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Many offices organize potluck lunches as a low-cost way to hold a large team-building-oriented meal.

Unfortunately, some people may have some misgivings about the nature of a potluck. Some may want to avoid high-caloric dishes, some may have sanitation concerns about the way the side dishes were prepared, and others may be slightly offended by the company's decision to ask its employees to donate their own time and money to prepare a meal for the office.

My Question:

  • How can an employee kindly decline to participate in an office potluck?
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Nov 19 '16 at 6:22
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This is a very good question, I opt out of the secret Santa every year at my office which is run in a similar manner. The truth of the matter is that personally I don't want to get involved and I don't really like to make excuses so I just tell them I don't want to be involved. I do get teased by colleagues for being a Grinch etc but quite frankly that doesn't bother me.

My approach is either active or passive, if the email 'invites' me to reply if I don't want to be involved then I reply to the sender politely saying I won't be participating. If the email is more in the opt in style then I just ignore it and don't reply.

I don't know what the office culture is like where you work but I don't feel there is anything impolite about declining these events. I hate being forcibly roped into things by the fun police.

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    @Gusdor It's part of the HR job to create these events. – ecc Nov 16 '16 at 12:21
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    "I hate being forcibly roped into things by the fun police." Plenty of people do but the fact remains that in some office cultures declining this kind of event is very much Not Done, which is why I disagree that this is a good question. There are too many variables to give a generic answer that couldn't be disastrously wrong. – Lilienthal Nov 16 '16 at 13:26
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    I couldn't disagree with you more. The OP asks a very simple question which has a simple answer. The work place is complex, political and often very cliquey. By your logic we shouldn't answer any questions on this forum as the vast majority of answers have at least a degree of personal experience/opinion. – Dustybin80 Nov 16 '16 at 14:27
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    A guy i worked with mysteriously always took vacation days in the same week as the secret santa. – Mindwin Nov 16 '16 at 16:54
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    Don't opt out of the secret santa- organise a counter one. I organise an annual donate your secret santa money to homeless children instead. It's impossible to argue with and someone who needs help might actually benefit. – Ben Nov 16 '16 at 21:49
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I totally know what you speak about since I have a special diet that I developed for myself to feel good. My food is sometimes twice as expensive, so sharing food with people who eat "normally" is a bad idea since they can eat my food but I can't eat theirs (don't want to, to be precise) .

So here is my experience:

  • Don't do anything you don't want to do.
  • Don't judge others and don't judge yourself (this goes beyond diet :-)).
  • Don't feel bad about being different. The people mirror your emotions so if you feel bad about yourself being different, chances are you'll get picked on it. When you are OK with it, people will usually accept you.

  • Many times I want to participate socially (talking etc.) but not share. So I get the fun while eating healthy. I never let the food isolate me from the group, even if food is its main focus. I just say that I have a special food so I won't share since theirs is out of my diet. They already know me so they are absolutely OK with that. But the beginnings were hard. People now accept me because I am firm about who I am. I am not the person with ridiculous diet any more - I am the one with the interesting diet :-)

  • Sometimes even in restaurant I asked for an empty dish so that I can put my own food on that, explaining that I have a special diet. The waiters smiled and gave it to me being really compassionate with me having to eat like that :-D

In other words, you create your own life. You set your boundaries! If you don't respect your own boundaries, how can you expect it from others?

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    good answer in general, but there are some cultures where bringing your own food to a restaurant is the height of rudeness - in iceland for example, doing this would probably get you kicked out of most places (happened to us once - we tried to get out of the rain, went to a bar / restaurant, got shouted at by a visibly angry owner because two of us had packed lunches, we all bought food and felt like silly children). A solution in these cases may be to order a drink but not eat. – nurgle Nov 16 '16 at 11:15
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    @jammypeach it is considered rude in my culture as well. The trick is that I asked before I did it ;-) – Tomas Nov 16 '16 at 13:04
  • The edit makes it much better, +1. I have diet restrictions for health reasons and have brought my own lunch to a potluck before (I don't share, but I also don't eat anyone else's food). For restaurants, I plan to eat before/after and just get something small (salad, drink) while we're there. – user812786 Nov 16 '16 at 13:43
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    "participate socially (talking etc.) but not share." is the best advice so far. The rest are good side notes, but that one is solid practical advice. – user30031 Nov 16 '16 at 16:15
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    Me too, just bring something no one else is likely to want, and then eat it :) – Jim W says reinstate Monica Nov 17 '16 at 19:13
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The first question you should ask of the organizer if the potluck is mandatory. If it's not, then you are free not to show up. People have other plans all the time, even if their plan is atually to have lunch by themselves.

