Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

How To Solve the Problems Of The Work Refrigerator

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?

June 8th, 2012 Posted by | Food, Fitness, Fun, Life and Work, Supervision and Management | 21 comments


  1. What keeps people from stealing the stapled bag? In my office they steal everything.

    Comment by Jacko | June 9, 2012

  2. I think this idea sounds great and I’m going to try it. But, I think the thieves in my office will just take the whole bag, marked or not.

    We have food in our refrigerator at work that has been there for months! I want to throw it out but I’m afraid whoever owns it will get mad even though they’ve left it there for that long. Sometimes i wish we didn’t even have a refrigerator because it causes so many gripes and bad feelings. These are some good ideas though and I hope they will help.

    Comment by Lunch Lady | June 9, 2012

  3. Do you like being a refrigerator nazi much???

    Comment by anonymous | June 9, 2012

  4. @anonymous,your comment is rude and uncalled for. These ideas work and no one in my office thinks they are mean or hard to do.

    Tina, we’re doing most of this, except we do have some thermal lunch pouches which I agree, seems kind of silly in a refrigerator. Our refrigerator is never smelly and we’ve stopped having people take apples and pop, etc, like you mentioned. This way they know it isn’t food that has been forgotten or just left behind and they don’t take the whole bag. It works!

    Comment by denisek | June 9, 2012

  5. Tina says: I’ve had about a dozen emails about this topic! Some felt my idea of rules would make everyone angry, others said they were starting the One Day Only policy on Monday. You know your office best and my ideas are merely suggestions that I know have been effective. Anything that removes a continual irritation for just about everybody seems like a good idea to me.

    If you can find a good way to keep the refrigerator clean and semi-neat and to keep things from being stolen (food DOES have value and it IS stealing)I would like to hear about them. I’m open to any ideas that make things better. Thanks for your messages!

    Comment by TLR | June 9, 2012

  6. What gets stolen in our office: Yogurt, soda pop, candy, fruit, packaged food or desserts from a store and bottled water. What doesn’t get stolen: Obivous leftovers. So, last year I decided the best thing to bring for lunch is leftovers and that’s all. Since then I have never had anything taken and everyone else has lost something.

    The thing that gets me is that we only have about thirty people in our business, so I look around and try to figure out who is finding the time to get to the fridge, take food out and eat it where no one can see. Weird!

    Comment by Danica | June 11, 2012

  7. I’m going to try this for myself. I work in an EMT center where the biggest arguments we have are about the kitchen and refrigerator. We have a policy that no nasty signs can be left, you have to go to each person and ask them about your food..which I agree with because it’s more direct…but so far no one has ever admitted taking the food, so we just stopped asking. I’m going to try the bag and staple idea and will let you know.

    Comment by R.K.G. | June 11, 2012

  8. Hi! Here is a question….We have had food in our refrigerator that is really good food or a nice piece of cake or something similar, but days go by and it’s not eaten and it finally gets thrown out with green mold on it or all dried up. We ask around and no one will say it’s their food. So, my feeling is that if the food is there and its not being eaten, someone should enjoy it before it gets thrown away. Do you think that is the same as stealing the food?

    Comment by Wondering | June 11, 2012

  9. Tina says: Thanks to all of you for your comments and emails. I was thinking today that I often spend hours and hours crafting some brilliant essay on supervision, or spend a twor or three days researching and writing about some fascinating bit of history. Few comments.

    But, let me write about the office refrigerator and the comments come flowing in! 🙂

    What I gain from that is the thing I emphasize to managers and supervisors: Often it is the day to day workings of an office that lower or increase morale, build or harm relationships and make work enjoyable or not. Don’t neglect the seemingly small components of worklife!

    Comment by TLR | June 11, 2012

  10. Tina says: To “Wondering”, your question demonstrates why the One Day Only policy is a good one. If food wasn’t left in the refrigerator there would be no ethical decision!
    My opinion is this: From an ethical viewpoint, if you didn’t bring the food in it in, it isn’t yours and you shouldn’t consume it.

    From a practical viewpoint, nowadays you don’t know what someone has done to play a prank or get even with a suspected food thief. Even if it appears to be fine, I wouldn’t eat it. Go buy or make something similarly yummy and enjoy every morsel! Thank you for reading and commenting!

    Comment by TLR | June 11, 2012

  11. Our manager got so upset with the problems about the refrigerator that he took it out. Now, there is this ugly blank spot where the refrigerator used to be. People bring ice chests and thermal bags and stack them in that corner. It is a daily reminder of how screwed up this place is. Every time I see it I get depressed.

