explaining a restricted diet at work, I got stuck working all the holidays, and more — Ask a Manager

It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. Explaining a restricted diet at work

I have been diagnosed with IBS and my doctor recommended that I follow a low FODMAP diet. This diet is very restrictive and makes eating out very difficult (among many other things, I can’t eat onions, garlic, lactose, wheat, honey and some fruits, and vegetables right now). It’s meant to be temporary. After a few weeks, you’re supposed to start reintroducing foods one at a time to see which ones are causing symptoms. During this reintroduction phase, you’re still supposed to follow the diet except for the one food that you’re testing, so the whole thing can take a few months.

My company provides lunch as a perk and no one in my office brings lunch from home. I’ve been eating alone at my desk so that I don’t get questions, but that’s going to get lonely fast. I don’t want to talk about my IBS at work and I also don’t think anyone is going to believe that I just prefer something like egg salad on rice cakes over work provided lunch. What’s the best way to approach this with coworkers?

“I’m on a restricted diet for a couple of months —it’s very boring and I’d give anything to talk about something else to distract me from these rice cakes! What’s going on with your (subject change)?”

Alternately, if you’re comfortable giving a little more information, you can say, “I’m trying to isolate what’s making me feel sick, so I’m eating a very bland diet for a while while we test.” If that invites follow-up questions, you can shut them down at that point with, “Oh, I don’t want to bore people with my diet! Tell me about (subject change)!” For anyone who doesn’t get the hint after that: “I don’t like to talk about it at work. But it’s nothing to worry about!” (An alternate version of that is, “I don’t like to even think about it at work! But it’s nothing to worry about!”)

2. I got stuck working the weeks of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years

I’ve been at my job for seven months now, and my coworkers and I all work remotely. The job requires morning coverage and two workers (out of four of us), so if you are scheduled for morning work you have to switch days with a coworker or you can’t take the morning off. When my boss sent out the most recent schedule, I was scheduled to work the weeks of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years, effectively blocking me from taking PTO during the holidays unless I can get someone to switch with me. I’m trying to take some afternoons off, but it’s not really a holiday if you still have to get up early (though we do get the actual holidays off).

Jane is scheduled to work mornings with me during Thanksgiving and Christmas and we have discussed how this is unfair/unfortunate this is for us, but the policy is for us to work out scheduling between ourselves and let our boss know of any changes, so either we work those weeks or we have to ask our two coworkers to work those weeks. We had a scheduling call to see if anyone wanted to swap shifts and no one would swap with me, so I realize that I’m stuck for this year, but I want to try and avoid this in the future. Especially as the newest member of the team, it’s demoralizing to get the short end of the stick even though I realize that everyone wants off this time of year. I did point out the disparity to my boss, who was apologetic and said she hadn’t noticed when making the schedule. I figured that was the case and I’m not mad at my boss or coworkers, just frustrated with the situation.

I’m newer to the professional world and want to be professional, collaborative, and kind to my coworkers, but I also need to advocate for myself and use my PTO. Is there a good way for me to remind my boss of these scheduling issues before they become a problem next year? I don’t want to seem like I can’t let go of this, but I really don’t want to work EVERY winter holiday again.

It wasn’t cool to schedule you for all three holidays. It’s true that sometimes highly desired dates are awarded by seniority, but that shouldn’t mean you don’t get any of the three. Frankly, I think there was room (and may still be room) for you to ask your boss if she can correct this since it sounds like she hadn’t intended to do it.

But regardless, next fall you can certainly say something like, “I wanted to remind you that last year I ended up working the weeks of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years, so I’m hoping you can ensure I have at least two of them off this year.” (And talk to her early — like at least a month before the schedule for Thanksgiving goes out.)

3. My coworker is in trouble for driving me to the ER

I got sick at work the other day. I had an elevated heart rate and low blood pressure due to an attack of SVT (supraventricular tachycardia.) I have been evaluated by a cardiologist in the past and, although it looks and feels scary, it is not in any way life threatening. They wanted to call an ambulance but I didn’t want the spectacle of that, so a coworker volunteered to drive me to a nearby ER. I was successfully treated and released later that day. My coworker stayed until she was sure I was okay, so she was gone from work for about two hours.

