Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.

A reader asks:

I'm curious about how to institute a workplace healthy-eating policy that is respectful and non-judgmental.

The background: I work for a health charity that focuses on a single chronic disease. Our regional office in particular is on the West Coast and is a little hyper-aware of being healthy leaders. We don't have an official policy about food in the workplace, but some in our office take it upon themselves to be health-conscious about the food choices that we make personally and especially when we spend the office budget on any food items and catering. (As a side note, there seems always to be booze at our events.) There have been complaints before about the junk food, soda, and fast food that people bring back to the office and the worry is about optics. But also there is the frustration that some feel that we're betraying our mission and aren't leading by example.

A few employees feel very strongly that we need a policy about it. They run a program that covers healthy eating and cooking so they are extra sensitive to the optics of our office when it comes to food, and they feel resentful for having to police people about food.

I personally don't feel like we need a policy at all. I think people would feel resentful if their food choices are measured against some code of conduct. I also question how we would implement and enforce it, if at all. In my mind, there is a clear distinction between spending our organization's money on unhealthy food and spending my own income on it. We also have regular volunteers who come in and bring tons of treats all the time, and some of their lunches wouldn't be accepted as healthy. 

We just had a staff meeting this morning, and one program manager was vocal that we need people to stop bringing in cupcakes and cookies for celebrations and make better choices, and it's about making better decisions to "live our brand." She's frustrated that she has to even explain the need for an internal food policy, and that we should already be living our healthiest selves.

Do you have any suggestions on how to start a workplace policy that doesn't alienate people or make people feel ostracized and is actually effective?

Green responds:

Most organizations shouldn't be policing people's personal food choices, period.

That's not to say that it's never reasonable to set some boundaries based on your mission. It's reasonable for PETA, for example, not to allow animal products in its offices because its entire mission is about stopping the use of animal products. And it would be reasonable for your organization to decide that you will only serve healthy food at organization-sponsored events, and even to only offer healthy snacks in the office's vending machines, or not to have soda machines on-site. It would also be reasonable for an organization like yours to say that people shouldn't eat unhealthy foods while representing the organization to volunteers or the public.

But telling employees what they can and can't pack for lunch is an overreach. And who's going to be the judge anyway? Is the organization going to say that a sandwich is fine if it's on wheat bread but not if it's on white bread? Are you just going to ban chips and desserts? How will you adjudicate conflicting info about, say, paleo diets versus vegetarian diets? What about vegetarian versus vegan? There's plenty of research showing eating meat leads to cancer, stroke, and heart disease -- will you ban meat on office premises? Where exactly will you draw the line, and (as you ask) how will you enforce it?

You're hiring adults, and you're presumably hiring them for the work they do, not for the food they ingest. You should trust those adults to manage their own food choices.

I do think there's a middle ground here, though, and it's to make healthy food available. Find caterers with healthy options for work events. Put fruit in the break room. Bring in healthy lunches for everyone every Friday. And yes, talk about what foods the organization will and won't spend money on; that's a logical place for the organization's stances to play out.

But let your employees decide for themselves what goes in their mouths.

Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to alison@askamanager.org.