CPA INSIDER

Office fridge etiquette for accountants

How to stay chill while using the office refrigerator.
By Dawn Wotapka

Jeremy Nau, CPA, frequently uses his firm's refrigerator to store drinks like a sparkling LaCroix or a healthy yerba mate and a salad. Over the years, he's developed two strategies for success with his firm's shared refrigerator: Plan ahead and be the base.

Nau, a consulting manager with Armanino LLP, visits a wholesale store to stock up on black-and-white to-go boxes that are 3 inches by 6 inches. He then arrives at his office in San Ramon, Calif., early enough to ensure his box acts as a base for everyone else's food. The base, he explained, is a solid position that keeps the entire shelf stable while not disturbing anyone else's container "If you're late, you have to put it on top of other food and it might fall over," he explained. By sliding it in first, the box "acts as another floor."

When it comes to office etiquette, the fridge is often overlooked, and, as a result, conflict can arise. These days, properly handling the refrigerator is nearly as essential to office culture as treating colleagues with respect and knowing when to speak up during team meetings. Here's what to know:

  • Respect others. The fridge is essentially a public space, so treat it as such. You wouldn't touch someone's lunch in a park, right? So, do not touch anyone else's food, drink, or condiments. Don't move anyone's cuisine, and if you drop someone's meal, consider buying him or her lunch, Nau suggested.
  • You should clean up anything you spill, according to Julia Esteve Boyd, who runs The Etiquette Consultant, which has trained businesses, members of royal families, and politicians. Also remember that food doesn't disappear in the fridge. It rots. For that reason, "clear out your food regularly, particularly if going on vacation," she said.

  • Take a smell test. Think about your food before you leave home and skip packing anything pungent, no matter how good it might taste. "Don't store anything with a strong odor," Boyd said. "It can be unpleasant for others every time the door is opened."
  • Also, think about what it will smell like when cooking. Fish is generally a no-no, and popcorn has a strong scent, particularly if it burns.

  • Use labels. Be sure to label your food to avoid confusion, Nau said. He suggested using a permanent marker and tape that won't fall off. Don't assume anything unmarked — including basics stored in the door — is fair game. "Ask if you can use someone else's belongings such as creamer or condiments," Boyd said.
  • Get creative. To have fun while protecting your nibbles, consider decoy sandwich bags that appear to have mold or bugs on them. Akiva Leyton, chief operating officer of Falcon Marketing in North Hollywood, Calif., stocks up on the decoy mold bags. "Nothing is more undesirable than food with mold on it," he explained. "When is the last time someone found mold on a sandwich and thought 'Hmmm. This looks safe and delicious?'"
  • Boyd, meanwhile, suggested the simpler approach of writing something like: "If you didn't bring it in, it isn't yours." Adding a smiley face to the label might make you seem like a nice person who doesn't deserve to lose food. "Play the human psychology aspect of it," Nau said.

  • Go insulated. To be sure, it is possible to avoid the office fridge altogether. For those who want to keep their food with them, lunch storage systems can come with various containers that keep everything fresh and cold for hours on end. Many containers are reusable, which can save money while reducing waste. "I don't have to worry about refrigerator etiquette anymore because I bring an insulated lunch bag with an ice pack inside," said Ryan Firth, CPA, founder of Mercer Street Co., a financial planning firm for professionals and small businesses in Bellaire, Texas. "It's like having my own personal fridge."

Dawn Wotapka is a Georgia-based freelance writer. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, associate director – content development, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.

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