“Anywhere you have humans, you’re going to have people who spill things and don’t pick it up” and people who steal other people’s lunches, says Karla Miller.
In “This Is Just To Say,” the poet William Carlos Williams wrote gently, beautifully:
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold.
Seriously? Talk about entitlement. Williams was a master poet, but as an office-mate, it sounds like he was no prize.
“Anywhere you have humans, you’re going to have people who spill things and don’t pick it up” and people who steal other people’s lunches, says Karla Miller, The Washington Post Magazine’s work-advice columnist. The office kitchen is “where a lot of passive-aggression gets worked out,” she adds.
As to food theft (see “plums,” above), Miller has heard anecdotally that higher-paid employees are often the worst offenders. For repeat offenders, taking others’ food “borders on sociopathy. … I really don’t get it.”
“I wonder if it’s just kind of somehow being in a kitchen taps into people’s home selves, their home brain and sends them back to what their kitchen at home is like,” Miller adds.
Surely you’ve seen those “Your mother doesn’t work here” signs. Those might not be enough. Debby Mayne, etiquette expert at TheSpruce.com, says offices should have specific rules posted for “refrigerator real estate.”
“People forget that the office refrigerator isn’t their personal cooler,” she said in an email interview. “They need to be reminded (gently at first, and then maybe not so gently) that this is shared with other people, and they need to be more respectful.”
Among her other suggestions:
• Restrict the amount of refrigerator space workers can use. This should be determined by the size of the refrigerator and how many people use it.
• Prohibit users from leaving anything in the fridge overnight.
• Require that workers label food containers with their name.
• Ban certain foods (smelly foods or things that may seep through the wrappers and onto other people’s lunches).
• Once someone breaks the rules a certain number of times, ban them from using the office fridge for a week.
• Keep a box of baking soda or other odor absorber in the fridge at all times.
The site also suggests that perishable foods be thrown out at least once a week, and says a general rule of thumb for refrigerating cooked leftovers is four days.
Network for Good, a Washington, D.C.-based software provider for nonprofit groups, has pretty much perfected the refrigerator purge. About 100 people (including my husband) work in the organization’s Washington office; everyone — from the chief executive on down — is part of the kitchen cleanup team.
Every quarter, office manager Kimberly Kelsey assigns employees to teams of six or seven people each. The teams are given weeks when it’s their job to tidy the kitchen, including uncluttering the refrigerators. The schedule is posted and emailed. Every week — every week — Network for Good’s two fridges get a thorough purging. The office even makes the kitchen and fridge cleaning a competition, with members of winning teams receiving $25 gift certificates.
“We like to reward people,”’ Kelsey says, adding that employees have asked her outright “what I look for in a winning team.” As a result, Network for Good’s refrigerators are probably the cleanest office fridges she has ever seen, Kelsey says.
At the corporate campus of appliance giant LG Electronics in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, a janitorial team cleans the refrigerators weekly, and the 450 employees are instructed to clear out their leftovers every Friday. But even an appliance wonderland — they test out new refrigerators before they go on sale — has its challenges.
It “doesn’t make us immune to any … food wars,” says Taryn Brucia, director of public relations. “I always want to know what my co-workers’ homes look like.”
Brucia recommends that offices chip in to buy certain common food items such as salad dressing and condiments. These can stay in the refrigerator.
Other tips? Be brutal and be relentless, she says.
And, if you’re a refrigerator offender, fess up. As Miller says, it will do you good.
Fifteen years ago, Miller says, she took a co-worker’s “high-quality” white chocolate raspberry yogurt. “I still feel bad about it,” she says. “If she is out there and … she wants to contact me, I will make her whole.”