Invisible Voices

a voice for the voiceless

workplace advocacy, aka the dreaded team lunch

Periodically I get an invite to a team lunch at work. Since the closest they come to being inclusive is to say “hey, there’s a veggie platter” (and then only at the really big company-wide holiday luncheons), I came up with an efficient system for handling these invites. A couple weeks ago, another invite came in, and after glancing briefly at it, I hit the delete key, just like normal.

A few days later, the woman who had the misfortune to be put in charge of organizing this lunch stopped by to ask if I’d looked at the menu for the four restaurants the invite had asked us to vote on. I hadn’t, of course. She asked me if there was anything I could get to eat at any of the restaurants. She asked because she knew I was vegetarian. (Vegan is a new word for her, I think, so she went with the more familiar “vegetarian”.)

A lot of my coworkers know I’m vegan, and in my two years working there, this made the very first time anyone actually made any effort at all to be inclusive.

And so I looked at the menus, and on finding that there were two restaurants of the four that looked workable, I voted for the one that looked most promising. And naturally the one that was chosen by the majority (the majority of whom know I, a team member, am vegan) was a bbq place where I could not even order a side salad.

No big deal as far as I was concerned. I wrote to the lunch organizer and I told her that I was going to back out of the lunch, and I explained why, in a nice way. (That took a few revisions, as the inner snark came out strongly in my first couple attempts.) And then I thanked her for trying to accommodate me, and I told her that she was the one and only person who had thought about me at all.

She responded that she was determined that we’d find a way to get me some food for the luncheon, and a couple days later she came through with a great solution. She had to go to a grocery store to get drinks anyway, and she asked if I’d want to go with her, since that grocery store has a great salad bar. I agreed, since I love salad, and since I felt it was as important at that point that she succeed in helping me, as it was for me to join in a team lunch.

The lunch was today. The salad bar really was a great one. And the conversation we had along the way was interesting. She’d been vegetarian for a few years a while back. And then 9/11 happened, and she decided that she was going to do what she wanted, and so she started eating meat again.

That threw me. I can honestly say that’s a new one for me. I had no response to that, and so I focused on the main point that she was trying to make – that she had been vegetarian for a while, and so she knew to ask me if the restaurants in question could accommodate me.

She was pretty amazed that no one else had ever made an effort to be inclusive.

The end result is that this is a luncheon that is going to happen about once a month, and it looks like she’ll be the one organizing it each time. She’s going to make sure that the restaurants chosen in the future are ones that I can get something at.

Does this accomplish anything other than allowing me the dubious pleasure of joining in the team lunches? I’m not sure. In terms of social aspects at work, it probably does help me, as I’m quite sure I was seen as a non-joiner or anti-social, both of which are actually true to some degree. But neither were reasons that I wasn’t joining in the lunches, and maybe that was made a little clear to a few of the more perceptive of my team members.

I don’t talk about the ethics behind my veganism at work, as a general rule. I’ve had one person, just last month, ask me directly, and so I answered. It is not the sort of work environment that is open to people talking about anything more in-depth than football, Tiger Wood’s knee surgery, or animal planet.

Lately though I’ve been thinking hard about the impact we have by example. It’s one piece of the whole, but in situations where we see people every day, it might be one of the more important pieces. Different than the advocacy we do when we’re leafleting or performing other sort of fly-by educational tasks.

They say actions speak louder than words. Sometimes that is true.


7 responses to “workplace advocacy, aka the dreaded team lunch

  1. girl least likely to September 10, 2008 at 8:40 pm

    i think it was nice of you to go, partly just to help her “succeed” in including you. 🙂 it was nice of her to make the effort, and sweet of you to appreciate it. i can get uncomfortable in situations like that, too, and sometimes it’s tough to decide which way to go, but i think you did a good thing by rocking the awesome salad. here’s hoping her new role as organizer will spark some innovative restaurant choices in the future!

  2. Deb September 11, 2008 at 8:10 pm

    I have a feeling that she’ll be letting me vet future restaurant choices!

