The challenges of serving food in the workplace
Religious observance, health concerns and fad diets can make social gatherings difficult
May 7, 2019
Food brings people together and helps engage employees. It also helps with teambuilding and can support diversity and inclusion by breaking down cultural barriers.Shutterstock
By Brian Kreissl
Now that Ramadan is here, it is important to remember that planning snacks, meals or celebrations involving food can be tricky in a multicultural workplace. Generally, it is not considered good practice to schedule lunchtime meetings or workplace celebrations involving food during the month of Ramadan, as adherents are required to fast during the daylight hours.
From a diversity perspective, it is best to avoid scheduling workplace meetings involving food during this time. However, there are other considerations relating to dietary restrictions with respect to religious observance, cultural practices, medical conditions, health concerns and simple preferences that make planning food-based events and celebrations in the workplace challenging.
Dietary restrictions and health preferences
Aside from religious practices and deeply held moral and cultural beliefs relating to food, many people have dietary restrictions due to conditions such as diabetes, celiac disease, gout, food allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease or colitis. An increasing number of people are becoming vegetarians or even vegans who avoid animal products of any kind (including ingredients like honey or butter).
Many others have restrictions based on real and perceived health preferences or weight loss goals. This leads people to eschew carbohydrates, fat, meat, gluten, processed foods, sugar, dairy or even fruit and vegetables, while others consume only organic or non-genetically modified foods.
Many religions have dietary restrictions and prohibit followers from consuming foods such as pork, beef, shellfish, alcohol, meat in general or mixing meat and dairy. Some are required to fast on certain days, and of course some Catholics still follow the practice of eating fish on Fridays.
But aside from medical, religious or moral restrictions (which are completely understandable), it seems like people are increasingly developing hang-ups about food. With the prevalence of Atkins, paleo, ketogenic, South Beach, The Zone, non-GMO, wheat-free, low-GI (glycemic index) and other fad diets, it has become very difficult to plan social events around food.
Intermittent fasting is also becoming more popular, with some people going without food for up to 72 hours or sometimes even longer. I find it tough to go without food for more than about 12 hours so I really don’t know how people manage to fast for extended periods of time.
I have come across several people who always seem to be on one diet or another, and others seem to have a ton of hang-ups about what they will and won’t eat. To make matters worse, some of those people are constantly changing those rules. It can be exhausting trying to accommodate someone’s dietary preferences only to find that person has moved on from those restrictions to something else.
There are also some people who are incredibly picky about their likes and dislikes. This one won’t eat vegetables. That one won’t eat meat. This one doesn’t like Thai food. That one won’t eat Greek food.
It can be practically impossible to accommodate people even in a small social gathering outside work. It becomes even more difficult to plan any type of meeting, celebration, training session or other event in the workplace involving a large number of people.
Is it still worth the effort?
One could be forgiven for thinking it isn’t even worth serving food in the workplace these days, but I still think it’s worth the effort. Food brings people together and helps engage employees. It also helps with teambuilding and can support diversity and inclusion by breaking down cultural barriers.
I believe that not serving any type of food or refreshments in certain situations just makes an employer look cheap, petty and lacking in concern for their employees. Imagine having a retirement party for a longstanding employee without serving cake or scheduling an off-site retreat in a remote location without providing lunch?
When planning these types of events, the trick is to ask employees about any dietary restrictions, offer options and make celebrations voluntary. When serving meat, it is important to have vegetarian and vegan options and have non-alcoholic beverages available when serving alcohol.
It is also important to consult a diversity calendar and be aware of religious festivals and holidays that could potentially conflict with the event and be mindful of health concerns and religious dietary laws such as kosher and halal. It is also a good practice to label foods — particularly those containing ingredients like pork, beef, gelatin or alcohol, as well as common allergens such as nuts, shellfish or eggs.
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Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.