Tweet About ‘Stolen Lunch’ Hits a Nerve


Twitter thread goes viral, highlights a common workplace problem 

There's a good reason that a Los Angeles comedian's recent tweet about a co-worker's stolen lunch went viral: People could relate—because employees get their lunches stolen all the time.

Zak Toscani, a comedian who works at a Los Angeles post-production company specializing in subtitling, tweeted that a "co-worker got his lunch stolen and they've agreed to let him watch the security camera tape."

His updates quickly took on the tone of a soap opera: Human resources and the co-worker viewed the security footage. The culprit—a woman from the office—took her colleague's shrimp fried rice from the communal fridge, then tossed it in the trash. The woman went home for the day, then HR sent out a companywide e-mail about not stealing others' lunches.

By the next morning, Toscani's original post had been "favorited" by more than 100,000 Twitter users and retweeted about 50,000 times.

Toscani could not be reached through his publicist and did not reply to a Twitter request for an interview with SHRM Online.

A Common Crime

Lunch theft is such a common issue in offices that it has appeared in sitcoms like "Friends"and "Good Times." NPR devoted an episode of "This American Life" to the problem.

A survey, highlighted in the New York Post, by online grocer Peapod found that 71 percent of employees have had a snack, drink or meal stolen from a workplace kitchen.

"People steal all kinds of things at workplaces," said Art Markman, professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the Fast Company online article The Psychology Behind Why People Steal Their Coworkers' Stuff. "They take coffee without paying for it when there is an honor system. People steal office supplies for home use or make copies for personal use at work. [They feel] the company owes them that for being a good employee." 

Food, it seems, falls into the same category. Researchers who placed $1 bills on a plate in a workplace refrigerator alongside a six-pack of soda lost their drinks but kept the money.

Markman said workers tend to rationalize swiping someone's lunch with thoughts like this:

• It's like the fridge at home—everything's up for grabs.
• I was ravenous and couldn't help myself.
• It's not like I'm taking someone's money.

"People do a lot of things that are easy to do," he said, adding that research shows that "people will cheat on small things that it is unlikely they will be caught doing, just because it is easy. They aren't really thinking about the consequences."

What Can Be Done?

HR can take steps to prevent petty theft—which doesn't seem too petty to the person who has to go hungry that day, as Victoria Neal, SHRM-SCP, an HR Knowledge Advisor for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), wrote in the April issue of SHRM's HR Magazine.

"The biggest problem with lunch-stealing from an HR standpoint is that it hurts morale," Markman said. "People just feel like they trust their co-workers less when someone is stealing lunches. It is important to see what the offender does to repair relationships with colleagues. I can't imagine firing someone for stealing lunches, but I could imagine someone getting fired because they undermine the cohesiveness of the workplace."



By Dana Wilkie