Can Employers Tell Employees What to Eat?

no meatAll companies want their employees to be team players. But just how far can companies go in requiring that employees ‘toe the line’? Can that demand extend to cultural or religious or moral or dietary requirements?

How As a starting point, consider this story, from CBC News: No meat on menu for Montreal purse maker

A Montreal accessories company has taken its policy of using no animal products beyond the rack and has forbidden its staff from eating meat and fish at work.

A former employee says the policy violated her rights as a non-vegetarian….

(I’ve blogged on unusual forms of employee discrimination before. See Discriminating Against the Non-Blind and “Smokers Need Not Apply”.)

So, is it OK for a company to require that its employees not eat meat? Now, to be more precise, the company in question isn’t forcing people to be vegetarians. It’s just insisting that they not eat meat on the premises. But still, the requirement is an imposition. If an employee loves bologna sandwiches, why should she not be allowed to eat them on her lunch break at work? On the other hand, it’s not exactly a brutal requirement: a place that forbids employees from eating meat is not exactly ipso facto a Dickensian sweatshop. Of course, you might say that the whole conflict could be avoided by careful hiring: only hire people who are willing to uphold the company ethos. But that still amounts to a form of discrimination — and we would still have to ask whether such discrimination is justified or not. Besides, we would still have to worry about cases in which an employee is a devout vegetarian at time of hiring, but then (for whatever reason) changes her dietary habits at some point after being hired.

Whatever your instincts about this particular case, it’s worth performing a consistency test on your own conclusion. Try this: if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, and sympathetic to the company’s no-meat policy, ask yourself whether you would reach the same conclusion if the tables were turned, and a meat-packing company required employees to eat meat and forbade vegetarianism. (“Why would a vegetarian work at a meat-packing plant?” Well, times are tough. Stranger things have happened!) If, on the other hand, you think the company in the story above is engaging in unjustifiable discrimination, ask yourself whether you would reach the same conclusion if the company was one whose product embodied some value that you hold dear — something to do with your own religious or philosophical or political beliefs. That kind of consistency test is a good way to double-check that the conclusion you reach with regard to this particular case is rooted in good reasons, or whether instead your conclusion is based on an undefended bias.

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Addendum:
A couple of people have told me my counter-example above is unrealistic — after all, what employer is going to tell you you have to eat meat? That misses the point I was making, which was to suggest to people that we should think up some counter-example that involves some set of values that would challenge what seems to us to be the “obvious” conclusion, here. If you don’t like my example, feel free to suggest one!
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Thanks to NW for the story.

24 comments so far

  1. Kelly on

    I’m a vegetarian and my first impulse was to side with the meat-eater. But in thinking this through, I actually come down on the side of the company. If you substituted the vegetarian policy with kosher-meat policy, and one employee who knew about the policy ahead of time and agreed to it but later felt her rights to eat pork were being violated, would anyone think she was being discrimated against?

  2. bhtay on

    The employees of the company should be expected to uphold and promote its company products for the overall objectives of his/her company. For instance, a salesman who is a meat lover will not be a good salesman for vegetarian food because he himself do not see or believe in the benefits and advantanges of vegetarian food.

    It boils down to the matter of choice by the company from the whole HR processes including selecting the right person who believe in its objectives (recruitment), education after the the recruitment (traning & motivation) and encourage its people to be one of its kind (benefits and rewarding system).

    The same principle will apply to companies like environmental concious company (Recycle company), cosmetics and body slimming company, charitable organisation etc. My opinion is that there will be some sort of informal understanding or implied contract between the employers and the employees.

    Further to that, i wish to add on and link the topic to ethics. If companies like bank, casino, gold and jewellery, security guard service, lawyer and solicitor are able to uphold and make thier employees believe and practice honesty, integrity, ethics, moral and discipline, it will be much easier for the company to achieve its objectives.

  3. mattintw886 on

    I would say, it is the company’s property; it is their rules. If you were working in a religious area (fixing a church or mosque or something) it would be reasonable for the owner to ask that you smoke or eat meat off site. If they feel that strongly, I would say if you want to eat a baloney sandwich at lunch, you might as well go to your car in the parking lot or go out to Subway or something to show respect. It is a little weird, but it is the owner’s property and it isn’t yours. However, if they state that you are not allowed to eat it ever and must convert immediately or be fired, that is another matter. Or if they follow you to the parking lot and persecute you for daring to enjoy your lunch time. That is wrong. In my opinion, it is kindof a weird thing to ask, I might reconsider working at a place like that myself, the employee needs to ask themselves how much they really want to stand up and defy a polite request and get on the bad side of their boss, just for a sandwich.

  4. [...] Can employers tell employees what to eat? [...]