If the potluck is not mandatory but you feel social pressure to show up, the second question you should ask is who is sponsoring the potluck. If your employer is sponsoring the potluck, then there IS social pressure to show up. If someone on the staff or not in your management hierarchy took it up themselves to spontaneously organize a potluck, then I'd treat showing up at the potluck as optional.

I'll assume for the sake of coming up with a comprehensive answer that you are feeling social pressure to show up. Or that you've been notified that showing up for the potluck is mandatory.

  1. You are not being forced to eat food that you don't want to eat e.g. if you are on a diet as per Racheet's comment, nobody is forcing you to break it.

  2. Bring your own food from home and bring a little more food than usual, if you feel like sharing.

  3. If you buy lunch for yourself and you don't want to make any effort, buy some fruit or a bag of cheap cookies to contribute.

  4. Taking into account Racheet's comment that many don't eat lunch: you have given no indication that you're the type who doesn't eat lunch or who is fasting. Again, no one is forcing you to eat. Even though you are not eating lunch for whatever reason, you might consider being gracious and parting with enough cash to contribute say a bag of cookies.

  5. If you don't want to spend ANY money on the potluck and you don't want to be seen as a scrooge, then you'll have to come up with your own excuse.

  6. Taking into account Sean Houlihan's comment that the organizer should appreciate that some people find being compelled to participate is stressful, they'll have to reach out to the organizer and explain why. If the potluck is company sponsored and some disability is involved and we are in the United States, the employer is required to make reasonable accommodations for the disability.

If the potluck is mandatory or if you feel the social pressure to show up i.e. you are "strongly encouraged to attend" with your manager taking note as who is not showing up: the purpose of the potluck is team building. Declining to participate in the potluck amounts to declining to participate in the team building. The organizer of the potluck probably won't take it kindly that you don't participate in the potluck since it amounts to declining to participate in the team building. Aside from that, you have to eat lunch and pay for lunch regardless of whether there is a potluck. Shelling out a little more for the potluck is a small price to pay for navigating your way out of this potluck. Having said that, it's your money - you decide.

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    While I agree with the you pay every day for food, forcing people to come & pay for an event seems IMHO unlikely to get them really build a team spirit. – Walfrat Nov 16 '16 at 9:04
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    Good options, the other one is just don't show up for the event, if asked (which may or may not happen). ' Had to do something.' – Kilisi Nov 16 '16 at 10:16
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    I feel this misses the point. The organiser should appreciate that for some people, feeling compelled to participate is stressful, and the organiser is the one at fault for not providing an easy way out. – Sean Houlihane Nov 16 '16 at 10:26
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    @VietnhiPhuvan I am paid (well) for my technical abilities, not for my desire to interact with humans. If HR try and disrupt my value to the company, I'll make it clear where the cost of replacing me was originated. – Sean Houlihane Nov 16 '16 at 13:21
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    @SeanHoulihane, you are also paid to interact with humans, you need to get over that attitude. Technical skills are about 30% of what you need in the workplace. – HLGEM Nov 16 '16 at 15:01
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They do this sort of thing at my office from time to time. It is usually a volunteer thing where they ask who wants to bring something and its certainly not mandatory. I usually just don't reply to the request to bring something and then don't partake when the potluck is going on. No one ever asks why I'm not there or why I didn't bring anything.

I think for the most part potlucks are just a social thing for the office to get to interact with each other in a non-business related way. The downside of not participating in things like this is that I think a number of people where I work don't really know that I work here... there's been times where I'm in a group picture shared on the company Intranet and everyone in the picture is named but me.

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My office also used to do potlucks, it was not too uncommon for people to show up and be social but not eat or bring any food. If your objections are only about food (preparation time, cost, cleanliness, etc), consider just showing up and talking for a little while before going back to work. I guarantee you won't be the only person with misgivings about eating.

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