches for those who worked OT through lunch (yes, it was paid, at time and 1/2 if you went over 40 hrs). And sometimes they’d provide coffee and muffins in the morning for employee appreciation. Maybe this set off a “free food” brain signal, because other food and coffee for meetings, client visits, etc would frequently get taken. Sometimes the client visit food was catered meals–i.e. salmon and scalloped potatoes with asparagus, on china, not a pile of sandwiches or boxes of pizza–and people would help themselves.

          Our department had a pot luck and some people walking by went “ooh, free food” and brought friends over to load up. The guy sitting next to that table was notably impatient and lit into them. I believe some F-bombs were dropped. He got a talking to about appropriate communication at work, but we had no trouble with people eating our potluck again.

          People are weird about free food.

          1. TrainerGirl*

            I had a previous job where we had many potlucks, and there were always vultures who managed to show up on our floor around lunch time. There were a number of people who “needed to ask a question” and then proceeded to load up plates even though they contributed nothing. One of my teammates took to sitting at the food table, and she had a look so withering that it stopped most people in their tracks. The ones that persisted were stopped by her acid tongue.

      4. LifeBeforeCorona*

        We just dealt with meat-eaters scarfing down the vegetarian option because it looked so good. Clearly labeled that it was for vegetarians only and leaving the vegetarians with no lunch. I am strongly on the side of using a yardstick to whack hands.

        1. KHB*

          Sounds like next time you need to order an entirely vegetarian lunch. Win-win: The meat eaters get to have the delicious-looking food, and the vegetarians get to know that everyone is eating less meat.

            1. UKDancer*

              Definitely! We used to have this issue with pizza when the options were cheese or pepperoni as we always ran out of cheese. An awful lot of non vegetarians (me included) don’t like pepperoni for various reasons. The solution was to adjust the proportions so we ordered 2/3 cheese. That made everyone happy and fed.

          1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

            Sounds like next time you need to order an entirely vegetarian lunch. Win-win: The meat eaters get to have the delicious-looking food, and the vegetarians get to know that everyone is eating less meat.

            I hope the entirely is tongue-in-cheek; otherwise, that’s a great way to punish those who respected that the vegetarian dishes and plates were for the vegetarians.

            1. Myrin*

              That seems pretty dramatic! I’m not a vegetarian by any stretch of the imagination but I wouldn’t view it as a “punishment” to have to eat a vegetarian meal.

              1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

                Given that I’m allergic to several of the popular meat-substitutes, I would. YMMV.

                I’ll stick with Dust Bunny’s solution as better. More vegetarian dishes, not all vegetarian dishes.

                1. KHB*

                  Obviously, food allergies and other such restrictions should always be accommodated.

                  That given, though, as a vegetarian I’ll register my mostly-tongue-in-cheek opinion that anyone who regards eating a vegetarian meal as a “punishment” deserves to be so punished.

                2. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

                  That given, though, as a vegetarian I’ll register my mostly-tongue-in-cheek opinion that anyone who regards eating a vegetarian meal as a “punishment” deserves to be so punished.

                  I’ll take it in the spirit it’s intended, with a smile. Fettuccine alfredo, Margherita pizza, and Parmesan risotto are my favorite “punishments.”

                  It’s not like the carnivore dishes are a panacea; I’ve had too many solo-vomiting contests to ever trust a beef dish I didn’t have input in ordering again.

                3. Koalafied*

                  I did experience a free meal that felt like a punishment once. It was a conference where the standard lunch was a deli meat sandwich with chips, and for everyone who was vegetarian, vegan, or gluten-free, the alternative: cold vegan spring rolls consisting of bean sprouts wrapped in vermicelli rice paper. If there were any spices or seasonings, I couldn’t tell.

                  People must have been RIOTING because the next day they were serving hot lunch. Having ordered catering for a large event before, I’m certain the hot lunch buffet cost at least 3 times as much as the sandwiches AND that they may have also forfeited some of all of the cost of the second day’s cold lunches by canceling with less than 24 hours notice (it wasn’t obvious whether the same catering company was used).

              2. Spencer Hastings*

                Yes, same. Also, I don’t understand the seemingly-ubiquitous logic of “have you resolved to abstain from meat completely? no? then you must want meat at every meal! and never any vegetables on your pizza, only meat!”. (As someone who doesn’t like most meat that shows up on pizzas)

              1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

                In the all vegetarian scenario, you’re removing the food that those who were respectful abstained from and replacing it with food that they well may have avoided due to dislike or other issues. It’s negatively impacting a group based on the behavior of a subset–colloquially known as punishing the group for the actions of a few.

                1. KHB*

                  “removing the food that those who were respectful abstained from and replacing it with food that they well may have avoided due to dislike or other issue”

                  In the hypothetical situation we’re talking about here, these are the same food. If you’re avoiding the vegetarian dish due to “dislike or other issues,” you don’t get to claim credit for how respectful you were for abstaining from it.

                2. Elizabeth West*

                  Well, you can’t always assume everyone loves all the meat dishes. Especially if a bunch of them are heading straight for the veggie stuff and bypassing the carnivore option. Maybe it’s not all that great in comparison.

                  But I think if most people are going for the vegetarian meals, 2/3 veg is a good compromise.

                3. ceiswyn*

                  How is that different from literally every time you make any change to a catering order?

