Finding the Hidden Potential in Workplace Eating

September 15, 2021

By Dr. Psyche Williams-Forson

Guest Blog by Dr. Psyche Williams-Forson, PhD – University of Maryland College Park

Food is important in any situation, including the workplace. The intimate act of coworkers eating together (or not) can tell us a lot about workplace culture. Studies have shown that in situations where people eat and commune together, there is often also a positive workplace culture —think firefighters—and other workspaces where teamwork is essential. At the same time, the lack of communal eating can possibly (though not always) reveal underlying tensions and animus.

Take, for instance, a situation in which an office supervisor schedules meetings during a co-worker’s lunch hour but does not offer to buy them lunch, invite the colleague to bring their own lunch, or even ask the co-worker if meeting during lunch is okay. What message(s) is the supervisor or other person in authority conveying to their employee? Years of research and studying eating situations has led me to notice that, as a supervisor, when I have difficult news to share or want to get a particular response from my faculty colleagues it’s not only a good idea to provide lunch, but also to make it a hot lunch. For example, soon we will be coming together for a faculty retreat, having not physically seen each other in over 15 months. We decided on a warm-food luncheon rather than cold sandwiches because Peruvian chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, and plantain sometimes does more work than a cold-cut hoagie.

We are all complex human beings with a range of emotions and most of the time, we bring those feelings with us when we get to work—consciously or unconsciously. If you or a client schedules an early morning meeting, it might be a good idea to order coffee, tea, and/or continental breakfast items. Someone in the group may likely not be a morning person and so the first half of the day they are in a fog or hangry (hungry + angry) because they didn’t get a chance to eat or have their coffee. Likewise, remembering that we observe several different holidays in the U.S., many of which involve eating or not eating, will help meeting planners not make major cultural faux pas. If it’s Ramadan and you have a largely Muslim practicing client, it’s helpful to remember they may be fasting. The same is true for planning a happy hour, or providing lunch, don’t forget not everyone drinks alcohol and some folks are vegetarians or vegans. The point is not to make assumptions about food but asking will help avoid embarrassing and maybe costly mistakes.

An example of this happens when I am invited to speak to organizations and universities across the nation. Often, the host will excitedly tell me, “we are having fried chicken at the reception.” I could be appalled given that there is a long-standing stereotype about Black people loving chicken and watermelon. But I understand their excitement since I wrote a book about Black women, food, and power. At the same time, I am often amused because though chicken is mentioned in the book title, it’s not what the book is all about. Moreover, if it is an event during Black History Month when more Black people are likely to attend, others might find it offensive if fried chicken were the main item on the table.

So, what does all of this mean? Eating is an everyday act that we all do so it is a useful area examine to better understand how cultural messages are conveyed in the workplace. Food has the potential to tell us a lot about who we are, how we work together, and uncover new opportunities to shift organizational culture to be more inclusive.