76

TL;DR: I want to work in a company with a strict no-eating-in-office policy. How can I ask about it during an interview?

Background: Western Europe, software engineering, ~2 years experience.

I have a problem with other people eating near me when I try to focus on my work. I am not talking about extreme cases of coarse behavior, I am talking about otherwise well-behaving people who eat while working at their desk. The problem is - however hard you try, eating things like potato chips, nuts, or apples emits sound and is distracting to other people sitting around you. Noise-cancelling headphones won't help and even if they did, the problem of smell would still remain help to some extent, but (1) they do not block all sound - you still hear people sufficiently close to you, (2) wearing them for a long period is not comfortable (edit).

Most people seem to subscribe to an opinion that while eating lunch and leaving stinking garbage in a shared office is indeed problematic, eating small snacks is acceptable. My problem is that I disagree with that and in principle find eating in a shared office distracting and disrespectful. I try to be considerate towards others and I have never done that - when I want to eat something, I always leave my office. I would be grateful if my colleagues did the same.

I have seen numerous questions about eating. I am already at the point where I tried to solve that at my current company but this failed. The norm in my company is that people do eat at their desks and as far I know, I am the only person having problem with that. Hence, when I brought up the problem with my colleagues, the response was that asking them to eat outside is not a reasonable request.

Having had my bad experiences, I am interested in preventing this from happening in the future. I am now in the process of applying to different jobs (not only because of the problem I am describing here, but it's definitely one of the reasons why I want to leave). Unfortunately, given my situation I am not valuable enough to be offered a private office, where I won't waste time on problems like that. I will probably work in a shared office with another 1-3 people.

How can I find out what is a specific company policy on eating? Isn't it a strange question to ask during an interview? How much of the story should I share? Should I mention my bad experience at previous workplace and that this is one of the reasons to leave? I do not want to appear as a person who 'causes problems' and has 'special needs' even before getting on offer and 'day 1'. On the other side, I don't want to get into the same situation again.

I don't think I am inflexible and intolerant in general, but when I hear slurping behind my back while I try to be productive, this really drives me to the point of writing this question here.


EDIT

I know I can look for a 100% remote job. This is certainly an option but also comes at some cost. I enjoy the fact that I can have normal in-person meetings or that I can have lunch with my colleagues. Contrary to what many of you imply here, I do not have a problem with the existence of other people in a workplace in general. That's why I consider office-based jobs. If I could find one with a culture/policies that fits me, I would be happy. I think many of you do the same. What is special here is that I recognize that its an unusual need and I don't know how to approach this during or before an interview. If I have a problem with myself, as many of you write, then its a problem with communication -- I do not know how to get information I need and this is where I seek help. I would like to thank all of you who responded to this question in this vein and provided some specific advice.

If finding such a job fails and it turns out the only option is to work from home, then fine, I can accept such an outcome. While I understand why you would not like such policy and would not like to have me as your colleague, I do not get why this question receives downvotes, close votes and negative comments.

  • 2
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Dec 31 '18 at 23:31
  • 50
    Bear in mind that a company probably cannot entirely stop eating at desks (outside of a lab where there would be a safety issue), since even with a rule against it they would be obliged (under disability discrimination laws) to make an exception for people with various medical conditions (e.g. type 1 diabetes) that might force them to suddenly need to eat without the ability to walk a long way to do so. – meta Jan 1 at 11:36
  • 2
    Today's Dilbert reminded me of this quesiton. – Barmar Jan 6 at 20:06
  • Is this not an XY problem? For example, how would you cope with someone who slurps their coffee (even if not egregiously), has a chronic cough, taps their desk when waiting for something, hammers the keys on their keyboard, ...? Why are you singling out food and not other things that can be equally distracting (noisewise)? For example, with the slurping of coffee, if you're expecting to work in an office where people can't drink coffee at their desk, I consider your odds of finding one astronomically low. – Flater Jan 8 at 8:05
  • 1
    Dude, you need to relax a little. Let me eat my Mars and be done with it. – kiltek Jan 8 at 14:02

18 Answers 18

144

So the first question is whether or not this is a drop-dead requirement. Are you willing to simply discard any job that does not offer this out of hand? How will you handle it if there are no potential openings that offer a sufficiently strict no-eating policy?

This is an unusual personal hangup. You can tell it's an unusual personal hangup because no one else at your company has it. That means that companies with this sort of policy are going to be rare, and possibly nonexistent. You're going to have to build your expectations around that.