                  If you remove the cheese sandwiches, you’re removing the food that some people ate and replacing it with food they abstained from. Who will speak up against this terrible punishment of the cheese sandwich eaters?!?

              2. Mimsy*

                because I dislike most vegetables and most vegetarian dishes, and having the meat options I can eat (and would want to eat) removed because some people are rude and thoughtless is unfair and inappropriate.

                1. UKDancer*

                  I think the key thing is to monitor what gets eaten and what doesn’t rather than trying to be too proscriptive. In our company we appear to be a group of cheese eaters because whenever something involves cheese (pizza, sandwiches, or otherwise) it disappears at twice the rate of the meat option. This could be because people aren’t finding the meat tasty or worry how long it’s been sat there, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s because we have a lot of vegetarians (judging from the number who want turkey at the Christmas lunch) so I think it’s more likely that the cheese tastes better.

                  So on the rare occasions we have anything catered we order some meat options, some cheese options and some vegetable type options. We’ve found from experience that when we have about 50% cheese, 30% meat and 20% vegetable we get about the right mix for the people we tend to be feeding to ensure everyone is happy and there’s not too much leftover.

                  Anyone with particular dietary needs or allergies gets a special meal served separately.

                2. Sasha*

                  Not all vegetarian options contain vegetables though.

                  We had vegan nibbles at our work Christmas party – crisps, peanuts, popcorn, and mini-pretzels. None of the carnivores demanded their pork scratchings.

                3. Artemesia*

                  vegetarian dishes almost always contain things to which I am sensitive and I cannot eat most of them. Lots of people actually have gut issues that make many vegetarian options out of bounds.

                  But yeah order a lot more vegetarian food OR do box lunches with the vegetarian lunches issues directly to those who sign up for them and not just left out for people to grab.

                4. Grizabella the Glamour Cat*

                  Same here, Mimsy. I’m glad you posted this, because I didn’t have the nerve. (A lifetime of being criticized and shamed for my “weird” and “unhealthy” eating habits has left me very reluctant to call attention to my unconventional food prefsomething. I’m incredibly glad to know I’m not the only one with this quirk.

                  I agree with the idea if providing more vegetarian meals/options, but serving only vegetarian food is unfair. If someone wants to insist on doing that, at least give people plenty of advance warning, so they can bring their iwn food or something.

                5. ceiswyn*

                  I’m deeply confused by this, unless you dislike literally every foodstuff that isn’t meat.
                  Vegetarian catering options vary from the plain (such as cheese or egg sandwiches, cheese platters, crudites/chips and dip) to the indulgent (such as cheese or vegetable pizza) to more non-Western or modern options such as falafel, samosas, fake meats and more. Plus biscuits and cakes are almost always vegetarian.
                  I’m confused as to how people can dislike *all* of those very different options, and yet have sufficiently broad tastes as to be happy with literally anything they’re offered that contains chicken or ham.

            2. Sasha*

              Only if you think that eating vegetarian food is a punishment. In this case it sounds like everyone agreed the vegetarian options were nicer than the meat options.

              1. LifeBeforeCorona*

                Many people have the mindset that vegetarian food is lettuce and tofu. Instead, it’s stuffed peppers with feta cheese, rice, and sauteed veggies, with a side of grilled fresh vegetables. It does look more appetizing than the chicken pasta.

                1. ceiswyn*

                  Plus most cheese is vegetarian, most crisps and snacks are vegetarian, cakes and biscuits are almost always vegetarian, bread is almost always vegetarian; I do wonder whether people somehow parse ‘vegetarian’ as ‘vegetables with lentils’ and forget about all the vegetarian things they’re actually eating on a daily basis?

                2. londonedit*

                  Yeah, this is the problem – I’ve been to loads of barbecues where people have brought different things along, and the vegetarian things (which by the way absolutely don’t have to contain ‘meat substitutes’ or tofu) look better than the meat offerings so all the meat-eaters pile them on to their plates as side dishes and then there isn’t enough for the actual vegetarians. The best solution in that sort of situation is for the vegetarians to be called up to choose their food first; then the meat-eaters can have whatever’s left of the veggie options as an extra side dish if they want, but at least the veggies have had a full plate first.

        2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          We veggies love to share, so best option is to make more veggie food available for all.

      5. Asenath*

        I worked in a place where there was often food laid out in public hallways and atriums for the use of particular groups of people meeting in adjacent rooms. I did my share of Food Guard duty. For some reason, some people seemed to think that helping themselves to something as they passed was just fine. It was perfectly normal for leftover food to be given away, but you’d think everyone would know the difference between a pristine display and one that’s clearly got a lot eaten, but untouched leftovers are being offered to anyone passing who wants some. I guess the pristine display is a lot more appetizing.

      6. Artemesia*

        This is one to announce generally and then to specifically discuss with the known offenders. And if it continues, they should be fired. If you cannot afford to fire them then the only option is to have someone guard the food if the door cannot be locked. Use the word ‘theft’ in the discussions. I can’t believe people put up with this.

    2. Falling Diphthong*

      In Better Off Ted, Linda stole artificial creamer packets as a way to strike back at the company. That it was such a small and petty action was why it resonated.

    1. I WORKED on a Hellmouth*

      You are not alone! When I started reading the first question, my immediate thought was “Sally?”… then I remembered that I’ve read this one before. How can people not realize that “Don’t be a butt” is an unspoken expectation when you start a new job?

      1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

        I was thinking the same, until I saw this was an old letter!

