Food and the Workplace—is this an HR issue?

By Michelle Cohen

I cannot imagine a more “weighty” issue than writing about food in the workplace.  People have very strong feelings about food on many levels—way beyond the areas of just nutrition and health.  We, as law firm administrators, wear many different hats, but the one department into which we seem to consistently fall is that we are in many ways the “glue” that keeps everything together and running smoothly at our respective firms.  We seemingly hear every complaint, concern and stressor relevant to our personnel.  When it comes to food, however, complaints, concerns and stressors may be much more difficult to handle. 

In my firm, nothing was more taxing than the first-to-arrive employee who heated up her hard-boiled eggs every morning.  I would walk into the office, greeted by a waft of sulfurous scents, and then quickly (and not so quietly) be flooded/bombarded/attacked with complaints regarding the torturous 8:00 AM egg smell from a myriad of staff.  Take out the word “egg” and replace it with tuna fish and/or raw onions for my daily lunchtime scent assaults by two other employees, or the dreaded Monday afternoon reheat of Sunday’s Chinese food dinner (always shrimp and scallops). 

What’s that sound?  That’s right!  It’s the 10:00 AM water cooler collective talking about how annoyed they are that Jack/Jill brought in a smorgasbord of brownies and other highly-caloric, unhealthy goodies so he/she could “get them out of the house”.  Thanks for bringing to work what YOU are trying not to eat because you know it is not a healthy option!  All of our offices experience these situations—the platters, the leftovers, the gifts from vendors.  (Let’s not even discuss what happens during the holidays.)

 It is incredibly tough.  Of course, we want to share our special treats with our co-workers, of course, we want an excuse to take a break, gather as a group and connect and, of course, we do not want to police what people choose to put into their bodies.  So what do we do when a co-worker complains about the temptations of unhealthy vending machine choices, the cases of sugary soft drinks in the suite or the lack of healthy options at staff meetings/retreats/conferences?  What if this co-worker has a dietary restriction or a medical condition, and finds all the temptations to be insensitive?  We always try to bend over backwards to make sure we do not discriminate against someone’s medical needs, but are we including his/her dietary needs in our efforts?  How sensitive are we really to food issues that entail someone trying to shed a few pounds (or much more than a few pounds), prepare for a surgery or a procedure or manage a whole host of other highly personal and private scenarios?

Are we creating a safe and supportive environment for a colleague trying to make a major diet and/or lifestyle change?  Is this our responsibility?  Many people argue that personal choices are exactly that—personal.  I would argue, however, that the individualized politics of eating are as important as any other hot-button topic we face each day.  We just don’t really talk about it enough.  I am not suggesting we run seminars about food and our feelings.  What I am suggesting is that if we make subtle changes or shifts in our approach, we may make all the difference in the world to those in our firms struggling with food-related matters, e.g., increasing or reducing calories, avoiding certain foods, etc.  There is so much associated with the very act of eating—nourishing our bodies with much-needed fuel.  There are psychological underpinnings of elation, joy, fear, shame and humiliation, to name only a few.  For some, this vast array of emotions is attached to every bite. 

It is impossible for us to anticipate every single need and requirement of every single person on our teams.  Making a concerted effort to ask folks if they have any dietary requests, or, more importantly, letting your colleagues know that if they make a request, it will be handled respectfully, privately and without great fanfare is a wonderful way to start.  I recently attended an event for another organization, when the server called out in front of 50 professionals, “Who is my kosher person? Oh, actually, my kosher, dairy-free, vegetarian person?”  Now, I have nothing to hide, but my food preferences should not be the topic of a business event, let alone broadcasted across the entire room.  In my case, my eating habits are both a religious and a dietary choice, which made parts of the evening complicated and awkward in ways it never should have been. That should not have happened to me, nor should anything like that ever happen to any of our co-workers, regardless of reason. 

What our personnel need is our encouragement and support.  We should have healthy offerings in our vending machines and break rooms, and at our events, for those that are tracking calories or adhering to guidelines apart from the “norm”—even if we are unaware of anyone dealing with the same.  We should never assume that requests not made will not be appreciated.  Not everyone is comfortable asking/sharing, and by this small gesture alone, we can open up doors to teambuilding, trust and happy workplace environments.  

Michelle Cohen is the Director of Human Resources and Office Manager of Schneck Law Group LLC in Livingston, New Jersey.

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