Office kitchen etiquette mistakes that drive co-workers nuts

These common missteps can be a source of conflict.
By Teri Saylor

The office kitchen can be a major source of conflict if employees forget to follow the basic guidelines of good etiquette.

Employees sometimes make mistakes sharing kitchen space because they aren't focused on maintaining good manners, according to Myka Meier, author of Modern Etiquette Made Easy.

"Having proper etiquette in an office kitchen helps ensure that it remains clean and hospitable for everyone in the office," she said.

Employees who live by three key principles — consideration, respect, and honesty — are likely to avoid most etiquette mistakes and achieve harmony among their co-workers, according to Daniel Post Senning, the great-great grandson of Emily Post and a co-author of several books on etiquette, including the 19th edition of Emily Post's classic Etiquette.

"You must hold yourself to scrupulous standards when it comes to kitchen etiquette," he said.

Senning and other etiquette experts shared their views on common mistakes employees make when they share an office kitchen:

Failure to clean up after yourself. Whether you splatter food you are heating in the microwave, drop crumbs in the toaster oven, or dribble fruit in the refrigerator, it is important that you clean up after yourself.

Especially be mindful of spills, says Sonja Traxler-Nwabuoku, author of Office Etiquette: The Unspoken Rules in the Workplace. Not cleaning up after yourself shows negligence as spills may attract pests and could even result in someone slipping and getting hurt.

"If you spill something, do not leave it unattended for others in the office to handle. It is your responsibility to wipe it up," she said.

Taking your colleagues' food or utensils. Items such as utensils, cups, coffee, tea, cream, and condiments that your organization purchases for everyone to share are there for the taking, according to Meier. "These should be labeled as such," she said. Otherwise, it is impolite and dishonest to take food, utensils, or dishware that belongs to your co-workers.

Storing or heating food with strong odors. Some foods, such as fish, have strong smells when they are heating up, left in the refrigerator too long, or flavored with pungent spices. Be sure to eat your leftovers within a day or throw them out before they go bad, Traxler-Nwabuoku said. Labeling food with the date you placed it in the refrigerator can be a good reminder of when it's time to toss it.<

Taking up too much space. Traxler-Nwabuoku warns against filling cabinets, the kitchen counter, and the refrigerator with personal appliances, utensils, and food. "Don't store an entire week's worth of groceries in the office refrigerator or take up all the counter space preparing lunches," she said. "Be mindful of shared space."

Leaving nasty notes. Avoid posting mean-spirited notes around the kitchen to address your particular pet peeves, Senning said. "I am not a fan of sarcasm and passive-aggressive attitudes," he said. Avoid sarcastic jokes, which rely on your co-workers taking them the way you intended, or they could come across as grating and negative. If you must communicate through notes, make sure you moderate the tone and keep them simple and direct.

Failing to tell colleagues about refrigerator clean-out. If you are in charge of enforcing cleanup, don't  neglect to tell your co-workers when it is time to clean out the refrigerator to give them an opportunity to remove any food they might have stored. Otherwise they risk losing nice storage containers, Traxler-Nwabuoku said. "Give them fair warning a few days in advance through email or a note posted in the kitchen," she said. Setting a specific schedule for regular refrigerator clean-out will help keep this chore on the staff's radar.

Not knowing who enforces kitchen rules. Understanding who makes the rules about proper kitchen etiquette and enforces them is a gray area, Senning said. "Most people would rather work it out amongst their co-workers," he said. Some organizations find it useful to include policies and expectations for the kitchen and other common areas in their employee handbooks. But often the task of enforcing policies falls to the office manager, who represents the authority of the organization's top management when it comes to using common areas, he added.

According to Senning, it may be time to call HR when clashes over kitchen etiquette go far enough to affect morale in the workplace and make it difficult for employees to do their job. Disputes that lead to bullying and harassment could escalate to a management level for resolution. But choose your battles carefully, he warned. Reporting internal conflict to HR could affect your relationships with colleagues.

"You only have so much social capital, so make sure disputes have risen to the level of going through channels because reporting your colleagues' bad behavior may cost you respect among your peers," he said.

— Teri Saylor is a freelance writer a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at

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