Ask a Boss: My Colleague Thinks He’s the Food Police!

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStoc/Getty Images

Dear Boss,

I’d like to ask some advice about what to do regarding a co-worker who I think is TOTALLY crossing personal boundaries.

I work in an office that’s made up primarily of women, but the issue is with this one man who will not keep his thoughts about everyone else’s food choices to himself. He’s known to give some of my co-workers funny looks about whatever they happen to be eating, and I’ve heard him on numerous occasions offer up his opinion on various co-workers’ food choices completely unprovoked. This guy isn’t qualified in any way to be doling out nutrition advice — a fact I’m very much aware of because I’m in eating-disorder recovery and have been going to a registered dietitian for nearly three years, so I have a lot of information stored in my brain — and even if he was, NO ONE ASKS HIM FOR HIS OPINION.

He’s yet to criticize my food choices (I rarely eat with other people in the office anyway … too much diet talk is triggering as hell), but I’ve often joked to friends outside of work that the day he does will be the day I get fired. I do know my other co-workers don’t appreciate it, and I know of at least one of them who has said that she actively tries to hide her eating from him because he’ll give disapproving looks.

Is there anything I can do about this guy without him having directly affected me? Being nosy about other people’s choices in general irritates me, but I hate that so many of the women I work with get randomly harangued about their lunches for no reason (and with no consideration paid to their overall diet, which he obviously cannot see). I just feel like I can’t do anything since he hasn’t addressed me directly.

Oh, but you can, you can!

Your co-worker isn’t just impacting the people he’s directing his unsolicited, unwanted dietary opinions toward. He’s creating an environment where people’s individual food choices are apparently up for public discussion and shaming and where food is moralized over, and that’s something that affects everyone in earshot, whether they’re his direct target or not.

And for the record, even if he were qualified to be doling out nutritional advice, it would still be wildly inappropriate and intrusive for him to do it without being asked. The only people with standing to monitor and comment on what people eat are people you’ve explicitly invited to do so. This guy is just out of line, period.

It also makes it worse that it’s happening at work. It’s annoying enough to have to deal with constant diet talk when you’re with friends or family — and those are people you’re choosing to spend time with. But it’s even worse when it’s at work, because you’re a captive audience and because there’s some pressure on you to be polite in order to maintain reasonably good working relationships.

So, yes, speak up! You can either do it in the moment or, if you’re comfortable with it, you could talk to him one-on-one in private.

If you do it in the moment, you could say any of these:

• “Enough with the diet talk! It’s exhausting, and it’s not good for anyone.”

• “Do you realize how often you comment on people’s food?”

• “I don’t think any of us want to have our snacks at work scrutinized. Can we lay off the diet talk?”

• “Why are you monitoring what other adults eat?”

• “Hey, chill out with the weird looks when someone eats a cupcake.”

One big advantage of speaking up in the moment — and doing it in front of others — is that it can be really good for other people to hear someone pushing back on this kind of behavior, and you may find that others chime in and join you — if not now, then possibly the next time it happens. There’s value — and, frankly, a fair amount of satisfaction — in taking the dude’s attempts at social shaming and turning that around on him. And I’d bet a pretty large amount of money that people will be cheering you, even if they only do it silently.

However, talking to him one-on-one and making a more direct, personal appeal could be pretty effective too, if you’re comfortable doing so. For example, you could say something like this: “I’m not sure if you realize how often you comment on what people are eating, especially if they’re eating something you don’t approve of. Considering the prevalence of eating disorders and food issues more broadly, creating a culture at work where we scrutinize people’s food like that can be really problematic. Plus, people may have health issues that impact what they eat and that they don’t want to discuss with co-workers. I know you’re coming from a place of wanting to help, but for all of these reasons, I want to ask you to stop commenting on people’s personal food choices.”

That might make a bigger deal out of it than you want to, but it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to say if you’re comfortable with it … and you’d be doing everyone in your office a service if you were willing to say it. But you’re also not obligated to take it on in this way — it’s just an option if you want it. (Frankly, it’s also an option to do nothing if you want to. You’re not duty-bound to shoulder the burden of shutting this guy down, unless you want to. If you do want to, I applaud you — but I also don’t want you to feel like your history with an eating disorder gives you a special obligation here.)

And here’s hoping that the rest of us can all use your letter as a reminder to rein ourselves in on diet talk too. Hopefully most of us aren’t overtly judgmental and jerky like your co-worker is, but it’s so, so common in offices for a culture of diet talk to emerge, with people bonding over what they are and aren’t eating, or talking about the “bad” foods they ate or wish they could eat, or announcing that they’re being “good” today because they’re eating a salad, or sighing over someone else’s delicious-looking burrito. Not only is this particularly crappy for people who are struggling with disordered eating (which weirdly is something that the diet-talkers never seem to consider), but it’s pretty terrible for the rest of us too.

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Ask a Boss: My Colleague Thinks He’s the Food Police!