Somebody just put a big “X” on the cap of a coffee creamer in our work refrigerator. That came on the heels of a pleading note by a colleague who just wanted his day-old pizza back.

Who needs mandatory Myers-Briggs personality testing or off-site team-building retreats?

If you want to understand the psyches of your workmates, don’t wait to see how they handle a crisis. Watch what happens when they open the fridge.

“The measure of a working man or woman is about what they do with the refrigerator,” said Tina Lewis Rowe, a workplace conflict manager and co-author of a website called Workplace Doctors. “That’s where we allow our most petty selves to be displayed. It’s the little things in life that put people to the test.”

Or the not-so-little puffy lunch bags stuffed into a too-small space.

(All right. I’m sorry.)

With about 40 percent of employees now brown-bagging it, according to CareerBuilder, fridge space is only going to get more cramped, as interpersonal dust-ups increase.

Rowe has heard a bounty of complaining on this topic. “I ought to have a Ph.D. in refrigerators,” she said.

There was the executive who strolled out of his office, rooted around in the fridge until he found something he liked, then strolled back to his office with the spoils of his hunt hidden under his suit.

The EMT crew whose members confessed that their biggest arguments weren’t over how to save lives. They fought about foul-smelling expired sandwich meat.

There are those who treat the office fridge like they’re at home, bringing in industrial-sized bottles of ketchup and mustard. Those who “forget” to clean up after their oily salad dressing oozes out of their Tupperware and onto the shelves. Those who help themselves to creamer, even if it has a big Keep-Your-Hands-Off X on it — or, more likely, because it does.

(All right. I’m sorry.)

“Show me an office with a refrigerator problem,” Rowe said, “and I’ll show you a workplace with a lot of issues that people are ignoring. It’s a microcosm of bigger things.”

Selfishness, laziness and sloppiness, for starters.

One manager got so upset that he yanked the refrigerator out of the office, she said. “Now, there is this ugly blank spot where the refrigerator used to be,” an employee told Rowe. “It is a daily reminder of how screwed up this place is.”

If your refrigerator is still in place, count your blessings — and promise to do better.

Rowe has a few suggestions for fridge friendliness. (And none of them include shaming, like a “Your Mother Doesn’t Work Here” flier above the sink. She hates that, too.)

• Clearly mark the things that belong to you.

• Don’t even think about taking something, even as small as a bottled water, that has no name attached. That’s called stealing.

• Treat the refrigerator as something that works the same hours you do. Put your lunch bag in when you arrive in the morning. Take it out when you leave at night. Need a reminder? Rowe suggests you leave your car keys inside your bag.

• Supervisors: Stop saying that you don’t want to be involved with “that petty stuff.” It’s not petty to your staff. Develop protocols.

• If something is smelly, try to find out who it belongs to before throwing it away. That means walking around to every single person who shares that refrigerator. Yep. You’re a team, remember?

Now, can we talk about the way you crunch your carrots?

 

gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

612-673-7350

Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum