Who Stole My Lunch?

Handling sensitive issues in the workplace with colleagues (such as personal hygiene) is one of the most challenging conversations we will have. This article suggests five steps to make these conversations a little easier and less confronting.

I recently heard the story of Michael, who inadvertently (well, according to him), ate his boss’ lunch. Michael arrived for work one morning without having had breakfast. As the busy morning progressed, Michael’s stomach started to tell him (and others) that something was missing. Finally, one of his colleagues said “I’ll fix that for you”. Next thing, she returned to his desk with a nicely toasted sandwich, which Michael proceeded to thoroughly enjoy.

Sometime later, Michael heard his boos scream out “Who stole my lunch?”. You can probably guess the rest.

Have you ever had your lunch, snack or drink stolen by a work colleague? Or perhaps, you may have helped yourself to some food or drink that seemed to be “waiting for you” in the fridge?

While this might seem like a frivolous event (and yes, sometimes it can be), there’s also a serious side to stolen food. You may be surprised to know that a survey carried out in New York last year found that:

  • 71 per cent of employees have had their personal snack, drink or meal stolen out of communal-office kitchens
  • Not only that, but in urban areas, 40 per cent of employees admitted to having been the perpetrators of lunch theft.

The tough part about this situation if it happens to you, is confronting others (colleagues, bosses or employees) about such sensitive issues in the workplace. “Who stole my lunch?” is probably not the way to approach the situation.

So how do you raise sensitive issues with others in the workplace?

Let’s look at one of the most challenging – personal hygiene. How would you approach a colleague whose personal hygiene is causing issues in your workplace? Perhaps drop a hint? Confront them head-on? Allude to it through others?

I know of a supervisor who once left a cake of Palmolive Gold soap on a person’s desk who had bad body odour. It created a really bad atmosphere in the workplace. Hints do not work. Tackle the situation head on.

There are five steps to take:

1. Keep it private – one on one. On no account mention that “others have noticed” or similar. Make sure that they understand that it’s just between the two of you and will go no further – both now and in the future.

2. Be careful with your words – if it’s hygiene – avoid words like “stink”, “smell”, even “offend”. Instead of “odour”, use “scent”, “aroma”. Avoid trying to be politically correct such as “hygiene impaired”.

3. Make them feel safe – show your good intentions – “I wonder if I could talk about something that would help me out a bit. It’s not a huge deal, but it’s worth mentioning”.

Note here that you have:

  • Asked permission to talk, “I wonder if I could talk about something …”
  • Asked for their help, “… that would help me out a bit.”
  • Shown that you will not lose any sleep over it, “It’s not a huge deal …”
  • Shown that it is still important, “… but it’s worth mentioning”

(This process is similar to my recipe for handling performance problems covered in my book “What To Do When You Become The Boss”, the “I have a problem … recipe”).

4. Where possible, try to give the other person an out. “I get the feeling that maybe you’ve been exercising before work recently. In any case, we work so closely together that I’m wondering if I can talk about a change that’s affecting our working environment.” “I get a strange scent or aroma when I’m close to your desk and also when we meet in my office – could it be your deodorant?

5. Thank the person for listening. “Thanks for your understanding with this, I really appreciate it”.

Raising sensitive issues with work colleagues is one of the hardest occurrences any of us will have to face. Using the above five steps should make it a little smoother, although it can still be quite confronting.

And to return to the stolen lunch situation, as they say in the classics “prevention is better than cure”. So, you may consider (apart from eating out every day):

  • Get a cute bag, e.g. a pretty pink bag or cloth-covered coloured container.
  • Put your name on it.
  • “Please leave this in the fridge, as I’m coming back for it. Signed, John Smith”. This personalises it, so that the perpetrator is less likely to steal from someone (there are always exceptions, of course)

And if all else fails … someone suggested to me, “Lace your food with laxatives … then watch who runs to the toilet … that should flush them out!​”