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The case of the lunch bag letdown – Should all employee thefts be treated equally?

It has probably happened to most of you. It’s noon, you’re hungry, and that amazing Dagwood-esque sandwich that you got up early to prepare for your lunch is waiting for you in the workplace fridge. Except that it’s not, it’s been stolen, scarpered, misappropriated by one of your colleagues.

Most might consider employee “theft” of a colleague’s lunch to be a minor annoyance, but what if an employee’s purse was stolen, or a personal item from his or her desk? Should it remain a minor annoyance or become a serious matter for HR? Even though most employers are mostly concerned when the employer is the victim of theft by employees, thefts between employees is not something that should be shrugged off.

What is the impact on the workplace?

The theft of lunches or other food from the workplace fridge may seem like a harmless annoyance but a 2013 survey of British employees by hotels.com reported that theft of food from the fridge was the biggest employee complaint for 25 percent of employees (and second only to vacation scheduling conflicts).

Employee theft of another’s food, if the above survey is accurate, may result in a serious threat to employee morale, trust and camaraderie, and may even spur some employees to try to trap the culprit or exact revenge (cat food sandwich anyone?), all of which can easily spiral into a situation no employer wants to have to deal with.

Consider also that if an employee would steal someone’s food from the refrigerator, whether they would also dip into someone’s purse or other belongings left unattended, or be more likely to steal from the employer? Is stealing from the fridge a clue to someone’s ethics and character? Although I don’t suggest that food theft is the equivalent of serious embezzlement, I believe it is, at minimum, a blatant display of disrespect for co-workers which will work to erode the sense of morale and security that an employer works hard to achieve.

So, what’s an employer to do?

Firstly, the best cure is prevention. At the risk of seeming overly paternalistic, employers should remind employees to respect each other and each other’s property, including lunches and other items in the fridge, including in other areas of the workplace. Encourage or require employees to label all items left in the fridge to avoid confusion and mistakes, and enforce a policy where all items left at the end of the day will be disposed of. Remind employees to secure all valuable personal items and avoid leaving them unattended. Be sure to include a statement in your Conduct and Behaviour policy that theft between employees is a serious matter and will not be tolerated and be prepared to act on it fairly (will a manager or top-performing salesperson caught stealing lunches be disciplined in the same manner as any other employee?) depending on the gravity of the incident.

Serious or continued theft incidents might tempt employers to employ security cameras to catch the culprit, however, employers are advised to only use electronic surveillance in accordance with the current laws regarding employee privacy and surveillance (refer to Human Resources PolicyPro chapter on Searches and Surveillance and Conduct and Behaviour).

So even though employers may be tempted to react to complaints of theft between employees (whether food or other personal items) as an employee relations matter which requires mediation, such events should warrant more serious consideration.

Some food for thought (Boo!).

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Michele Glassford

President and Managing Editor at DRH and Lawyer at MacKinnon Law Associates
Michele Glassford, is a lawyer, researcher and policy analyst with a background in employment and labour law.In addition to a part-time law practice in Stoney Creek, Ontario, Michele has worked in the field of labour adjustment for the Health Sector Training and Adjustment Program and has been a Researcher for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Michele also holds the position of President and Managing Editor at D.R. Hancocks & Associates Inc., author of the Human Resources PolicyPros. Read more
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