coworker has appointed herself the food police

A reader writes:

Lately, several members of the office staff have been whispering about the disturbing exchange between two of my co-workers.  Co-worker A is 20-something, tall and very thin.  Co-worker B is 50-something, short and…well…not so thin.  Recently, co-worker B received some disturbing news concerning her health from her physician.  She was understandably upset when she told us about the doctor’s grim diagnosis the following day.

For some reason unbeknown to anyone else, co-worker A has taken it upon herself to impose a strict diet regimen upon co-worker B.  Co-worker A is constantly scrutinizing everything that B consumes throughout the day.  One day when B mildly objected to A’s intolerable hampering, A responded by saying “well, if you want to be alive for your son’s high school graduation, then you’ll learn to discipline yourself.”  Co-worker B began to cry.  This is merely one example as this type of behavior occurs almost daily.  I think co-worker A’s constant berating is not only inappropriate, but also just mean.  Should I say something to this self-appointed food police?

I would. Ideally your coworker would speak up for herself, but given that not everyone in the world is perfectly assertive, I’d speak up on her behalf. You have a bunch of choices, from “Wow, did you really just say that?” to “That’s incredibly out of line” to “In what way is what someone else chooses to eat your business?”  You also don’t need to wait for it to happen again; you could address it preemptively by saying, “It makes me really uncomfortable to hear you criticizing another adult’s food choices. Could you leave her alone?”

Someone could argue this is none of your business, but since it appears to be happening right in front of you, I think you’re well within your rights to call out A on her behavior, and I think doing so would be an act of kindness toward B, who sounds like she might be in a vulnerable spot.

You can read an update to this post here.

{ 77 comments… read them below }

  1. Marie

    “Co-worker A” sounds like a nut! Her behavior is totally inappropriate, and the fact she made “Co-worker B” cry is very cruel. She should be told to mind her own business.

    1. Elizabeth

      If this were the middle-school cafeteria, it’d be easier to call this what it is – bullying. It shouldn’t be tolerated in middle school; it shouldn’t be tolerated in the workplace.

        1. Marie

          I totally agree. “Co-worker A” is definitely a bully, and she deserves to be disciplined for her disruptive behavior,

  2. mouse

    Wow. Just wow. If this were my workplace, I’d have been fired. I tend to see red when I witness stuff like this and my mouth runs away with me. Too many years of minimum wage customer service jobs (and a stint in the Navy) has made me rather blunt about people going all summer’s eve like that.

      1. mouse

        I wish I could claim it was my own… got it from someone on a message board. Comes in rather handy for polite company nastiness. :)

    1. Sarah

      “All Summer’s Eve” cracked me up! I didn’t get it until my 2nd cup of coffee though. Clever!! I’m stealing that!

  3. Kelly

    By all means call A out, she’s beyond the pale. If that doesn’t work, B should be encouraged to go to your boss. A needs to learn some manners.

  4. Dawn

    It always amazes me that people seem to think comments such as these will actually motivate someone to want to lose weight. It has the opposite effect and makes the person feel crappy.

  5. Anonymous

    Wow, years ago I had the reverse – I am a freak and can eat anything and stay thin so I am hated by most women who tune in to that aspect of my metabolism.

    I had a co-worker who was heavier and struggled with her weight and was constantly working out and dieting and drinking weird shakes and commenting on my fast food choices day after day and always in a mean way “do you know how much lard is in that” “do you know what you are doing to your arteries” on and on and on.

    I finally caved and just told her “I have every right to climb up on my desk and sit crossed legged and eat a bucket of lard if I so desire – bugger off” though it wasnt fun being honest and straightforward shut her up.

    But in both cases the two with opinions are in the WRONG .. the employee should try to address it first but if A will not change, someone in management should pull her aside and set her straight. No one should be made to feel this way or critiqued about their weight and diet.

  6. Sharon

    I have been in a similar situation. In my experience, the most effective response was basically to suggest that the self-appointed food monitor get a life. Admittedly, this was a straight forward case of “Bored Mean Girl Syndrome” and the co-worker pestering me couldn’t claim any authority/superiority in the healthy lifestyle department. But, I think being direct and dispensing with the moralistic kabuki is the best antidote to this kind of silly behavior.

