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Ask an Expert: How Do We Stop a Lunchroom Thief?

It's a big deal, so take steps to discourage the theft.

“Why would someone do this?” is often among the first questions asked in the wake of a lunch theft. Unfortunately, people find myriad reasons to justify taking others’ food or other small items and will often minimize the impact of their actions as “no big deal.” (Terms like “petty theft” don’t do much to counter this perception.) 

But it is a big deal. Any type of stealing is not only frustrating to those directly affected by it, but it erodes trust and sows an environment of suspicion in your workplace. That’s why HR should take steps to discourage this behavior—by warning, counseling or disciplining as necessary—and maintain a professional culture that is fair and respectful.

Start by educating employees about theft, including that of food, and the employer’s position on it. Discuss it at staff meetings and through other communication vehicles, noting that you’ve informed senior management of the problem. It is helpful to give specific examples of how stealing people’s lunches can affect them. For example, it may be challenging for those with food allergies and dietary restrictions—or even tight budgets—to replace stolen food. Make it clear that any theft is a violation of your company’s policy and that disciplinary action will be taken when employees are caught. 

At the same time, dissuade any would-be vigilantes from taking matters into their own hands by engaging in food pranks like putting hot sauce on their pasta, which could be harmful or invite retaliation, or using their own cameras for surveillance, which may be against company policy or illegal. Tell employees to report any bad behavior they spot either to a supervisor or through an anonymous channel. Emphasize that management is working to identify the culprit or culprits.  

Frame the issue in ethical terms and appeal to the thief’s self-image. People generally want to be viewed by others in a positive light, as well as to see themselves as doing the right thing. Tell workers that, although food theft may appear trivial, any stealing will cause managers to question their honesty and integrity—and could even jeopardize their future with the company. 

Post lunchroom rules on the refrigerator. You might encourage or require employees to put their names on their lunch bags. To make this easy, provide labels and attach a pen to the fridge. Suggest that workers use containers that are unlikely to be confused with others. Emphasize that the refrigerator is for personal food items and that its contents are not for public consumption.

If there is an extensive problem, you could consider installing a surveillance system. Keep in mind, however, that using cameras involves added expense and legal considerations—and it could negatively affect morale. Be sure to consult with legal counsel before taking this step. 

Hopefully, by clearly highlighting the issue and applying consequences, HR can help take a bite out of lunchtime crime.

Victoria Neal, SHRM-SCP, is an HR Knowledge Advisor for SHRM.

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