        I thought this premise sounded familiar.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

        One of my fellow managers in another geographical area is a chronic mansplainer who really believes he’s never made a single mistake ever.

        His peer reviews are always fun.

        1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

          I once had a freelancer tell me there was no need to review his work since it was perfect. I must confess to an inability to suppress the snark as I pointed out that the word “not” was missing from one sentence. He immediately hung up on me and refused to work with me any more.
          I learned recently that he now provides the cheapest services in the Paris region…

  3. Don*

    The problem with addressing #1 is of course the very real likelihood that they’ll argue that they don’t do that.

    I have had in my personal and professional life had this sort of thing happen and I’ve fallen back to something like “I’m not going to argue with you about what’s happening in your head. I’m telling you that there is a very real perception on the part of others that you’re unable to take constructive criticism/are argumentative/deny reality. I’m telling you that this is MY PERCEPTION of you. You can try to argue with me about what I actually think or you can hear what I’m telling you and think about what your part in that perception is.”

    It seems a ridiculous thing to have to say but on more than one occasion the recipient has then pivoted to claiming persecution, etc.

    1. Wintermute*

      It depends on the context but I wouldn’t worry overmuch about that here in this context just because you’re the manager and hold all the cards. You can simply state facts, and lay out what specific behaviors you need to see (and not see) if they’re going to stay employed. and frankly, if they pushed back THAT hard I would table the conversation, get support from my own boss and whatever other apparatus need to be in place and restart the conversation later, fully prepared that if they refuse to even acknowledge they are doing something wrong I can say that if they are going to argue about being told they argue too much there’s no future in this role for them and they’re being let go.

    2. L*

      It really depends. Some businesses expect sycophantic apologies for every tiny error, push back against micromanaging or dont accept reasonable attempts of employees to explain themselves…

    3. Antilles*

      I agree that’s going to happen, but OP being his boss makes it very easy because she has clear authority here to shut it down hard. If he starts to argue about it, she doesn’t need to engage in philosophical discussions, she can just point out that is exactly what I was talking about and go right back to I expect this fixed.

    4. Suzie SW*

      It seems like people who argue against criticism just aren’t ready to face their flaws. I had one employee who had an argument or excuse for every error he made, even though he was performing well below normal. When the performance concerns were outlined without any wiggle room for further excuses, he walked out. It was more comfortable for him to view us as a bad employer than for him to consider that he wasn’t “good enough.”

      1. Emily*

        I could also see someone developing this habit if they worked for a boss like the LW a few days ago who expected 100% perfection from employees. LW should directly point out the issue and then give him a chance to correct his habit. But yeah, he probably needs to be let go. (Three weeks!!)

    5. Rolly*

      “The problem with addressing #1 is of course the very real likelihood that they’ll argue that they don’t do that.”

      That’s actually an opportunity.

  4. Cait*

    It sounds like the letter #1 employee came from a previous workplace (or home) where mistakes weren’t allowed and might have been punished whenever they happened. I’m not a psychologist but, in my experience, defensive people tend to be that way because they assume any mistake on their part will lead to them being attacked or labeled incompetent. I’d suggest the OP say something like, “I just want to be clear that we understand mistakes happen. None of us are perfect and, with this kind of workload/project/etc., a few minor mistakes are even expected. So when I point out certain errors you’ve made, please know this isn’t a personal attack. I’m not suggesting you’re incompetent. You don’t need to get defensive because I’m not looking for a defense. I just want the mistake acknowledged and a correction to be made. This is especially important when you’re working with clients. If you cannot do that and continue to argue, we’re going to need to talk about a PIP.

    1. Richard Hershberger*

      Another possibility is that he is totally invested in being the smartest person in the room, at least in his own mind. I used to internet-know a guy like that. In reality he was solidly above average, and not merely in the Lake Wobegon sense. But at some point early in life he had gotten so used to being the smartest person in the room that he concluded that this was a permanent condition, regardless of who else was in the room. One result was that he was unemployable. He had enough family money to barely scrape by and lived off of that. No one would employ him for the skill set he imaged he had, and he wouldn’t take any lesser work.

      In the case of this letter, I wonder how old this person is. If he is in his early twenties, he might be salvageable. Goodness knows I wouldn’t want me of that age to determine the rest of my life!

    2. ecnaseener*

      That’s an option, but to me it feels too much like managing the employee’s emotions instead of his actions. Yes, it would be great for the employee to understand that no one’s trying to personally attack him, but LW can’t make him believe that (in fact, he would probably take the attempt as another attack) and ultimately LW only has standing to address the behavior, not to play therapist.

      (Also, since he’s brand new he’s probably in his probationary period and doesn’t need a PIP.)

      1. Batgirl*

        I think there’s a difference between handholding an employee’s emotions and simply explaining what kind of workplace you are. There are workplaces where simple mistakes are looked down on and tutted at as the mildest of responses, and there are others where mistakes make for good discussion and opportunities to improve. Even if you’re the “mistakes are okay” type of workplace; it’s still not true that all mistakes will be okay! I think it’s easy to assume a young employee would know the lay of the land there, but they won’t always. Once you’ve explained that 1) mistakes are okay, 2) what kind of mistakes are okay and 3) What kind of reaction is non negotiable at a minimum, and what kind is optimal… Then yeah, their feelings about that is their own concern.