If you are willing to say that you simply don't wish to work at any company that lacks this feature, under any circumstances, then it simplifies. You can ask it in a clear and straightforward way at the interview. Acknowledge the hangup, recognize it as a thing that you personally require in order to function productively, express a desire to function productively, and ask if the no-food policy is sufficiently strict. This will likely cause any company without such a policy to reject you out of hand, but if you didn't want them anyway, then that's okay. Companies who have a sufficiently strict policy will likely appreciate it, for various reasons, if you can present it in a professional enough manner. (It makes you a better fit with their corporate culture, it indicates that you know what you need and are willing to be honest about it, and so forth.)

If you are not willing to let this be a drop-dead deal-killer, then your options are much more constrained. You can ask about office policies in general, but even that can get a bit awkward, if you can't provide explanation for exactly why you care. You might be better off working from the other direction. Start by looking at large corporations that might have draconian office policies by default. Attempt to figure out if any of them have sufficiently strict policies in this area just by asking around, prior to applying for any jobs at all. Then apply to the ones that look promising. You won't have to sabotage potential offers by asking during the interview because you won't even be talking with the same people (most likely).

There are a few additional options you can pursue, though, that might help. The trick is to figure out what would solve your problem without requiring this specific, draconian policy. You've established that a room of your own with a closing door would be sufficient. As such, it is not the idea that people might be eating that troubles you, but the fact that they're eating next to you. There are options here.

  • There may be a company that has a skeleton shift at night. If you were willing to work such a shift, the likelihood that you'd be working next to someone who is eating at the time goes down simply because there are far fewer people. Also, willingness to work the night shift is the sort of thing that can get you some flexibility on your oddities.

  • As others have noted, Work From Home is a thing in many corporations, and wanting it is normal enough that you won't be thought of oddly for asking. If you can successfully work from home, then that could be an option for you.

  • Simply having flexible locations so that you can pick up and move while people are eating can be sufficient. I currently work in a business where all employee computers are laptops. We have desks, but are permitted to work wherever, as long as the room is available. Such things are not amazingly common, but they're likely easier to find than draconian food policies.

Finally, you might consider working things from the other direction, and trying to moderate the effects on you. I know at least one person who has a similar issue, and in her case it is heavily driven by stress and general annoyance. The more stressed and annoyed she is, the more she notices and is bothered by such things (which in turn adds to the stress and annoyance). Obviously, there's no way to ensure that your'e never stressed or annoyed, but understanding why these things bother you so much more than everyone else might help you get to a point where they'd bother you less, which in turn might make it more tolerable to go to work if you cannot manage to solve the problem in other ways (...or if you only manage a partial solution - there are a number of workplaces that offer work-from-home X days per week, but require that you be in the office the other days, for example).

  • 7
    Thank you Ben, that's a helpful advice. Working on laptops in different rooms at a company would be great. Obviously, my colleagues are not eating all the time, so such a setup would make my work life better without letting anyone know what I think about them eating in the office – stopeating Jan 1 at 11:57
  • 7
    "Start by looking at large corporations that might have draconian office policies by default" Good advice. Websites like GlassDoor will likely attract complaints from current workers about said policies which may help direct you to the right places. – FreeMan Jan 3 at 15:56
  • 6
    Re "There may be a company that has a skeleton shift at night" - I noticed that out of standard office hours the behaviour gets more relaxed. Especially with no standard "lunch time", people eat when/where convenient. Night shift could have the wrong result here. – viraptor Jan 3 at 22:31
  • 2
    @viraptor depends on how many people there are stretched across how much space. The point of the night shift is that if it's thin enough on the ground you may be able to have a separated enough space that it doesn't matter anymore. – Ben Barden Jan 3 at 22:34
221

This might be a good reason to consider remote work - that way you won't have to deal with other people working beside you.

You say you don't want to appear to be the person who "causes problems", but that's exactly what you are. Really, you should work on your ability to tolerate other people living around you in a workspace.

