WeWork, a company that offers co-working space, recently announced a new policy saying that it would not serve meat at its events and that it would not reimburse employee meal expenses that include meat. Miguel McKelvey, WeWork’s co-founder and Chief Culture Officer, explained that the policy was to help reduce the impact of meat consumption on the environment and acknowledged the company’s concerns for animal rights.

I admire WeWork’s concern for the environment and animals. I think it’s important for organizations to demonstrate their values with action. Integrity is walking your talk.

I just don’t think that policies that force employees to eat a certain way are either the right way to treat employees or an effective way to save the planet.

Here’s why.

Practical Issues

First, the policy does not apply to clients. Clients can serve meat at events in WeWork space and can bring and eat meat while they are working there. The rule only applies to WeWork sponsored events and when WeWork is paying for employee meals.

This means that the company’s vegetarian values are not so important that they are willing to risk revenue. In other words, the values are basically for sale. It also means that WeWork views its customers as more important than its employees, which never goes over well with employees.

Second, there is no indication that WeWork’s policy will make any difference for WeWork, its employees, or the planet. Unless WeWork uses exclusively vegan vendors and forces employees to patronize vegan restaurants, it will still be supporting caterers and restaurants that regularly buy and serve meat. And the smaller “demand” from different menu selections is more theater than effective action.

Third, controlling what people eat is patronizing and intrusive. One of the first things we give toddlers choice about is what they eat. People don’t like being told what to do with personal choices such as whether or not to order a cheeseburger from room service after a long day in meetings on the road.

Legal Issues

There are some potential legal issues with WeWork’s vegetarian policy.

Most states, including California, require employers to reimburse employees for out of pocket expenses that are necessary for their work. Employers have some latitude to establish policies in this area and often do with per diem limits and restrictions on adult movies/entertainment and alcohol. The flip side of this rule is that they cannot refuse to reimburse a legitimate expense. So, if an employee is at a hotel in the middle of nowhere and they order a cheeseburger because there weren’t vegetarian options, the employer can’t make the employee pay for it.

The other issue is potential disparate impact. A recent survey reported by NPR indicates that about 6% of the US population is vegan and about 7% vegetarian (and these numbers are at the high end of the available data). That means you are asking potentially 87% of your employees to eat differently. And while that may be the point, it can also significantly restrict who wants to work there.

There is only limited data on the demographics of vegetarian/vegans. But if a workplace attracts a limited workforce and that workforce turns out to be mostly young, or mostly white, or excludes people with medical needs, then the policy could be discriminatory because it adversely affects one or more protected class. (In fairness, WeWork has stated it would consider exceptions for people who eat meat for religious or medical reasons.)

Recruiting Issues

While the policy does not require employees to eat differently on their own time, the messaging is restrictive and forces certain behavior. It will be attractive to some, but off-putting to many others. In a tight labor market and a growing company, why would you make it harder to find talented people to work for you?

I think the policy of not serving meat at WeWork events is just fine. But don’t make it difficult to find and hire great employees, and don’t make it harder for employees to do their job, especially when they are on the road.



 
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