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At my husband's work his team does a lot of team building events. Recently, one such event (on the clock during normal work hours) involved carpooling to an Asian restaurant to learn how to make sushi.

This got me wondering how I would handle such a situation, if I had been on that team, since I suffer from some food allergies, and would likely experience headaches from the airborne allergens if I attended, or worse symptoms if I ate anything that was cooked on cross-contaminated equipment.

How should one respond to such a situation?

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I have had no problem with simply not eating the stuff that I'm sensitive to or which I feared cross contamination. I don't have a fix for airborne allergens, though. –  Loren Pechtel Feb 25 at 5:03
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See also answers to this similar question: judaism.stackexchange.com/q/8794 –  3.1415926535897932384626433... Feb 25 at 22:42

4 Answers 4

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In a perfect world, a smart event planner will nose around and get some help figuring out any serious limitations for the core team, especially for a smaller group event. Often a "we're planning an outing, does anyone have any serious issues?" mail will go around. As a boss who loves planning events, when I have smaller teams, I often make it my subtle business to know if I have any serious food restraints as food is specifically a good bonding experience, but also a place rife with difficulties between allergies, health concerns, morale/religious/political concerns, and simple "I just hate that" food preferences. The last thing anyone really wants to do is alienate people when the goal is bringing people together.

That said - nothing is perfect. It's so easy to miss something.

If you are a part of the specific team being invited, it's nice to give very, very early notice to the planner. If possible, have an alternate strategy in mind - for example, a vegetarian or someone who has only contact allergies may be able to get a meal/experience that is safe for them with some advanced planning. But with an airborne allergy, I realize it can be a make it or break it. Express your desire to participate (if that's true), but don't be hurt if they can't accommodate you.

If you're an add-on guest (part of a secondary team, or a significant other at a function) - you may just want to politely withdraw unless it's really easy to figure out a workaround. In this case, the event is not centered around your team, so the ability to fit in everyone will probably take a lesser place.

In practice, the ability to work with everyone's limitations isn't always possible. I've honestly planned events for teams where I simply knew that there was no way everyone would be happy or able to attend. Get a large enough team, and it will happen. For the most part it is true that when multiple issues are conflicting, priority will be given to those concerns that pose the most threat to the individual - life threatening allergies over very seriously held moral convictions for example. Sometimes the event crew can be clever enough to plan a 2-3 part event, for example, sushi making, plus an outdoor game, plus a beer after the game (somewhere far away from the fish!) - it means that while not everyone gets to do everything, there's a way for everyone to take part in something.

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I'm a long-time vegetarian with relatively recent gluten intolerance so I have some experience of this.

The first thing to do is be open about it. With allergies it's relatively easy, as few people will argue with them.

With other things, it is IME easier if you have a public reason, but almost always I've been able to get acceptance from my workplace. But public reason I mean "I'm Jewish, that's not kosher" or "I'm an environmentalist, I don't eat meat". Some people prefer not to say why (some religious people, people with emotional reasons "I don't eat cute things") or just don't want to deal with the inevitable disparagement that comes with the reasons. Some people will take issue with either your actions or your beliefs.

Unfortunately if you don't give reasons some people will just ignore your preference or keep badgering at you to find out why, exactly, you don't do or eat whatever it is. I've found that just firmly repeating "none of your business" works, or you can be more polite if you like.

The second level is to approach management of the organisers directly. This is more a formal complaint action, where you should prepare a clear description of the events, the problem, and what resolution you would like. Be ready for them to go away and check your facts. The times I've done this have been as a result of serious stupidity (a mandatory company event in a remote area where I would literally have nothing to eat for two days, as we were forbidden to bring our own food), and that was resolved very quickly by the company owner (suitable food was provided).

For less serious stuff, I often switch to publicly telling everyone who asks that I can't go because there's no food I can eat. This sometimes fixes the problem through embarrassing the organisers, other times people just accept it. With difficulty at times.

Very rarely I find myself forced to attend something where there's nothing I can eat. In which case I just accept it. I went to the first Xmas dinner at my new job despite not being able to eat, because it was important to management. I ended up having a 10 minute discussion with the boss's wife who was very keen to have the chef make something for me, but eventually I talked them out of it. That was unpleasant, but such is life. I doubt I'll attend another one of those, because it turns out that the manager who was most emphatic that I had to go is full of it and I could probably have got away with not going.

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"Unfortunately if you don't give reasons some people will just ignore your preference or keep badgering at you to find out why, exactly, you don't do or eat whatever it is. I've found that just firmly repeating "none of your business" works, or you can be more polite if you like." Problem is, do that and you're marked as 'doesn't want to be part of the team' which means you're the next one out when there's layoffs, and even if not it will hurt your next performance review and thus your chances of promotion or a raise. –  jwenting Feb 25 at 9:28
    
Of course, but in those companies there are normally HR people who are willing to explain to everyone that badgering people about their religious beliefs is unacceptable. Or you can just "take one for the team", if it's that important to you. –  Mσᶎ Feb 25 at 21:05
    
OTOH, one company I worked for had Christian, Jewish, Hindi and Muslim employees but regularly provided morning teas that didn't meet any of the dietary requirements of those people (or others like me). The one outside event they held was at a pub so the smokers who ran the company could smoke at it. Sometimes you just have to accept that "team building" events are about making the boss feel good. As Meryn Cadell said "I like a good work atmosphere where the boss says whatever he wants and the rest of us just listen". –  Mσᶎ Feb 25 at 21:18

One should either notify the person putting together the event or their manager with any special dietary restrictions. Some allergies can be rather extreme in terms of reactions so it is worth notifying those in charge to see what accommodations could be made. Similarly, if one has changes due to religious diet restrictions, lifestyle choices,e.g. vegetarian, or various other medical conditions it can be worth making sure the employer is aware of what conditions there are.

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Offer to let someone else go in your place who would be held back due to their duties or workload, and then ask someone to live stream the event for you through a Google Hangout or Skype call. One way to participate in team building is by sacrificing yourself for others. Feel free to mention your allergies, but highlight the fact that you're willing to fill in so that others may attend.

I worked as an intern in the Operations department at a company where I was doing some programming, as well as other tasks. My job didn't involve dealing with customers. However, the company had their annual summer picnic, and since we were interns, they asked us to watch the customer service phones so the regular, full time staff could all attend. After 5pm, we were then allowed to go meet the rest of the company at an after-party. Most of the customer service calls were forwarded to a voicemail, but if someone had an emergency, the calls were forwarded to us. In short, it was pretty quiet, so we just hung out and browsed the Web while we got paid.

You're not an intern, but there may be other people who would love the opportunity to attend this team building event who do not suffer from some of these allergies. Also, attending remotely gives your team the opportunity to explore the idea of sharing experiences through new technologies. In short, don't spin this as a negative or make people feel bad for you. Turn it into a positive experience.

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