What’s in a Lunch: Disability and Inclusion at Work


Madison Manning, a member of an enterprise resource planning installation and training team, has a serious allergy that prevents her from partaking in most of the on-site meals provided by her employer and her employer’s clients. She feels that this subtle form of exclusion negatively impacts peer attitudes towards her and interferes with her status as a fully-fledged member of the team. She is also concerned that it subtly impacts her performance evaluations via customer ratings of her services. Madison requests accommodations related to meals that would have a meaningful impact on the team budget and are not strictly required for her to perform her job. Her manager Ruth Knott must decide how to respond to the request.


Learning Outcomes

After reading the case students should be able to:

  • Differentiate between legally required disability accommodations and accommodations that, while they may be helpful, are not legally required.
  • Evaluate the potential impact of disability accommodation granting (or denial) on perceived inclusion and individual motivation.
  • Discuss the role of social ritual, specifically food-based rituals, on team functioning.
  • Analyze the impact of subtle signalers of inclusion on perceived team cohesion, team performance, and the validity of evaluation processes.

A Typical Day

Madison looked up as the lunch cart came clattering into their makeshift classroom. She had just been leaning over a desk to show one of her customer-students how to input a new product number into the inventory management component of the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that her company had sold them. The intoxicating smell of freshly cooked pizza hit her almost immediately, causing her stomach to grumble at the same time as she sighed. Another day of reheated soup for her. “Look,” the IT manager at the customer site stated proudly: “We heard that you don’t eat wheat so we ordered a gluten-free pizza for you.” He seemed very pleased with himself for having done this “favor” for her. Madison cringed inside and braced herself for a discussion she had already had twice this month at other customer sites. She always felt bad when people went to extra effort for her and that effort was wasted, and in addition she did not want to offend anyone, least of all a customer. That said, she knew that “gluten-free” fast food pizzas were almost always prepared on the same surfaces as the regular pizzas. With her celiac disease, it just was not worth the risk of eating it. Even a small amount of cross-contamination, such as a few crumbs dropped from a regular pizza, would be enough to make her seriously ill for days (see Appendix A for a brief discussion of celiac disease).

“I’m so sorry,” Madison explained, “but I really can’t eat that.” The IT manager looked confused and chagrined. Her five teammates (Sangita, Tyrone, Xander, Melissa, and Pham), who were also there to help with the new ERP system installation and training, looked embarrassed for her and quickly changed the subject. They asked the IT manager if everyone who needed training was in attendance that day. Madison, relieved that the conversation had been redirected, took the opportunity to make her way to the kitchen. After waiting in line almost 15 minutes to get access to the only microwave, she began heating up her soup. She could hear her colleagues, who were two rooms away, talking and laughing heartily with the customer, and she wondered what the joke was. By the time she returned, however, things had calmed down and people were eating quietly in groups of three or four. She joined her teammates, who were deep into a technical discussion. Madison wanted to help, but since she had missed the first part of the conversation she was not entirely sure what problem they were trying to solve. Nobody seemed inclined to fill her in, so she focused on her chicken and vegetable soup instead, feeling somewhat left out and lonely. After they had been speaking for almost 20 minutes, she realized that she did recognize the issue they were talking about. It was one she had encountered previously and knew how to solve. She could have saved them a 20-minute debate if she had been part of the conversation earlier, which frustrated everyone on the team once they realized. Yet again, Madison found herself feeling bad, even though she had not really done anything wrong.

Unexpected Impacts

Two weeks later Madison sat with installation technicians Sangita, Tyrone, Xander, and Melissa, fellow trainer Pham, and their manager Ruth to conduct the standard debriefing that always occurred after the completion of new ERP installations at client sites. As per usual, the meeting was being held over the lunch hour. The trainers and installation technicians sent to each customer site were assigned to new teams on a project-by-project basis from a pool of 24 people (eight trainers, ten junior installation technicians, and six senior technicians), all managed by Ruth. These temporary teams allowed Ruth to match her employees’ skills with the unique requirements of each project and the preferences of each client. Since everybody had been reassigned to a new project team by now, the lunch hour was the only time they could all be reliably available.

Madison sat at the meeting watching everyone else dig into the lasagna and garlic bread that had been brought in for lunch. (Free food was always provided at meetings since it noticeably improved attendance and punctuality.) The whole team was raving about how good the lunch was. Apparently the new Italian restaurant that had opened down the street was very authentic and made everything from scratch. Xander joked with Pham, saying that their afternoon garlic breath would scare off anyone in the office who was not “part of the team.” Madison glanced down at the separate bag that had been provided for her, and the sad, gray-looking chicken salad sitting in its own little container. It was marked “gluten-free” and “Madison” in large black letters, and it was quite obvious that it was not among the items that the restaurant made fresh. On one level she felt juvenile and silly that her lunch made her so sad. She should be happy that food was provided at all and that people were attentive to her allergy. Even so, when comparing her meal to the feast her colleagues were enjoying, she just felt as if she was somehow worth less than the others. While they told stories of the best pasta dishes they had ever eaten, she sat quietly, not really part of the conversation.

