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A few years back, I was diagnosed with Celiac disease. Though I hate it, I know eating anything containing gluten can land me in the hospital. I take it seriously. However, a few weeks back a coworker brought in some leftover cupcakes from her kid's birthday party. Everyone had one but me. My coworker, let's call her Betty, was very offended and kept telling me one little cupcake can't hurt me. She also told me if I just enjoy myself it won't affect me. I told her my condition is serious and then walked out of the room.

After that she's been sending me emails about how "science" has "proven" that Celiac Disease is basically fake. She will even stop by my desk to ask if I got her email. I try to say as little as possible. She also has been hinting when we talk that I have an eating disorder. She has been telling others that she never sees me eat, etc. I've been trying to eat lunch at my desk just to prove a point.

Things escalated when she invited me to a cookout at her house this weekend. I told her I couldn't go as I had other plans. She then asked multiple times if I can find a way to come. She again claimed I need to eat "like a normal person".

On Friday, I get pulled into the boss's office where she explains that I've been acting rude to Betty and that she has been in tears because of my avoiding her. I explained that I simply cannot eat cupcakes, no matter Betty's beliefs about it. I talked about the emails she sent and shared with my boss that I'm afraid she might try to feed me something I'm allergic to, intentionally or not. I explained that I felt Betty was being unreasonable in a somewhat flippant tone.

My boss was not sympathetic, to say the least. She claimed I'm paranoid and that Betty would never do that and I am creating a hostile work environment. That was when I learned Betty grew up with my boss. They're best friends. And she didn't like that I was calling Betty names (I wasn't). It seemed as though, from the tone of her response, that I might not have a job if I snub Betty's party.

I really hate this, but I simply can't go to the party. I'm unsure how the boss will take this. Sadly, I love my job, but this is insane. How can I keep my job without eating a cupcake?


Update: Huh, this kinda blew up. As I mentioned in the comments, I DID NOT GO TO THE PARTY. Let me explain what just happened today:

Normally, management comes in an hour before I do. Today, I came in 30 minutes early. Another of the boss's friends walked by, I said hello, and she didn't respond. Instead, she sprinted away from me. This was far too curious. Something was up.

I marched to my boss's office. When she noticed me coming in, she hurriedly slammed her laptop shut and asked what I am doing. "We need to talk right now." I said.

I explained that recently I felt it was hard to come to her with things, and I apologized for not coming to her sooner over Betty's conflict. I told her I felt like speaking to her sometimes lit a fuse I didn't intend to light. If there was some way I was communicating with her that seemed combative or disrespectful, I'm sorry and will work to correct it.

Her response was that I need to go home immediately, and she will take care of it tomorrow when she's ready. She explained that she hasn't had time to put all my things in a box yet.

That was when her boss walked by. Let's call him... Saul. Saul was on his way out of the office. He wasn't supposed to be in by the time I normally come to work, but when he saw me, he was visibly confused. Whatever Bosslady was up to, coming in early clearly ruined her plan.

Before Bosslady and Betty, I worked with Saul. He's great. And he knows I can do my job like nobody else. We both have tremendous respect for each other and share the same vision for the company.

He then pulled me into his office and had me wait while he spoke to Bosslady. 15 minutes later, he came in, and promoted me to another department. He also told me to take the rest of the day off, paid, to celebrate the promotion.

The new position is with people who are hard workers like me and very intelligent. I've been wanting to work with them since I started here two years ago. Bosslady manages the department which is mostly a training ground for newcomers. Finally, I graduated out. Not many do.

I did very little, but in the end, everything seems to be working out. I definitely trust that Saul has this handled. Betty sent me an email a few minutes ago saying she was sad to see me go. All I can say is I am not sad at all to get the hell away from her.

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    My Boss Manager? Executive? Owner? Chief Line Chef? Owner vs "manager" has different avenues of response... Just a "manager" and you can go to HR... – WernerCD Mar 4 '18 at 21:40
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    Well that's a happy end :) – Daniel Jour Mar 5 '18 at 20:22
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    I am glad everything ended well, thank's god for Saul. The whole thing seems so surreal. Whenever I say I can't it flower or such because It makes me sick, people says "oh that is too bad" and maybe joke "more for me". I mean it doesn't affect them at all that you can't eat cupcakes. You can still hang out and talk with them. Some people even is nice enough to try and get something else for me. – Dzyann Mar 5 '18 at 20:36
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    That was unexpected, but congrats to your promotion and happy ending to this :) – Karl-Johan Sjögren Mar 5 '18 at 21:13
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    @DanielJour Now if only Betty and boss could get reprimanded, it would be even happier. Seriously, harassing the OP over their medical condition, spreading rumors about OP having eating disorders, and then running crying to the boss about it and nearly getting the OP fired? This is all beyond the pale; these two represent a very real legal risk to the company. Bare minimum, they need to be in separate departments due to conflict of interest. But I don't think OP can do much to bring that about. OP is extremely lucky to get this outcome. – jpmc26 Mar 6 '18 at 1:20

11 Answers 11

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Don't bother going to the event. It won't help. Save the emails from Betty, probably by printing them out and storing them at your house. This sounds like workplace harrasment and if you're fired over it, contact an attorney.