  7. Mike C.

    Coworker A is nothing more than a bully, and no one needs permission to defend others from their actions.

  8. esra

    My goodness, how utterly inappropriate on A’s behalf. I hope they get called on it, because not only is it mean and cruel, it’s also absolutely none of A’s business.

  9. Anon

    I assume Coworker A is not a registered nutritionist/dietician/anything else and thus may be talking out of her, erm, hat? Even if she were, it would still be rude.

    1. Jamie

      I agree that even if she were professionally qualified in some way it would be still be rude.

      Even Miss Manners says she doesn’t go around correcting the etiquette gaffes of others unless asked, and she’s polite for a living.

      For work related matters unsolicited and direct feedback is necessary – and part of being a good manager. For non-work related issues proffering strident and unwanted advice just makes you an asshat.

    2. Kathy

      I imagine someone who has been trained in this area would have also been trained in empathy and people skills and, thus, would know enough that this isn’t the way to help change a person’s behavior!!

  10. Phyr

    Not only is coworker A’s unsolicited help out of line but I am amazed that no one has made a harassment complaint against her. Or at least pointed it out to a manager. I am looking at this from a more extreme angle but if she was even mildly objected to she should have stopped. I feel so bad for coworker B.

  11. Mary Sue

    Speaking as a fat woman, we’re told so often by the media that we are unhealthy and ugly and eating wrong and that we are just plain *wrong* for being fat that sometimes it’s hard to find the self esteem to stand up for ourselves.

    I had a problem recently with someone who thought they were Special Agent in Charge of Making Me Eat Carrots Because They’re Healthy (which I’m allergic to, by the way). It made me dig up this old KateHarding.Net post and print out the License To Eat. Next time the SAC came around to complain, I flashed the license and told them to back off.

    1. Anonymous

      “We’re told so often by the media that we are unhealthy…”

      Ummm, maybe because being fat IS unhealthy?

    2. Anonymous

      “we’re told so often by the media that we are unhealthy”

      Umm, maybe because being fat IS unhealthy?

        1. Anonymous

          You can’t look at someone with a body fat percentage greater than 40 and know that they would dramatically reduce the likelihood of developing disease if they lost some of that fat? WHA???

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            All right people, we are not going to debate these issues here because they’re not what this post, or this blog, is about and lots of people find them hurtful and frustrating. And I’m not running a blog to debate weight issues. So … let’s end this particular line of debate.

        2. Justin

          Sorry Melanie, being overweight is unhealthy. You might not have any immediate illnesses, but you are placing yourself at risk for developing them. Just like smoking is unhealthy, even if you don’t have lung cancer or emphysema right now. I don’t think any doctor would disagree with Anon.

      1. Dawn

        I’m overweight also, but my bloodwork is completely normal and have no health problems at all. I know plenty of thin people who are very unhealthy so please don’t generalize.

        1. Anonymous

          Actually, being fat is unhealthy and I CAN tell that just by looking at you. Although you may have no health problems now just by being tubby you’re at a much greater risk to develop all sorts of fat related health issues. But, I’m sure you already know about those, right?

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            Why would you even care to push such a point though? In what way is it the business of anyone other than the person themselves and perhaps their close family members?

          2. Dawn

            Thanks, Allison. I was going to make a few choice remarks to anon, but decided not to. Why fuel the fire more?

          3. Ask a Manager Post author

            Except that it doesn’t matter if she has good intentions or not. It’s rude and none of her business, and she should keep it to herself. I might have good intentions by telling my friend that her husband isn’t good enough for her, but I never would because it would be rude and none of my business. Intentions aren’t the end-all, be-all.

          4. Mary Sue

            I love how you’re too chicken to snark under any name but Anonymous.

            But since, dear Anonymous, you’re neither my doctor, my mother, or my God, your opinion on my health means exactly bupkiss.

          5. Anonymous

            Sure it matters. Instead of fighting fire with fire you could try to keep the peace and tell A privately ” I know you probably have good intentions, but B is taking your advice really badly.”