    3. Generic Name*

      In my experience, the people who experienced those environments compulsively check and re-check their work and fall all over themselves groveling when they make a mistake that slips through. They aren’t the one who arrogantly deny reality and tell you that you are wrong.

    4. Kevin Sours*

      If a formal PIP is required prior to termination then it’s already past time to put it in place. If it isn’t then the conversation is we see immediate improvement or this isn’t going to work out.

    5. OP1*

      OP1 again. My own armchair diagnosis was that he had a lot of insecurity. He had a hugely successful sibling and a parent who is legendary in our field. Both were young success stories. In his head, I think he wanted to match both family members. Perhaps in time he could have, but he burned a lot of bridges. Last I saw, he had a job in an industry adjacent company.

      1. tangerineRose*

        Interesting. Sadly, his refusal to admit mistakes is making it harder and harder for him to succeed.

  5. I should really pick a name*

    I’m not sure that

    This is crucial for succeeding in your role and will prevent you from succeeding here if you don’t change it immediately

    is actually strong enough.
    I can see a situation where someone would not realize that “not succeeding at this role” equals being fired.

    1. Metadata minion*

      I agree; it’s a pretty common euphemism, but if you haven’t heard it before, someone could reasonably go “I’m ok with being mediocre, actually” and not realize their job is at stake.

      1. Rolly*

        I’d take it as “You’ll be mediocre and not advance” myself. Particularly in the current job market. Thanks for the clarification – yes more clarity is needed.

        1. Imaginary Friend*

          I can absolutely think of earlier me who would have interpreted that statement literally and not understood the implied “your actual job is at risk”.

        2. Artemesia*

          It needs to be ‘this is a requirement of this job; if you cannot do this we will not be able to continue your employment and would have to let you go.’ Anything more subtle is lost on someone building their own world in their mind.

        3. Sasha*

          Same. Luckily I’ve neither been in that situation, nor been in a position where I’ve had to say it to anyone else, but if I was using it in my profession (which you can’t really fire people from, you just don’t renew their contracts), I would mean “succeed” as in literal success, not “keep your job”.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      Second this. This sounds like the kind of person who thinks he’ll be moved to something where he won’t have to deal with the LW and might get a more-pushover manager (or even a more-fun job).

    3. Retrotardigrade*

      Yeah, I wonder if something more like “If you can’t do that, this job may not be the right fit for you” would be clearer.

      1. Windchime*

        That’s still not super clear to me. If I was a younger person, I might take that as a hint that I should look elsewhere, not a statement that I’ll be fired if I don’t get my ducks in a row. I think that OP would need to be very, very clear: “If you don’t change [the thing], we will need to let you go.’

    4. Margaretmary*

      Yeah, I can definitely see it being interpreted as “you won’t be considered for promotions/won’t receive bonuses, etc” rather than “you’ll be let go/fired.”

    5. anonymous73*

      Yeah this is “beating around the bush” language. OP needs to be clear that “if he doesn’t modify his attitude and behavior that it could lead to disciplinary action up to and leading to termination.” It takes real skill to alienate a client, a senior staff member and have others complain about him in LESS THAN 3 WEEKS!

    6. SnappinTerrapin*

      If he doesn’t grasp the hint, he isn’t a good fit for the job.

      And he might have trouble finding another job when he loses this one.

      But that would be his own responsibility, not the LW’s.

  6. Trek*

    I would push for him to take the feedback but also if he cannot understand why the formula or the work is incorrect he’s not understanding the task being assigned. That means he needs additional training or he needs to go because he’s not right for the role. If the goal is to balance x and y reports with a and b reports and he thinks incorrect formulas are correct, which cause the reports not to balance, then he is not understanding the goal/focus of the work and this will not work no matter how much training occurs.

    1. Jean*

      How is additional training going to help someone who refuses to hear feedback? It doesn’t seem like it’s the case that he *can’t* understand why his formulas aren’t correct. He’s just refusing to acknowledge that they’re not correct. It’s an entirely different issue.

    2. anonymous73*

      This isn’t about lack of training. This is about arrogance. If you can’t admit to mistakes and think you’re always right, no amount of training will resolve that problem.

  7. KHB*

    Q2, about the food thieves, leaves out what looks like some important context from the original letter: The LW is a senior admin, and her boss, the director, is conflict-avoidant and unwilling to manage the situation. So this kind of reduces to one of those many questions about how to regulate people’s behavior when you don’t have the authority to discipline or fire them.

    I think most of the advice works anyway (and I’d add that the conflict-avoidant environment may mean that the food thieves have been getting away with it for so long that they might not even realize that there’s anything wrong with what they’re doing, so you could approach it from that angle too). But “you’ll have to decide how seriously you take that” is a bit odd. Even if the LW decides she’s taking this super seriously, what then?

    1. antsy*

      Alison has said before that Inc wants content for managers so I’m guessing she/they framed it as that. Plenty of managers struggle with similar stuff so it still works.

    2. anonymous73*

      This behavior is never okay. Why people feel that food belongs to them when it’s unattended is beyond me and there is no excuse for taking what’s not yours. If it’s in the kitchen (the general area NOT the fridge), there’s probably a general understanding that it’s leftover and up for grabs. But to go into a conference room and take food that is clearly for a meeting? That takes some balls. A few jobs ago you had to schedule the conference rooms for meetings. They were at a premium and at times it was impossible to find an available room. I was not a manager but had no problem asking people to leave that hadn’t booked the room, or letting people know that their time was up when they were running over into our meeting time. You don’t necessarily need to have authority over others to stop certain behavior.