  5. Christopher Browne on

    I don’t think anyone should get ready to feel comfortable about the answers to these sorts of questions…

    “The employees of the company should be expected to uphold and promote its company products” seems somewhat plausible. But does this mean that employees of WIND Mobile (a cellular provider) are *required* to use their company’s service? (Even if they live in a neighborhood with no WIND antennae?) If an employee of American Airlines pays Alaska Airlines for a flight, should they get fired? And should the answer change if Grandma lives in Alaska?

    I can certainly see a synagogue declining to allow ham sandwiches in the lunchroom. Or a mosque having a problem with construction workers putting beer in their lunch boxes.

    The Matt & Nat policy seems more a religious statement, absent of a formal religion, than anything notably practical. After all, they’re *not* a food establishment, so this imposition appears to fall outside what’s reasonable to their actual business.

    If they’re free to impose this sort of thing on their staff, well, I’m free to impose my own preference that I won’t buy their products. I don’t buy too many purses, so that probably doesn’t hurt their sales terribly badly.

  6. Mr Normal on

    I see no difference between this item and requiring employees to take drug tests, except that what goes into your body OUTSIDE your employment should be your business and nobody elses.

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Mr. Normal:

      Drugs can affect performance, which might well give employers a legitimate interest. Eating meat, on the other hand, is not going to affect how you do your job (at least not in the short run!).

      Chris.

  7. [...] Imposed Dietary Restrictions November 22 | Posted by admin | Law Enforcement, PoliceWorld.net forum Is it ethical for a company to impose dietary restrictions on its employees? Is it an exercise of the business owner’s rights? There are already no tobacco policies in place that help organizations keep their health insurance premiums lower. http://businessethicsblog.com/2010/1…s-what-to-eat/ [...]

  8. Véronique Luciani on

    It’s tough to find an example similar to this one.

    Asking people not to do something is different from forcing them to do something, isn’t it? But the question is: does “using no animal products” mean “no animal products on the premises” or “no animal products whatsoever went into producing this”. If no animal products are on the premises, that’s one thing. Let’s leave that aside for a moment. “No animal products being used in the production of this” would entail that no employee used animal products to have the energy to produce a purse either, wouldn’t it? Which means the bacon and eggs you had at home this morning before coming to work are a definite no-no. This means forcing employees to do something: become vegetarian. Or, does it mean asking them no to eat meat? Hmm, sort of the same thing, when you boil it down… (Of course, the company doesn’t seem to have taken it quite this far, but it does seem to me this is where the no-animal-products principle could ultimately lead.)

    If it has to do with simply not allowing meat on the premises, that seems more reasonable, right? Well, what about a company not using child labour to produce its products. Does this mean no children on the premises? What about pregnant employees, does that count as “children on the premises”? Wait a minute, that wouldn’t quite seem right either.

    I think one question that comes out of this is: to what extent must you embrace a company’s values to work for it? Do you have to be a smoker to work for a big tobacco company? Do you have to be vegetarian to work for Mat and Nat? Do you have to have a pet to work in a pet store? If I go to a pet store, I don’t really mind if the person selling me kibble has no pets herself. She may still be very knowledgeable and good at her job. Now, if I were against animal products, would I care that the person who made my purse… wears leather shoes? I don’t know. Does it matter that the person making the product agrees with me, or that the product is in line with my values (ie not leather itself?) Intuitively, I think the difference tends to lie in whether there’s virtue involved. Smoking is a vice, so, no, I won’t need tobacco employees to smoke. Having a pet is pretty virtue-neutral, so no, I won’t need the pet shop-keeper to have one. But not using animal products is… to some, virtuous. I guess an employee buying carpets made by under-aged children selling me another no-child-labour product would bother me. And when does it become ok to force someone to do something (like stop buying carpets made by children)? When someone else’s rights are involved.

    To me, a meat-eater, what would seem ok would be for the company in the original example not to *serve meat* in a cafeteria for instance. I do think asking employees not to eat meat (at all) is a little much. Have they asked them not to use other animal products either, such as leather goods? I would imagine so. I think it’s imaginable that someone making these purses could respect the principle behind them, even without adhering to it. But in light of the rights question, whose prevail? The employees’ right to meat, or the animals’? I guess it depends where you stand on the question of animal rights.

  9. publicpolicystudent on

    Okay, I’ll bite. Can Victoria’s secret insist that their accountants wear nothing but bras and thongs at work?

  10. Anne on

    In answer to your consistency question, two examples came to quickly mind: faith-based organizations that expect staff to join in mid-morning prayer sessions, and a rape counselling centre that tells employees they can’t pin posters of nude women on their office lockers. Employees in the latter situation would no doubt say this is a no-brainer and the organization doesn’t need to put a policy in place since no one in their right mind would do that anyway. But, as women who entered non-traditional industries will attest, there are always some workplaces where efforts to change certain practices benefit from the weight of policy behind them. Is eating meat such an offense to the dignity of employees that a ban might be warranted? This particular company has not identified the potential of a poisoned environment for their employees as the reason for the policy, instead focusing on the integrity of the company’s values, tied to their brand identity. This is perhaps closer then to the faith-based example, which Canadian society has allowed the right to legally self-define as such an organization, permitting it some leeway when it comes to some of values-based practices.

