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What Should You Do When Someone Raids Your Office Fridge?

And other questions you’re too embarrassed to ask your own HR

Most of us work more than we live, which is to say we spend considerably more time at the office and with our coworkers than we do with the human beings we actually want in our lives. It also means that the stressors and anxieties of work become a significant part of who we are — and can be a real drag even when we’re not at the office. We here at MEL, however, don’t want all that stress to get to you — or worse, kill you. That’s why we’ve enlisted Terry Petracca, the hippest HR expert we know, to help solve all your work-related woes.

One of our coworkers just lost his infant daughter to sudden infant death syndrome. None of us know how to treat him so we’re all walking on eggshells. We’re a close-knit team — e.g., we all went to his baby shower and celebrated his daughter’s birth. What do we do? And what do we say? — Lawrence P.

I’m sorry for your loss because it’s a tragedy for all of you. At this sad time, it’s important for you and your teammates to understand the grieving process and how you, your manager and HR all have important roles to play in it:

  • You: Recognize that you and your teammates are grieving alongside your co-worker. If you’re unsure of how to behave or what to say, there are useful sites for guidance. There also are support groups and resources for parents, families and co-workers. Be respectful of your teammate’s need for privacy but don’t isolate him. Be authentic, listen, and most importantly, be aware that the grieving process takes time.
  • Managers: Be aware that a tragedy like this affects each of your employees differently. For the grieving parents, totally immersing themselves in work might be their solace, while the team may find it hard to get back on track. As manager, you need to balance your compassion with the work that needs to get done. Talk to HR about the flexibility you have with company leave policies and alternative work schedules.
  • HR: The HR team should be on top of what’s going on in the department because the affected manager should be talking with you. HR can also develop support programs for your team. For example, at one company where I worked, we lost two young employees to cancer within six months. HR organized group counseling and then waived mental health co-pays so employees could also get individual counseling.

Unfortunately, experiencing death within your work family will happen over a long career, so professional counseling and a strong, giving heart are what you should rely on.

I received an email by mistake with a new hire’s salary offer. I’m really pissed what they’re offering this guy compared to what I’m making. I want to storm into my boss’s office and ask, “What the fuck?” But I realize I have to be smart about this. Any advice? — Kevin F.

First things first: Don’t ignore this email. You’re obviously concerned about the information it revealed, and if you don’t discuss it, it’ll fester and affect your attitude and behavior at work. Talk to your manager about the email and share its contents (s/he might not have been in the hiring loop) and your concerns.

Be aware, however, that they may tell you the company doesn’t discuss other people’s salary. Your response should be, “I don’t normally either, but in this case, some important information came my way. Nor am I asking about that specific person. I’m asking about my opportunities here.” Also, know that the National Labor Relations Board and several states now protect your ability to discuss pay with your fellow employees.

That said, make sure you’ve thought through what you’re going to say. Being confrontational isn’t going to get you anywhere. You should express your frustration and your disappointment in how the information was revealed to you, but you should stay away from saying you’re angry and that it’s all bullshit. Consider the following strategy:

  • Ask what criteria the company uses in establishing a salary offer. For instance, how does education and experience affect the offer? Are there other attributes or behaviors it values more than others? What are the most important levers for the company?
  • Then ask how your skills, competencies, education and experience stack up compared with the person who received the job offer in question.
  • Finally, ask what it will take for you to get to that same level (salary, title etc.) as the person who was just hired? And how long it will take?

Armed with this information, you can make an informed decision about your opportunities within the company.

I discovered that one of the night-shift cleaning crew members has been going into the refrigerator and stealing people’s food. When I confronted her, she told me to mind my own business and that she needs the food more than us. Is she right? — Paula T.

Stealing is stealing. There are no exceptions, only excuses. I know that sounds harsh, but the refrigerator at the office is part of your work environment and you should expect that your personal belongings (food, medicine and clothing) remain where you’ve left them until you take them home or throw them away. Work refrigerators also typically house more than just food — e.g., breast milk or insulin in brown bags or insulated totes. Your assumption as an employee should be that your refrigerated items are safe until there’s a company-wide clearout of the fridge that comes with plenty of notice.

So the next time you see somebody on the night shift raiding the refrigerator, don’t let it pass. Since this person isn’t your colleague — they typically work for an outside company — it’s not your role to confront them. By the question you’ve posed, you already realize that talking to them directly isn’t getting you anywhere. Instead, go to HR or Facilities and let them know about what you saw, how often the theft has occurred and the conversation you had with the cleaning crew member. Any discussion or disciplinary action, however, needs to come from the cleaning company’s management. Otherwise, your company could find itself with co-employment liability.

If you’re concerned about leftover food — because we all know group and team meals can generate a lot of waste — help your company establish ground rules whereby leftover food is clearly marked FREE FOOD. That way, employees (internal or external) know they can eat it or take it home without worries.

Don’t just complain to your coworkers about everyone else you work with — let Terry help. Email her all your office-related anxieties at terry@melindustries.com. Or, if total anonymity isn’t required, leave a question in the comments below.