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News of a suspected food thief at the BBC broke over the weekend, following a tweet from journalist Barbara George complaining that someone had taken her Thai green curry. Not only did someone eat her lunch, they also put the empty lunchbox back into the fridge. Other journalists have now come forward to say that they too have been victims of the lunch thief.  

But this problem is not exclusive to the BBC; many other workplaces have also fallen victim to secret sandwich snaffling.

So what can employers do – is this a case for HR?

Kate Palmer, HR Advice and Consultancy Director at Peninsula, says “Going to the fridge on your lunch break to find that someone has taken your food can be a common annoyance in the workplace.

“Often this is a simple mistake, and it may not be necessary to involve HR. But if this keeps happening, employees should raise the issue with their employer who can consider the best course of action.

“If the employee knows who has taken their lunch, the employer could suggest that the employee has a quiet word with the person concerned, if they feel comfortable doing this.

“Alternatively, if it is not clear who is responsible for taking the food, it may be appropriate for the employer to send an email reminder to all staff not to take their colleagues’ food and to be respectful to each other. The employer could also stress that if this continues it will lead to disciplinary action under the employer’s disciplinary procedure.

“If this does not resolve the problem or if an individual continues to be targeted, this can make the matter more serious, and a disciplinary investigation may need to be carried out. However, whether this is feasible will depend on what evidence is available. If there are no witnesses and no CCTV, for example, it will be very difficult to identify who is responsible. Installing a CCTV camera to catch the culprit is not as simple as it sounds because of data protection laws.

“Employees need to be informed if their images are going to be caught on camera, and the reason for the recording. You need to be able to justify using surveillance methods and only use it for the purpose it was intended for. Additionally, employers need to register with the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) if they are using CCTV and pay a fee unless exempt. Covert surveillance should only be used in exceptional circumstances where wrongdoing is alleged, in accordance with strict ICO rules.

“Employers should discourage employees from using their own detective methods such as adding laxatives to their food to identify the thief. This could put the safety of the individual at risk, especially if they have any allergies or other conditions which are triggered by certain medication. “If there are allegations of bullying or harassment, the employer should ensure that these are fully investigated in accordance with its bullying and harassment policies. It is also important to remind staff that the employer takes a zero-tolerance approach to this type of behaviour at work.

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