    It seems to me though, that the company has asked itself the wrong question. Instead of having decided that meat eating is a bad practice and asking how best to prohibit it from their office, they might have asked how they could promote what they consider to be a good practice. Companies wanting to be ethical leaders can be much more creative than telling employees that their personal values are wrong and taking punitive steps with the hope that this will result in changed behaviour. A better demonstration of the organization’s integrity would be when employees themselves choose to respect the company’s values while at work rather than choosing to avoid the rule by eating their lunch in their car.

  11. [...] le note Chris MacDonald sur son blog, pour évaluer cette affaire, il est intéressant d’imaginer une inversion des rôles. Supposons [...]

  12. cultureguru on

    Granted, I’m off to make a vegan thanksgiving for my animal rights 1/2 of the family (we hide a turkey in the kitchen for the other half) but I don’t think the company said employees couldn’t eat meat–they just said they couldn’t eat meat on the premises?

  13. Leo on

    I have no problem about the company deciding which food they’ll serve in their cafeteria (if they have one).
    I certainly don’t give an employer the right to rule my personal life, so my bologna sandwich, that I paid for and brought from my home, is completely off any company rule. If they don’t want to see my sandwich going into my mouth, I might consider eating it outside, during my break (as in respect to religious beliefs or smokers almost everywhere nowadays).

    Granted, I have the combination of education and experience that I like to fool myself about as giving me the ability to find a new job if I so decide. Whoever doesn’t share my self-delusion (and thus feel compelled to comply with employers’ rules) will have bigger fish to fry. For instance, minimum wage, unpaid overtime, etc.

    Am I the only one that finds such “policies” as a way for companies to test how far they could push their employees? Do you really believe that the company is sincere in their intention to be “truthful” in their marketing of no animal products?

    Sincere marketing? Really?

  14. [...] popular blog entry ever (most views in a single day), and it happens to be on food. Here it is: Can Employers Tell Employees What to Eat? It’s about a Montreal employer (a maker of animal-free handbags) that is insisting that its [...]

  15. [...] via various back-links, this thoughtful piece. Chris McDonald poses the question in response to news that a company has instructed employees that [...]

  16. S Lloyd on

    Perhaps not telling employees what to eat but encouraging those with better nutritive habits (you eat better, you think better, you are less exposed to deseases, etc)

  17. [...] #5. Can Employers Tell Employees What to Eat? This one (about a Montreal handbag company that wants employees not to eat meat on the premises) struck a nerve, and brought out very different intuitions from different readers. [...]

  18. smileanyway on

    I’m applying for a full time, live in job that requires veganism. While I am fine engaging veganism for my time employed at this location, this seems somewhat like requiring your employee is Catholic or Gay. Vegans can be quite militant. There is no law restricting the employers right to demand their employees adopt certain lifestyle choices?

  19. Really Upset on

    My company orders employees to eat vegetarian as it is their religious belief. Is this fair? The Vice President of the company visits my office in pretense and looks what I am eating. Is this fair?

  20. G on

    I think your example vegetarian being forced to eat meat is not far off. If your company is primarily a meat culture and you were the only vegetarian and that was not considered what if the company held a social BBQ event with no vegetarian protein alternative and the salads present were Caesar (anchovies and often bacon) and pasta salad made with meat tortellini? You have to show up, you are supposed to eat to bond, but what can you eat? Buns and ketchup?

    In our office they have recently banned any fish or garlic in the lunch room. We work in a very multicultural office but this is forcing a lot of people to eat elsewhere at lunch time. Luckily we are downtown and other options exist including park spaces. Just glad we are not in a more remote location.

  21. mlf on

    “A couple of people have told me my counter-example above is unrealistic — after all, what employer is going to tell you you have to eat meat?”
    The one I work for, apparently. I found this article because I was wondering if there were any laws about this. I just started working for a school that provides meals to the students. The teachers are not allowed to bring any food with them and do not get a lunch break. They must eat with the students and are forced to eat whatever the students are eating. No matter how disgusting they think the food is, the teachers must eat it. When I told a supervisor that I was vegetarian, they acted like they’d never met a vegetarian before. Because I just started, I’m still uncertain if they will make any exceptions for me or not.

  22. Lisa on

    I am hypoglycemic, and allergic to soy. I require high amounts of protein to prevent hypoglycemic attacks. I would not force a diabetic to eat sugar. I would not force a vegan to eat meat. So, why force me from my dietary needs. It looks like discrimination to me, and I would tell my employer or future employer as such. It forces people in my situation to reveal certain health issues, that maybe I do not want my employer to know about.

  23. Stephanie on

    Another’s rights end where mine begins..the employer has no right to insist their employees abstain from eating meat.


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