      1. KHB*

        It’s the “general understanding” part that’s doing a lot of work here: In this company, there’s apparently a general understanding (at least among some people) that any food set out anywhere is fair game for anyone, because the facts (i.e., nobody every gets yelled at for taking food) support that understanding. So LW needs to find a way to turn that ship around – and I definitely agree that a well-respected senior admin can do that by herself, without having to have firing authority. I’d start by communicating a clear policy (e.g., food in area X is not to be touched except by its intended recipients, but once it’s moved to area Y, it’s up for grabs). Put up signs, send out emails, and/or yell at people as appropriate. If the problem continues, consider escalating to the offenders’ bosses (as Alison suggested in her original answer).

        1. Agnes*

          Something about food short-circuits people’s normal brains on this stuff. It’s just not in the same mental box as other items. Maybe because most of us grew up in houses where, broadly, if food was set out to eat you were allowed to eat it? Or some throwback to hunter-gatherer see good food, grab it mentality. I don’t think people are malicious or consider themselves to be stealing.

          1. Jean*

            If it’s made clear that this behavior is unacceptable, that should be all that’s required for it to stop. The culture in my office is very much “don’t be that guy,” and I credit my department head with instilling that. She doesn’t hesitate to call people out – publicly and vociferously – for violating our norms, and it shows in the way that we function. We don’t tend to have the sort of weird interpersonal drama or other types of inappropriate/antisocial behavior that we see a lot of LW’s write in about here. Anything like that that does pop up gets stamped out quickly.

          2. anonymous73*

            Sorry but it’s still not okay. If it’s not yours, the common sense and polite thing to do is ask. But many people feel entitled to it if they see it, regardless of where it resides.

            1. KHB*

              I don’t think anyone is arguing that taking food that doesn’t belong to you is okay (assuming you’re not desperate). But that’s not the question – the question is how to get people to stop. And part of the solution may involve understanding why they’re doing it in the first place.

        2. anonymous73*

          I could see it happening if there was one time when a message was sent out that there were leftovers in a conference room, but some entitled people just don’t care.

    3. Policy Wonk*

      Where I work we almost always need to have a junior employee or intern guard food put out for events like this. I can’t imagine taking food that I know isn’t for me, but far too many people do it, and in a large building they obviously feel like the can get away with it. Sigh.

  8. Nameless in Customer Service*

    #2 Just be certain you have the correct suspects. When I was in college I spent three weeks working for a department that had grad student teas on Fridays. My first Friday one of the admins scolded me for taking some grapes. I was mystified, as I had not taken any grapes. My second Friday another admin “gently” reminded me that the food was for the grad student teas. “Of course”, I said, still having never touched any. My third Friday the first admin actually yelled at me to stop stealing food. “I didn’t!” I said, and burst into tears as she berated me for being a liar. I picked up my bag, left for my dorm, and as I was washing my face realized that since I was fat they thought I was stealing food.

    I never went back. Recalling this makes me wonder if they ever caught (or had) an actual thief.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      If the food is gone then they have a thief. It might not be who the LW thinks it is, but they still have one.

      1. Nameless in Customer Service*

        This is trivially true, but I’m not sure how it justifies scapegoating, which is what I was warning against. I think if the wrong person gets blamed and punished the actual food thieves will not take it as a cautionary example but as a cover.

    2. Onwards and Upwards*

      What a horrible thing to happen.
      Thanks though, it’s a great illustration of the need to be cautious, of not just presuming that one knows who the food-takers are.

      1. Nameless in Customer Service*

        Yeah, so often people think we know something but we don’t actually know it. (Also, thank you.)

  9. Mannheim Steamroller*

    OP 2…

    Maybe time the food so that it arrives at or after the start of the meeting. (Those who complain will have outed themselves as the thieves.)

    1. Anonymouse*

      Lock the room.
      Make the moochers look at all that delicious food through the conference room windows.
      So near and yet so far.

      1. Artemesia*

        If the OP doesn’t have firing authority and management is feckless then the ONLY thing that will work is to have someone stationed with the food when it is laid out. The OP may have to do it herself the first couple of time. Sucks to waste a high level person on that, but if you can’t lock the room and management won’t act, there is nothing else. After a couple of meetings where this is enforced then an admin can be assigned to do this — but don’t stick them on this duty the first couple of times.

        And of course management needs to send an announcement first about ‘the problem’ and the embarrassment last week of having important visitors for a meeting and the breakfast ordered for them taken by those not invited to the meeting. And known offenders need to be personally notified.

    2. pancakes*

      It’s pretty disruptive to the meeting for people to be coming in and setting up food while others are talking, and a lot of the meetings I go to are confidential to those of us working on the case or transaction. Having other people in the room would be a big no. Whether confidentiality is important in this workplace or not, people ought to be able to follow simple instructions about not eating food that isn’t meant for them.

    3. The Prettiest Curse*

      Back when I was ordering a lot of food for trainings, many of the caterers would show up at least 20-25 minutes before the scheduled delivery time. But not all of them did that, so you could never count on it and factor it into your schedule.

    4. Observer*

      Those who complain will have outed themselves as the thieves.)

      The people who complain are going to be the people whose meetings are being disrupted.

