A blog about reputation, marketing and employee morale.

Know your employees’ dietary restrictions (and learn about them!)

Posted by Janet Smith on October 8, 2008

October is Celiac Awareness Month.

Celiac disease is a digestive disease that damages the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients from food. Those with celiac disease cannot tolerate gluten, a protein that’s in wheat, rye, and barley. And although gluten is found mainly in foods, it is also used in products used every day including cosmetics, lotions, vitamins and medicines, lip balms, and shampoo and other hair care products. It is estimated that in the United States, about one percent of the population has Celiac disease—although many have never been diagnosed.

So what does this have to do with employee morale?

Well—plenty, since a lot of the fun that goes on at most workplaces involves food.  Groups of employees go out for lunch or bring in lunch, organize potlucks, celebrate birthdays, and enjoy donuts and bagels on occasional mornings. But chances are, employees with celiac disease won’t be able to partake in any of these fun, food-related activities.

My daughter-in-law, Crystal, was diagnosed with Celiac Disease about a year ago, and has adapted to the new, restricted diet with maturity, intelligence and resourcefulness. That’s how Crystal approaches everything and it’s quite impressive

I found out by reading Crystal’s blog that October is Celiac Awareness Month, and it got me thinking about the subject of dietary restrictions in the workplace. I asked Crystal for her for her thoughts, and she definitely had some things to say:

“When a group of employees is planning to go out for lunch or talking about a get-together, I would suggest asking if anyone has a dietary restriction,” she says. “And if a co-worker does have a dietary restriction, it would be thoughtful to ask for their input when discussing where to eat or what to eat.”

Crystal’s workplace is small-just a handful of co-workers. Employees frequently bring in treats to share during staff meetings, and though they know she has Celiac, they always bring gluten-laden food. “I bring my own,” Crystal says, “but that’s fine-I don’t mind.”

Well—I’m glad Crystal doesn’t mind. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if a co-worker surprised her once in awhile by bringing in gluten-free treats?

Then Crystal mentioned her birthday, which was last month. “We all bring in cake and treats for the person celebrating a birthday,” she says. “But on my birthday, no one brought in anything! No one asked me if there’s anything they could bring in that I could eat. In fact, my birthday wasn’t celebrated at all!”

Were Crystal’s co-workers embarrassed to ask her what she’d be able to eat? Or did they think it would embarrass her to be asked? Do they think, despite knowing about her diagnosis, that she’s just really picky and chooses to avoid eating much of what they eat?

Who knows. And I forgive them. But Crystal gives this final, excellent advice. “If you know someone with a dietary restriction, have an open mind. Talk with them about it. Try to include them once in awhile, when selecting a restaurant or planning a food-related activity. It will mean a lot.”

And likewise, it’s important for the person with the restricted diet to share some of their goodies as well. It’s an important part of developing a climate of mutual respect. Thanks to Crystal, I’ve tried quite a few gluten-free goodies, and they’re delicious! I’m especially partial to the sugar cookies.

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