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Milk wars!

Diane Hall


Milk being poured

As a bit of a job-hopper, I’ve experienced a number of different work environments and cultures. This week, a friend told me about hers—namely the ‘milk wars’ she encounters at her place of work. It made me laugh at first, then I felt a bit sad that my friend and her colleagues were subject to such ridiculous measures to guard the vital ingredient of a good cuppa.

It seems I’ve led a varied but ultimately sheltered career, in that I’ve never been a participant in a milk war. I began to ask those around me for their stories about the provision of milk, tea and coffee at the places they’ve worked in. It became clear: I’m in the minority.

If you were to open the fridge in my friend’s workplace, there are numerous small cartons of milk with different initials plastered over them. One carton, which was the bit that made me laugh, had been drilled through the lid and the neck, and a padlock inserted.

A colleague told me that, in one place he’d worked, someone had treated themselves to his sandwich. In fact, they’d taken his whole sandwich box from the fridge and emptied its contents into their stomach. That sounds like sheer theft to me, but I suppose helping yourself to someone else’s milk is really no different.

Sandwich box

Sandwich box

Though I’ve personally never experienced it, I can imagine how incredibly frustrating it must be, if you’ve taken the trouble to go to the shop, pay for some milk and mark it clearly as your pint, to find someone else has had it all when you’re desperate for a cup of tea. What would annoy me more in that situation, however, is that the employer isn’t providing what I feel is an essential part of the working relationship between employer and employee. Just as providing heat and toilet facilities, it’s surely not too much to ask to provide teabags, coffee, sugar and milk, too. When you consider how low the minimum wage is, in comparison to living costs, and that the wealthiest 100 people in the world could solve the world’s poverty problems four times over, it’s highly unlikely that any employer would be worse off than those they employ, when comparing wages.

The cost of tea, coffee and milk wouldn’t run to much, even in a large business (which, commonly, would have a subsidised canteen anyway). The goodwill and impact on the company’s workplace culture is surely worth the extra funds.

A fridge full of individual cartons is wasteful, as each person probably doesn’t get to drink the whole lot before the milk expires. Just from a practicality point of view, why not just take it in turns to buy a four-pint carton for everyone to share? Yes, maybe someone will have cereal then a protein shake (and therefore use more than a colleague who only has one cup of tea a day)…but we’re talking about milk here, not gold. I couldn’t imagine giving that much thought to it. Again, if I was forced to provide my own milk, I think I’d feel differently if someone took it without asking—but I would be just as mad, if not more so, at my employer than my thirsty, petty, thieving colleague(!). It’s not a position an employee should be put into in the first place.

If colleagues feel happy, valued and encouraged, their productivity will be higher, which is better for their employer’s bottom line. Sniping over who took whose milk doesn’t make for a supportive, harmonious culture—in fact, it sounds quite toxic.

Give people their cuppa, for God’s sake.

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