Be courteous and professional, but don't eat the cupcakes.

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    It might, but that seems like such an extreme escalation that you should really have legal counsel examine the situation should it come to that. – Glen Pierce Mar 4 '18 at 3:04
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    @AndreaLazzarotto - email printouts aren't worthless. If you show someone a printout and the person denies their veracity in court (or are shown to have deleted the original emails) they'll probably go to jail for perjury or perverting the course of justice. Anyone sensible would agree that they're real for fear of the consequences of lying vastly outweighing the benefit of lying. – Richard Mar 4 '18 at 18:03
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    @AndreaLazzarotto - In UK law email printouts are admissable. Per the Criminal Evidence Act - "In any criminal proceedings where direct oral evidence of a fact would be admissible, any statement contained in a document and tending to establish that fact shall, on production of the document, be admissible as evidence of that fact if ... the document is, or forms part of, a record relating to any trade or business". This explicitly includes printouts although their veracity can be questioned under cross-examination. – Richard Mar 4 '18 at 18:10
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    @AndreaLazzarotto - You're close. They're equal to any business document unless they're contested in which case both sides will have equal access to any supporting forensic evidence. But contesting them in civil court when they're known to be accurate carries its own risk of being held accountable for the accrued costs. Similarly, If I demand forensic level evidence that the email I sent is real in a criminal trial, the judge will take a very dim view and may direct the jury accordingly. – Richard Mar 4 '18 at 18:39
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    "... probably by printing them out ..." - I'd recommend printing them with the e-mail headers, that would help forensics if it ever comes to that. Also, I'd suggest keeping a log of all interactions related to this situation (with proof where applicable). If this escalates further, such documentation could be of great help. – marcelm Mar 5 '18 at 0:28
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Do not defend your illness or try to prove it in any way.

You are in no way obliged to eat whatever a coworker offers to you - illness or no illness. And you certainly have completely no work obligation to humour a colleague, especially over something serious like diet.

Defending and trying to prove your illness will only get you in a "shouting match", where the people that already don't believe you will shout harder that you are not sick and you will have to shout even harder that you are - that's completely pointless. If a person is not willing to accept what you are trying to tell them from the start they never will.

Currently you ARE being harassed and that is unacceptable. You must go to HR and report Betty at once, providing the emails as evidence.
Now, in your case you have a problem - your boss doesn't believe you, which means she is biased and not a good boss. The reality of your situation is as follows:

Your work environment is toxic. Your boss isn't doing her job properly by ensuring you are separated from personal drama in your workplace AND by ensuring you can report any complaints to her, which means HR probably won't help, either. I'd suggest changing your job, as these are seriously bad signs. However I'm willing to bet you don't want to change it or can't, in which case, sorry, but the drama will continue for some time until Betty gets over it, which depending on personality might be years.
And, no, eating a cupcake or yielding will not make it better, only worse. So stand tall and endure.

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    I almost always recommend avoiding involving HR at all costs and handling things at the lowest level, but I have to agree here. @invot has done all they can and it is time to involve HR – Kevin Mar 5 '18 at 2:11
  • HR does not really exist in my company. – invot Mar 5 '18 at 15:58
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    @invot, that's a bad sign but I understand the situation and the company. Still, it seems you had a tremendous stike of luck, now that I saw your update - congratulations, I am happy for you! :) – mathgenius Mar 5 '18 at 17:37
  • "Don't try to prove it" is generally fine advice to dealing with irrational people of all sorts, but in this particular case, I think a simple statement like "I appreciate your advice, but I've decided to follow my Doctor's orders on this. Feel free to send your information to him/her if you'd like." wouldn't be out of place. – Lee Daniel Crocker Mar 5 '18 at 21:51
  • I'd like to point out that, indeed, eating the cupcake will make it much worse, because OP would have at the very least ended up in the hospital. – Fund Monica's Lawsuit Mar 6 '18 at 1:21
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First, improve the paper trail. The emails you have from Betty are great, but if you get fired for a different made-up reason, those emails may not be enough to prove that your boss was in on the harassment. In fact, your boss may even deny that you ever spoke to her about this topic.

