A reader writes:
We have a fridge at work. Up to this point, nothing I had in it was stolen (I am quite new, and others have told me that this was a problem).
My food is always really, really spicy. I just love it that way. Anyway, I was sitting at my desk when my coworker came running out, having a hard time breathing. He then ran into the bathroom and started being sick. Turns out he ate my clearly labeled lunch. (It also was in a cooler lunch box to keeps it cold from work to home, as it’s a long drive.) There was nothing different about my lunch that day. In fact, it was just the leftovers from my dinner the night before.
Fast forward a day and my boss comes in asking if I tried to poison this person. Of course I denied that I had done so. I even took out my current day’s lunch and let my boss taste a bit (he was blown away by how spicy it was even though he only took a small bite). I then proceeded to eat several spoonfuls to prove I could eat it with no problem. He said not to worry, and that it was clear to him that I didn’t mean any harm, my coworker shouldn’t have been eating my food, etc. etc. I thought the issue was over.
A week later, I got called up to HR for an investigation, claiming that I did in fact try to do harm to this person and this investigation is still ongoing. What confuses me is there was nothing said about this guy trying to steal my lunch. When I brought it up, they said something along the lines of “We cannot prove he stole anything.” I am confused at this. I thought the proof would be clear.
My boss is on my side, but HR seem to be trying to string me up. Their behavior is quite aggressive. Even if my boss backs me up, they just ignore everything he says. (As in, he would say “That’s clearly not the case” and the HR lady wouldn’t even look in his direction and continued talking.)
On top of this, HR claims that it would be well within said coworker’s rights to try and sue me. The way it was said seemed to suggest that they suggested this to him as a course of action.
How can someone be caught stealing my lunch and then turn around and say I was in the wrong? I don’t understand it at all! I don’t know what to do, I am afraid that I will loose my job over this. Is there any advice you can give me?
This makes no sense.
You are allowed to enjoy a unusually high level of spiciness (and as a fellow spice enthusiast, I commend you for it). You are not required to make sure that your own personal lunch doesn’t contain anything that might offend a coworker’s palate, as your coworkers should not be eating your food without any invitation.
The only way their stance could possibly make sense is if they’re alleging that it wasn’t your lunch at all, and that it belonged to your coworker and you secretly dumped a toxic level of spice into it. Is that what they’re saying? Because otherwise this is bizarrely illogical. And what’s your coworker saying in all of this? Is he trying to claim that it was his lunch all along?
In any case, I think the way to handle this is to go a bit on the offensive, which is warranted based on how aggressive HR is being. I’d go back to them — possibly to the boss of the person you spoke with earlier if that’s an option — and say this: “I’m extremely concerned by what’s been said about this. The food in question was my personal lunch, brought in for me and me only. The spiciness of my food shouldn’t be anyone’s concern, and I’m distressed that I’m being accused of in any way intending harm toward someone else because of what I pack in my personal lunch. I take my professional reputation very seriously, and I’m concerned that this bizarre story is impacting it. I’d like your assurance that the company does not intend to penalize me for eating spicy food at lunch.” I’d also put a similar message in writing and email it to them “to document our conversation from earlier today.”
Sometimes ridiculous people back down when they see that you take standing up for yourself seriously.
I’d also ask your boss what the hell he thinks is going on. Does he think you have anything to worry about? If he’s confident that you don’t (and if his judgment is usually pretty good), then I suppose you can just let HR’s weird spiciness policing play out and ignore it as best you can.
Your company’s HR is terrible.
a coworker stole my spicy food, got sick, and is blaming me was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.