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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And now, questionable actions of a different sort. We're talking about the office refrigerator, the place where we leave our lunches fully expecting that they'll be there when we return. And that is usually the case, except when it's not.

NPR's Yuki Noguchi takes on that lowest of creatures, the office food thief.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: As a wedding planner, Jeanne Hamilton saw her share of very bad manners. People who made her think...

JEANNE HAMILTON: There should be an etiquette hell for people like you.

(LAUGHTER)

NOGUCHI: And bingo. That was the beginning of her eponymous website, Etiquette Hell. So I ask her...

I'm curious about office fridge theft.

HAMILTON: Oh, yes. It's the number one problem that people complain about.

NOGUCHI: Including, I might add, myself. Office fridge theft runs rampant here at NPR. Leftover sandwiches and frozen meals with names on them disappear. All-staff emails occasionally attempt to shame the perpetrators. My favorite concerned someone's stolen leftover barbeque ribs. This shocked even the Etiquette Hell lady.

HAMILTON: Ew.

(LAUGHTER)

HAMILTON: Most people pick up ribs with their fingers and gnaw on them.

NOGUCHI: Seriously. So this begs the question, who does this? Well, Molly Heiser, for one. Last week, she stole a Greek yogurt out of the office fridge. The thing is, Heiser works as a video editor for a Bible software company in Bellingham, Washington. So she deals with sermons and religious material all day.

MOLLY HEISER: And I stole a yogurt. Yeah, that is pretty ironic.

NOGUCHI: What inspired her? Hunger. She forgot her lunch and figured someone had abandoned the yogurt. But her petty criminal enterprise backfired. The yogurt was rotten.

HEISER: It was a moment of instant karma and I don't think I'll ever do it again.

NOGUCHI: Why do otherwise decent people think it's OK to steal food from their colleagues? Jeanne Hamilton, who is now a manners consultant in North Carolina, thinks part of the problem is that people confuse community fridge with communal food. Some people might convince themselves that they aren't stealing, just borrowing. But she speculates the real issue is that some people have an incredible sense of entitlement.

HAMILTON: Nobody ever has a story of coming back saying the thief compensated me for what they took.

NOGUCHI: And there is no perfect system of office justice. Victims often leave nasty-grams pasted to the fridge. Some even claim to have made cat-food sandwiches as bait. I ask Hamilton what she recommends.

HAMILTON: It depends on who your food thief is. If it turns out it's your boss, you've just stepped into a political landmine.

NOGUCHI: Which was precisely the problem for Heather Chambers. A couple years ago, she noticed her frozen dinners were disappearing, so she posted a note on the San Diego solar company's fridge. A co-worker then tipped her off. The suspect? The CEO.

HEATHER CHAMBERS: I went into his office and, lo and behold, there were two of my frozen dinner things in his trash can.

(LAUGHTER)

NOGUCHI: This man was brazen about it. He made no attempt, in fact, to conceal his food theft.

CHAMBERS: One of my co-workers was eating something and while he was typing something on his computer, the CEO took his fork and tried his food while he was right there.

NOGUCHI: Everyone felt hamstrung, unable to muster the courage to confront him. Chambers says she was annoyed enough about having to subsidize her boss's lunch but there were health costs, too, as one of her female co-workers discovered.

CHAMBERS: He had a huge cold sore on his mouth and took a swig of her drink, and then she ended up getting a cold sore, like, a couple weeks later.

NOGUCHI: Missy Hamilton is no relation to the etiquette consultant, except in her shared sense of outrage. She still works at a Minneapolis travel firm for a boss who, until recently, routinely ate sandwiches and soda that had other peoples' names written on them.

MISSY HAMILTON: I don't know if it was a power thing for him or he just didn't want to go out to the store, which was just a couple of blocks down the road, to get the thing he wanted to have.

NOGUCHI: Even after confronting him, the behavior continued. So she and some co-workers decided they would fight back.

HAMILTON: It was a group of us. There were five of us that went to HR on it.

NOGUCHI: Hamilton says, since then, it's been a little awkward. But on the other hand, the number of food thefts is down.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

SIEGEL: And we've asked you to share your stories and photos of office food theft. We featured some of your inventive anti-theft measures on our food blog, The Salt, at NPR.org.

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