The Problem of Food....
My team had just completed a difficult project. They had really done a great job, overcoming a lot of obstacles and delivering it on time despite everything. So I decided that I would take them out to lunch as a thank you for working so hard and making the whole department look good in the process. So I asked if they were amenable and we picked a day and went out. I had not chosen any specific place as there were a number of restaurants in easy walking distance but I said let’s go to the one right next door. So we went in and got a table for all of us, about ten people. It was a chain restaurant and I thought it would probably have enough variety for everybody. When the lunch orders were put in that’s when I found out how wrong I was. Two people ordered coffee.
That’s right coffee. Nothing else.
I politely asked and they kindly said they were Kosher and there was nothing on the menu they could eat. I apologized profusely. They were more than kind and even took the lead in the conversations that ensued. I talked to one of them afterwards and they indicated that this was common and they were used to it. They appreciated the gesture and the time chatting with colleagues about family and weekend events. But I could not help but feel guilty.
See food can be very inclusive or incredibly divisive. What is more bonding than breaking bread with someone? But if you can’t eat it nothing can be more exclusionary.
Think about going somewhere and NOT being able to eat while everyone else can. You’ve probably tried to diet and avoid carbs at a party. Or not drink alcohol as the designated driver. That feeling of awkwardness. Of not being able to participate with everyone else.
Not everyone can always eat stuff at a party. Food allergies are common. People follow Vegetarian or Vegan diets. There are religious restrictions.
If your team building event does not allow everyone to eat, you can actually undermine the entire purpose of the gathering. Accidentally excluding someone can lead others to feel bad as well and even impact team morale.
And just make someone feel bad.
So how do you handle this? I mean lunches are the most common gathering point at work. And Team lunches are a quick easy way to bring people together. So what are you to do?
Well I do a couple of things.
First, I ask. I just send out a general email asking if people think a lunch is a good idea. I don’t know maybe people count on working out at lunch, or run home to walk the dog, or whatever. It might not be the best idea.
I will then ask if anyone has any dietary concerns. I word it that way to do my best to not offend or put people off. I will get people saying they are vegetarian, or need a gluten free option, etc.
I also ask the team if there are any restaurant recommendations. People who have dietary restrictions tend to know restaurants that will work for them. And I often learn about someplace new.
I call a couple of restaurants and make sure they can handle any issues. If they can I make a reservation. If they cannot I move on.
I will drop a note to the team about when and where we are going and attach a menu. This helps everyone get a sense of the place but also gives someone a chance ahead of time to raise a hand if there is an issue.
I should say that most people I have encountered on the dietary front are very understanding, like my kosher teammates above. They have encountered this before and they handle it with grace and understanding.
In fact, I am often surprised by people who come up to me afterwards and thank me for having food they can eat. What they generally say is “thank you for thinking of me”. They feel seen.
And that’s what it’s really about, making sure everyone is acknowledged and felt valued.
But I make mistakes. Like I did above. I apologize and do my best to learn and educate myself.
After that episode I always made sure we had kosher food at every department event. I found the local Target had a small but well stocked Kosher section and would go there and pick up snacks for department coffees. For team lunches in the building, I would make sure someone picked up kosher lunches for the event.
The days of blindly ordering a couple of pizzas are long passed. When it comes to food for a group, you need to be thoughtful. If you are not, your kind gesture could go awry and lead to problems.
As always I hope this helps. I look forward to continuing the conversation. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments.
All the best,