Lunch thefts and dirty dishes: How to navigate breakroom melodramas

If your office’s breakroom is a hotbed of unresolved conflict, you’ll recognize these characters and their dramas.

At 3 p.m., “Harry” exploded into the executive director’s office because someone swiped his turkey and cheese sandwich. According to Harry, one bite would have convinced anyone mistaking his sandwich for theirs that they’d made a mistake because he used Jarlsberg cheese and fresh tomatoes. Harry’s now walking through the workplace checking everyone’s trashcans and desk drawers for “evidence.” He vows that if no one confesses, he’ll declare open season on everyone’s food. Predictably, the ED sends out an office-wide email requesting employees respect others’ food.

The engineering firm in Midtown installed two large Keurig coffeemakers so no one had to wrestle coffee grounds in the morning. Unfortunately, “George” mainlines coffee and fails to notice the “add water” light. Or perhaps he does, because he’s known for filling several large cups at a time, leaving both machines with blinking “add water” lights after he returns to his desk.

And, apparently, no one at a downtown Anchorage advertising firm knows how to clean up their messes. Periodically, the front-desk staff leaves large notes on the fridge and cupboard doors reminding everyone “it’s not that much bother to rinse your dishes and put them in the dishwasher!” When the ad agency manager comes though, she strips the notes and sends out an email reminding everyone that account executives occasionally take clients into the breakroom and clients don’t need to see either the messes or the notes. According to the front desk staff, it’s the agency manager who most often leaves her unwashed cups in the sink.

Then there’s “Rachel.” She prefers talking on speakerphone when in the breakroom. As a result, anyone getting a cup of coffee or microwave learns more than they want to about her pesky medical issues and husband’s annoying habits. When a coworker respectfully suggested Rachel carry on those conversations in the restroom, Rachel responded in horror: “And have him hear the flushing toilet?”

If you’ve wondered why the breakroom, intended as a place where employees can connect and refuel, instead becomes a breeding ground for festering conflicts, the answer is simple. The common solutions, such as the “don’t swipe others’ sodas” emails, don’t work. The posted signs help the front desk or office manager blow off steam, but the only sign that commands attention is “Undated or expired food will be tossed on Friday.” Everyone rescues their fresh food, or grumbles later, but leaves their science experiments to their fate. Hungry food thieves don’t respect labeled names on food, but simply look around to ensure they can sneak the food away without detection. Two microwaves ease the problem caused by microwave hogs but result in two microwaves needing cleaning.

The engineering firm, however, fixed their breakroom problem — by accident. They invited me to provide a communication skills seminar because their client survey revealed clients considered the engineers lacking in conflict skills. Knowing the engineers would consider the training a deadly waste of time, I sent out an advance email. The email, titled “Send me your fridge food thief stories,” asked for breakroom conflicts so everyone could practice their skills on real issues. That’s when I leaned about George and others. Actual problems flooded my inbox. When I distributed the session’s handouts, the attendees turned to the packet’s last pages and started laughing.


When we started the skills practice, George learned he hadn’t traveled under the radar with his “I never see the add water light” coffeemaker protest. Everyone vied to be the one who confronted George, and his ears stayed red through the remainder of the session. Similarly, others discovered their high rank on the “suspect list” for leaving dishes in the sink or stealing sodas or yogurts.

As you might suspect, while the training provided useful conflict skills, the more important outcome was an end to the breakroom sagas. The breakroom culprits discovered others knew exactly who left dishes in the sink, messes in the microwave, sneaked off with others’ sandwiches, or overshared during speakerphone conversations.

Would you like to try this at your workplace? Ask for a few true stories and see what turns up — or perhaps it’s safer to simply leave this article on the breakroom wall.

Lynne Curry | Alaska Workplace

Lynne Curry writes a weekly column on workplace issues. She is author of “Navigating Conflict,” “Managing for Accountability,” “Beating the Workplace Bully" and “Solutions,” and Submit questions at or follow her on, or @lynnecurry10 on X/Twitter.