Some quick rules to ensure food etiquette for the office refrigerator

The office kitchen is "where a lot of passive-aggression gets worked out," says work advice columnist Karla Miller.
The office kitchen is "where a lot of passive-aggression gets worked out," says work advice columnist Karla Miller. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

(THE WASHINGTON POST) - In This Is Just To Say, the poet William Carlos Williams wrote gently, beautifully: I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox and which you were probably saving for breakfast Forgive me they were delicious so sweet and so cold.

Seriously? Talk about entitlement. Williams was a master poet, but as an office-mate, it sounds like he was no prize.

"Anywhere you have humans, you're going to have people who spill things and don't pick it up" and people who steal other people's lunches, said Karla Miller, The Washington Post Magazine's @Work Advice columnist. The office kitchen is "where a lot of passive-aggression gets worked out," she added.

As to food theft (see "plums," above), Miller has heard anecdotally that higher-paid employees are often the worst offenders. For repeat offenders, taking others' food "borders on sociopathy. I really don't get it."

"I wonder if it's just kind of somehow being in a kitchen taps into people's home selves, their home brain and sends them back to what their kitchen at home is like," Ms Miller added.

Surely you have seen those "Your mother doesn't work here" signs. Those might not be enough. Debby Mayne, etiquette expert at TheSpruce.com, says offices should have specific rules posted for "refrigerator real estate".

"People forget that the office refrigerator isn't their personal cooler," she said in an email interview. "They need to be reminded (gently at first, and then maybe not so gently) that this is shared with other people, and they need to be more respectful."

Among her other suggestions:

- Restrict the amount of refrigerator space workers can use. This should be determined by the size of the refrigerator and how many people use it.

- Prohibit users from leaving anything in the fridge overnight.

- Require that workers label food containers with their name.

- Ban certain foods (smelly foods or things that may seep through the wrappers and onto other people's lunches).

- Once someone breaks the rules a certain number of times, ban them from using the office fridge for a week.

- Keep a box of baking soda or other odour absorber in the fridge at all times.

What about food safety? The government's Foodsafety.gov website recommends setting refrigerator temperatures to 4 degrees Celsius or below and freezer temperatures to 0. Anything above 4 degrees puts food into a "danger zone" where bacteria can run amok, the site says. The site also suggests that perishable foods be thrown out at least once a week, and says a general rule of thumb for refrigerating cooked leftovers is four days.

Network For Good, a Washington software provider for nonprofit groups, has pretty much perfected the refrigerator purge. About 100 people (including my husband) work in the organisation's Washington office; everyone - from the chief executive on down - is part of the kitchen cleanup team.

Every quarter, office manager Kimberly Kelsey assigns employees to teams of six or seven people each. The teams are given weeks when it is their job to tidy the kitchen, including uncluttering the refrigerators. The schedule is posted and emailed. Every week - every week - Network For Good's two fridges get a thorough purging. The office even makes the kitchen and fridge cleaning a competition, with members of winning teams receiving US$25 (S$32.98) gift certificates.

"We like to reward people," Ms Kelsey said, adding that employees have asked her outright "what I look for in a winning team". As a result, Network For Good's refrigerators are probably the cleanest office fridges she has ever seen, Ms Kelsey said.

At the corporate campus of appliance giant LG Electronics in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, a janitorial team cleans the refrigerators weekly, and the 450 employees are instructed to clear out their leftovers every Friday. But even an appliance wonderland - they test out new refrigerators before they go on sale - has its challenges.

It "doesn't make us immune to any food wars," said Ms Taryn Brucia, director of public relations. "I always want to know what my co-workers' homes look like."

Ms Brucia recommends that offices chip in to buy certain common food items such as salad dressing and condiments. These can stay in the refrigerator.

Other tips? Be brutal and be relentless, she says.

And, if you are a refrigerator offender, fess up. As Ms Miller said, it will do you good.

Fifteen years ago, Ms Miller said, she took a co-worker's "high-quality" white chocolate raspberry yogurt. "I still feel bad about it," she said. "If she is out there and she wants to contact me, I will make her whole."