You Are What You Eat (At Work)

Here on display are two work areas—one belonging to David and one belonging to Joseph. I’m curious how you would respond to the following questions based on your first impressions of these two employees:

  1. Who works more effectively toward long-term goals?
  2. Who has iron self-discipline?
  3. Who is better at resisting temptation?

David:

Source: Image by Trevor Watkins

Joseph:

Image by Trevor Watkins

Source: Image by Trevor Watkins

If you quickly said “David” to these questions, it likely means that you were leaning on what psychology calls “consumption stereotyping.” When people engage in consumption stereotyping, they form perceptions of others’ abilities and traits based on what foods they choose to eat. As examples, people stereotype those who eat meat as more masculine, and those who follow a low-fat diet as more feminine. Consistent with the adage, “you are what you eat,” people stereotype in this manner because the food we eat holds symbolic value and sends messages about ourselves to others.

Consumption Stereotyping at Work

Eating at work is quite common—one New York Times survey indicated that 62% of American professionals regularly eat lunch at their desks, and another study found that employees across multiple U.S. cities eat 5.4 times a week at work on average. My colleagues and I accordingly hypothesized that consumption stereotypes would be active in the workplace. We examined whether/when consumption stereotyping happens at work, and what its ensuing consequences might be.

In our recent study, we focused on how employees maintaining a healthy diet (versus an unhealthy diet) would impact how coworkers viewed them. This is because healthy eating is becoming increasingly difficult and rare, meaning that healthy eating stands out (and that unhealthy eating does not). To illustrate, in the United States, one large-scale study of over 16,000 individuals showed that only 10% of people met daily vegetable intake recommendations, while 90% exceed the daily allowance of solid fats and added sugars.

In examining our hypothesis, we conducted an experiment where we manipulated the food consumption of a fictitious employee named Taylor (using images like the ones above—healthy food at one desk, unhealthy food at the other), while keeping all other information constant (e.g., displaying the same work area, providing an identical performance chart, disclosing that Taylor was a good, friendly person). Participants then reported how they viewed Taylor in terms of self-control (e.g., Do you agree/disagree that… “Taylor is someone who works effectively toward long-term goals”), and then reported how they would behave toward Taylor in terms of help and harm.

As predicted, participants responded more favorably toward Taylor when water and vegetables were on Taylor’s desk versus soda and a pastry, despite identical information related to Taylor’s character and past job performance. Our experiment showed that employees’ dietary habits play a powerful role in how coworkers view and treat them.

Implication: Consumption stereotypes, just as with traditional stereotypes, constitute prejudice and bias. Food consumption often reflects one’s values, philosophy, identity, and traits, which are dignified notions worthy of respect. Leaders and employees should accordingly become aware of their consumption stereotypes and make active efforts to avoid judging employees based on their dietary habits.

Context Matters: The Role of Workplace Climate

Context matters when considering organizational phenomena, and it is no different with respect to workplace eating. Consider the observation that employees obtain on average 1,300 calories each week from free employer-provided food (most of which is junk!). Notwithstanding, organizations sometimes go to great lengths to promote healthy eating. Indeed, some organizations champion health values, maintain expectations regarding healthy eating, and/or frequently communicate nutrition facts. Corporate wellness programs continue to rise in prevalence, underscoring the importance of considering the role of an organization’s prevailing healthy eating climate.

In our field study, we replicated our findings from our experiment, yet went further and found that consumption stereotyping only unfolded in organizations where less focus was placed on eating healthfully (i.e., lower healthy eating climate). Employees who maintained healthy diets in healthy eating climates were less likely to be attributed the trait of self-control compared to their counterparts in unhealthy eating climates. This finding aligns with the idea that if the company is promoting healthy eating, an employee’s choice of choosing an apple instead of a cookie is more quickly attributed to the organization (versus the employee’s self-control). Yet also, an employees’ reach for the apple is likely extra impressive within a workplace riddled with vending machines full of soda and chips.

Implication: Given that leaders are the carriers of the workplace climate, and that healthier workplace climates reduce consumption stereotyping, leaders can mitigate consumption stereotyping by fostering a healthy eating climate. For example, leaders might provide healthy food options or educate employees on the value of eating healthfully.

Conclusion

Diet is foundational to human health and productivity. However, while most are aware of the individual health implications of diet, much less is known about how one’s diet has interpersonal implications, let alone at work. This is problematic given that eating at work is becoming increasingly common. Our research addresses this shortcoming and highlights how the food we eat at work has implications for how our coworkers view and treat us. We encourage leaders and employees to become aware of this form of stereotyping so they can avoid such shortchanging behavior. When they do, their organizations will become better, fairer places to work.

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