          6. CK

            So if appearance is the determining factor, a thin person whose primarily source of nourishment is McDonald’s or other fast food and has an incredibly sedentary lifestyle (ie. no exercise, ever) would have absolutely no health problems? Hmmmmm…

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            I’m going to insist on a certain minimum of respect for others here. Comments like this one are purely nasty and have no place here (and are disappointing to see, given the normal level of discourse from commenters here). Future comments on this post in that vein will be deleted, and might even get the commenter permanently banned.

      2. Slaten

        Oddly enough (yes, that’s sarcasm) the last 2 people I know who have health problems (heart attack, stroke) they were both well within the governments BMI guidelines.

  12. Anonymous

    I believe that if something close to someone – in B’s case, health problems attributed to her weight – is bothering her, then she is going to either defend it or collapse into a heap of self-loathing. The latter is probably B’s reaction with the crying. So for someone to start chastising B is really inappropriate. I think A’s intentions are probably just out of kindness in trying to get B on the right track of health, she’s definitely going about it the wrong way, and she should have asked B if she wanted help or support first. However, how it has turned out thus far, it’s definitely going down the wrong way fast.

  13. hello

    I wonder if this topic is really sensitive for Coworker A. Perhaps her parent ate unhealthy and died right before *her* graduation. And now she is being emotional. Or maybe I’m watching too much TV.
    Nonetheless, when addressing her, mention how you understand her intentions are noble, and that there is a way of doing it. And that the first thing she needs to do is ask Coworker B if she can be her food police.

  14. Cassie

    I don’t think Coworker A is really that concerned with Coworker B’s well-being. If she was, why would she intentionally upset Coworker B, albeit under “good” intentions?

    More likely, Coworker A is one of those people who thinks she knows everything and feels superior to those that are not like her.

    1. Anonymous

      “If she was [concerned], why would she intentionally upset Coworker B, albeit under ‘good’ intentions?”

      Sometimes people don’t know how they really come across to other people. She might believe that by putting the fear of God into Coworker B will make her work harder towards the goal of losing way and taking on a healthier lifestyle. And to further reiterate what another commenter wrote, maybe she has seen other people die of similar circumstances and therefore, she doesn’t want to see this happen.

      Your “more likely” is a possibility, but I don’t want to persecute Coworker A before we know her true intentions. Maybe the OP will have that insight for us soon.

    2. Kelly

      A could also be taking her food issues out on B. From the letter she’s in her early 20’s, so she’s probably fresh out of college where eating disorders run rampant. Still doesn’t make her behavior OK.

      1. Anonymous

        It’s the workplace. The rules are different. Saying and doing blatantly inappropriate things is not OK and can get you fired. It doesn’t matter what coworker A’s intentions are. She needs to focus on her job and not on the eating habits of those she works with.

  15. Jamie

    What ever happened to going to work and doing your…uhm…job? And the whole if you have nothing nice to say then don’t say anything?

    Apply those two rules and it can eliminate these kinds of office issues.

    Common sense is in ridiculously short supply these days, it seems.

  16. KellyK

    I like AAM’s advice here. Coworker A is being rude and needs to be called on it. But I also think that it’s worth saying something friendly and reassuring to Coworker B. (Like Miss Conduct says, “it’s a good idea to deal with the victim of a social drive-by first, rather than the perpetrator. You can do much more good that way.”) It doesn’t have to be a pity party, just, “Wow, that was really rude of her to say that to you.”

    I also want to stress that possible “good intentions” on Coworker A’s part don’t excuse or even really mitigate her rude behavior. People frequently use “I’m just concerned about you” as an excuse for all sorts of judgmental or boundary-ignoring b.s., and it’s beside the point. The religious evangelizer is just concerned about your soul; the eco-zealot is just concerned about the planet. That doesn’t make hassling coworkers about their personal decisions okay. The bottom line is that Coworker B’s food and body are her business, nobody else’s.

    If the letter-writer does decide to speak to Coworker A, and her reply is, “But I’m just worried about her!” I would reply that hassling someone until they cry, particularly at work, isn’t beneficial to anyone’s health. Stress is bad for you, remember? And furthermore, this behavior is making *you* (the letter-writer) uncomfortable, and it needs to stop.