  • 96
    ...tolerate other people living around you in a workspace - This probably means more than anything. A big part of working within certain departments is being able to work with other people. An unwillingness to tolerate co-workers may show an inability to adapt or work with a team. This, obviously, could be seen a cause for more problems. – Symon Dec 31 '18 at 16:46
  • 16
    Certainly one should be more tolerant, if one can. If one cannot, then one cannot. The hard part is knowing when you can change and when you can’t. Not all personality traits and/or phobias are changeable. – Alex Jan 1 at 12:28
  • 24
    My intention was to (1) learn if there exist companies with a policy/culture against eating at offices, (2) ask what is the 'proper' way to find out if a potential employer is such a company. This answer (and some other comments) is not helpful at all. I know I can apply for 100% remote positions. This is not what the question was about. – stopeating Jan 1 at 12:30
  • 32
    @RosieF are you absolutely sure that it is "reasonable" to prevent people from having a snack at their desk? An apple or peanuts being the examples given, and noise cancelling headphones do not help? It doesn't seem reasonable to me. Besides, remote work absolutely would address the problem in a decisive manner - no co-workers on-site, no problem. – user1666620 Jan 2 at 9:26
  • 20
    does @stopeating have a problem with people talking at their desks, phones ringing, keyboard clattering, sneezing, coughing, paper crunching as it is wadded up to be thrown away? These are all much more common noises than eating at the desk and can be much more disruptive. This is actually a solid answer – NKCampbell Jan 2 at 18:09
128

I think rather than trying to find out what the eating policy is, you need to find a way to work around this. I don't believe I have ever worked in an office where eating at your desk is prohibited (with the exception of certain foods due to allergies).

There are plenty of ways to block sounds such as ear plugs or headphones. Hearing people chew or crunch potato chips isn't really that different from hearing someone typing beside you, or hearing light conversation from time to time. In an open office setting, these are just the things you need to learn to live with. If there is concern about food smells, you could probably approach the individual and tell them you are sensitive to the smell, but that's about it. This is really an opportunity for you to grow IMO. There are somethings that are worth fighting for and worth leaving a job over. I don't really see this as one of them. There will almost always be noises in an office setting that someone will not like and most of the time, it is your job to figure out how to mitigate the effect this will have on you. Some people in the comments suggested remote working, depending on your field, this may or may not be a viable option.

I would highly recommend that you do not bring this up in an interview. If I was the one interviewing you, I would think that you are very high maintenance and move on. My exact thought would be "If that bugs them, what other problems will I have after hiring"

  • 7
    Well, sounds of typing on a keyboard or work-related conversations are different than sound of eating. The reason is - offices are made for people to go there and work (in this case that is to type on keyboard and also to talk). This is perfectly natural, normal and unavoidable, even if I had problems with that (I don't). Eating at your desk is a different story. I don't have problems with people eating in places designed for this purpose (e.g., kitchen/cafeteria which I have at my company, probably forgot to add). In any case, that's a direct response to my question, so thank you! – stopeating Dec 31 '18 at 17:17
  • 45
    "Hearing people chew or crunch potato chips isn't really that different from hearing someone typing beside you, or hearing light conversation from time to time." For you, perhaps. For me and the OP... it's worse than nails on a chalkboard (which I personally don't mind at all). The larger point is well made. Everyone has different things they are sensitive to when working or living near others, but we generally have to deal with those things ourselves rather than try to change the rest of the world. – Todd Wilcox Dec 31 '18 at 18:56
  • 20
  • 1
    Re "Hearing people chew or crunch potato chips isn't really that different from hearing someone typing": I disagree. The sound of eating of carrots is particularly irritating. – Peter Mortensen Jan 2 at 1:04
  • 1
    This answer fails to address the problem for the OP, who has already pointed out that "noise-cancelling headphones won't help and even if they did, the problem of smell would still remain". – Rosie F Jan 2 at 7:02
61

There is no way to bring this up on an interview without throwing a red flag large enough to be seen from space.

The best thing to do is to target companies you want to apply to, find current employees, network with them and ask them about various policies, what it's like to work there, if there is a cafeteria or break room where people eat, et cetera. You should be doing this anyway to make sure you match the culture.

Do not EVER ask about this on an interview because it says that you are a potential problem employee.

  • 17
    Actually if this is a red line that the OP cannot cross, then asking the question will be beneficial - if the company has no such policy then the OP won’t want to work there; if it does then his question will seem valid. – Steve Ives Dec 31 '18 at 17:48
  • 16
    @SteveIves It would be bad even if there is a policy in place, as it says "problem" in big bold red lettering, ten feet high and flashing. – Retired Codger Dec 31 '18 at 17:58
  • 4
    If there's a cafeteria, it's probably not a good sign for the OP... it honestly just makes it even easier to grab something and bring it back to your desk. – user3067860 Dec 31 '18 at 18:58
  • 21
    Is "What's your policy on eating and drinking at our desks?" really that much of a red flag to you? The OP can ask the question without going into detail about why they want to know. – IllusiveBrian Dec 31 '18 at 21:21
  • 2
    @IllusiveBrian Getting the answer the OP wants would be, since they're probably going to need to do some digging to find out if it's "sufficiently strict". – user3067860 Jan 2 at 15:02
47

What you are describing sounds similar to a condition called Misophonia:

Proponents suggest misophonia can adversely affect the ability to achieve life goals and to enjoy social situations. As of 2018 there were no evidence-based methods to manage the condition. Management generally consists of helping the person develop coping strategies; cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy have also been used.

