Susie Findell was working for a health-care organization years ago when she encountered an odd and disturbing problem in the workplace. "Someone would go into our lunch sacks or...

Share story

ORLANDO, Fla. — Susie Findell was working for a health-care organization years ago when she encountered an odd and disturbing problem in the workplace.

“Someone would go into our lunch sacks or lunchboxes and take a bite out of our sandwiches,” she says.

Not just one sandwich — and certainly not out of hunger.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

The offender would open up each lunch container, unwrap the sandwiches, fold them over and eat a bite out of the middle of each one. Then he, or perhaps it was a she, Findell says, would carefully rewrap the sandwiches and place them back in the container.

Nikki Church, 27, a leasing consultant in Seattle, recalls similar recurring strikes by a lunch bandit when she worked at Bellevue’s Verizon Wireless for four years.

Meanwhile, Daniel Powell, 30, of Bothell says some employees at his Eastside communications company, which he declined to name, are so fed up with their lunch larcener that “those of us who have had food stolen generally think this guy or gal deserves a beat down, WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment] style.”

HEATHER MCKINNON / THE SEATTLE TIMES

A stolen (or partially eaten) lunch might seem like a small problem, but food issues are a hot topic in the workplace, says Mimi Hull, a corporate psychologist with Hull & Associates in Maitland, Fla. She says pilfering of foodstuffs at work is common and has more ramifications than you might think, including issues of economics, productivity and ethics.

The sandwich-biting incident at Findell’s office sounds like a passive-aggressive employee showing hostility toward co-workers, Hull says.

Even though they looked for clues, the employees never were able to identify the culprit. “There weren’t any lipstick smears on the bread, and we didn’t check fingerprints,” says Findell, who lives in Orlando, Fla.

Oh sure, laugh now, she says, but at the time the hungry victims weren’t amused. “It’s very invasive,” she adds. “We were very upset.”

Eventually the employees gave up trying to bag the sandwich eater and began to hide their food under their desks. At Verizon, Church said, higher-ups in human resources suggested workers buy small, electric coolers to store food in under their desks.

A worker whose lunch or snacks have been swiped will have to buy replacements. Productivity may suffer as employees turn super sleuth, spying on the break room and each other. Finally, the situation fosters distrust among co-workers, especially when they don’t know who the thief is.

HEATHER MCKINNON / THE SEATTLE TIMES

“We’ve discussed trying to catch this thief during our team meetings,” said Nicole Pettibon, 25, who works with Powell. “When a co-worker’s food is stolen it definitely reduces productivity for two hours.”

“These are the kinds of things that can lower morale in the office … that get in the way of teambuilding,” Hull says. “It doesn’t appear on a strategic plan, but it needs to be dealt with.”

Employees who don’t trust one another won’t work well together, says Nan DeMars, office ethics trainer and author of “You Want Me To Do What?,” a guide to resolving work problems.

“A major problem that really affects the workplace is trust issues,” DeMars says. “It will always affect the morale of a company. Plus, stealing people’s lunches is a crime. There’s a ripple effect. If lunches are being pilfered, what else is being taken?”

That was always one of Church’s concern. “I was like, ‘Gosh, what else are you going to take?’ Next it could be your cellphone or purse.”

Stolen food on the job happens most often in large or shared office spaces, Hull says, and workplace thieves fall into several categories.

“There are some people who just kind of go in there, and it’s available, and they don’t think about it. They just eat and drink,” Hull says. “It’s an unconscious thing. They think, ‘I was hungry, it was there.’ Those are the people who haven’t made the transition from home to work, emotionally.”

Another type of lunch bandit is a worker who is conscious of what he or she is doing but plans to replace whatever food is being “borrowed.” The problem is, Hull says, “They never check with the person to see if it’s OK.”

In most cases, they also don’t replace the item they took, she adds.

Other lunch thieves consciously understand they are taking someone’s food, but they don’t care. “They don’t see it as stealing,” Hull says. “They think, ‘If I don’t know you, I can hurt you and I don’t feel guilty.’ “

Employees shouldn’t have to give up their rights to the office refrigerator because a thief is in their midst, Hull says. She suggests taping a note to the lunch to identify the owner. Employees tend to steal food less often when they know to whom it belongs, she says. She cites the case of one employee who even taped a photo of herself to the lunch container.

“It worked,” she says. “All of the sudden it put a face on it. The person stopped taking her lunch.”

Frustrated workers who aren’t so lucky sometimes take matters into their own hands. Several people have posted stories online about preparing food so revolting — think cat-food sandwiches or cake iced with Ex-Lax — that the culprits gave up their thieving ways or, in the case of the Ex-Lax recipe, unintentionally revealed themselves.

Not a good idea, says ethics trainer DeMars. This tactic sounds amusing, but it might be a recipe for disaster if the thief becomes ill.

Better to call a staff meeting and reiterate the refrigerator rules, she says.

Or, better yet, confront the thieves, Hull suggests, if they are caught with their hands on a sandwich.

“Part of the problem is … nobody ever confronts them,” Hull says. “Bring it out in the open.”

Powell has a more drastic solution: termination.

“So long. See ya. Don’t let the door hit ya on the way out.”

Times staff reporter J.J. Jensen contributed to this report.