  17. What the?

    Why is the office so high school? First, I don’t think B needed to disclose her diagnosis to the whole office. Perhaps her immediate manager and a close coworker or two who would keep the matter private, since it is a very private and personal matter. But that’s after the fact now. This shouldn’t really involve involve anyone at the management level. B needs to get a spine. Clearly A sounds like the one with a distorted attitude towards food. Next time A makes a comment to B, advise coworker B to express concern to A that it is she who appears to have an unhealthy obsession with food and then give her the name & number of a local psychologist who specializes in eating disorders.

    1. Anonymous

      True. Had B not disclosed her health status to the rest of the office, then perhaps A’s rude behavior would not be shining through. If B had been in the hospital for treatment for a while, then sure, others would probably know and could send get well wishes. But if she’s at work and is capable of doing work, then the medical issue stays at home and at the doctor’s office. Of course, this doesn’t excuse A’s behavior, but let it be advice for future references to all people reading this.

  18. Anonymous

    Coworker A is horrible and needs to be stopped. I would go straight to her supervisor. I worked with a similar type of person, only she was an evangelical vegan and was known to harass a coworker for the sin of eating egg salad every day (“eggs are evil!”). People tried to reason with the vegan but she only got worse and didn’t stop until her supervisor gave her the choice between minding her own business and losing her job. It’s terrible how some people can’t seem to act like adults but the fact is that not everyone in the workplace knows how to behave appropriately.

    1. Anonymous

      Not to generalize, but some vegans I know tend to do that. They try to say “the research is out there” but I have also found research to speak against them. But that’s a whole other story…

  19. Cruella DeVil

    Perhaps all the employees at the Widget Company are now having to pay increased health insurance premiums because of the elevated number of claims last year, due to the unhealthy habits of their coworkers and those who take care of their health are fed up. That’s what’s happening here at Chateau DeVil. We just had a company wide meeting about it. We were told, almost point blank, that the smokers and the obese were causing our premiums to go up because they were to top two unhealthy habits that were preventable. Our company is rolling out a wellness plan including smoking cessation and access to bariatric medicine. Guess who’s getting to foot the bill on those? The healthy people who’s premiums just went up.

    Is Coworker A also hounding the smokers?

    1. fposte

      Well, *everybody’s* premiums went up, not just the healthy people’s. But, as you say, the smokers, the helmetless bike riders, the speeders, the athletes, the weekend athletes, those that work more than 10-hour days, the sedentary regardless of weight, the excess drinkers, the weekend bingers, the genetically prone to cancer–anybody with a behavior or condition making them likely to use medical care should then be hounded for equality’s sake. ‘Cept there’s not really anybody left unhounded then. So I would go back to the early notion that it’s inappropriate and basically pretty evil to hound people in the first place.

    2. Phyr

      A company I used to work for a company that announced that they wanted everyone to hound each other to get each other to stop smoking and such.It was heavily implied that it was their fault for the raise in prices that he healthy people had to pay. One woman, a known smoker, stated in the meeting “Well, if it’s *just* the healthy people who have to pay more then I must be healthy because my preminum also went up.”

      Also, a wellness plan is generally held to help lower the companies plans, not increase them. And are suggested by the insurance companies as such.

    3. The gold digger

      Huh. So where do I, who exercises five times a week, am not overweight, although I am ten lbs too heavy for my skinny jeans, eats a very healthful diet of good food made from scratch, does not smoke, does not drink, but has prescription drug and neurologist bills in the thousands of dollars every year because of migraine that just won’t go away, fit? I am the person who is making the premiums go up, too.

      My dad, who didn’t smoke, drank a beer or two a week, and exercised to the point that he thought he had pulled a muscle running a 10K when his non-Hodgkins lymphoma made itself known, had medical bills probably close to $100,000 when he died.

      Have any of your co-workers had a premature baby? Do you know how much those cost? Even a healthy pregnancy will yield claims in excess of premiums paid.

      For your company to blame the premium increase on the smokers and the obese is completely irresponsible and unfair. You can do everything right and still get sick. You can be obese or a smoker and not go to the doctor all year.

      1. Jamie

        This is such and excellent point – you illustrated the problem with this slippery slope beautifully.

        As long as health insurance is tied to employment or premiums will be tied to the health issues of our co-workers – and as much as some would like it to be that is not a simple equation of lifestyle choices = health/low premiums.

        It’s more of a spider’s web of inferential statistics and probability distributions. It’s simplistic to think it’s as black and white as smokers/overweight people = bad and thin/non-smokers good.

