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I work in an office with a couple of vegan coworkers. If I bring any animal products to lunch (even cheese, which they can smell), I'm likely to get a long earful about it. In the past, I've listened patiently to their arguments for why I should change my eating habits, but frankly I'm tired of doing this - I just want to eat my lunch in peace and get back to work.

To be clear on that last point: I've nothing against veganism or vegans; I'm not trying to mock them or cause friction within the workplace. I've thought about the issue plenty, and considered their arguments, but I've made up my mind to not change my diet.

I've tried to find places to eat that won't be as noticeable for them - but it doesn't matter if I'm at my desk or in the lounge - they'll still find me. One of them makes a point of mentioning the rallies they attend or time spent picketing butcher shops - as a result, I suspect they see these confrontations as less about me and more about a convenient opportunity to further this sort of activism.

I could go to HR over this, but I'd prefer to find a way of resolving the issue quietly.

What is the best way to put an end to their attempts to get me to change my diet, while also not setting myself up for future conflicts with them?

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    Welcome! Can you please let us know whether you've tried anything yet (other than listening to them)? – Catija Aug 10 '17 at 0:16
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    Are your coworkers annoyed that you're eating non-vegan foods at all, or just that you're eating non-vegan foods at lunch? – HDE 226868 Aug 10 '17 at 0:23
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    Can I emphasise to future readers that this isn't a vegan bashing competition, it's about how to deal with the inter-personal problem of two specific co-workers at a specific workplace constantly talking about veganism to a person whom isn't comfortable, nothing about vegans generally. – Bradley Wilson Aug 10 '17 at 8:01
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    @Catija - I raised the discussion here on meta. – ArnoldF Aug 10 '17 at 20:14
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    I've deleted a number of comments discussing the particular wording of part of the question. I'll ask that people instead give their input on the meta question @ArnoldF brought up. Thanks. – HDE 226868 Aug 10 '17 at 20:54

10 Answers 10

68

I am not a lawyer, however...

I think it unfortunate that "preachy" was removed from your question. First, your use of that word, and your question's phrasing, indicates how the behavior of others has affected you. Secondly, based on the report of their actions, in a non-judgmental way, that is literally what they are, in fact doing, preaching their way of life in an attempt to convert you.

I am going to formulate my answer under the presumption that you have already tried reasonable requests, and maybe even debates with them, and the results are the same. If you have not, then use those methods first - they can lead to a better work environment for you and them. If, however, such efforts do prove, or have proven, fruitless, then stronger measures exist.

Their reported actions, and your response, suggest that their actions are actually creating what is termed a "hostile work environment." The U.S. Dept. of Labor has specific guidelines for employers to follow to remain in compliance with Title VII Civil Rights Act of 1964. One of those deals with Religious Expression in the DOL Workplace. The pertinent part reads:

B. Religious Expression Among Employees

Employees are permitted to engage in religious conversation and expression with co-workers to the same extent that they may engage in comparable private expression about subjects not related to religious issues.

Example: In informal settings, such as cafeterias and hallways, employees are generally entitled to discuss their religious views with one another. Additionally, employees are entitled to display religious messages on items of clothing to the same extent that they are permitted to display other comparable messages.

However, when such expression is directed towards other employees, such as views regarding religious practice expressed in a conversation, an employee must refrain from such expression when a fellow employee asks that it stop or otherwise demonstrates that it is unwelcome. Continuing that conduct in such circumstances could manifest into unlawful religious harassment.

Do bear in mind that while demonstrative, these guidelines are specifically for Dept. of Labor workplaces, not all workplaces. This is given as a "short form" of what the EEOC COMPLIANCE MANUAL covers in great detail in SECTION 12: RELIGIOUS DISCRIMINATION, 12 - III Harassment, A. Prohibited Conduct, 2. Hostile Work Environment, which is way too long to quote, or even paraphrase, here.

A point raised by another user, AndyT, is that veganism is not commonly considered a "religion" in the same light as mainstream religions. Depending on how it is followed and applied, it can still be considered as such under the above statutes, both as a protected practice for the adherants, and as a proscribed behavior under harassment guidelines. The EEOC COMPLIANCE MANUAL, SECTION 12: RELIGIOUS DISCRIMINATION, 12 - I Coverage, A. Prohibited Conduct, 1. Religion has:

Religious beliefs include theistic beliefs as well as non-theistic “moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views.” Although courts generally resolve doubts about particular beliefs in favor of finding that they are religious...

