Tech companies get a lot of attention for their food perks. Google is famous for offering free breakfast, lunch and dinner to employees. There are cafes sprinkled all over the campus. One of their chefs even cooked for the Grateful Dead! Tech gurus have found that free food and breaking bread together is the easiest way to build worker morale, but judging by the countless blogs dedicated to slamming office kitchens — most companies still don’t seem to get it. Sadly, the office kitchen is often a place that’s rarely cleaned, frequently looted, and almost always a bit depressing. And the Marketplace kitchen? It’s as bad as they come (hover over the picture of our kitchen above to see what it says about us). So what do the dirty dishes and moldy leftovers say about us and our workplace culture? Ben Dattner has put some thought to this. He’s an organizational psychologist, and author of “The Blame Game: How the Hidden Rules of Credit and Blame Determine Our Success or Failure.”
If behaviors in the kitchen are symbolic of how an employer works, well, there are a whole lot of dirty employees out there. Too many office kitchens are abandoned, desolate, and full of science experiments in the refrigerator. Dattner says a dirty kitchen means workers don’t care about their workplace enough to invest in it.
“Former Secretary of the Treasury, Larry Summers, in talking about ownership said: ‘In the history of the world, nobody has washed a rented car.’ If people are not washing the kitchen in the workplace, it means that they see themselves more as renters than as owners. It means that they feel transitory, that they’re passing through. They don’t have a real psychological contract with the company, space, workplace. That’s a problem,” says Dattner.
Perhaps nowhere is the problem more evident than the refrigerator. In some workplaces, food theft is a major problem. Some employees go so far as labeling food warning colleagues not to eat anything within. Dattner says both stealers and protectors of food resort to extreme measures. They put up warning notes and there even are products on the market like bags laced with fake mold so would-be stealers are dissuaded from eating someone else’s lunch. In an ideal space, Dattner says there should be enough people in and around the space that people wouldn’t even be tempted to steal.
On the other side of the spectrum is the worker who brings in food to share with others. Dattner says that person might consider him or herself to be a den mother or father who brings everyone together. That can be a positive thing. But on the other hand, sometimes people who are under-performing think they can ingratiate themselves and justify their poor performance by being a good cook.
So what should organizations with food stealers and dirty kitchens do? If there are kitchen violators, organizations face the dilemma of whether to resort to guilt and conscience or shame.
“Some of those exhortational Post-it notes and letters and emails that people send out try to get towards guilt and shame as a motivator,” says Dattner. “It’s a dilemma, though, for anybody who’s upset about what’s going on in the kitchen. On one hand, you want to say ‘everyone please clean up after yourself. ‘ On the other hand, if you send out exhortations like that, people might come to realize that the norm is to be irresponsible rather than the exception to the norm.”