I also suffer from the same discomforts at work. In addition to noise from eating, I also have severe allergies that makes me very sensitive to odors. This all contributes to making me less productive at work.

The ugly truths are:

  • As much as it is awkward for you to ask an employee not to eat at their desks, it will also be similarly awkward to HR. Asking them in an interview about that will most probably deter them from employing you for the sake of avoiding awkwardness like that.
  • People will not understand unless they suffer from the same condition. Otherwise, they will think it's an exaggeration. Be prepared to have people surprised that there is a term for it and that is an actual condition.
  • People will be biased towards eating at their desk because it is super convenient to them and makes them more productive, opposite to what happens to Misophonic people.
  • The only solution is a combination of a lot of techniques/strategies to combat that discomfort and be able to be as productive as possible
  • As other answers have suggested, you should seek an employer with a work from home policy or even better an employer who operates fully remotely. While that is not an easy task to find one, you should try things that other answers have suggested, like booking a meeting room, or taking a walk when you feel uncomfortable + using headphones.
  • 2
    Thank you. I happen to have the same problem so I hope I could help from my own experience. – Ahmed Mansour Jan 1 at 18:17
  • 7
    "Be prepared to have people surprised that there is a term for it and that is an actual condition." Your own link mentions that it's not yet recognized as a condition. "The diagnosis of misophonia is not recognized in the DSM-IV or the ICD 10, and it is not classified as a hearing or psychiatric disorder.[4] It may be a form of sound–emotion synesthesia, and has parallels with some anxiety disorders.[1] As of 2018 it was not clear if misophonia should be classified as a symptom or as a condition.[3][2]" – MiniRagnarok Jan 2 at 15:22
  • 4
    @MiniRagnarok This recent paper says that the majority of cases of misophonia are effectively treated by treating tinnitus. Since tinnitus is a common malady that affects 1 in 5 people, it is probably worthwhile for misophonia-sufferers (like the OP, potentially) to get tested for tinnitus, as that would be a recognizable and better understood condition. – called2voyage Jan 2 at 22:02
  • 3
    @AhmedMansour I understand the discomfort with headphones. My ears hurt after wearing them for virtual meetings all day. If you have tinnitus, there may be ways to treat aside from sound masking. As far as odors, it may be allergies in your case, but unless the OP mentions allergies there may be a different cause for their issue. – called2voyage Jan 3 at 14:33
  • 1
    @stopeating I wish I could be more helpful but it is the sad realty that even companies who have such policies do not enforce it. I'm sorry you are going through this and you had to deal with the negative comments who treated your question as an exaggeration. – Ahmed Mansour Jan 4 at 21:37
28

Find a company where people have their own rooms. Start applying for jobs away from the city centre (where office space is expensive) and instead focus on finding a job in a suburb or in the countryside (or traditional industries - at least where I live they tend to have traditional office buildings with one room/employee).

Asking for your own room during an interview is something most recruiters will understand. Be honest about it: "One important factor when I am looking for a job now is to avoid open office spaces so among many interesting positions I found I decided to apply to you because your employees have their own room". Presenting it like that means that you don't need to talk about any eating policy - which is weird - and instead can say that you don't like open office spaces - which a lot of people agrees with you upon.

18

I'm surprised that almost all of the answers seem to be written by those who do not understand the severity of the issue, or are not willing to consider it valid.

I empathize with your situation. Sounds don't really bother me so much, but I've vomited in some office environments with some regularity due to the smell of food...relatively subtle food eaten in a private office across the hall from my office. I'm just that sensitive to smell, and that 'picky' of an eater.

I don't think it's constructive to advise the OP to 'get used to it'; that betrays an ignorance of the severity of the issue. It would be like asking your average office worker to get used to all of their office mates keeping open ant colonies at their desks, or coworkers regularly having sex in random cubicles...it goes far beyond simple annoyance. Yes, it's possible to 'deal with it' (I've done it), but it makes life so miserable that making a career change to minimum-wage hard-labor seem appealing.