    A friend recently talked about the footprints we leave by our actions, positive or negative. And that’s what this lunch ended up being, for me. I didn’t really intend to join in at first, it wasn’t important to me, but it became important to this one coworker that I be able to join in. And definitely, giving her the chance to succeed in helping me was one of the highlights!

    Plus I did end up with a yummy salad. 🙂

  3. Kate September 12, 2008 at 12:07 am

    And then 9/11 happened, and she decided that she was going to do what she wanted, and so she started eating meat again.

    Wow, that’s a new one on me too. I’d have probably been too non-plussed to respond coherently; although now I’ll be formulating a response in case anyone ever tries that one on me.

    A very similar thing happened to me; my (former) boss wanted to take us to lunch to thank us for our effort during a period of duress; she knows I’m vegan so she put Sunflower on the list of choices, but of course we ended up at the Cheesecake Factory by a margin of 7-1 (still better than a barbeque place.) Since I’m a crank, although I was appreciative of the thought, I was annoyed that she was basically obligating me to attend by calling attention to me. It did end with a very productive conversation with a coworker who is a member of a demographic underrepresented among vegans; he’d never really considered the imperialist nature of the SAD and was beginning to realize that he had to reject it thoroughly if he didn’t want to end up a statistic. So I was ultimately glad that I went.

    On the other hand, my current boss is a creative baker and she uses birthdays in the office (not only mine, that’s the incredible thing)as an excuse to experiment with vegan baking. Those efforts I’m considerably more appreciative of 🙂

  4. Deb September 12, 2008 at 7:27 pm

    Kate, if you come up with a response to the 9/11 comment, let me know! I’m still stumped.

    That’s awesome that you had a productive conversation with your coworker. Has he gone vegan since then?

    And I suppose it goes without saying, but I am so jealous of your current boss! MY current boss just chuckled at a borderline rude joke that one of my “considerate” coworkers made at my expense with regards to the salad I was eating. They always go out of their way to make me feel welcome! ::rolleyes::

  5. Mo September 16, 2008 at 9:20 pm

    Hi Deb,

    Work-food situations make for some strange and complicated experiences (and teach you a lot about your coworkers). It sounds like you work for a large (or larger) company? They tend to be less accepting, accommodating, and considerate (not that they’re great in small companies, tho!). So not cool for your boss to make rude jokes at your expense.

    I work for a small company, and one of our employees used to be a vegetarian (perhaps similar to your 9/11 person…he and his wife decided to be vegetarians in college, I think not because of genuine internal moral compasses or ethics, but because ‘it was the hip thing to do’…they’re in their mid-30’s now and are no longer vegetarians). When we’d have food brought in for lunches, there was a problem for him in finding food he could eat, except when there was pizza. The folks setting up the lunch would happily proclaim they’d ordered vegetarian pizza, but by the time he got there, it would all be gone! The omnivores scarfed it! So…alas, he still had little or nothing to eat.

    I guess the moral of that story is that smaller companies pretend better or louder. ;-\

    Like you, he would be quite happy whenever salad was available.

    Myself, I have stomach problems so can eat very little at one sitting without having to curl up in a ball with pain while my digestive system works it out of my stomach…I hate that work functions, and social functions in general, revolve around food. (I prefer a piece of chocolate cake or french fries that I can eat slowly and if I can have that, it’s not so bad….) 🙂

  6. Antonio September 17, 2008 at 10:54 am

    Hi Deb, I love the way you worded your story. Reads really well. I’m baffled by the 9/11 comment, though – what a strange logic, if one at all…

  7. Deb September 17, 2008 at 8:16 pm

    Mo, I’ve often been frustrated by the marriage of social/work functions and food! It makes things so uncomfortable for so many of us, and it is too often exclusionary. The company I work for right now is actually the smallest place I think I’ve ever worked. Go figure! It always comes down to the individual team, though, and that’s where it fails. People made a real effort at my last place, which I am quite sure I didn’t appreciate enough while I was there! Sorry to hear about your stomach problems. That does not sound at all comfortable!

    Antonio, Thanks! The 9/11 comment seems to have baffled us all!

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