What rights does a vegetarian employee with a food allergy have?

Susan S. Johnson

Q: Several times per year my nonprofit organization, which relies heavily on donations and grants, hosts luncheons and dinners for VIPs and supporters. These were canceled last year, but apparently we are pushing ahead with them this year despite the coronavirus pandemic. These are sit-down meals where a waiter brings your plate.

My director is of the mindset that we do not need to provide a vegetarian or vegan option or alternatives for people with food allergies. In her words, “Those people should understand we can’t provide for every single diet out there and just shouldn’t come.”

I am a vegetarian with a common food allergy, and I am required to work at these events. I’ve gotten used to wolfing down an apple at my desk before the event and eating dinner at home afterward. As a representative of the organization, I am seated at a table with guests, and I am far from the only vegetarian in attendance; one year, three others at my table were unable to eat the entree. But none of this has mattered to my director when we debrief after the event.

I’m just wondering what our obligation is when it comes to serving food, and if I am within my rights to ask again about a vegetarian meal since I am required to be there.

A: Never thought I’d welcome a question on vegetarian meals as a safe, noncontroversial workplace topic — but here we are.

Starting with your last question first: If your dietary restrictions are tied to religious belief or medical issues, an employment lawyer can tell you whether it’s within your rights, and within reason, to bring this up as a legal matter. A simpler, less adversarial approach might be to ask the boss if you can expense a takeout meal to be eaten at your desk before the event, so you can keep your strength up for schmoozing.

I can see your boss’s point that it’s not possible to anticipate and accommodate every faith-, fitness- or fad-based food restriction and unwise for a cash-strapped nonprofit to break the bank trying. Then again, when fast-food and take-away restaurants at all price points are offering meatless options that go well beyond side salads, including footnotes listing common allergens, any decent caterer can do the same. And here’s the most persuasive argument why your boss should consider a broader course-correction: “Hangry” donors are less likely to be generous donors.

That brings me back to your first question. The minimum obligation of a host is to provide for guests’ comfort as far as resources allow, from cake and punch to haute cuisine, and to notify them when common comforts will not be available (“BYOB”). That also means providing enough information to allow guests to decide for themselves whether it’s worth the effort to attend. “If you can’t stand the meat, stay home” is some cold hospitality, but it’s kinder than no warning at all.

If you have any part in arranging the events, try to send RSVP requests well in advance, including a preview of the menu and a space for comments and questions. If enough invitees decline with complaints about the lack of dietary accommodations, that might get your director’s attention — especially if you’ve already made a nonrefundable deposit.

If you happen to have any personal connections on your board of directors, you might alert them discreetly to these concerns. They might be more sensitive to how skimpy hospitality affects guest morale, and they might have the clout to drive that point home with your boss.

Incidentally, I wonder how many of your invitees might decline to attend just because, you know, there’s still a pandemic and they want to stay out of the plague pool. It might be worth doing a little research to see how other organizations have replaced in-person shindigs with virtual fundraisers or supporter-appreciation events, and be prepared to suggest some to your boss as an alternative.

Karla L. Miller offers advice on surviving the ups and downs of the modern workplace. (Courtesy of The Washington Post)

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