Email your boss. Say something like:

"Dear [boss],

Following our conversation last [Wednesday]:

I understand that many people claim to have a gluten allergy, even when they haven't been tested for it. That being said, 1% of the American population do have Celiac disease for sure and unfortunately, I am part of that 1%.

Not only have I been feeling those symptoms, but I also know this isn't just my imagination as I've been tested for it and I've tested positive (unlike so many others who claim the same allergy), and I can bring a doctor's note if needed.

Please speak to Betty on my behalf. I do not wish to upset her. I am willing to cancel my plans and attend her cookout if she's willing to let go of this issue of trying to convert me to her non-gluten-free diet and if I am allowed to bring my own homemade gluten-free dish to the cookout, enough to share with everyone.

Your help in mediating this issue without hurting Betty's feelings would be greatly appreciated. Thank you. Let me know what she says.

Invot"

And before everyone criticizes this response. Yes, I do realize that Invot doesn't need to be this nice about it, nor does she/he need to prove anything. And I also do realize that the job is probably not worth keeping either.

But I drafted this email specifically because she/he wants to keep the job. Plus, it doesn't hurt to get the conversation documented somewhere should the worst happen. Speaking of which, like someone else said already, forward those emails and any document proving your case to home email address. And for the cookout, see if you can bring a date. A date could be your witness. A date can also pull you out of the cookout early.

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    Why does the disease even matter here? Harassment is harassment. Also, for the email, I'd suggest: (1) adding some form of the word "harassment" in a very visible manner - accusation of harassment tends to get taken more seriously, (2) actually detailing what Betty did wrong and what you'd like her to stop and (3) possibly get HR involved (since the manager doesn't seem to be on OP's side). – Dukeling Mar 4 '18 at 12:11
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    @Dukeling, It doesn't. I'm just using the diagnosis of the disease as an excuse to restart the earlier conversation and record the interaction in email form. If none of that works, I would follow up with the email you suggest. It's also important not to escalate too early. The boss claimed the OP called Betty a name. The boss will continue with that false accusation if the email starts talking about "harassment" right away. – Stephan Branczyk Mar 4 '18 at 13:11
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    Well, at the moment the email focuses entirely on the disease and might make it seem like OP is the one that's to blame here by not having explained themselves well enough, instead of focusing on Betty's wildly inappropriate behaviour. This also encourages her behaviour by allowing the conversation to continue around the disease, instead of just shutting it down with an "it's none of your business and you're making me uncomfortable", which has been the problem up to this point. I'm not sure how much that would help the paper trail. – Dukeling Mar 4 '18 at 13:58
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    This is the mature, sensible response, firm yet de-escalating. – DJClayworth Mar 4 '18 at 14:22
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    The letter should also mention that when you talked to your boss about being harassed by Betty, you felt the boss was taking Betty's side without taking your legitimate medical issues into consideration. At this point, as people have said, you should be explicitly creating as clear of a paper trail as possible so that you can convince HR that they best protect the company's interests by protecting you rather than Betty and your boss. (In your state it may also be legal for you to record further conversations with Betty.) – arp Mar 4 '18 at 21:18
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The best thing would be to call your GP when your boss is nearby, and have him or her talk to your boss, so she is told by a medical professional what kind of irresponsible idiot she is. (If I had to talk to her, I wouldn't use polite words like "irresponsible idiot", but something let's say more robust).

Or show her some websites like celiac.org or nhs.uk.

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    I am not so sure those websites would help because "science" has "proven" that the disease is fake. – Masked Man Mar 4 '18 at 2:26
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    If that does not work, it may take a formal doctor's note indicating the OP has a disability and a reasonable accommodation would be to not require the OP to eat foods containing gluten. – Patricia Shanahan Mar 4 '18 at 2:26
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    After more thought, I suggest not showing the websites. Doing so implicitly accepts the idea that the OP's boss has some role in evaluating the OP's medical condition and any diet limitations it requires. – Patricia Shanahan Mar 4 '18 at 5:23
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    No, the boss does not need to talk to OP's doctor. The fact that OP has a serious disease actually doesn't matter. OP should be able to decline a cupcake or a party, with or without a reason, without feeling like their job is in danger. If it doesn't affect their job performance, OP's medical condition is really none of their boss' business. – Seth R Mar 4 '18 at 21:21
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"Betty is strange in many ways. I believe the boss gave her a job out of sympathy."

