Veganism has hit the news lately thanks to a court ruling that vegans are entitled to protections in the workplace. It seems like a step forward for the movement, but is this actually just another division across the workforce?
Veganism, as defined by the Vegan Society, is “a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practicable – all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose”. It centres around a diet free from meat, eggs and dairy, but also includes the avoidance of leather, wool, and any other animal-based products. In recent news, studies and documentaries, veganism have been connected to a positive impact on climate change and better physical health. Yet for many people, it still conjures up frustration and annoyance.
Two recent reports have highlighted how this personal choice is now affecting work life:
- A law firm came out to say they would no longer pay expenses for any meals containing meat
- The Vegan Society released guidelines to help support vegans in the workplace
Both of these stories broke less than one month after a landmark hearing that saw veganism given legal protection under the Equality Act 2010.
The workplace guidelines recently set out by the Vegan Society include:
- Providing separate food preparation areas
- Giving access to vegan-friendly clothing
- Exempting vegans from corporate events that involve animals in a negative way (hog roasts, horse racing etc.)
Veganism is about wellbeing and compassion. But the danger here is that by enforcing these rules and setting out these guidelines, we’re widening a divide which we see in other areas of work and life too.
It becomes us and them
There’s an age-old psychological concept, coined in the 1970s, called Social Identity Theory. The basis is quite simple – we define ourselves by the groups we belong to. You may be a Christian, a bird watcher, a nurse, or many other things. When you feel part of a group, you feel an almost automatic connection to other members. As any motorcyclist or lorry driver will undoubtedly tell you, you generally acknowledge and support people that share this commonality. There are many positives to belonging to a group. But there is a flip side.
Consider football supporters. The majority are friendly, good, everyday folk. Yet the minority fight and clash because they support different teams. They wear different colour shirts and are found in different regions, but beyond that, surely they have no reason to hate each other? Consider the gang problem in London, religious discrimination, our historical problems with race, and pretty much any war or conflict you can name.
Like it or not, it’s in our nature.
According to Social Identity Theory, we form in and out-groups. In groups are the ones we belong to and we seek comparisons with other members. Outgroups are the ones different from our own. And from these, we see the contrast.
Evolution makes it clearer
Survival has long been associated with being an accepted member of the group. It’s still true today, but if we look back before civilisation (around 50,000 years ago – just a blink in our evolutionary history) the idea of sharing skills, tools, looking out for danger and so on would have been more prevalent.
If resources were scarce then groups may clash. Laying claim over a land rich in fertile crops and animals would undoubtedly have meant defending it from other groups. It’s true that today we don’t face the same daily strains. But belonging to a group still has many advantages.
Not to mention isolation being the biggest cause of depression.
The impact on Employee Experience
Veganism is just one example of the challenges social grouping can bring to the workplace. You can find many more – the most obvious of which is departmental separation.
The connection between departments is often said to be the weakest link in a business and for good reason. Human nature connects us to the rest of our team. We support them, work together and share many similarities. Other departments, well they fail to deliver, make our life harder, and so on.
Whatever the grouping, we have to find the right balance. If we create divides between people, we have to expect social biases.
Our job as employers is to find ways to connect those groups, bridge those divides and be empathetic to all. We have to ask ourselves:
- What can we do to cross-pollinate our teams?
- How can we build a better understanding and respect of these differences?
- How do we balance the support of one group at the penalisation of another?
The best answers often come from employees themselves. And forming that volunteer group could be a way of breaking down others.
Finding common ground
Most people want the world to be a better place. To feed the poor, house the homeless, protect the planet. These things are the underlying drivers for many vegans. Finding these common grounds will help break down barriers and find a way of connecting people, making them part of the same objective. Through a wider education on sustainability, nutrition, and health, people can make up their own minds but also gain a better understanding of those with differing views.
As an organisation, you can influence the lives of all your employees. That may be hundreds or thousands of people. Do you have a responsibility to use that positively? Yes, you probably do. If you firmly believe that meat and dairy have negative impacts on health and the environment – what do you do? The vegan stories in the news are of people trying to do good, not attack your beliefs. The changes and guidelines that have come out, have been with positive intent.
The trouble is, we are not rational folk. You could find many reasons on paper why these things would be good ideas. But the reality? People dig their heels in, become less open-minded and put up a wall. And we all move a step back.
So next time you’re looking to make changes in your organisation, think about the emotional response of employees and base your change on education. Through a shared understanding we can find common ground, and with common ground comes empathy and support.
Something we all need as part of our experience at work.