The bottom line is that what you are experiencing is "Hostile Work Environment Discrimination" and it is your employer's duty to remove that discrimination by stopping the behavior of the harassing parties.

Therefore, your next step, if needed, is to officially complain to your direct supervisor (unless one of the vegans is your supervisor, in which case you need to go up another level) about their behavior.

To protect yourself from retaliation, from both the vegans and the company, when you do choose to complain, you may wish to seek legal advice, or representation, before hand. I don't claim to know where to find the "best" such help, but you can begin with the Find Law® page on Religion in the Workplace.

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    I'm not sure that this fits our site. We are a site dedicated to Interpersonal Skills. We are not lawyers so we should not be giving legal advice to people. This answer might be appropriate on Law or The Workplace but this does not address the interpersonal interactions, only tells the OP to throw the book at the vegans. Within the scope of this site, this answer is off topic. Please feel free to weigh in on meta. – Catija Aug 10 '17 at 16:07
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    As a note, it's a hostile work environment regardless of whether they can somehow call themselves a faith or not. You don't need to couch it as a religious battle to get HR to tell them to cut it out. – Catija Aug 12 '17 at 4:07
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Tell them just what you told us.

Arguing is obviously not productive. My sister is attempting to become a vegan, and many of my friends and teammates are either vegans or vegetarians. I've found that debating the point is not at all productive - not because vegans are argumentative, but because there's no objectively right answer to whether or not a person should be vegan. It's a personal choice. Citing statistics or talking about environmental impact studies or going through the details of the meat industry have yet to significantly influence anyone, in my experience. It just leads to fighting, which leaves everyone sore.

You want to avoid a serious argument of this sort and simply end the discussion. That's fine, and if you say as much, it's the other person's job to respect that. I recommend telling them a few things, the three things that stood out the most to me from your post:

  1. You have heard them out. Any conversation about a divisive issue becomes unproductive if one side simply says no to whatever the other person says. If you let them know that you have listened to their points - perhaps even reference one here - then they'll understand that you respect them.

    I've . . . had problems, to say the least, with people over divisive issues when one person wasn't articulating why they disagreed with the others. In this case, it was an issue of politics, and an emotional one for everyone involved. One person wasn't able to explain their position contrary to another person's, and the frustration boiled over. It took a couple days for everyone to calm down.

  2. You aren't trying to "convert" them. It seems like they're trying to "convert" you (for lack of a better word; I apologize for the connotations) to veganism. It's possible that their continued annoyance is that they perceive you as trying to do the same to them. You're not ending the conversation to declare victory; you're ending it to declare it a draw.
  3. It's a personal choice. As I said before, veganism is a choice. To each his (or her) own diet, so to speak. You're not making your choice because it's somehow objectively correct; you're making it because, from what you can see of the facts, it's the best one
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    Re: 2. Indeed. I have no interest in changing their diets. I simply want to be able to eat the food I cook at home at my desk in peace. – ArnoldF Aug 10 '17 at 0:44
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    We are not here to debate vegan issues or tell the OP why they are wrong to make this choice. Comments should be used to make suggestions for improvements to the post. Feel free to discuss vegetarian choices in chat. – Catija Aug 10 '17 at 13:21
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    +1 People are far far more happy when they understand that you understand their point. The fact that you still disagree and won't change your actions is actually pretty secondary, as as long as you hear them out, this is usually something people can respect. This has to be combined, however, with the OP effectively communicating that they expect their views to be respected. Which could be addressed here a little more. – Nathan Cooper Aug 11 '17 at 13:00
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    Please do not use the comments on this post or any other post to discuss the benefits of veganism or what vegans are like. That is not what we are here to respond to. Any such comments will be deleted. – Catija Aug 14 '17 at 18:57
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    @DeeJayh Another moderator removed the comment, not me. It was removed because it was arguing about whether or not veganism is somehow objectively correct or incorrect. Catija commented above stating that such comments are not relevant here, and have been/will be deleted. – HDE 226868 Oct 10 '17 at 0:23
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I've had to deal with this issue in a few different contexts, from friends to people I've dated, even with complete strangers...