The feeling was magnified when Ruth started the formal part of the meeting and began speaking about their performance at the last client site. Client reviews were formally collected after all projects and were an important component of their annual performance assessments. The client evaluations were combined with metrics about timely project completion and peer evaluations to derive a final performance rating. That rating was subsequently used to rank employees and determine raises, performance bonuses, task assignments, and promotions. The client had generally been happy with the overall team performance. The ERP installation had not gone perfectly smoothly (they never did), but the IT manager at the customer site had noted their professionalism and persistence in resolving any technical issues. The IT manager singled out Xander, Sangita, and Pham for being especially friendly and helpful, but reported that the lead trainer (Madison) had been “competent and agreeable in class but standoffish and often absent during casual social interactions. Some of the employees were put off by her attitude outside the classroom.” The customer’s employees apparently felt more comfortable following up with Pham for any future training needs—they felt like he was their friend and would bend over backwards to help—whereas they were not sure about Madison. “Not that she did anything wrong,” the IT manager reported, “she just didn’t seem to connect with my team like Pham did.”

Madison’s heart sank when she heard this feedback. She remembered the laughter coming from the training room while she had been stuck waiting 15 minutes for the microwave to warm her soup. There had been several other subtle instances of inadvertent exclusion that had occurred around shared mealtimes while at the client site. For example, she had not been able to join in celebrating the launch of the new system by sharing a homemade cake that had been baked by the IT manager, and she had been forced to decline the handmade dumplings another employee had brought in to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Being excluded from consuming the food always seemed to leave her out of the associated celebrations and social bonding, too. She was not sure why, but she had seen it happen many times. She thought again of the feedback accusing her of being “standoffish.” “Well, that’s not fair,” she muttered to herself. “Just because I need to leave the group to make my own food, or I can’t join their celebration in the same way, doesn’t make me antisocial.” Her next thought concerned her even more: “What if I don’t get put on the best, most interesting projects with the biggest clients, even though I do my job well, because I am seen as less sociable?” Client reviews were such a large part of their annual evaluations, she worried that her literal inability to break bread with clients would hurt her career progression.

Madison wanted to know if her teammates thought she had been unfriendly. Maybe she was overreacting about the food? Maybe she was standoffish? Madison did not think so but she was filled with doubts. She decided to ask Xander, Sangita, Pham, Melissa, and Tyrone to have a drink with her after work and discuss it. They looked embarrassed, glancing at each other uncomfortably. “We can’t do it tonight,” they said. “We have a trivia contest at the Iron Whistle pub. It’s the finals so we need to go.” “I didn’t know you did trivia,” Madison exclaimed: “I love trivia, can I come?” “Ummm, sure,” said Tyrone, “but all they serve is beer and breaded wings, so you won’t be able to eat or drink anything.” “I don’t care,” enthused Madison, “as long as I can play. When did this start anyway?” “About four months ago,” said Pham. “Remember when we all worked on the ACME account together with Mr. Wiley? We got talking about trivia over pizza at lunch and decided to form a team. You must have missed it.” Madison’s heart sank yet again. She had wondered why her colleagues had all seemed friendlier together than the last time they had been on a team. Now she knew exactly why they all seemed to click and she seemed, somehow, on the outside. All because she could not join them for pizza. Again. How many ways was her allergy impacting her job? Ways that she did not even realize! Something needed to be done.

A Formal Request

Madison decided to ask for a one-on-one meeting with Ruth. At the meeting Madison explained that she felt she was being excluded from important team and client bonding rituals during mealtimes. Madison had done her homework. She knew her accommodation request would seem odd, so she had done some reading. She presented Ruth with two academic journal articles. The first one (Thomson & Hassenkamp, 2008) examined the role of food rituals in a workplace setting that also relied heavily on teams: healthcare. The article explained that sharing meals made teams more cohesive, created a sense of community, reduced stress, improved communications, and boosted morale. Shared meals led to bonding but also allowed for the exposure and resolution of interpersonal tensions. That, in turn, made team collaboration easier and more effective. The second journal article (Kniffin, Wansink, Devine & Sobal, 2015) examined food rituals among firefighters. It also found a powerful positive association between sharing food together, team cohesion, and team performance.

Madison explained the research findings to Ruth and then stated: “Even though I do get my own food it is different from the food of others, which sets me apart from everyone in a subtle way. It makes me feel different, as if I am not really integrated with the team. It even seems to impact me at client sites. I am convinced that I am perceived as less friendly because I cannot participate in many of the food rituals. I think that for future meetings you should start ordering in meals for everyone that are gluten-free so that I am not singled out any more. It would be helpful if we could encourage clients to do the same when we work on-site. If we cannot get the clients on board then that should be considered when scoring and ranking my performance evaluations, since I get subtly devalued due to social issues created by my allergy.”

