I was recently asked how a company would know whether it is inclusive enough that people feel like they belong, and I told them there is one indicator that turns out to be an oddly helpful metric:
Is everyone eating?
Think about it: we are willing to chow down with others only when we feel comfortable. At other times, we pick at the food, take small plates just to be polite (and barely touch them), or consume delicately/deliberately. And that’s if there’s actually food that we can eat.
The startup world provides one of my favorite examples of completely screwing this up: happy hours. I can count on one hand the number of happy hours I attended that had a non-alcoholic alternative that wasn’t water. There’s beer, wine, more beer, more wine, even more beer, and even more wine…and water. Funny how all of these cool, smart people completely miss the fact that there are a slew of different categories of people who don’t drink, including those taking medications, pregnant women, some Muslims, and people who need to drive. Not all of them want to admit to not drinking, especially if they are trying to hide the details that preclude their drinking, which means they are going to be awkwardly sipping water or looking around for tea/coffee/etc. while most other people are comfortably enjoying their liquor. To this I also have to add the ridiculous number of times people have to pay to go to an event where they can’t eat.
Then there are the many meetings that serve food. If you’re going to get a meal, at least have the sense to ask about people’s dietary restrictions rather than assuming you’re going to get it right by adding a grilled veggie sandwich to the mix (your strictly gluten free, kosher, and some of your Hindu and Buddhist colleagues won’t be thanking you and will politely watch you stuff your faces while assuring you that they already ate or aren’t hungry). At other meetings, it’s just snacks, but is it really so hard to get a bag of baby carrots, a bag of tangerines, and kosher, gluten-free chips (or just ask attendees to indicate any dietary restrictions when they RSVP)? I know — some people want to go fancier, but that falls completely flat if you have someone who isn’t really eating. Many folks with restricted diets would feel much better being included in something really simple than being excluded in something really fancy.
If you think about it, one of the reasons that food is important to so many cultures is that eating is something everyone has to do, which makes it a great opportunity for regulating the self, elevating the everyday, and gathering people together in unity. The latter reason explains why it is so crucial to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to join in the fooding. When people are being excluded from something so basic as food, why would they want to share anything more meaningful about themselves like their ideas or insights?