Office Lunch Thieves, Unspoken Rules, And The Psychology Of Dishonesty

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The Tweet Heard ‘Round the Corporate World

In late March 2018, Los Angeles–based comedian and writer Zak Toscani sent out a tweet from the post-production company where he works: “Co-worker got his lunch stolen and they’ve agreed to let him watch the security camera tape. This is the most excited I’ve ever been at any job ever. Ever.”

His tweet quickly went viral. It was liked over 560,000 times and garnered more than 170,000 retweets.

With a captive audience secured, Toscani then proceeded to live-tweet the whole sordid saga, which reads like an episode of Law & Order. When the thief is discovered, Toscani is horrified to realize that she sits directly next to him, while the man whose lunch she stole sits across from him. When the thief is confronted, well…you’ll just have to read the entire thing yourself.

During the two-day affair, Twitter was beside itself in suspense. Celebrities like Patton Oswalt and Lin-Manuel Miranda chimed in. CNN host Jake Tapper went so far as to suggest the story should be adapted into television’s next big hit. Whoever it was, most people seemed to agree on one thing: The lunch thief was a monster.

Toscani ended his thread by saying, “I wish I could close this up with a neat little bow, but, it appears that we may never know why she did it. Maybe she doesn’t know she did it. Either way I’m now forced to work 40hrs a week next to a cold blooded individual.”

Social Norms: The Unspoken Rules That Govern Behavior

While completely unverified, it’s easy to see why Toscani’s story hit a nerve.

In a 2017 survey from American Express Open, 18 percent of respondents admitted to stealing a co-worker’s lunch out of the communal fridge. The problem is international as well: That same year, Australian company Primo Smallgoods found that 1 in 3 Australian office workers say they’ve had their lunch taken out of the company’s fridge, while a whopping 37 percent admit they may be tempted to do the thieving.

There’s a reason that office lunch thievery is such a hot-button topic: It violates one of the unspoken rules of society that everyone agrees to live by in order to function. In this case, the fact that when you put your lunch in a communal area, it should remain safe until it’s time for you to eat it. Such rules are called social norms.

“There are a lot of rules that govern our behavior,” says Art Markman, PhD, a cognitive psychologist who teaches a course called “The Human Dimension of Organizations” at the University of Texas at Austin. “Some of them rise to the level of the laws of the land, but a lot of what governs our behavior on a day-to-day basis are social conventions and social norms. Without them, we can’t coordinate our activity with people in an effective way.”

If you can’t trust your colleagues to obey a social norm that’s in everybody’s benefit, what else can’t you trust them on?

Examples of social norms include everything from walking on the right side of the sidewalk to avoid running into people to facing the door rather than the back of an elevator.

“Some of these conventions don’t matter a ton,” Markman points out. “If you’re facing the back of an elevator, you look a little weird, but it doesn’t necessarily influence anybody else’s elevator experience. But a lot of these conventions are ones that allow us to operate effectively with other people.” For example, making the office refrigerator a free-for-all means people who don’t have the time or resources to buy their lunch out every day aren’t able to eat. And not eating properly can lead to all sorts of negative effects.

Diane Gottsman, founder of the Protocol School of Texas and author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life, says there’s another word for following social norms: etiquette.

“The word ‘etiquette’ often has a stereotype associated with it,” she says. “People tend to think proper etiquette involves being stuffy or haughty. When, in fact, proper etiquette is simply about putting others at ease. Building authentic relationships and genuine rapport is how others learn to trust you. It pays off in strong relationships both socially and in business.”

Regardless of the motivations, Gottsman says pilfering a co-worker’s lunch is just plain rude.

“When someone takes something that is not theirs, whether it’s a lunch in the office refrigerator or stapler off someone’s desk, it’s a conscious choice,” she says. “They may be simply attempting to throw an old tuna sandwich out of the refrigerator or borrowing something that they plan to return, but taking something that is not yours is clearly impolite. The bottom line is that you don’t take something that does not belong to you. It’s Basic Manners 101.”