  10. Sunny*

    For #2, I wonder if people know that the food is not intended to be for anyone passing by? If your office often does breakfasts, fancy snacks, employee appreciation lunches, there’s a chance they could think it’s for anyone to help themselves. It could help to talk to the worst offenders with that assumption first in mind.

    Also as a side note, I have definitely been the person to take more than my fair share of food at work (though not in the LW’s situation, in these cases we were supposed to take it)! It happened when I felt under appreciated due to doing the work of 3-4 people, I was young and didn’t know what might not be considered normal, and I was on an extremely tight budget due to saving for school. None of these situations were malicious, I just was hungry and overworked and saw it as a nice perk. So there is a chance the people in letter #2 are in a similar situation.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      See, I think this is an odd take because I would assume that everyone else I worked with was just as underappreciated and would want to make sure they got some, too. The worst places I worked it was the relatively-entitled management layer who took too much while the rest of us wanted to make sure there was some left for later shifts. Taking too much doesn’t stick it to the company–it sticks it to other grunts who aren’t getting their share, either.

      1. Sunny*

        I mean when you’re 20-22 you don’t really think that way! I wasn’t trying to stick it to anyone and I don’t think people who take extra food usually are. At the time, I was thinking if other people wanted food they were more than welcome to help themselves as well not realizing that coming into a meeting with a plate of food every time it was out looked a little weird considering everyone else in the meeting just elected not to have any. It’s also not abnormal to be only one of a few people overworked; the place in question was at was definitely extremely dysfunctional for a small group but not for everyone

      2. Batgirl*

        But then you’d still be making the same mistake as a young Sunny! Food isn’t always for everyone, though I can see the misunderstanding that food is meant for appreciation and “the grunts”, that usually isn’t the case at all.

    2. KHB*

      I also wonder if there might be any potential for confusion between meal spreads that haven’t yet been offered to their intended recipients, and leftovers that are meant for anyone to help clean up. Yeah, it should be obvious that there’s a difference between a completely intact buffet and one that’s been mostly picked over, but sometimes the allure of free food is too strong to properly think these things through.

      1. Elsajeni*

        And of course, once a few bagel vultures have swung by what was a completely intact buffet, that obvious difference can get lost pretty quickly!

        I think most people probably know that they are, at least, taking food that isn’t officially or isn’t yet up for grabs. But a lot of them are probably thinking of it as “soon-to-be leftovers,” or think the one cookie they took doesn’t make any real difference, or are just so used to seeing everybody scavenge and no one get scolded for it that they’ve come to think of any catering table as de facto up for grabs. I think doing a reset on policy around this issue, making as clear a distinction as possible between “reserved” and “fair game” — I like the system some people have mentioned of making a kitchen or break room the official Leftovers Zone and always moving leftovers there, although of course it’s more work for somebody — and having somebody guard any catered food until people get out of the habit of scavenging will probably help.

    3. Onwards and Upwards*

      Yeah, I used to do similar when I was that age. I totally get it. I have found it a hard impulse to grow myself out of – At a fairly recent, soul destroying job where I was hugely undervalued I spent a whole morning where I had to walk past, again and again, a table groaning with cookies and treats, and every atom in my being wanted to take a cookie just because I felt like a hunter gatherer needing to get SOME recompense (beyond payment!) for my day’s gut-busting, heart heavy work. I persuaded myself out of it again and again. Old habits die so hard!

    4. anonymous73*

      Unless it is well known that ANY food in ANY location is up for grabs, most rational people know not to take it. The #1 reason for this behavior is entitlement – same reason people steal food from a common fridge that doesn’t belong to them. Even if they’ve never been told not to touch food unless it’s been explicitly offered, common courtesy tells us to leave it alone.

  11. Meow*

    People like the subject of letter 1 are my number 1 pet peeve. I am unfortunate enough to have a couple of them in the family, and it’s just sad how desperate they are to not be wrong. I had one who insisted that Lord of the Rings was originally 4 books. I tried to give them an out by saying “you must be thinking of the Hobbit or Silmarillion”. Nope, they would not budge that Lord of the Rings was originally printed as 4 books, “I know because I read them that way”. The other day the other one, upon finding out they were wrong about the lyrics to a song on the radio, insisted that there must be another, identical song with the lyrics they knew.

    I’ve never found a method to deal with this behavior that works. They would rather make up an utterly ridiculous story to explain their mistake than just admit they are wrong. It’s so frustrating but also sad that they must think a fake story makes them look better than just being wrong.

    1. PhyllisB*

      Ugh. I dated a guy in college like that. He would state Premise and someone else would attempt to correct him. He would sneer and say, “you’re wrong. ” I’ve even seen people get printed sources to back them up. (This was in the seventies. No Google or Wikipedia.) His response? “The book is wrong. ” Why yes, this is the main reason we broke up.

    2. anonymous73*

      I was this way…when I was a child. I would argue until I was blue in the face whether I was certain or not. I think it’s a side effect of being an only child. But I grew up and matured and realized that I wasn’t always right and it was okay to be wrong. Now when I encounter someone like that I don’t bother arguing – it only gets me worked up and nothing I say will change their mind. I usually slide in a “if you say so” just to annoy them but generally I just drop it.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        My mother was like this and I definitely inherited that gene. She would simply refuse to admit being wrong even when the dictionary proved me right.
        I learned that it’s much better to gracefully accept being shown to be wrong as a learning opportunity, but I do find myself doubling down now and then. My partner has the same attitude, so we sometimes argue for ages over the slightest niggly little thing. At least we can joke about it.

