Memo From the Boss: You’re a Vegetarian Now

“The headline has been ‘meat-free,’ but this is a much larger effort to develop personal accountability in our team,” Miguel McKelvey, the chief culture officer of WeWork, said of the company’s move toward vegetarian practices.

WeWork is no longer a safe space for carnivores.

Earlier this month, the co-working juggernaut announced that it was essentially going vegetarian. The company will no longer serve red meat, pork or poultry at company functions, and it will not reimburse employees who want to order a hamburger during a lunch meeting.

In a memo to employees announcing the new policy, Miguel McKelvey, WeWork’s co-founder and chief culture officer, said the decision was driven largely by concerns for the environment, and, to a lesser extent, animal welfare.

“New research indicates that avoiding meat is one of the biggest things an individual can do to reduce their personal environmental impact — even more than switching to a hybrid car,” he wrote. Additionally, WeWork could save “over 15 million animals by 2023 by eliminating meat at our events.”

Mr. McKelvey, in his first interview since the decision was announced, said the policy was also aimed at raising consciousness among the company’s nearly 6,000 employees.

“It’s multidimensional,” he said. “We’re coming at it from an awareness and a mindfulness perspective. The headline has been ‘meat-free,’ but this is a much larger effort to develop personal accountability in our team.”

WeWork’s enforced vegetarianism could easily be dismissed as just another whimsical human resources directive from a high-flying technology start-up with an inflated sense of self-importance.

But the move also represents a more substantial development that is reshaping workplaces around the country: In ways large and small, companies are imposing corporate values on the personal lives of their employees.

[Read more: WeWork wants to be more than just an office company. It has ideas for a whole lifestyle.]

Hobby Lobby has refused to pay for birth control for its employees, citing the owner’s Christian values. And the chief executives of companies including Koch Industries and Westgate Resorts have sent memos and informational packets to employees suggesting how they vote.

Other companies have tried to prevent employees from using everything from Uber to cigarettes. In 2015, IBM banned employees from using ride-sharing apps, citing safety and liability concerns. (Employees rebelled, and the company did a U-turn a day later.) And several big employers, including General Electric, have successfully paid employees to quit smoking. Scotts Miracle-Gro even has a policy of not hiring smokers, a move it says helps keep health care costs down.

In some of these cases, the values of a few executives are imposed on workers who must adhere to their employers’ worldview, often relating to issues with scant connection to the business. But WeWork appears to be the first big company to tell its employees what they can and can’t eat.

“Human beings really don’t like when you take choice away from them,” said Laszlo Bock, the former senior vice president of people operations at Google and the author of “Work Rules!”

“What people are much more amenable to is nudges,” he said. “How can you change the environment that doesn’t remove choice, but sends a signal for people to make a good decision?”

Mr. Bock has personal experience with vegetarianism. While he was at Google, two of the many cafes at company headquarters tried out “meatless Mondays,” going vegetarian for just one day a week. Employees rebelled, throwing away silverware and staging a protest barbecue.

Meatless Mondays didn’t last at Google. But in time, the company made changes to the cafeterias — like offering smaller plates and making salad bars more prominent — that improved employees’ eating habits.

“When you exercise this level of control over employees, even with good intentions, it often backfires,” said Heather Bussing, an employment lawyer in Northern California. “Just because you really believe this is the right thing to do, not everyone will agree with you.”

At WeWork, a company led by idealistic co-founders who got their start with an eco-friendly co-working space in Brooklyn, the move to vegetarianism is a reflection of their unconventional personalities.

“I don’t eat meat, but I don’t consider myself a vegetarian,” Mr. McKelvey said. “I consider myself to be a ‘reducetarian.’ I try to consume less and be aware of the decisions I’m making. Not just food, but single-use plastics, and fossil fuels and energy.”

As Mr. McKelvey sees it, imposing his values on his employees is a natural part of being a corporate leader today. “Companies have greater responsibility to their team members and to the world these days,” he said. “We’re the ones with the power. Large employers are the ones that can move the needle on issues.”

There is little question that WeWork has the legal right to withhold meat from its employees. Companies have no obligation to feed their workers, much less offer steak and lamb on the menu. (And, of course, none of this applies to companies or individuals who rent space from WeWork.)

[Read more: WeWork has plans for your workout.]

“Companies are free to make rules about the things they reimburse or don’t reimburse for,” Ms. Bussing said. “But usually they have to do with adult movies at hotels and alcohol, rather than what you’re ordering at dinner.”

And even if WeWork does succeed in using vegetarianism to reduce its carbon impact, it isn’t a given that the decision will make its employees healthier.

“Animals have a place in the human diet,” said Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “There’s plenty of evidence that eating less meat is good for one’s health and the planet. But to abolish it completely sounds ideological.”

Echoing Mr. Bock, Ms. Nestle said a more effective way to promote healthy eating was to offer employees a variety of options. “Most companies that are trying to promote healthy diets among employees are doing it in ways that are less coercive,” Ms. Nestle said. “Here you don’t have any choice.”

There will be some wiggle room at WeWork. Seafood will still be permitted on company menus and expense accounts. And employees who “require a medical or religious accommodation” can request an exemption from the enforced vegetarianism. (Mr. Bock was not convinced this would work. “Even then, you have to self-identify and let somebody know about it,” he said. “Then you’ll be the person eating carne asada while everyone else is eating the lettuce bowl.”)

Uncomfortable as the new dietary policy may be, Mr. McKelvey said WeWork is only just getting started. The company is phasing out leather furniture, single-use plastics and is going carbon neutral. In time, he said, the company will evaluate its consumption of seafood, eggs, dairy and alcohol.

“We could have introduced a series of nudges, but then we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Mr. McKelvey said. “And awkward conversations are how we learn.”

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