My co-worker is stealing food.

Advice on manners and morals.
Dec. 3 2009 7:13 AM

Lunchroom Bandit

My co-worker is stealing everyone's food.

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Dear Prudence:
I work for a very large company, and on our floor, we all share a refrigerator in the kitchen. Over the course of several months now, many of us have had food taken, sometimes directly from our lunchboxes. It's usually stuff like a sandwich, yogurt, chips, or cookies, but I've had my entire lunch stolen. Numerous e-mails have been sent and signs posted on the fridge, all to no avail. Then one of my co-workers caught the bandit in the act while the bandit had no idea she was being seen. The thief happens to be not only a co-worker but a very good friend whom I spend a lot of time with away from work. She is a high-level financial executive and makes an excellent salary, so it's not like she is starving. We are all stunned, and I don't know how to handle this.

—Befuddled

Dear Befuddled,
The good news, at least as far as you know, is that she's embezzling only co-workers' Cheetos and not company cash. However, her urge to forage for food as if she's a squirrel storing nuts for the winter is sadly more than a little nutty. It's juicy that the person pilfering from everyone's lunchboxes is a high-ranking executive, and gossip like that can't be contained. You're right, hunger or poverty are not the reasons why she is jeopardizing her reputation, and possibly harming her career, for someone's package of Chips Ahoy! Just tell her directly that she's been spotted taking other people's food and that the word is spreading in the office. Explain that this just doesn't seem like her, and hear what she says. You don't say that she otherwise seems off, but if this has become a compulsion, it could indicate that she has either a new, or previously controlled, mental disorder. If she dismisses it as just a random incident of being ravenous and borrowing a cookie, then say that for months people's food has been disappearing, and she's been tagged as the culprit. Acknowledge that while the whole thing ultimately seems a little silly, if she somehow feels she can't stop, she should get help before she hurts her standing in the company.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
My boyfriend and I are a couple of years out of college and doing very well. We make a sizable income and have a beautiful home. Many of our friends are not as fortunate—between the economy and less career ambition, there is a clear financial divide. We do activities within our friends' budgets and save expensive meals or events for just the two of us. My problem is that we have a housekeeper who comes every month, but her work is not good. Without checking with me, my boyfriend offered the job to two of our friends who have the time to clean and need the money. They are excited for the opportunity and extra cash. I think money and friends don't mix, and it's potentially disastrous. My boyfriend says it's my call. I feel awkward trying to back out of this, but I want to do the right thing.

—Friends in Low Places

Dear Friends,
You've already experienced one potential pitfall of your boyfriend's plan: You are unhappy with the way your current cleaning woman is doing the job and want to get rid of her. It's hard to imagine saying to a friend, "Sandy, you're still leaving a ring when you clean the toilet. Could you take care of that, and are you free for brunch on Sunday?" I agree that mixing friendship and domestic employment is likely to end badly. Even if your friends do a crackerjack job, you probably don't want people you see socially having access to your literal dirty laundry. If your friends are seeking household work, then they should advertise their services on local listservs and bulletin boards around town. It would be big of your boyfriend to be the one to tell your friends that he made the offer before checking with you (true) and that you've already lined up potential cleaners (soon to be true), so he's really sorry for the miscommunication, but he can't use their help after all. If he's too embarrassed, do it yourself. Then say both of you will always keep them in mind if you hear of job openings. And when you invite them over for dinner and a movie, don't rent Friends With Money, about several rich women and their cash-strapped pal, played by Jennifer Aniston, who works as a maid.

—Prudie

Dear Prudie,
I am not a germaphobe. I do, however, expect people to wash their hands after using the restroom, and I am amazed, in this day of swine flu hysteria, to find that there are still people who don't. Do nonwashers think we can't hear the sound of the toilet flushing immediately followed by the door opening? The holidays are approaching, along with all of the dinner buffets, cookie trays, and unavoidable close quarters. How do I, as a reasonable person concerned for the health of my young family, encourage better hygiene practices from my co-workers and family members, not only after using the restroom but as a general rule? And how as a society do we get the message across that wiping one's privates, or one's nose, without washing is like using my hand, or that plate of macaroons, as one's personal toilet tissue? 

—Not a Fan of Feces

Dear Not a Fan,
You could try singing at your next holiday gathering, "On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me, a macaroon smeared with feces/ On the second day of Christmas my co-worker gave to me, two nostrils full of H1N1 …" Given the difficulties of obtaining a swine flu vaccination, every random sneeze and sniffle in close quarters does seem to carry portents of a strain of holiday fever we all want to avoid. I understand that you have come to view your co-workers and family members as giant bags of germs, but then again, we all are. It will probably take away from the festivities if, when you don your gay apparel, you include a pair of latex gloves. You also can't go around spritzing everyone with Purell or asking about their bathroom habits. The best you can do is to always cover your mouth and nose when sneezing, wash your hands frequently, and teach your children to do the same. Consider that since you've survived this long, you will probably make it to 2010 despite the poor hygiene of your nearest and dearest. 

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
My brother is schizophrenic and has a violent history. He abused me when we were growing up, and even tried to kill my little brother one night when he was hearing things. Years ago, when I was 18, my brother and I were driving around when we saw a hitchhiker. We picked him up and took him back to our house. My mom was away that night. I left them drinking beers and talking in the living room when I went to bed. The next day, the hitchhiker was gone. I asked my brother where the man went. He said he took the hitchhiker to the park down the street from our house, and the hitchhiker left. I had an uneasy feeling, like maybe my brother did or said something that creeped the guy out, but maybe something else happened. My brother now is on medication, living in a halfway house, and doing much better. Through the years, I've wondered whether my brother actually snapped and killed the hitchhiker. As far as I know, there was never anything on the news about a body being found. I just told my husband my concern, and he thinks I'm crazy for thinking it. But he didn't grow up with my brother. So how do I ask my brother if he murdered the hitchhiker?

—Uneasy

Dear Uneasy,
If your letter contained some details, such as "Ever since that night, my brother has worn a human thumb on a chain around his neck" or "The next day my brother said he spilled a ton of ketchup on the living-room rug and asked me to help get the stains out," I would consider that your speculation might have some merit. Schizophrenia is a horrible disease, and your whole family suffered because of your brother's illness, to say nothing of his own agony. However, there is absolutely nothing to indicate anything untoward happened to the hitchhiker. It is not surprising that a stranger you took into your house was gone in the morning, although it's a little more surprising that the television didn't vanish with him. Speaking of television, you have been watching way too much CSI. It is wonderful that your brother is stable and doing better, and you are to be admired for continuing to have a relationship with him, despite the pain he put you through as a girl. Don't ruin what you have now by accusing him of something awful that he didn't do.

—Prudie

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