Food for thought on lunchtime etiquette

Food for thought on lunchtime etiquette

Q. Can I place a ban on employees eating certain foods at work because the smells of certain ingredients can be very off-putting?

A. An individual’s choice of food can be a controversial topic at work especially when meals containing strong-smelling ingredients are eaten in a confined space.  

While issues may appear minor at first, this may end up resulting in frequent disruptions that have a knock-on effect on productivity. 

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To counteract this issue, some employers have rules in place that prevent staff from eating certain foods at work. 

This will vary from one employer to the next, however it is not uncommon for ingredients such as such as fish, garlic or cheese to feature on a list of prohibited ingredients. 

While staff may try to argue they have the right to bring whatever food they want for lunch, as an employer, you can set the rules on what may be eaten on your premises.

But it may be preferable to sit down and discuss the matter with the relevant individual, as they may be unaware that their meal choice is creating an uncomfortable environment. 

You should explain the situation to them, making sure to refer to any complaints that you have received from other employees.

There is no way of telling how individuals will react to this information, however to defuse any potential unrest employers should make sure to take a friendly and informal approach.

Any rules must generally apply to all employees to prevent claims of favouritism. However, special consideration may be required for those who have specific dietary requirements due to an ongoing medical condition. 

Banning certain food items in this situation could leave you open to claims of disability discrimination and it would be wise to make an exception in these circumstances. 

Having said this, there may be a way to defuse the situation without enforcing a ban on certain foods. 

While there is no legal requirement to provide a staff room, employers with the necessary resources should consider setting aside a designated area for staff to consume food that will have a reduced impact on the rest of the workforce.

This could easily be achieved by providing picnic benches outside for individuals to enjoy their lunch, a solution that would also help avoid staff eating lunch at their desk, which is believed to have a negative impact on employees’ health and wellbeing.  

While you have the power to ban employees eating certain foods at work you should consider if such measures are necessary. 

How you choose to announce your decision will also have a significant bearing on how it is received by staff, therefore you should take a measured and considered approach to avoid any significant damage to employee relations.

Peter Done is managing director of law firm Peninsula