    I also wanted to comment on the tolerance article you wrote, because that ties in with this whole topic. The same two or three people caused all the trouble over the refrigerator but our boss would make jokes to them about it instead of just telling them to stop. Now we all suffer for it. I’m going to ask if we can get the refrigerator back and use this idea, but I don’t have a lot of hope about it. I’ll let you know.

    Comment by J.C.L. | June 12, 2012

  12. I’m an office manager with 60 so-called professionals to deal with..execs as well as adminstrative support. The stolen lunches and messy refrigerator complaints never stop. The latest problem has been an otherwise nice person who has “forgotten” her pop can in the freezer THREE times. Every time it bursts and makes a big mess.

    We have a 330K plus exec who will take anything in the refrigerator and act like we can’t see that he has it hidden in his hand down at this side. It’s ridiculous!

    I guess I can’t figure out why these professionals can’t grow up and take care of things or stop being thieves just because they want a snack. It’s mind boggling to me.

    Comment by Dinkydo | June 13, 2012

  13. We have instituted the rule of no food or condiments left in the refrigerator and it is only to be used as a place to keep food at a safe temperature for one day. I check the fridge before I leave in the evening and so far after three months it’s still clean and fresh. One employee contacted HR, if you can believe that! The complaint went nowhere and now she is doing fine it seems. Thank you!

    Comment by Careerist | September 13, 2012

  14. I read this article on Wednesday night, took the ideas to work on Thursday and we’re doing them now. Some complaining but not much. THE BEST IDEA of all is to not have anything in the refrigerator at the end of the day. The whole leftover thing is what started all of our problems. One of the men said he would stop bringing food back from lunch if we had that rule. We said, “Good, you never ate it anyway and we have to throw away smelly chowmein!” Everyone was talking about it on Friday and they have bets going on how long it will last. I said forever!

    Comment by Big Dog | October 14, 2012

  15. Try posting this on your staff frig.

    This refrigerator has been identified as a biohazard manufacturing pod and shall be subject to Homeland Security protocols regulation, UNCLN 72.342.
    Department of Agricultural has all rights to recover and or use for its educational value the contents of items, not labeled or claimed by 12/1/2012, within freezer or refrigerator.
    One of our agents will dispose of all forms of life within this refrigerator, anyone wishing to make a formal statement of discontent after 12/1/2012.
    Please contact the United Nations in New York, New York, by the close of business on the day after but no less than 48 hours before your 80th Birthday.
    We must have your complaint postdated after your 80th birthday.

    Have a Safe Day!

    Comment by Navseaweed | November 18, 2012

  16. Tina says: I think, Navseaweed, your Homeland Security message is cute, but just what we’re trying to avoid. 🙂

    Comment by TLR | November 18, 2012

  17. Take your creamer container and add liquid glue….that’ll stop it.

    Comment by guest | December 11, 2012

  18. We don’t have a problem with people stealing food. But I thinks its because the fridge is so disgusting no one would trust anything in there they did not put in themselves.

    Comment by Paul | October 1, 2013

  19. I ran across this right after I put the “end of week cleanout” in our office of 60. Our small fridge had been leaking and oozing slime and all kinds of unhealthy ugliness – since it was obviously a health hazard, I took it over and put the policy in place by hanging the policy in the fridge – first thing you see when you open it. The largest hurdle is condiment storage which took up most of the room and created much of the spills. Right of ownership is the most difficult domain – tell someone they no longer have the right to something at work, and all #@!@!breaks lose. Good luck to you all. You’ll need it in most offices. For me, my clean little fridge is still that — clean.

    Comment by kiki | March 3, 2015

  20. We have problems at our work with food getting left around too long, but absolutely zero problems with someone’s lunch being taken, because we have community food that’s available for anyone who is hungry. We have a whole separate fridge (actually, it’s one of those big glass-doored beverage fridges like you see at a take-out restaraunt), and it’s full of not just soda and red bull, but also has fruits, veggies, string cheese, along with a cupboard full of crackers, pretzels, veggie chips, etc.

    Occaisionally the company brings in bagels or donuts for breakfast. Probably a bit excessive for some companies, but even when we just had pretzels and bananas around at the least, it gave those who were hungry something to snack on and ignore other people’s foods. True, there’s probably still some jackasses who just take people’s food for the thrill of it, but that’s when you start monitoring the area and figuring out who the thief is, cuz if they’re dishonest about that, what else are they dishonest about in their work?

    Comment by Megan P | July 21, 2015

  21. I see this all the time. There are very few workplace fridges I have seen that are clean. You would think people would value the cleanliness of their fridge and realise the importance in health.

    Comment by Will | March 26, 2018

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