Work Remotely

My only solution, as was mentioned in another answer, was to work remotely. I didn't think there were more than a small handful of such jobs out there, but after a car accident that left me with severe back pain I finally decided to make a serious effort to find one...and it paid off.

I frequented websites like Flexjobs, contacted every recruiter I knew and told them specifically that I wanted 'remote work', and searched for 'remote' on traditional job sites. It took just over a year to find a company that would allow me to work 100% from a home office.

It's best if you can find a virtual office environment, where everyone works remotely. If special accommodations are being made for you, then you are a potential 'difficult employee' and that could affect future promotion and employment decision. Also, given your experience level you may not have enough leverage to get this kind of special treatment.

Ask Your Question Backwards

Another option is to ask your question from the opposite perspective. Unfortunately, other posters are right that asking "is there a strict policy against non-eating so I'm not annoyed" will throw up a big red flag. However, asking "If I would choose to eat at my desk here, are there any restrictions I should know about" would not.

Asking in this way makes you sound like one of the 'normals' so that you don't burn any bridges. But the answer gives people like you and I valuable information about the office policies; much more so than asking general "office culture" questions as previously suggested.

Contact Past Employees

Once or twice someone has contacted me on LinkedIn to ask me about a company I previously worked for. I was happy to answer any questions they had, and certainly never contacted my previous employer to warn them about red flags.

Finding a past employee allows you to ask your questions directly and openly without fear that it will reflect poorly upon you with the interviewer. Unless, of course, the past employee still keeps in contact with the current interviewer, but that may be a risk worth taking considering the severity of this issue for you.

Mitigate When Possible

Noise cancelling headphones and nose plugs are not a good or long term solution, but they can mitigate the problem. Consider and use them as a stop-gap while you're working on a permanent solution, which could take months or years to make happen. Anything that diminishes the problem even a little gives you that much more time to find your permanent solution.

Unfortunately, nose plugs are only going to work if you have a private office as it will mark you as a problem if coworkers see them, but headphones or earplugs are not uncommon and not seen as a problem in most offices.

  • 1
    Thank you Nicholas for your understanding. I am not surprised to see suggestions that my problem is odd/not serious - as I wrote I am aware that the majority (both here and at my company) do not recognize eating at office as something that can be bothersome to others – stopeating Jan 1 at 12:07
  • 1
    There is also the fact that there are workplaces where eating at one's desk is almost unavoidable. My workplace has no seating in the breakroom or other shared spaces, is not near any outdoor areas with picnic tables or benches, and very limited access to restaurants... I only have the option to eat at my desk or in my car! – Meg Jan 2 at 16:21
  • @Meg Good point! That makes another good question to ask during an interview: "Is there a breakroom or cafeteria where I can eat my lunch?" – Nicholas Jan 2 at 20:48
  • 1
    Exactly this - I was surprised that so many of the answers focus on the OP learning to "deal with it better." While that's not completely wrong, it's very short-sighted and I think this answer does the best job of addressing needs that truly are legitimate for some people. – brichins Jan 3 at 0:01
17

How can I find out what is a specific company policy on eating?

I've never encountered a company that had an "eating policy". I suspect it may be more a company culture kind of thing for most companies, rather than a formal policy. And I've never worked at a company that would attempt to prevent folks from eating at their desk.

It would be awkward to ask about such a policy during an initial interview, and may cause you to appear to be high maintenance. But there are ways you can get clues or more information.

First, when you interview on site, you'll likely walk through working areas. Pay attention to what you see. Clearly, if you see folks eating at their desks, you'll need to cross this company off of your list. Similarly, if you see lunches, snacks, drinks, etc - that may mean you'll also need to cross them off of your list.

If you get a tour of the facility, note any lunchrooms, kitchens, etc. If you see no lunchrooms, that might be a bad sign.

Whenever I interview, I expect to talk with at least one peer. If that hasn't already been planned, I ask for such a chat. Talking with a potential peer gives you an opening to ask all sorts of less-formal questions. I always ask what it's like to work at this company, and what it's like to work for this boss. You could ask questions about eating policy, or perhaps just eating at your desk. Even here, tread lightly though.

One of the most effective means I have found for learning about company culture is to go through an agency. A good agency has already placed folks at your target location. They can often answer many questions about what it would be like to work there - including if anyone ever eats at their desk or if the company has a formal "eating policy". Use the agents to get answers to any question you wouldn't want to ask directly.