My approach is usually pretty simple and direct.

I respect your decision to be vegan, but I am not a vegan, nor do I intend to become one.

If they persist, sometimes likening their approach to evangelists will get them to recognize that they're being a little aggressive.

I'm not trying to convert you; please extend me the same courtesy.

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I'm sorry you have to deal with this. This is coming from the opposite angle, but I can relate very much.

I follow a vegan diet but don't make it a topic, unless someone else wants to talk about it. (Even if I wanted everyone to become vegan, I think proselytizing would lead to nothing but resentment.) Ironically, at my workplace, where everyone but me eats meat, every single time we have lunch together someone will strike up a conversation about my food choice. This is always with polite intentions and nobody questions my choices, but even so I sometimes wish I could just eat my food and talk about the weather. So far, I wasn't annoyed enough to say anything, but if someone I need to get along with was regularly trying to change my dietary habits, I would say something like:

Hey, we talked this over so many times, and I feel quite frustrated with this conversation. I really don't want to change my diet, and I frankly don't care who of us is right. What I care about is that we get along in this office, and that I can make my own choices. But when you tell me that [I am a bad/silly/unhealthy person etc. for eating what I eat], I feel [singled out/uncomfortable/annoyed]. Can we please not talk about our eating habits for a while?

Chances are your vegan colleagues didn't realize how you feel about the issue. If they still don't leave you alone, you could try to escalate by appealing to their "ideology", but this might also backfire:

Listen, if your goal is to convince me to adopt a vegan diet, you are doing a very bad job. Every time you criticize my food choice, I only become more angry inside. I can really see how I am starting to think badly about veganism in general.

As a side-note, you could also ask this question on https://vegetarianism.stackexchange.com/

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    I do have vegan friends who are not relentlessly moralizing like these two coworkers. I don't mean to suggest anything along the lines of "all vegans are like this". I really don't care about other people's diets, and I'm sorry to hear your coworkers are so probing. I'll try your first, direct, polite suggestion, thanks! – ArnoldF Aug 10 '17 at 19:08
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    I'm a vegetarian. My "complaint" is that whenever I eat out with my family, they always ask if it's ok if they order (whatever meat). I get tired of saying, Of course it's ok! Just because I'm a vegetarian doesn't mean you have to be. Just enjoy yourself! I guess it's really sweet that they ask, or else I have an expression of horror that I don't know about. I will try to talk people out of eating octopus, though. – anongoodnurse Aug 15 '17 at 19:02
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First establish whether they are doing this on purpose

So far the answers seem to assume that your colleagues talk about this because they are consciously trying to convert you. I would recommend you to first establish whether this is the case.

An example from myself: I like my work. In the past, I would always bring up work in a conversation at least once or twice because it is simply something I like to talk about. Eventually, my partner gave me the hint that some people don't like to talk about this, typically those who don't have a job that they like.

Only after this happened, I started to think about the impact on my conversation partners, and adjusted my behavior.

Suggested approach

I would first establish their intention, perhaps they really feel like it is their duty to convert you, or perhaps they just like to talk about things they find important.

Here is what you could say:

Hey, I notice that when we talk, the topic often moves to reasons why it is good to be a vegan. I do support you to be a vegan, but this is not something I like to discuss on a frequent basis. (optional: Because ... I feel we spend more time arguing about this than we should.)

At this moment there are only a few likely outcomes:

  • They respond with something like: But it is really important to be a vegan!. -- In this case, you have at least clearly established their purpose. The problem is not going to disappear without intervention and can choose whether you want to escalate this or just ignore it.
  • They indicate that they didn't realize that you didn't like talking about it, and follow up by talking significantly less about the topic. Success!
  • They indicate that they will talk less about the topic but actually don't. In this case, they might be hiding their intent, or just didn't manage to change their habit in 1 go.

To support people in changing their habits, it could help if for the next few times, whenever the topic is brought up, you consistently but non-aggressively note that the topic is brought up (of course without starting a discussion about the content!). This should give you the highest chance that you change their behaviour without antagonizing them.