She is now in trouble for giving me a ride to the hospital and may be formally disciplined. They insist she violated policy, although we have never seen this policy before. She was told I put them at risk of a lawsuit, which I don’t understand. Missing a few hours of work wasn’t the problem, but giving me a ride was. Can a workplace prohibit you from giving someone a ride to the hospital?

They can, but penalizing someone for helping a coworker who was having a medical crisis is pretty awful for morale — especially when they’d apparently never addressed how they do want these situations handled.

They’d be far better off explaining to your coworker and everyone else how they want these situations handled in the future, and then (a) accepting that this is on them for not having done that previously and (b) realizing that having employees who care about each other is not something you punish unless you want a really disgruntled and disengaged workforce.

4. Receptionist threw out my food

Our receptionist maintains the office refrigerators by disposing of unmarked food on Fridays. Each Thursday we receive an email reminding us that food must be marked with a name and “Save” or it will be disposed of Friday afternoon. Each Friday around 4, we receive another email telling us that she is going into the fridge right then. The fridges are always fairly empty so I think this is overkill, but it’s none of my business as I only use the fridges once or twice a week.

Last week I cooked a lunch for myself and brought it in to work on Wednesday. It had been in the fridge for three hours when I went looking for it and found it missing. I asked some coworkers and they said the receptionist had thrown away a lot of their food. I had to dig in the trash for my glass food storage containers and I wasn’t the only one doing it.

I emailed HR and they said they spoke to the receptionist and she explained she threw them out for being unmarked, and that she would communicate this more going forward. They ended the email suggesting that I use masking tape and a marker, as if the problem is that I don’t know how to mark my food.

I’m still really angry. It took me a long time to cook that lunch and there was no warning whatsoever. It’s not that she forgot to tell us it was Friday, it’s that she decided it would happen two days early, in the morning, secretly. Frankly, I’m an adult, she’s not my superior, and I shouldn’t have to dig in the garbage at work. It’s insulting.

The receptionist is generally pretty rude and pretty much does what she sees fit, so this really set me off. Management doesn’t interfere with what she does, partly because she does work hard and do a lot for the department, but partly because she has such an attitude. Am I making a mountain out of a molehill here? If not, how does one respond when HR doesn’t seem to want to take action against her?

No, that’s annoying and rude.

The person to talk to is her manager, not HR — although if they allow her to be chronically rude, I don’t have much hope for them actually managing her.

Have you tried talking to the receptionist herself? You have plenty of standing to say, “You threw out a meal that I spent a long time cooking, with no warning and days earlier than you normally clean the fridge. What happened?”

But also … given that this receptionist apparently gets to run roughshod over your office and no one will intervene, the most effective solution is probably to just start marking all your food, knowing that otherwise the fridge isn’t safe from a random, unscheduled attack of overzealousness.

5. Holiday gift exchanges

I’m a senior level employee at a small organization (under 20 employees). Every year as part of the company holiday party, we’ve done a white elephant gift exchange. No one has to participate, but most years everyone does.

This year, the company is switching it up and instead of doing a white elephant gift exchange, they are doing a secret buddy gift exchange, so you are buying a gift for a specific person. The idea of having an employee at a lower seniority level (and possibly someone who reports to me) buying a gift for me makes me incredibly uncomfortable, in a way the white elephant gift exchange never did (since it was just buying a gift, and not for a particular person). Should I opt to decline this year and explain why? Or am I overthinking this and perhaps the rule about the direction gifts should flow doesn’t apply here?

I think you’re fine participating if you want to. The “gifts shouldn’t flow upward” rule is designed to prevent people from feeling pressure to buy their manager a gift — but this is an organized exchange where everyone gets a gift for one assigned person. It’s a different thing. (But do make sure people are opting into participating, rather than being pressured to join in if they’d rather not, and that there’s a fairly low dollar limit.)

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