Finally, if you have not been able to get an answer any other way, if you have already made it to the offer stage of the interviews, and only if an "eating policy" is a go/no go point for you - then and only then ask about it directly. You could either ask HR or the hiring manager. This may be a bit of a red flag for them, but hopefully at that point you'll already have a potential offer in your hand and they won't pull it back.

Isn't it a strange question to ask during an interview?

I suspect most interviewers would consider it to be a strange question. I know I would.

How much of the story should I share? Should I mention my bad experience at previous workplace and that this is one of the reasons to leave?

You shouldn't share any of the story with an interviewer. You should specifically not tell them that this has anything to do with why you want to leave your current company.

  • Re 'I've never encountered a company that had an "eating policy"'. I would think most manufacturing companies have a rule like this (e.g. for safety reasons). And extended to white-collar workers (though it may not be enforced). – Peter Mortensen Jan 2 at 1:12
10

Rather than asking this directly, you can ask about the company culture, e.g. "do people normally eat lunch at their desk or do people have lunch outside / in the canteen together?". There are huge differences in culture across the world regarding what kind of food and where they eat it, so this is a fairly safe question to ask.

For any case in which people eat audibly, noise-cancelling headphones are the way to go: you're not forcing other people to change their ways and you can still concentrate.

  • 2
    Agreed. This kind of question is valid and I think reasonable and common for towards the end of the last interview, where the company has probably mostly decided if they want you; but you are now still deciding if you want them. Of course framing it as a culture question, rather than a policy question may get you a less definiative answer. (But OTOH, I suspect if there was a strict policy and you asked this, then it would be mentioned) – Lyndon White Dec 31 '18 at 19:14
  • @LyndonWhite exactly: if there is a policy, you'll get the info, otherwise, you'll probably hear "it depends". But you got the info without coming across as a difficult person – stefan Jan 1 at 0:10
  • 1
    The phrasing in your example question doesn't apply, since OP mentioned that people snacking at their desk is still a problem for him (it's not just large meals, which might be understandable to most), but you could rephrase it to ask about that instead. – V2Blast Jan 1 at 19:48
  • 2
    @V2Blast you will still find out if there is a strict policy against food. I cannot imagine an office completely free of food, if there isn't a policy, so he implicitly gets the answer – stefan Jan 1 at 19:49
7

I haven't seen anyone yet mention misophonia, which causes sounds and other similar stimulus (particularly the sound of eating) to be treated as far more than a mere annoyance and can trigger rather strong emotions depending on the severity of it. However, I'm not aware of any laws that would classify it in such a way that a company would be required to accommodate it... yet.

The way that I approached this when interviewing was to focus on work/life balance and ask about the possibility of remote work, without mentioning the misophonia. I was able to find something that gave performance conditional remote work and so I worked my way into being able to never be in the office when co-workers are eating. I still come in for the occasional meeting but my supervisors are very pleased with my output and I'm very pleased I don't have to endure what my mind does to my psyche when it is exposed to someone chewing on an apple every 30 seconds for two hours.

  • 3
    Misophonia is a syndrome, meaning there is no known biological origin to it. As such, it is difficult to distinguish simply from poor mental discipline. I would never be cruel to someone with a syndrome by saying "it's all in your head", but that is worth excluding, by seriously trying the treatment you would use if it was. Look at trainings such as those bodyguards and secret service agents do, so they are able to clearly observe surroundings and efficiently discard irrelevant data. – Harper Dec 31 '18 at 20:05
  • 4
    Regardless, if it can credibly called a disability, ADA applies. The company must do "what is easy" to accommodate you, e.g. Giving you a closed office or letting you WFH. However, resist accommodations that involve compelling or forbidding behavior of other employees, for reasons that should be obvious. – Harper Dec 31 '18 at 20:12
  • @Harper - it's not a disability because OP states that they are just fine w/ other people eating around them in other contexts. I agree w/ the misophonia diagnosis but that isn't a disability – NKCampbell Jan 2 at 18:04
6

I think you'll find that most halfway decent companies have at least a superficial understanding of the importance of having sources of nutrition readily available for a happy and productive workforce. This often means going out of their way to make it easier for people to get food on demand rather than putting restrictions on where/when they can eat. You could probably find a job somewhere that would accommodate your desire but to be perfectly blunt, your aversion to the sounds of other people eating is well outside of the norm and you'll probably be happier in the long run if you look into possible treatments instead of looking for ways to avoid it.

