23.8 Cubic Ft. of Trouble
We’ve all seen the signs:
*All items not removed by Friday will be thrown out!
*Your mother doesn’t work here. Please clean out your trash and spoiled food.
*Label it or Lose it!
*To the person who ate my lunch yesterday: How does it feel to know that in your heart you’re nothing but a low-life thief?
An employee took me to the refrigerator in her office’s breakroom last week. She showed me the five signs on it and around it telling people to keep the refrigerator clean. When she opened the door I almost gagged, the odor was so gross! Then, she pointed out the notes accusing people of taking food. It was a depressing situation!
There are four actions that will change a situation like that or like the situation in your office: (If you have a happy office situation and no problems, these ideas may seem a bit much. I can assure you, they are not excessive for the needs of most offices):
1. Consider issues related to the break-room/kitchen, refrigerator and microwave just as important as any other source of conflict. It is part of the office environment and is under the purview of the supervisor or manager whether he or she likes the idea or not–just like the thermostat, music, fragrances and the other non-work things that have an effect on work relationships.
Do not refer to this as being the “refrigerator police”. It’s part of managing the office. It’s also a way to test whether or not the manager’s influence and leadership is as strong as he or she hopes it is.
2. Establish one foundational policy: The refrigerator is only for storage of the employee’s lunch the day or shift it is brought in or for restaurant leftovers that day. If an employee wants to have the food again the next day it can be taken home and brought back. If there are leftover items from an office function, distribute it the same day. Employees can bring their cake back the next day if they want it.
That one improvement–no items left overnight–will save most of the thefts and all of the rotten food smells. Forget making the rule that the refrigerator will be cleared at the end of the week. That isn’t working anywhere. Bring a lunch and eat it or take it back home, but don’t leave it overnight.
3. All employee food items must be in a solid paper bag, stapled and marked with the employee’s name. Have various sized paper bags, a stapler and a pen in a container next to the refrigerator. Even that one apple, container of yogurt or can of soda should be in a bag. (By the way, I think those (and cream, mentioned below) are the most common things to steal, based on many angry reports I receive. I had no idea how many people will give up their ethics for a container of yogurt.)
Employees can bag their items at home or do it at work, but nothing is allowed in the refrigerator without being in a marked and stapled paper bag. After lunch, leftovers can be re-bagged or the first bag can be re-stapled.
No thermal bags: Thermal bags take up much more space than others. They also prevent the cold air from getting to the food. So, if someone wants to bring a thermal bag they can keep it in their personal space or take the items out and put them in a stapled, marked paper bag.
The requirement to bag, staple and mark food items will eliminate the rest of the thievery and food smells. It will also make it possible to remind employees that their lunch bag is still in the refrigerator.
*The same rules applies to the cream, milk or soy milk and the various condiments employees may want to bring. Inevitably it will be stolen or tampered with and the uproar begins. So, that too should be brought the day it is needed and taken home at the end of the shift. There is no reason to have hot sauce, soy sauce, ketchup or anything else, taking up permanent residence in an office refrigerator.
*These rules also apply to the freezer. It’s not to be used for long-term storage.
*Suggest that employees put their car keys in their lunch bags as a way to remind them to pick up their leftover lunch food.
*Acknowledge that this will be more effort for employees who bring food, but it is not horrible work or energy-draining work. The flipside is that since the refrigerator won’t be dirty, no one will have to have the assignment of cleaning out someone else’s old food.
*Make this part of new-employee orientations, even for employees who are not new to the overall company. If they haven’t worked in an office with a clean refrigerator they’ll need to be coached about what your office does to keep it that way!
4. Consider failure to follow these established processes just as much of a behavioral problem as failure to follow rules about anything else, because it is. These aren’t suggestions they are the way things are to be done.
On your own: Whether your office has a process like this or not, if you bring a lunch you could start bringing a stapled and marked paper bag on your own. Maybe it will catch on and maybe not, but at least your lunch will not be stolen and your food will never be considered a problem for odor or anything else.
The bottom line: You may be thinking that Refrigerator Rules shouldn’t be needed. They probably shouldn’t be needed, but they are, aren’t they?