This is the key to the inordinate violence of the reaction to your claim that you suffer from Celiac Disease.

When your Bosslady and Betty were growing up together, they developed a complex relationship that includes the idea that Betty suffers from a tragic flaw (or flaws) that prevents her from having a normal life without Bosslady to support her. This flaw probably has never been documented, and probably is total nonsense, but it is the sine qua non of their friendship.

Bosslady's devotion to her poor tragic broken friend includes giving her a job that they both think Betty doesn't deserve, and Betty's whole life and livelihood revolve around her being the one who needs help and support because of her unfortunate condition.

Now you come along and announce that you, too, suffer from a tragic affliction that interferes with your life and requires accomodation from those around you.

This cannot be allowed! You can't have a problem -- that's Betty's role in your little daytime drama. You can't expect accommodation -- Betty needs all the accommodation. Bosslady can't support you -- she is entirely consumed in supporting Betty.

If you want to keep your job, forget about your Celiac Disease. Don't talk about it, keep it a secret, pretend you don't have it. Just leave the baked foods on your plate and try to deflect attention from it.

Bonus points: In light of this insight, consider Betty's sundry strangenesses as ploys to engender sympathy. Try to find out how Betty defines her handicap and make a big fuss over it.

Also, as others have said, document all interactions, in case you do get fired.

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    @A.I.Breveleri It might be good to note that this is a speculative hypothesis; whilst this seems convincing, you don't have enough evidence to rule out certain others. – wizzwizz4 Mar 4 '18 at 17:22
  • @wizzwizz4 This answer attempts a scientific approach. It proposes a hypothesis that is simple, is not falsified by experiments and that allows to predict some effects. It doesn't need any "evidence to rule out certain others", this is a Q&A site, not a court session. – kubanczyk Mar 4 '18 at 17:57
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    @kubanczyk The answerer missed out the step where you gather more evidence and see if your theory was correct in its predictions. – wizzwizz4 Mar 4 '18 at 18:00
  • @wizzwizz4 OP's job obviously. We don't know Betty. – kubanczyk Mar 4 '18 at 18:03
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I can sympathise - coeliac sufferers tend to deal with the pain they face silently, so people observing the sufferer tend to think along the lines of "there's nothing wrong with them, so they just need to eat like normal people".

This appears to be a deliberate misunderstanding. These are well-meaning people, except they've got an idea in their heads that you're avoiding their food in order to cause insult to them.

The key is to write a letter to Betty and your boss. Explain the disease, when you were first diagnosed with it, and your symptoms.

Talk about the effects on you if you do eat gluten, and how long the effects persist for.

Outline everything you've tried in order to help deal with it: the doctors you've talked to, the scans you've had, the courses of treatment you've tried, and the supplements you take. This is to show them that you would rather not have coeliac disease, and you've tried hard to 'cure' it.

Express your dismay that you were unable to eat the delicious-looking cupcakes that Betty baked, as the consequences of eating them would be too severe.

Compare coeliac disease to an egg allergy: if someone was badly allergic to eggs, would people say "come on, eat this egg - you need to eat like a normal person"?

Make it clear that you will not be eating any gluten, that you'd rather not have to choose to avoid it, and that it's not intended to cause any offense.

Present this letter to Betty, and your boss, and see how they react to it.

If they become slightly more understanding, that's good! It's a sign of progress, and over time they might be prepared to adjust their mindsets even more.

If the letter has no effect or makes it worse, start looking for another job - the harassment will only get worse, as people with good intentions and a total lack of understanding start sneaking gluten into your food to show you that "see? it's good for you" or the like.

Above all, look after yourself - constant pain is mentally taxing enough already, and it's made a lot worse when people refuse to acknowledge it and actively oppose it.

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A supplement to the good answers we have already. There seems to be a fashion at present for avoiding gluten, amongst people who do not have Celiac disease. However, participants in this fashion think or claim that not having gluten makes them feel better, in the usual way of food fads.

If your boss and Betty know of this fad, and are unaware of the real Celiac disease, their reactions make a lot more sense. So politely making sure they're aware that it's a real medical condition, quite separate from the fad, gives them a chance to climb down if they've been unaware of it.