    3. Frankie Bergstein*

      I’m married to someone like this now. A close college friend is as well. We were commiserating over the weekend about how immense the work is that this personality trait creates. If I were giving hiring or marriage advice, it’d be to look for this trait and make it a deal breaker.

  12. LTR,FTP*

    Are they placing any sort of signs on or around the food? e.g. “This breakfast is reserved for the Party Planning Committee, please only take food if you are in that group”

    Because I’m wondering if people are just like “Hey! Free food!” and don’t even realize it’s for a specific group.

    1. Unkempt Flatware*

      I could only believe this if the person literally just fell off the turnip truck and landed in the conference room that second. I can’t believe anyone who didn’t get an invitation could possibly think it was just for anyone.

      1. RetailEscapee*

        I work in tech and there definitely used to be rooms full of food just for anyone because vendors would buy catering, candy, bagels, etc

        Or after a meeting stacks of trays would sit untouched until the main admin emailed leaders and said “ummmm please don’t let me throw out all these sandwiches”

        So it can be very industry/culture specific

  13. Jen*

    #2) I started my career off as an admin and one of my jobs was to order food for client meetings, team building activities, trainings etc… and I literally did have to sit with the food until the attendees arrived because nothing else I tried worked. The (same) food stealers always ignored signs, e-mails, face to face conversations etc… so I had to sit there and talk to them like toddlers “no, do not touch that… it is not for you” LOL the excuse that I often got was that there was always leftovers for these meetings so clearly there was extra food so why can’t they simply take the extras up front? Sorry, “leftovers” do not work that way LOL there was even one person who I was forced to make a deal with. I told him I would notify him of the leftovers as soon as the meeting ended so he could swoop in. This was after me literally standing between him and a sandwich try telling him I would chase him down and pry it out of his hands if he took one more step. People get so crazy over free food!! And the thing is, rarely is it the entry-level folks or the interns doing this. I feel like it is less about someone not having money for food and being in a bad spot and more about people feeling entitled to free stuff.

    1. sub rosa for this*

      Agreed on your last point – generally, those of us who had food insecurity in the workplace are on best behavior about stuff like this, for fear of the supply going away.

      It’s more the stealthy “waiting around for the meeting to break up” or “waiting for catering to push the carts into the hallway to begin cleanup” that’s the best way. Because then nobody cares – catering is usually cool with people gleaning because that’s less stuff for them to throw out. Just don’t get in their way! :)

    2. MagicEyes*

      Yes! I used to work at a place where there was free food for certain staff, and after a specific time, anyone could have the leftovers. You would not believe the feeding frenzies we had at that place! And everyone there, except for one person, was paid well enough that they could afford to buy their own food.

    3. Batgirl*

      I used to order food for meetings too and I’m frankly astounded by comments showing me that locked doors are not used as standard; they certainly were for us! Even then you’d get “Why is the door locked/Surely there’s enough for everyone/why do they need food to talk but we don’t need it to work”. I’d explain that people in the meeting were working through their lunch whereas those not in the meeting were able to have free time to do as they liked, and go get what they liked. This usually was accepted and understood funnily enough. They still asked for leftovers though.

      1. Asenath*

        Only one of the innumerable recurring occasions for which I ordered food was located in a room I could have locked. Another occurred during off hours and in an obscure corner of the complex. Most meeting rooms were located along busy corridors or around a busy atrium, and booking a spare room to put the food in was generally not possible as available rooms were always in very short supply, so it wasn’t guaranteed you could book one for food (or, sometimes, the number you needed for meetings). The design of the admittedly beautiful atrium was a particular sore point with me – I gathered that it was specifically designed so that events involving the two adjacent large meeting rooms could have a classy place to eat and socialize during breaks – but the atrium was also the only approach to one of the main entrances and exits for the entire complex. I spent a LOT of time food-guarding.

    1. Former Gremlin Herder*

      I took it to mean the employee had taken some kind of cold medcine that made them a little loopy (like Dayquill/Nyquill, maybe?) and that’s why they made the mistake. At least in places I’ve worked, it’s pretty normal for people to take those medicines and then come to work since you aren’t really impaired or anything.

      1. Chelsea*

        Okay. The sentence still doesn’t make sense though. “He had taken a cold tablet but otherwise it was perfect”

        1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

          I think the intent was:

          He had taken a cold tablet and that explains the few errors but otherwise the spreadsheet was perfect.

  14. Former Gremlin Herder*

    In our office, the food has clear signs with it and we all know that an email will go out if there are leftovers, but people still breeze past those reminders occasionally! It helps that food tends to be either in a conference room or next to the office manager’s desk so she can, ah, gently redirect.

  15. Mellow23*

    Letter 1 – the 3 weeks and many mistakes guy! Sounds like you hired the guy that I just fired. I tried the gentle “you don’t seem to accept feedback well” and I tried a bunch of other approaches. I even had my manager (a guy) speak with ex-employee because I was wondering if he’d take the feedback better from a dude. In the end the constant battle wasn’t worth it and we had to terminate him. Best of luck with your hire!!

    1. Artemesia*

      This. The OP needs to move quickly on this as it gets harder to fire people once they are past the probationary period. They need to clear with whoever has firing authority, then have a CTJ meeting with the employee making clear that they are not doing the job at required levels (alienated a client already? that alone should have lead to firing him) and precisely what is needed to continue. Then re-evaluated in a week; if no progress fire him — if progress, let him know he is on the right track and continue to monitor closely to see if it is sustained.