Ruth heard everything that Madison said, but she had some concerns of her own. Ruth was concerned about whether people would enjoy gluten-free options. People liked pizza, pasta, and sandwiches. It was easy to accommodate vegetarians and religious dietary restrictions by changing the toppings, sauces, and fillings. It would take a while to find gluten-free items that all or most of the staff would like, and that were also vegetarian or religion-friendly. Ruth was also very concerned about imposing menus on clients, who generally brought in whatever food they liked for the installation team. She was concerned it may be perceived as an imposition or undue burden. Finally, the meals that were brought in were selected based in part on affordability. Things like pizza, pasta, and sandwiches tended to be cheap and filling. The alternatives, such as salads, grilled meats, and vegetables, were more expensive. Ruth knew about the affordability issues because her two nieces were celiac and she was the one who had informed her sister about the tax break afforded to families with celiac members. The Canadian government, recognizing the financial burden of celiac diets, introduced a regulation in 2003 permitting the declaration of gluten-free foods as a medical expense for tax purposes. Ruth also knew that when her sister had planned her daughter’s bat mitzvah she had consulted with six different caterers. A requirement for gluten-free food increased their quotes by an average of 45%. Grocery stores were similar. While a loaf of bread usually cost around CAD 3, a much smaller loaf of gluten-free bread cost about CAD 8. A bag of dried pasta may cost CAD 2.50, but a bag of gluten-free pasta that was a third smaller cost CAD 9. Switching to gluten-free options would not only be difficult, since most lunch foods were gluten-heavy, but it would inevitably increase the cost of lunches, which would impact the overall budget used for staff entertainment, performance incentives, and rewards. That could mean fewer or smaller performance-based cash bonuses for everyone. That said, Ruth was concerned about equity and fairness and wanted to provide an optimal environment for team functioning. After several days of thought she decided the best solution would be to…

Discussion Questions

  • Does Ruth have a legal obligation to fulfill Madison’s accommodation request? Why or why not?
  • One option is to stop providing meals to any employees and have everyone bring in their own food. Would this be a good solution? Why or why not?
  • Outline the probable consequences for Madison’s motivation, job satisfaction, and performance if her accommodation request to have gluten-free food provided to all is denied. What are the probable consequences if the requested accommodation is provided?
  • Outline the probable consequences for team cohesion and performance if Madison’s accommodation request to have gluten free-food provided to all is denied. What are the probable consequences if the requested accommodation is provided?
  • If Madison’s request for gluten-free food for all is not fulfilled, should Ruth consider adjusting her performance evaluation methods? Why or why not? What specific changes could be made?


Celiac Disease Foundation (2019). What is celiac disease?. Retrieved from https://celiac.org/about-celiac-disease/what-is-celiac-disease/
Kniffin, K. , Wansink, B. , Devine, C. , & Sobal, J. (2015) Eating together at the firehouse: How workplace commensality relates to the performance of firefighters. Human Performance, 28(4), 281306. doi.org/10.1080/08959285.2015.1021049
Thomson, D. , & Hassenkamp, A.-M. (2008). The social meaning and function of food rituals in healthcare practice: An ethnography. Human Relations, 61(12), 17751802.

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Appendix A: Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune disease that affects approximately one in 100 people. When people who are celiac consume gluten, which is found in wheat, rye, and barley, their body mounts an immune response that attacks the small intestine. This attack results in painful cramps, bloating, diarrhea, and vomiting in the short term. It also results in permanent damage to the villi, small hair-like structures in the intestine that are required for proper nutrient absorption. This means that people with celiac disease are prone to secondary nutritional deficiencies and related problems, such as anemia, in the longer term. Left untreated, celiac disease can lead to serious health complications and even death (Celiac Disease Foundation, 2019).

The only known treatment for celiac disease is to abstain from eating foods that contain gluten. Even small amounts of gluten can cause symptoms and ongoing damage to the intestinal tract. As such, it is important to avoid cross-contamination caused by, for example, chopping or slicing gluten-free foods on the same surface as foods containing gluten, or using the same frying oil for products with and without gluten. This need to avoid cross-contamination makes dining out particularly challenging. Oats are known to be a particular problem for cross-contamination since they are often processed in the same facilities as wheat. While oats themselves do not contain gluten, unless they are specifically marked “gluten-free,” they may be contaminated with traces of wheat flour. Beer contains gluten. Soy sauce, processed with wheat, is another unexpected source of gluten that may be overlooked by poorly trained restaurant and catering staff (Celiac Disease Foundation, 2019).

Appendix B

Data 1. Percent of U.S. Population Who Report Dieting Based on Food Allergy by State

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