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    Betty had evidence in the form of emails that show "science" has "proven" the disease is fake. Since it is written record, it must be true. I am not sure how the OP can make them any more aware of the "real" disease. Anyway, you are making a huge assumption that dimwitted people like Betty will listen to reason. People who make such a huge deal out of a cupcake don't care if your disease is real or not. The whole world has to revolve around them, they won't have it any other way. – Masked Man Mar 4 '18 at 18:14
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    This fad has been a mixed blessing for my sister, who has Celiac disease. At least now people know what gluten is, but they're less likely to treat it like an allergy (thoroughly clean all utensils etc.) and more likely to think of it as a dietary preference. Regardless, even if OP was gluten-free through choice, the coworkers' response is unacceptable. Consider a vegetarian being put through the same treatment. – Mikkel Mar 4 '18 at 18:22
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Write an e-mail to your co-worker and your boss explaining your situation and how you feel they don't take your concerns seriously.

Do not put any accusations into that e-mail. If they don't respond with emails, make sure there are neutral witnesses to the conversation. Again, do not blame them.

You'll have two possible outcomes. Either you dissolve a “misunderstanding“ and can hopefully go back to work with only a bitter flavor left or you have definitive proof that they are harassing your which you can then take to someone higher up. Or an attorney if that doesn't work.

To help your case, try not to bring any accusations into the confrontation. Play naive and make every word and action based on the most positive understanding of anything they do. Assume they mean only well all the time until proven wrong with evidence that others can see. (In reasonable boundaries, while going to the party and leaving in an ambulance would help your case, I'm not suggesting actually trusting them, but everything short of risking your health)

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It depends how big your company is. If the boss is owner/ceo/top dog and it’s a relatively small company there’s not much you can do. If it’s a larger one you can always go above their head to their line manager.

Remember to note times and dates of when you spoke to your boss and what was said, what you said. Keep all evidence then present it.

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I find in these situations it's beneficial to go to the extreme in being professional in all interactions.

This is a job. Everything you do there should relate to the job, and if it's unclear then ask for clarification.

Document everything. Every interaction, every email, every meeting. Send meeting notes, even if it's a hallway conversation, and include all affected parties.

If the meeting appears to be an interpersonal meeting, CC someone from HR, your supervisor/boss, and perhaps a third party if previous meetings similar to this one have identified the need for an objective observer.

Make sure they understand your job role as you understand it, and that they have opportunity to notify you of new responsibilities if they feel you aren't meeting their standards.

Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to explain your diet or medical needs any further. They have no valid business reason to know unless they are planning meetings involving food that require your attendance. In such cases inform HR of your dietary requirements, labeling requirements, and when asked tell your boss or co-workers to discuss dietary needs for all involved in the meeting with HR. HR should be a clearing house of such information, and need never reveal who has what requirements, simply providing necessary information so that the company doesn't become liable for injuring its workers.

The rest of the question, however, is largely an interpersonal one, and might be better suited for the Interpersonal Skills Stack Exchange briefly, though, I suggest you maintain a high degree of separation between personal and work information, and design boundaries that prevent this problem from continuing.

When a co-worker provides information attempting to influence your personal medical decisions, a simple reply should make sure they understand you have no need of their help or continued interest.

I appreciate your desire to help me. Please understand I'm following my doctor's plan for my personal healthcare, and do not need further assistance.

If they persist:

Please do not contact me any further about my personal healthcare.

And, perhaps as a last resort:

I do not understand why you keep emailing me about my personal healthcare when I've asked you to stop. I'm copying this email to our HR representative and I'd appreciate a meeting between the three of us so we can understand workplace boundaries regarding personal healthcare.

Again, making sure you professional in these interactions means CC'ing others who may need to know about this harassment.

Setting boundaries, limiting discussion to workplace issues, and clarifying whether a party or any other gathering is a job requirement should help reduce the occurrences of these issues. It probably won't make you friends with either of these two people you are having difficulties with, but as long as you do you job, log negative interactions, and act professionally in all things it will be hard for them to find fault in a way that makes you easy to fire.

All that said, you're in a toxic work environment, and you should consider finding a job which better meets your needs.

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First of all I'd advise to get some support. Maybe some kind of personal coach to help you develop a standing and argumentation on that matter. I guess it would really be worth the investment to talk about that with a pro.

Second, I wonder what would happen if you invite Betty to some gluten-free cooking/eating. Rice, vegetables, chicken something.

Maybe there even is a restaurant in your town specialized in gluten-free meals?

  • Fantastic idea as it clearly shows the OP eats etc and is a kind gesture. Unfortunately it sounds like the OP's colleague isn't the most rational so I'd still Glen's advice as well. – Notts90 Mar 4 '18 at 8:03
  • @Notts90 - I upvoted Glen's answer too. But it was not answering how to not lose the job in the first place. – leymannx Mar 4 '18 at 8:29
  • That’s why I upvoted both 🙂 – Notts90 Mar 4 '18 at 8:30

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