Yet the thing about norms is that many of them are not legally enforceable.

“We don’t have lunch police; we don’t have a legal system for bringing somebody up on charges for the petty theft of stealing somebody’s lunch. And so whenever there’s any kind of a system that’s driven by social norms, there’s also a way for people to game that system and do things to their own advantage,” says Markman.

When this happens, Markman notes, it erodes trust in other areas.

“If you can’t trust your colleagues to obey a social norm that’s in everybody’s benefit, what else can’t you trust them on? Nobody likes to be in a workplace where they look around and think, ‘I’m not so sure that I completely trust the people I’m working with.’”

The Psychology of Dishonesty

If you’re reading this and shaking your head at how monstrous other people can act, don’t acquit yourself too quickly. Research suggests that everyone is a little more dishonest than they might think. “There’s nobody on planet Earth who has never done something that violates a norm,” Markman says.

People are much more likely to act dishonestly when two factors align: 1) when there’s a direct benefit involved, and 2) when the risks of getting caught are lowered. This study on cheating, published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, shows that even the highest amount of risk of getting caught won’t deter people from being dishonest if there’s even a small chance they can get away with it.

If you don’t think you’re dishonest, there’s research on that as well. Most people will act just dishonestly enough to reap personal gain, but not enough for them to feel that they are a bad or immoral person.

“Everyone has a certain moral code that they want to live up to, but if it’s really easy to get more than you deserve, and there’s really no downside to that,” most people will succumb to the temptation to take, says Markman.

Consider this: Perhaps you’ve never taken someone else’s lunch, but what about that time you pocketed that pen from work or took a few extra sheets of paper out of the copier to use at home? However you rationalize it, such actions are still technically against the rules. But Markman maintains that crossing some lines are more morally innocuous than others.

“We create all sorts of moral lines. You can see how someone can cross the bright line into something that would qualify as a petty theft.”

And when discussing issues of morality, there’s more going on than just issues of psychology.

“People’s moral judgments are pretty domain specific for them,” says Markman. “The concept of morality is not necessarily a psychological concept. So the fact that you steal a pen doesn’t mean that that’s the gateway drug to stealing a lunch, and after that taking down Fort Knox. Someone may take a pen and justify it a particular way, [but] they might never take anything else.”

Elevators, Pens, and Lunches: Differing Shades of Gray

Everyone can agree that facing the “wrong” way in an elevator is not the same thing as stealing a pen from the office, which isn’t, in turn, the same thing as stealing somebody’s lunch out of the communal fridge. Yet our reactions to these situations demonstrate just how powerful the pull of abiding by social norms really is.

In the differing shades of gray, Markman says the difference comes down to the personalization of the action. “There are certain things that people will do that feel like victimless crimes,” he says, and some that don’t: While the faceless corporate entity you work for may be out a few dollars for the office supplies you help yourself to, walking to a fridge and taking a lunch that has a specific person’s name on it feels different.

“When you take somebody’s lunch, it’s not hard to project yourself into the situation and think, ‘Gosh, if I came to the refrigerator having brought my lunch in, and it wasn’t there, I think I would be really frustrated, angry, and hurt by that,’” Markman says. “People who are willing to do that are willing to ignore that kind of suffering. I’m not saying those are people who are then going to go home and torture a puppy or something, but I do think that some of these things are qualitatively a little bit different.”

Social norms are not always the easiest to follow, and they vary by culture. If you need help knowing where to turn, Gottsman says that looking both inward and outward is a good place to start.

“Historically, there are many great leaders who are wonderful role models,” she says. “Good judgment and common sense is what is necessary to maintain a civil world. There are countless opportunities to learn from strong and powerful role models as well as neighbors and friends to exude common courtesy and goodwill.”

For further exploration on social norms, you can listen to this episode of Markman’s podcast Two Guys on Your Head, in which he and colleague Bob Duke, PhD, discuss the psychology behind punishment.

Whatever you do, avoid becoming a social pariah and an internet meme and leave that co-worker’s lunch alone.

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