Little Things Count in Your Corporate Culture – Even Sardine Sandwiches

© Brett Mulcahy -
© Brett Mulcahy -

If you work in an office, chances are you’ve dealt with some unpleasant smells from a colleague’s choice of food.

Whether it is fish, microwave popcorn, greasy fast-food, or garlic, you probably sat there and wondered, “Don’t they know how that smells?”

I’ve worked with folks who have an extreme aversion to almost any food smells. I’ve brought in the most benign dishes (alfredo pasta) and had folks complain. I learned pretty quickly to either shut my door while eating or to (preferably) eat outside of the office.

What might be more important in the scheme of things though is how a company handles situations like this.

How it is handled counts

The way I found out that even the least offensive smells still could impact some employees is when the person came to me directly and politely told me about their concerns. I winced a little bit at first about the request but it was generally fine by me.

Though I know I’m not always the most observant person, I also started noticing that other people rarely ate at their desks. Those with offices closed their doors, and those without took to the break room or outside to eat. From later discussions, it seemed just to be the cultural norm, unwritten but passed from employee to employee in a generally friendly way.

What is interesting to me is how it contrasts to a similar situation that The Wall Street Journal chronicled:

After going on a high-protein diet, Mr. Glen brought sardine and tuna sandwiches to his bank-consulting job and ate them at his desk. He knew the food was stinky, but he figured people would tell him if they had a problem, he says.

Instead, a co-worker in the next cubicle complained to her boss, who complained to the chief information officer, who complained to Mr. Glen’s boss, who delivered the complaint to Mr. Glen.

Mr. Glen says he apologized immediately to his colleague in the next cubicle. From then on, he brought salads or ate lunch outside, says Mr. Glen, now chief executive of Leading Geeks, a Los Angeles management and education-consulting company.”

Is there anything innately wrong with this response? Probably not.

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What it does illustrate is how that specific company culture differentiates itself from others. Why did they need to get three extra people involved, when simply walking over to the next cube and requesting the co-worker not eat the bad-smelling sandwich at their desk, might have been just as effective?

Why the “how” in this is important

The chain of command is a pretty traditional way of handling business in organizations. I know I’ve worked for some companies where peers in other departments wouldn’t disagree with me in a meeting, but I’d later find out about it because it went up (and then back down) the chain of command.

It’s not the way I prefer to work, though. And I know many other folks buck the chain of command way of doing things because it can be terribly inefficient and is poor for collaboration.

More important than my preferences though, is the ability to distinguish what your culture is like on an employee-by-employee basis. If employees can communicate freely with one another and are respectful of their wishes, especially perfectly reasonable ones, that can be a good indicator. If you don’t need a written policy to keep those cultural norms in order, that is great too.

And while interpersonal issues over something as small as the food someone eats at their desk may not seem like a big deal to you (and they certainly weren’t to me), there are people in your organization that will be irritated about the disrespect. And then, they will discover other things that irritate them at work. It could be hard to get an employee back on track after that.

Maybe nobody is quitting over sardine sandwiches and the temptation there is to disregard the complaint as petty. But for some, it clearly is an issue, and one that points more to an issue of culture rather than something that can easily be fixed with a quick policy or conversation.


2 Comments on “Little Things Count in Your Corporate Culture – Even Sardine Sandwiches

  1. Great article. While I believe it’s true that, if a culture ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I also think we work better in an environment where people feel free to speak directly with a coworker. It’s a good communication skill to learn to be assertive without being confrontational. In a world of best practices, I think building this type of culture is something worth striving for.

  2. Spot-on! Terrific example — so often, the little things ARE the big things…. (although, really, sardine sandwiches at work?!) Thanks for sharing.

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