A hotbed of conflict: the breakroom sagas & a surprise ending

Stay tuned for this week’s exciting episode of The Breakroom Sagas—with a true-life surprise ending. If your office’s breakroom is a hotbed of unresolved conflict, you’ll recognize these characters and their dramas. .

At 3 p.m., “Harry” exploded into the manager’s office because someone swiped his turkey and cheese sandwich. According to Harry, one bite would have convinced anyone mistaking his sandwich for theirs would they’d made a mistake because he used Jarlsberg cheese and fresh tomatoes. Harry’s now walking through the workplace checking everyone’s trashcans and desk drawers for “evidence.” He vows that if no one confesses, he’ll declare open season on everyone’s food. Predictably, the Practice Manager sends out an office-wide email requesting employees respect others’ food.

The manager in another workplace installed two large Keurig coffeemakers so no one had to wrestle coffee grounds in the morning. Unfortunately, “George” mainlines coffee and fails to notice the “add water” light. Or perhaps he does, because he’s known for filling several large cups at a time, leaving both machines with blinking “add water” lights after he returns to his desk.

And, apparently, no one at a third workplace knows how to clean up their messes. Periodically, the front desk staff leaves large notes on the fridge and cupboard doors reminding everyone “it’s not that much bother to rinse your dishes and put them in the dishwasher!” When the ad agency manager comes though, she strips the notes and sends out an email reminding everyone that account executives occasionally take clients into the breakroom and clients don’t need to see either the messes or the notes. According to the front desk staff, it’s the agency manager who most often leaves her unwashed cups in the sink.

Then there’s “Rachel.” She prefers talking on speakerphone when in the breakroom. As a result, anyone getting a cup of coffee or microwave learns more than they want to about her pesky medical issues and husband’s annoying habits. When a coworker respectfully suggested Rachel carry on those conversations in the restroom, Rachel responded in horror, “and have him hear the flushing toilet?”  

If you’ve wondered why the breakroom, intended as a place where employees can connect and refuel, instead becomes a breeding ground for festering conflicts, the answer is simple. The common solutions, such as the “don’t swipe others’ sodas” emails don’t work. The posted signs help the front desk or office manager blow off steam, but the only ones that command attention are the “undated or expired food will be tossed on Friday.” Everyone rescues their fresh food, or grumbles later, but leaves their science experiments to their fate. Hungry food thieves don’t respect labeled names on food, but simply look around to ensure they can sneak the food away without detection. Two microwaves ease the problem caused by microwave hogs but result in two microwaves needing cleaning.

George’s workplace fixed their problem—by accident. They invited me to provide a communication skills seminar because their client survey revealed clients considered the engineers lacking in conflict skills. Knowing the engineers would consider the training a deadly time waste, I sent out an advance email. The email, titled “send me your fridge food thief stories,” asked for breakroom conflicts so everyone could practice their skills on real issues. That’s when I leaned about George and others. Actual problems flooded my inbox. When I distributed the session’s handouts, the attendees turned to the packet’s last pages and started laughing.

When we started the skills’ practice, George learned he hadn’t traveled under the radar with his “I never see the add water light” protest. Everyone vied to be the one who confronted George, and the real George’s ears stayed red through the remainder of the session. Similarly, others discovered their high rank on the “suspect list” for leaving dishes in the sink or stealing sodas or yogurts.

As you might suspect, while the training provided useful conflict skills, the more important outcome was an end to the breakroom sagas. The breakroom culprits discovered others knew exactly who left dishes in the sink, messes in the microwave, snuck off with others’ sandwiches or overshared during speakerphone conversations.

Would you like to try this at your workplace? Ask for a few true stories and see what turns up—or perhaps it’s safer to simply leave this article on the breakroom wall.

(c) 2023 Lynne Curry

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2 thoughts on “A hotbed of conflict: the breakroom sagas & a surprise ending

  1. Lynne’s sense of playfulness joined her sense of justice and truth-telling on this one. She created a training for all on communication skills and used real scenarios employees submitted to her when she asked for their fridge food thief stories. This approach plays into employee expectations–another training on communication skills?! Bo-ring! But I’ll have to go because it’s required!–and on favorite gripes of many–food theft and bad actors in the break room. Hilarity and truth ensued–people discovered they weren’t fooling anyone but had annoyed plenty, all the while getting some training on communication skills–how to talk about this with the perps and getting the perps’ attention when they were gleefully unmasked.
    I remember a work situation where there were rotating lounge clean-up and coffee and tea water and fridge cleanup/defrost duties on a monthly schedule. Which division was responsible which month, for the cleanup and coffee prep (and dish washing and trash hauling) in the lounge was posted, as were rules about what kinds of supplies needed to be bought and how often the area needed to be “policed” for cleanup and resupply. One division was infamous for not really handling their duties and was surprised when they were caught out with a sign posted on the towel rack directing them to please do your duty and do the clean up. They were astonished that people noticed and that they were called out. They were all supposedly autonomous, many of them booking time out of the office during lounge-duty month. It went to employee council, which was chaired by one of the offending division’s employees–also someone who was always too busy [and too important, too, maybe; but these were all employees acting in some variety of technical advisory capacities] to wash up her used dishes and cutlery. New printed-out rules were developed and perpetrated, and the division “cleaned up” in the lounge largely by most of the offending employees leaving for other jobs.

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