How to shut down food-shaming in your office

By Kate Palmer, associate director of advisory, Peninsula 

We’ve all been there: you get an email from a colleague that there is cake in the office kitchen. You excitedly get away from your desk and ready for your sugar fix, but suddenly you hear one of your co-workers saying, “Are you really going to eat that?” This is a prime example of ‘food-shaming’, in which certain individuals are made to feel guilty for their eating habits.

Making fun of individuals because of the food they eat should be discouraged at all costs regardless of its nutritious value, as each employee is likely to have different dietary preferences for a number of reasons. Any comments directed at employees due to the amount they eat, or the impact certain food will have on their health, should be dealt with firmly. Enabling this behaviour to continue is likely to have a detrimental impact on morale and could lead to an increase in grievance claims at work.

Employers should be aware that food shaming could run the risk of discrimination in certain situations, particularly where individuals are mocked for consuming food that is intrinsically linked to their religion or nationality. Although those responsible may try to pass their comments off as workplace ‘banter’, employers should not be prepared to accept this as an excuse and instead take a hard line on any misconduct, especially when it contains elements of discrimination.

Having said this, there is perhaps an argument to suggest that rules should be in place when it comes to employees consuming strong smelling food items, especially if individuals are made to work in an enclosed space. In order to avoid instances of food shaming, employers may choose to have a quiet word with certain employees about the impact their food choice is having on the workplace.

It is worth noting that food shaming is perhaps more likely to occur when employees eat their lunch at their workstation. Therefore, employers should consider ways to encourage staff to take their lunch away from their workstation, including managing workloads to prevent staff from feeling pressured into working through their lunch.

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Although there is no requirement to provide a designated staff room or kitchen, this could be another alternative and provide employees with somewhere to consume their lunch whilst minimising the impact on the rest of the workforce.

Whilst food shaming can seem harmless at first, allowing this to develop over time could create an unwelcoming environment, especially for new starters or those with specific dietary requirements. Therefore, employers should look at ways to prevent this in order to cultivate an inclusive and harmonious company culture.

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