Ask a Manager: Is it OK to microwave fish in the break room?

There's no getting around it. If you spend eight hours — or more — at work every day, at some point, you need to eat. Maybe it's a sandwich or a salad. Some cold leftovers. And there's always someone who microwaves something incredibly fragrant, like fish or broccoli. 

Ask a Manager's Alison Green joined Marketplace Weekend to talk about the best ways to keep everyone happy while dealing with the sensitive topic of food at work. 

We put this out on the internet, and we found that there were tons of complaints about food at the office.

David Egbert wrote to us with this comment: “I try to eat healthy, and I live paycheck to paycheck. So bringing lunch to my job at a chain drugstore is a necessity. Unlike almost everyone else who can go home for lunch, I have to use the break room. So why should I have to apologize for microwaving dishes with fish or broccoli when most other co-workers only come in long enough to clock in or out? I can't afford to go to McDonald's everyday nor would I want to!”

Green said that Egbert might be in the right, depending on the circumstances at his workplace. If he's the only one to eat in the break room and the smell doesn't linger in a way that incites complaints from co-workers, he can nosh on fish and broccoli to his heart's content. 

In workplaces where certain foods have become sticking points, Green recommended making a short and simple list of ground rules: no microwaved fish, broccoli or popcorn. Keeping the list specific should help avoid stigmatizing one person or unfairly targeting people who are eating dishes from non-Western cultures.

Susan Austin wrote in about a candy bowl on her desk that had been co-opted by colleagues

"Are there any rules around a candy dish on a co-workers desk?" she asked. "At a former job, everyone seemed to think it was a communal dish, but it was on my desk and I bought the candy with my own money. People would even make suggestions as to what kind of candy I should fill the dish with."

Green said that Austin may have been unintentionally misleading coworkers, who could fairly assume that a dish left out was for everyone. To avoid sharing things meant just for you, store them somewhere private, like a desk drawer. If you're looking for more equal contributions to a communal food dish, ask for them. If a co-worker suggests a certain candy or snack, ask them to bring it in. 

Speaking of shared food, we all know that taking someone else's personal food or drinks from the office fridge is an absolute no. But who should police the food gone bad? Green said that appointing a specific person to rule over and clean out the fridge is the only tactful way to handle the issue and avoid passive-aggressive notes and accidental dumping of food. 

Finally, a few listeners wrote to us about office potluck moochers. Green said that communal dining at work can be a tricky issue to navigate, since everyone has different taste (and cooking ability). To keep the chefs from feeling ripped off by the folks who brought just a bag of potato chips, Green said managers can step in to provide a main course or two, easing the potluck burden on the rest of the office and ensuring that no one goes hungry. 

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