3

To address your specific concern, there do exist jobs where eating while working is strongly prohibited in theory (and hopefully in practice) - but most of these are not prohibitions as a matter of peace and quiet, but rather are about either protecting the work (or public impression of the business) from contamination by employee's food, or protecting employees from contamination by toxic or infectious materials used in the work. You could of course consider changing careers to something (lab work, industrial, or even retail) where this would be the case, but that doesn't really sound like what you want.

Instead, it's probably worth examining the whole "knowledge workers need to be undisturbed" idea, and focus specifically on what is necessarily a disturbance:

Someone trying to have a conversation with you, work related or otherwise, is obviously and always going to be a disturbance. They are literally demanding your attention, which means it can no longer be fully on task - and so that's where you need to be firm about countering behaviors that impede productivity, especially if you are doing tasks where recovering full awareness takes time.

But what about "other things going on"?

It's possible to let oneself become easily distracted, but likely the more you are focused on something, the less what else is going on will matter. I've literally debugged a build error during a dance party - because I wanted to figure it out.

On the other hand, if you're already having trouble getting into and staying in a zone of concentration, or if you are frustrated by a problem in a way that is more "about to give up" than "I am going to solve this!" then sure, any little distraction will throw you off course.

So the recommendation: forget about the eating concern, but rather seek a role where your tasks will be captivating a decent fraction of the time. Work on tuning out the background while doing those first, then work on the balance of discipline for approaching less engaging tasks, and realizing when a degree of participation in office culture is important to the overall success of work as well.

  • 2
    The OP might be able to find a job working on server maintenance where they could work in the server room most of the time. I don't know if I would describe this as non-distracting work personally (noisy), but there shouldn't be any food there and it could still nominally be a desk job. – user3067860 Dec 31 '18 at 19:03
  • 1
    Reminds me of an early job I had where I worked in a sub-70-degreeF test lab with prototype hardware, often one-offs insured for millions of dollars, owned by our clients. Had the space to myself -- everyone else wanted to be in their private offices where it was warmer -- and I was in paradise. And yeah, absolutely no food allowed in that room. – Charles Duffy Jan 1 at 1:55
  • Well, there is actually very interesting software development work in both lab and industrial environments. It doesn't require changing careers, just working in a different domain. So that could be an actual recommendation. – Peter Mortensen Jan 2 at 1:26
3

You're going to have to look for the kind of work that happens in an environment where the presence of food is not going to be allowed.

Think lab work, factory floors, food processing facilities, chemical plants, clean room environments.

Don't go for an office job, you're only inconveniencing your coworkers. In every company I've ever worked for over the last 20+ years there's been people drinking and/or eating at their desks. At the very least water and coffee, often lunch and/or snacks. It's to be expected. Personally, I'd not want it any other way. I sometimes need that extra bit of energy some quick bit of food supplies, and to stay hydrated through the 8-10 hour workday. If I'd need to leave the building and comply with the company policies (which are common) to not idle within a certain distance of the building that'd cost a lot of time on your average work day.

2

As others have stated, asking about a strange food policy on an interview would be a major red flag. This policy would negatively impact far more people (people who eat at their desk) than it would help (you and maybe a couple others).

Instead, if you are unable to cope with the sounds and smells of people eating, it would be far easier to explain that you are easily distracted and would like a solo office or the ability to work from home. If you can showcase your usefulness to the employer, they may be willing to accommodate one or both of these requests.

2

I have a short advice: There are jobs, where due to the nature of the office arrangement or working site, eating is strictly forbidden. One example which i hear about was a pharmacy company which had offices in the same building as the production, and due to that is was forbidden to eat in the office.

1

"I try to be considerate towards others" I hate to break this to you, but asking people to eat somewhere else is not considerate at all. If you don't have some kind of mental disorder (ADHD, autism, misophonia, etc) that causes you more disturbance from these things than neurotypical people, you're whining. First of all you need to get a pair of proper noise cancelling headphones, they do work, if you think otherwise you've never tried them. If smell is still an issue then it's perfectly reasonable to ask about that during interviews, something along the lines of

I'm a bit sensitive to strong smells, what exactly is your policy on smelly food in the office?

This is not a weird request, as smelly food is a common complaint in offices. Noise is normal in an office, and noise from people eating is not especially noisy or disturbing. If you really want to know about that you can always ask if you're allowed to eat in the office, instead of asking if they actively forbid it.

