Workplace Food Theft: A Tale of Woe

Have you ever had your food stolen out of the office refrigerator? A lot of people report it as a common occurrence — but there's very little research to back up their claims.

*This story originally aired on January 1, 2013.

Consider this my entrance into activist journalism. Food theft has happened to me one too many times.

First it was a pudding cup, then a bag of carrot sticks, and as the list of missing snacks and meals grew, I knew I had to do something about it.

I put out a query on Facebook and got several responses from people with similar stories.

"Hello, I'm Fujio Watanabe and I'm a victim of a workplace food theft. And my story is essentially, I brought some wonderful leftovers from home that included pork chops and various nice sides. And someone decided to not just take the entire meal, they didn't do that, they just took one of my pork chops."

"My name is Allison Satterwhite and I have been a victim of food theft in the office place on more than one occasion. I had a repeat offender at my last place of employment. She would take anything that did not have a name on it, that was always her excuse. And the most notable moment was when she actually sliced a piece of baby shower cake that we hadn't even cut into yet."

There was also the woman who had raw chicken stolen out of her refrigerator, but that was during a home burglary, and not at the office.

So food thieves are out there. But why do they do it? Why would they take food they know doesn't belong to them?

"There is no research on this phenomenon."

That's organizational psychologist and University of Houston Assistant Professor Dr. Lisa Penney.

Penney says there's plenty of research on why employees steal from their companies. But almost no literature exists on why they steal from each other.

She says one reason for the lack of research in this area might be the simple fact that the crime is such a low priority for nearly everyone except the victim.

"Without having any research to back it up, all I can do is speculate at this point. But it could be low impulse control — I see something, I want it, I take it. It's also possible people may have just an inflated sense of entitlement."

Does that sound like anyone you work with?

Another reason someone might steal your food is they might see it as communal property. Or the lack of consequences could embolden some people to act with reckless lunchtime abandon.

"It's the thrill of getting away with something, it may be enjoying a nice meal if it's better than your own lunch."

Penney says one obvious solution is to label your food before you put it in the office fridge.

Maybe that strategy is what's worked for Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who is apparently immune to food theft.

"My lunches must not have been very exciting and I usually brought leftovers, so no it's never happened to me. And frankly, now no one would dare."

Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...