What to Do When Employees Steal Food and Drink

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- If you've ever worked in an office and used the community refrigerator, chances are you've had your food eaten by someone else, pushed to the back or thrown out before its expiration date. While this can be frustrating for employees, it can be next to impossible for companies to police. Sometimes the problem can get so bad that employees don't stop at just swiping one another's food -- they begin stealing company-provided coffee, snacks, sodas and more.

Although installing security cameras may seem like an extreme measure, the Bloomberg Bureau of National Affairs in Arlington, Va., recently made headlines for threatening to install a camera in a communal kitchen to crack down on food and beverage theft. A leaked memo from BNA's vice president of human resources showed they weren't kidding around.

"Prior to the installation of the cameras and even after the cameras are installed, if you are observed taking any amount of soda, juice, milk, fruit or snacks home you may be subject to termination from BBNA for cause," the memo read. "Unfortunately, the behavior of a few individuals impacts all employees. If this type of behavior continues we will have no other option than to consider closing down the pantry."

Although the company later apologized to employees for their stern approach and decided not to install the pantry cameras after all, the incident highlights just how difficult it can be for companies to control what happens in the kitchen. If your company is struggling with pantry etiquette or looking for a way to control just how many sodas and coffee pods leave the building, we've got expert tips on how to manage.

Companies looking to combat this problem -- or head it off before it starts -- should make certain their employee handbook addresses proper kitchen behavior and expectations, says Steve Moore, director of human resource operations for HR and business consultancy Insperity.

"Unfortunately, employers cannot expect their employees to 'just know' what is expected of them," Moore says. "All policies and codes of conduct should be in a written format that is easily accessible by all employees."

An employer that does not have written guidelines is much more likely to encounter problems, Moore says, adding that kitchen rules should be posted in an area accessible to all employees, such as on the refrigerator or on a break room bulletin board.

"Putting conduct information such as kitchen dos and don'ts in writing helps ensure all employees receive the same information about workplace boundaries and that they are aware of what is expected from them and what they can expect from the company. Written information should contain enough detail to avoid confusion, but not so much as to overwhelm," Moore says.

If your company handbook doesn't already contain such language, the best way to spread the word is via email, says Robert Hosking, executive director of staffing firm OfficeTeam.

"When introducing a policy to employees, firms should consider sending out a memo and discussing it during staff meetings. The information should also be highlighted during new worker orientations," Hosking says.

When a written policy isn't enough and problems are observed or reported, they should be handled immediately, Hosking says.

"Break room etiquette breaches can be quite minor, but they should be addressed before they become major disturbances to others," he says. "If a manager feels that a worker is not conducting him or herself appropriately in the break room, he or she should take the individual aside to discuss the matter."

In addition to taking swift action once a complaint is filed, employers should also make it clear how to file a complaint when bad behavior is spotted, Moore says.

"Employees need a clear process for reporting all misconduct, whether to their supervisor or through an anonymous channel, such as a voicemail line," he says. "An ethics code should provide protections for anyone who reports an issue. Once an issue is reported, managers need to follow an established process to investigate claims and discuss actions."

Once the pantry thieves have been identified, Christina Stovall, director of field HR services for human resources outsourcing firm CoAdvantage, says that the guilty parties need to be pulled aside for little chat and told that their actions are not condoned by the company.

"Most people know that it's pretty basic not to take a co-worker's food or that items provided by the company are for use while working, not for them to take home," Stovall says. "Companies should make sure their managers are well-equipped to handle these concerns, deal with them quickly and appropriately and are strong examples of upholding the organization's ethical standards."

Unfortunately, exactly how to discipline petty food theft isn't always easy, says Tom Lenz, partner at Los Angeles law firm Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo.

"Theft is always a serious issue," Lenz says. "The best way to discipline comes down to how the individual employer enforces its policies. If it's a large item, it may be time to terminate the employee. But if it's petty items, employers may be better off issuing a warning first and then taking more serious action later."

Employers run the risk of looking too "heavy handed" if they fire an employee for too small an infraction, Lenz says.

"If someone steals a $100 bottle of wine off your desk that a client gave you, then that's a problem," he says. "But I have a hard time saying that if someone steals your peanut butter sandwich that's grounds for termination."

If kitchen theft is a persistent problem that shows no signs of slacking after warnings are issued, it's not too extreme to think of installing a camera, Stovall says.

"You can install cameras or even eliminate the kitchen altogether, but I'd keep in mind the big picture," she says. "Is it one or two employees that are the problem or is it a mass issue? You may cause more morale issues if you punish the group as a whole as opposed to addressing the problem if it only lies with a couple of people."

Unfortunately, when cameras show up in a workplace environment, so do fears of "big brother," Lenz says.

"Sometimes the timing or the placement of cameras can be troubling, but if it's purely a matter of protecting personal property, I think they have value," Lenz says. "A lot of warehouses or retail stores have cameras to make sure there is no theft, and the key is to make sure people are on notice that it's there."

If employees are notified that cameras are being installed, it's next to impossible for them to claim their privacy is being invaded, Lenz says. Employers who decide to install cameras in the kitchen should have a sign up at all times: "Theft is prohibited. Employees are protected by surveillance cameras."

If kitchen surveillance just seems like too much of a stretch for your company, it probably is. The best way to make sure you never have to install a camera is to nurture an "ethical culture" in your office, Moore says.

"Keep ethics a part of regular communication at work by frequently praising staff's ethical decisions and reinforcing the message that those who behave ethically receive the support of management," he says.

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