  • Do most workplaces have a specific policy on smelly food beyond informal social pressure? I'm not sure how asking this question would get the OP the information they're looking for. – Zach Lipton Jan 3 at 23:00
  • @ZachLipton I've worked at three offices and many odd jobs, and everywhere where I worked close with other people smelly food was a nono. Such things aren't literally in the rules, but put a bowl of fish in the microwave and you'll have the CEO barking at you within a minute. Asking about it at least gives them an opportunity to discuss company culture regarding this. I'm not sure the information OP is looking is really what OP is looking for, this is imo the next best thing. – Kevin Jan 4 at 8:19
  • 2
    The "you're whining" part of your answer here is perhaps a little strongly directed at the OP here. Even though most people don't really care about people eating at their desks, we should respect that some people really don't like it, even if it does end up being career limiting. – Snow Jan 4 at 8:35
  • 2
    @Snow isn't that what "whining" means? Complaining about things most people don't care about? I'm autistic myself and I get having irrational complaints towards normal behaviour, I really do, but I also think that's my own problem. If OP is neurotypical they should be able to suck it up, we all have our pet peeves and none of us gets special treatment. Asking about quirky requirements during a job interview goes against pretty much any and all advice normally given on this site and I strongly feel OP should just learn to deal with their issues like everyone else. I didn't mean it as an insult. – Kevin Jan 4 at 9:08
  • Pretty much all of the other answers here made the same point without directly labelling the OP as whining. They tended to address the situation rather than the person. I do get your point entirely though. – Snow Jan 4 at 9:14
1

Even if your problem seems odd to someone (I have confess that it seems to me - for many reasons, the most important of which is - in any room full of enough people, the sound of somebody eating an apple is hardly the loudest one) - try to fixate on the core, on the essential part of your concerns. This quite often helps you to reword your problem. Basically you are not worrying about somebody eating in the workplace but rather about noise pollution.

Just like it has been already mentioned here - cruel honesty is still honesty - you drastically decrease the probability of being hired by stating the things the way you state them here. However, you can confess that, well, unlike the majority of other people you've encountered, your productivity is very dependent on silence. So if there's an option to find a place in the office where it would be possible not to be distracted by anything.

This would be quite seldom yet quite valid request. Concentrating on the food per se, again, is highly unrecommended.

  • I am concerned about the noise that can, in principle, be avoided. I can live with things that are essential to working - typing on a keyboard, having work-related conversations. I have problems with people crossing the line of what is necessary - I would be equally uncomfortable with private conversations, playing music, farting, whatever... For some reason, people tend to recognize that loud private conversations in the workplace are not ok, but when it comes to eating, they fail to see that it is also loud and distracting. That's what I find 'specific' about eating – stopeating Jan 1 at 13:15
  • 2
    whatever your thoughts on this issue are - I highly recommend you to compromise on negotiating about the silentest place in the office possible rather that trying to explain every HR department representatives you complex and multilayered system of beliefs. – shabunc Jan 1 at 13:46
0

Isn't it a strange question to ask during an interview?

No, not at all. Many companies (especially the big ones) I've encountered had strict rules against eating on workdesks. Sometimes backed up with far-fetched rationalization, eg: to prevent damage to keyboards. In such cases there always is a designated eating area (social room/kitchen/cafeteria). Usually, they've mentioned it on their own. I've refused in the past because of presence of such rule. There is absolutely no reason why you can't refuse because of absence of it. I guess that your stance is much less popular than mine, but it's just as fair.

How can I find out what is a specific company policy on eating?

Simply, ask about eating etiquette. If you're satisfied with the answer, but you're afraid it's a non-enforced rule, keep inquiring: "But not even a snack?" "Not even a healthy one, like a fruit?" "Not even a clean one, like bonbons?" "Not even a quiet one, like chocolate?". You don't have to openly state what answer are you expecting, you're asking a question. If the interviewer makes a mistaken assumption that you want to eat at your desk, that's not your problem. Eventually, if it goes really well and they get all the answers right, you say "Fine, I prefer it that way".

How much of the story should I share?

None, at best.

Should I mention my bad experience at previous workplace and that this is one of the reasons to leave?

No. At most you can say that it's important to you.

I do not want to appear as a person who 'causes problems' and has 'special needs' even before getting on

That's why you're supposed to keep your cards to yourself. Ask about the rule, don't tell a personal story about your previous employment. Nobody cares about that. It's only important to you, because it taught you something important about yourself.

But keep in mind that you do cause problems and you do have special needs. It's your responsibility to prevent those problems and cater to your needs. By asking the right questions on the interview : )

protected by Jane S Dec 31 '18 at 23:31

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.