New Job Etiquette: I Didn’t Know That Was Your Lunch

Your First Job: Employee Break Room Etiquette

A lunch sits on a blue tablecloth with a brown...
Getting your first job is an exciting, but nervous time, especially the lunch break. You may not know anyone, and if you haven’t spent time in an employee break room before, you might not know the social rules or the etiquette of the break room.  It’s different than at home or at school, so let’s talk about it.

Can I Have a Cupcake?

The main thing to know about the employee break room is to understand what food is okay to eat, and what food you need to leave alone. If you see some cupcakes on the counter, they may or may not be there for you to eat.

People bring or buy their own lunch, and sometimes people bring food to share. Sometimes a big company will have an employee cafeteria where you can buy food. Many businesses will have a refrigerator where employees can put their lunches or treats. It can be confusing to figure out what is free to eat and what is actually someone’s lunch, so let’s break it down.

Refrigerator Rule: Only eat food that you brought or bought.

Most food in a refrigerator work belongs to other people. If a refrigerator is available, employees put their lunches and drinks in the refrigerator. When it is time for lunch, they expect to find their own food and drinks that they brought.

This means that you cannot take food that you see in the refrigerator the way that you might do at home. If you did, you would be taking someone else’s lunch or drink. They would not be happy, and you would get in trouble when they figure out who is taking others’ food.  The main thing to remember is: If you see food that looks interesting, but you didn’t bring it, leave it there unless invited to have some. Only eat food that you brought or bought.

TIP: If you bring a lunch in a paper bag, write your name on the outside. If you set a can or bottle in the refrigerator, write your name on that, too. That way, it will be easy to tell which one belongs to you, and others will leave it alone.

Party! Sometimes Food is For Sharing

Celebrations are fun, whether it’s someone’s birthday, a holiday, or a company event, and they usually involve eating. On special occasions, you may see food in the refrigerator or on the counter that is meant to be shared. Sometimes the food is set out to be eaten anytime, such as donuts, and sometimes it is meant to be eaten when the group gathers at a certain time, such as lunch or a party. Sometimes, the food is not meant for you to eat at all.

Maybe Later, Maybe Not: Food that is sitting on a counter or in the refrigerator could be for a special employee luncheon or party later in the day. If the food is covered up, leave it alone unless you hear that it’s okay to eat. Sometimes a group within the company may be having a smaller celebration. The food may be just for that group. In this case, the food is not meant for you, now or later.

Potluck: Sometimes employees bring dishes to share with each other. In this case, you will hear about it ahead of time, and you would be expected to bring a dish of food to share as well.This is often called a potluck. In this case, the dishes are set out on a table and everyone makes their own plate of food.

Treats: Another time when the food is for sharing is when someone brings treats to share. The person who brought the food may tell you to help yourself. If it’s unwrapped and on a table, it’s probably okay to eat. If in doubt, wait for someone else to go first.

Let’s review. If you see several large containers of food, a big cake, or a plate of cookies in the employee break room, be sure to ask whether it is meant for the employees to eat or whether it is for another group. Someone might be saving it for later in the day or for a certain group.

Okay, so what do you need to remember about food in the break room? Here are the big ideas.

The 5 Rules You Need to Know About Food at Work

  1. Eat food that you BROUGHT or BOUGHT.
  2. If the food is covered with a lid or plastic wrap, it is probably being saved for someone else or for later in the day. It’s best to leave it alone.
  3. It’s usually safer to wait for someone else to uncover the food or to invite you to help yourself.
  4. If the food is sitting on the break table where employees usually sit or where they often put treats to share, then it is probably okay to eat.
  5. If you are in doubt, it’s always best to ask.

If you follow these guidelines, you will save yourself the embarrassment of eating someone else’s food and having to say, “Sorry, I didn’t know that was your lunch.” You’ll be seen as someone with good social skills.

What tips do you have for the employee break room or when starting a new job?

(c) 2013 Smart Steps LLC

One thought on “New Job Etiquette: I Didn’t Know That Was Your Lunch

  1. What if the staff brings food in , and the same people who never bring anything or never contributes ,&Always is eating and who is taking food home what should we say to those ppl

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