        What about your thin smoker? Or the overweight vegetarian who took up running. Lost weight, but now sees a physical therapist for a knee injury. What about that woman in your office who looks fabulous, but she’s bulimic hence the increase on your dental premiums and repairing an esophageal lining isn’t cheap either.

        Of course lifestyle choices matter, but unless you want to live in a world of full disclosure where everyone knows everything about everyone from our genetic predispositions to all of our bad habits past and present – I think we just need to be a little less judgmental about those whose flaws are more visible because we don’t know what problems anyone else has under the hood. And we shouldn’t.

        1. Anonymous

          Let me give some of you a crash-course in responsibility. We blame people for doing bad things only when they could have done otherwise. People with genetic defects or who experienced an accident or misfortune are not blamed for premium increases because they could not have done otherwise. Obese people are rightfully blamed for premium increases because they CHOSE to be obese. Big difference.

          1. Ask a Manager

            And people choose to have children, and they choose to engage in high-risk behaviors like sky-diving, and they choose all kinds of things that can result in higher premiums for other people. It doesn’t matter — assign blame however you want, but it’s totally irrelevant because it is not appropriate to harangue a coworker about what she eats. It’s just not.

            We have a health care system that spreads the cost of all kinds of high-risk behavior across a wider pool. That’s the system. Work to change it if you want. But being nasty to individual people within that system isn’t reasonable. It’s also not effective, by the way. It’s just gratuitous nastiness that (a) makes people feel bad, (b) makes the person saying these nasty things look terrible, and (c) rarely if ever leads to any change in behavior.

  20. Cheryl

    Parts of this conversation remind me of the following quote:

    “In Germany they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews,and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Trade Unionists and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me,and by that time no one was left to speak up”.

    Ultimately it comes down to money and who is footing the bill for what they themselves deem unfair. As we are individuals and not carbon copies of one another; it would behoove us all to stand up for the rights of being individuals, so as to not be denigrated for that very individuality.

  21. Judy

    It seems that co worker A is creating a less than productive work environment for co worker B and the other employees hearing this interaction. Management should be made aware of this so that this behavior stops and people get back to what they are paid to do.

    1. Anonymous

      To reiterate a comment from above, Coworker B didn’t have to disclose her medical diagnose/prognosis to her office.

  22. Bohdan Rohbock

    Only acting on things that are ‘your business’ is a good way to allow many horrible things to go unchecked. However, crusader impulses have to be balanced by what benefit the action will actually have (as opposed to the benefit the crusader thinks their actions should have).

    It seems clear the Coworker A’s actions aren’t actually helping. That doesn’t mean she should do nothing but there are almost certainly ways to truly help Coworker B. Heck, many overeating problems are emotionally related, just being a good friend can go a long way.

  23. Ask a Manager Post author

    Okay, an announcement from your moderator here: I’m not interested in hosting a forum where people bash other people for their weight. So I’m asking for an end to that line of argument. You are welcome to hold such views — but I’m not going to host them here because I think this type of thing is gratuitously cruel and has done real harm to people. Let’s move on.

  24. Dawn

    My final thought on this is that if coworker A truly has good intentions and truly wants to help (key words here), I think the right way to go about it would be to offer to take coworker B under her wing, so to speak. She could talk to B privately, express her concerns, and offer to be a resource she can turn to for help. If B turns her down, end of story.

  25. Justin

    Look. Coworker A is a jerk for telling someone that they are fat and should eat a certain way. It’s none of her business.

    HOWEVER, that does not mean that being overweight is healthy. It is not.

    BUT, telling someone they are overweight and that they need to eat a certain way is mean. No question.

    That DOES NOT mean that being overweight is OK. It isn’t.

    YES, it is possible to be thin and unhealthy. It is also possible to be overweight and not have any acute, immediate health issues. That does NOT mean that you should remain overweight, hoping that you will somehow get lucky with your health.

    Being a normal weight and unable to fit into skinny jeans is NOT the same as being medically overweight.

    If you are overweight, it is NOT the media’s fault you feel bad about being overweight.

    Most women aren’t a size 0, and no one really expects you to be, except jerks.

    Not sure why people have such a hard time with these.

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