Many workers argue—and numerous studies agree—that remote work allows for a higher quality of life. In response, many workplaces are doing what they can to lure employees back into the office, carrot-and-stick style. More accurately, carrot-and-granola bars-and-kombucha-and-stick style.
I’ve seen firsthand how corporations try to compel workers back into the office with promises of “culture” and “snacks,” rather than investing in “healthcare” and “a livable wage.” The pandemic only ramped up a historical trend of employers trying to use cheaper benefits, like free food, instead of paying better wages.
And so, to the modern worker—one hungry for justice on top of being just plain hungry—every office kitchen is a game of strategy. Your labor is well worth as many employer-provided granola bars and coffee pods as you can carry.
If your workplace provides “free” snacks, you might not be so ethically wrong for taking advantage of it as best you can. So, what and how much is OK to steal from work—without getting into actual trouble?
Your work is worth more than snacks
“Free” office snacks aren’t necessarily a scam, but they’re never worth the false hype created by your HR department. I put “free” in quotes, because I consider any perk provided by your employer to be another form of the compensation you’re already owed.
Emily Stewart sums it up well for Vox: “Snacks are not a stand-in for more tangible, impactful benefits or higher pay. A free candy bar does not a sufficient retirement fund make.” Meanwhile, blogs from the perspective of pro-office snack culture read like a satire of corporate HR-brain. I’m not a toddler, easily satiated and distracted by fruit snacks. I’m an adult trying to make a living, and I want to seize the means of fruit snack production.
Disclaimer: We are not endorsing true theft
Workplace theft was already on the rise in the years leading up to the pandemic. Nabbing a stapler, taking leftover sodas from the office party—it’s nothing new.
Your office probably has some sort of rules forbidding outright theft. Putting the ethics of capitalism aside: Stealing goods is still a crime. But at what point does stealing food and supplies from work cross into a fireable offense? It’s murky territory.
For instance, your employee handbook probably doesn’t explicitly outline whether or not you have to eat said complimentary snacks in-office. There’s simply an implicit understanding that you’ll eat the employer-provided snacks during the workday, rather than treat the office kitchen like a free grocery store. Likewise, toilet paper is provided to you for free in the office bathroom; is it so wrong to snag a few rolls from the supply closet for your own home?
Look. I don’t know your workplace’s culture, surveillance system, or the potential consequences you may face if you’re caught with a backpack full of coffee pods. Right now, let’s operate in the realm of professional norms, rather than getting lost in what is and is not “illegal.” More specifically, let’s operate within the framework of the classic “Airbud defense,” aka, “there’s nothing in the rulebook against it.”
Making your commute worth it: Petty-theft savings
Here’s a small taste of how petty-theft savings can accumulate in terms of actual money saved.
I live in a major city, so my commute is $2.75 via subway, twice a day. One of my favorite office snacks is a single-serving Sabra hummus cup, which averages out at around $2.50 each. Eye-balling those numbers, I have a personal goal of making sure I snag at least two hummus cups every time I go into the office.
Another one of my favorite kitchen perks is unlimited cold brew coffee on tap. However, “unlimited” is relative to how much your body can physically handle.
If I wanted to purchase cold brew every day, 24 ounces of Dunkin’ iced coffee is $3.26 (their medium size). Let’s say I drove to work. For this math, I used Flexjobs’ estimation that you might spend anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 per year on commuting expenses, including gas and car maintenance and insurance. For the ease of calculations, I’ll average that estimate to $3,500 on commuting costs per year. There are 250 work days in a year, and I’ll drink a medium Dunkin’s worth of iced coffee “free” from my workplace each of those days. That’s only $815. That leaves $2,685 for me to eat in complimentary snacks in order to make my commute worth it—the equivalent of 1074 hummus cups, or four a day.
Here’s the thing: I don’t want to eat four hummus cups a day. And as I mentioned above, it’s a hefty task to drink that much iced coffee out of spite of ensuring that my commute is worth the cost. I can only drink so much iced coffee at work before I start to feel like I can smell colors and hear my desk mate’s thoughts. Even if I drank a tolerable amount of coffee at work and brought some home in my 24-oz thermos for the weekend, that’s only an extra $3.26 saved.
All of this isn’t even factoring in time, and the fact that time is money—especially when that time is wasted on a crowded subway, or away from home in general. I won’t assign a monetary value to the quality of increased time you get with your loved ones during remote work, versus the time spent stuck in a cold office with your coworkers, but I’d wager that it’s not exactly a close call.
Strategies to get more bang for your buck
Finally, we can get down to business. Stealing food from work comes down to creativity in not just what you take, but how you take it. There are two key methods to the madness here: The first is sticking to minor things that your office wouldn’t notice, and the second is the power of forethought.
What to steal
- Coffee pods
- Sugar and sweeteners
- Any single-serving items: chips, granola bars, yogurt, etc.
- A Ziploc baggie’s worth of shared items, like popcorn or cereal
- Sodas and seltzers
- Milk (in a thermos, as described below)
- Condiment packets
- Toilet paper
- Food from catered events that is clearly going to be thrown out (speaking of…)
How to optimize your petty-theft
- Always keep Tupperware and Pyrex containers or baggies at work. These especially come in hand during catered events or parties with leftover food that would otherwise go to waste.
- When you leave home in the morning, make sure you have extra room in your bag for all your loot.
- Grab two of everything: One to eat during the work day and one to bring home.
- Bring a thermos for more discreet theft. In the words of official memoirist, Lifehacker editor-in-chief, and alternative milk thief Jordan Calhoun: “I used to always have a thermos to pour Silk into every day; I stopped buying Silk at the grocery store.”
One final caveat: All of this is about getting the most from your employer, not your fellow employees. If you apply any of this logic to stealing an unlabeled lunch from the shared fridge, please rethink your ethics.
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