      But this is likely tobea character flaw that is not easily corrected so be prepared to cut your losses.

    2. RosyGlasses*

      Yes – we had to fire someone after two weeks in a similar way. Other issue was the work they claimed to know how to do didn’t seem to ever appear – so it was a double whammy of no provable skills and terrible attitude.

  16. v-rex*

    In regard to food thieves, clearly label it as for a specific meeting, and if anyone steals it then it comes out of their department’s budget and gets an HR writeup for multiple offenses. You have to smack the clueless pretty hard on the nose before they understand real world consequences.

  17. Dinwar*

    With regard to food theft, I’m curious about where the food is put.

    I’ve been in a number of offices (in my company and with clients) where food in certain areas is up for grabs. For example, someone had a lemon tree that produced a prodigious amount of fruit–we’re talking four or five five-gallon buckets worth a day for a few weeks–and she put them in the break room because she knew folks would take it and use it. Another time my wife made pies and froze some, then a week later she wanted the freezer space, so the pie went with me into the office (thawed) for folks at the office to enjoy. A lot of folks trying new baked goods will use the office as test subjects, usually to our delight.

    These offices usually also have an area designated for food intended for a specific group–they stage it somewhere specific before/during the meeting, so that it’s ready for whenever the meeting needs it. Us old timers know not to touch it until we get word that it’s fair game (at which point we are very efficient at cleaning up the leftovers).

    To folks who understand this dynamic it’s obvious. To folks who aren’t used to it, it can be confusing. Why food in one spot can be eaten by whoever wants it, while food in another spot is off limits, isn’t immediately obvious. And it doesn’t help that in one case the office admin, who orders the food, often takes a (very small) sampling of what’s being offered. To those of us used to it, this is completely fair–she works HARD, and is one of the people absolutely critical to keeping the doors open, and this is just one of the perks of her job. To new hires, seeing someone random eating the food (new hires generally don’t work much with her, or at least don’t realize what she truly does) can indicate that it’s intended for the whole office.

    Before coming down hard on food thieves, I’d take the opportunity to examine office procedures and make sure you’re not doing something similar. If you are, it would be worth mentioning, especially to new folks. Nothing accusatory, just “Hey, we noticed some confusion, so for clarification: Some folks like to bring in snacks for the office, things they’re trying and the like, and if you want to join in please be sure to put it in Break Room 107. If it’s for a meeting, we’ll put it in Conference Room 117 until after the meeting.”

  18. John*

    For #2, think about the optics of your food.
    I personally would never take food that wasn’t clearly labelled as free for taking, or clearly leftover from a previous event.
    But – it really rubs me the wrong way when I see fancy free food at a meeting attended by high-up management people, when the lowly worker bees have to go out and pay for their own lunch (management already make 10x as much – they can pay for their own food!), and I could easily imagine someone with less scruples would start taking justice into their own hands. So I would think about – is your quality food just going to executives? Is the free food always just for certain teams, especially if those are the teams the company pays more or shows off more? Even if there are legitimate reasons for that (like wanting to impress clients), you may want to think about how to make all your employees feel as valued.

    I see comments calling for the food takers to be fired – firing somebody because they weren’t good enough to eat at the fancy table is a surefire way to demoralize the rest of your staff.

    1. Chickaletta*

      This is an interesting take. Not that it justifies the stealing, of course.

      I’m an EA so I’m directly involved in the ordering of nice food and giveaways and fancy dinners for the very people who make beaucoup salaries. When I worked in other departments of the same company I saw the $14.50/hr employees couldn’t get a new pen without asking because they were kept under lock and key. Vive la résistance.

    2. tangerineRose*

      “firing somebody because they weren’t good enough to eat at the fancy table is a surefire way to demoralize the rest of your staff.”

      Are you sure? I’ve generally not been in those well-fed meetings, and I wouldn’t take their food. If you have a repeat food thief, who has been warned, why shouldn’t that person get fired? They stole, and they knew better in that case. Plus, if someone has that sort of entitlement, what kind of things are they pulling on their co-workers?

      1. KHB*

        I agree. It’s always a good idea for companies to be mindful of the optics of inequality, but even if they’re not, they should still be able to order food for a meeting and count on that food being there for its intended recipients.

        Plus, in my own experience, some of the worst and most entitled food thieves I’ve seen have been people who make plenty of money to buy their own fancy food.

    3. Emma*

      This is my take as well. I work as a nurse in a hospital. We work SO hard. We are severely demoralized and understaffed. Burnout has never been higher. Walking past conference rooms where office-types get catered lunches and breakfasts for meetings multiple times a week is painful when we don’t even get free coffee. We know the hospital is run on the backs of nurses (and EVS, CNAs, PT, etc.) and we never get the catered lunches. We are lucky if we get to take a lunch. The optics aren’t good. I wouldn’t steal food from these meetings but throwing some bagels our way wouldn’t hurt.

  19. Chickaletta*

    #1 sounds like a textbook narcist. You can’t win with them and they rarely change so any amount of coaching wouldn’t work. Good thing to have let them go and let someone else deal with them.

  20. Sarah*

    Letter #2: I work at a hospital. I can say with certainty that the only way to prevent your food from disappearing is to just stand by the food until the correct attendees arrive. (Yardstick optional.)

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