  • Welcome to Interpersonal Skills! I invite you to take the tour and visit our help center to learn more about the site and its guidelines. Good first answer, by the way. :) – NVZ Aug 10 '17 at 8:48
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    This line of response is great for a first offense. If the OP, however, has been trying to handle the situation with interpersonal skills and faces ongoing harassment after trying to be nice, then it might be appropriate to ask HR, "I need some help being left alone about a topic I am not interested in discussing further." – Christos Hayward Aug 11 '17 at 21:08
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Disengagement

A technique that I have found helps is to show your interest wane during their discussion to the point that you are no longer looking in their direction and simply respond randomly with an "uh huh" even while they are mid conversation.

This method of disengagement works well in many situations and allows you to ramp up the disinterest when they repeat a question and you can simply reply with an "I'm sorry but I wasn't really listening" or "I know, that's crazy". This last reply works well when used in a moment where it isn't really fitting.

You should find that all but the most determined will become frustrated and walk away after a few minutes.

Do not be bullied

One thing to remember in all areas of life where you face confrontation is to stand your ground. In this situation should you change your diet or eating habits to appease the few it will show you as weak and give the impression that you are easily bullied. This would be especially bad in the workplace so make sure you stand your ground.

Keep eating the cheese, although do have consideration for the rest of the office if it is a particularly pungent variety. Load up on the meat sandwiches and remember that sausage rolls, jerky or even scotch eggs make for a tasty afternoon snack.

The farming of animal products actually helps to sustain and grow animal populations. If we all stopped eating meat we could see a dramatic population reduction in farmable breeds. Their grazing land would be needed for growing vegetables and domesticated animals do not fare well in the wild. If everyone in the world turned vegan tomorrow within our lifetime it could lead to the next mass extinction event on this planet as farm animals go into massive decline. This is one truth that many vegans fail to acknowledge.

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Given that they are consistent, then it's probably time for you to start being consistent. Whenever they say the first sentence about your food habits, interrupt them with one of the following:

  • We've had this discussion already. Is there something else you need to discuss?
  • I remember when we talked about this last. Is there something else you need to discuss?
  • I appreciate your zeal on this topic, but I'm not interested in discussing my diet with you. Is there something else you need to discuss?
  • I'm still not interested in your diet and won't be anytime soon. If I change my mind I'll come to you, until then please do not discuss your diet with me again.
  • I've asked you not to discuss your diet with me. Please find someone else to talk to about it.
  • If you continue to bring up your diet with me I'll have to have a discussion with our leadership or HR, this feels a lot like harassment with you preaching your morality and beliefs. Do you understand that I do not wish to discuss this with you again? The next time you do I will escalate this issue.
  • Let's go to our boss/HR and continue this conversation there.

They should get the hint and either change the subject or leave. If they don't, repeat and escalate until the problem is resolved.

Ideally they will get the hint with the first few statements, but if they persist it's clearly become an issue of workplace harassment.

I strongly suggest you start keeping a log of when and where it occurs, who tries talking to you about it, and what they say. Even if it seems resolved after a few times of the above statements they may try again a month or two later, and having a record will show a clear pattern of workplace proselyting such that you should be able to get them to completely stop once the record is brought to your boss or HR.

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I think it's difficult to change something until you first accept (or at least understand) it. This is probably especially true of situations like this, where people's worldviews are at odds.

What you have to understand is that this person (presumably) really believes that you becoming vegan would be a good thing, and that you remaining a non-vegan is a bad thing. From their perspective, you are both perpetuating cruelty (to animals that they are emotionally invested in the wellbeing of) and damaging the environment (that they, you, and anybody that either of you care about both depend on to survive) through your behavior. Saying to them that they should just respect your choices, then, is insufficient, and doesn't (in my view) give that person or their views sufficient respect.

If you saw a person behaving in a way that you saw as cruel (to people, animals or whatever-it-is that you are emotionally invested in) and damaging to resources that you (and others you care about) depend on, would "just respect my decision" seem a reasonable defense? Maybe you think so, but I'd be surprised if you can't on-some-level relate to someone who didn't.

My advice then would be to forget about "You shouldn't try to change my mind" and focus instead on "You can't change my mind" or perhaps even (if you think it's true) "Your attempts to change my mind make me less likely to do so".

The point is, if you respect this person at all, you owe it to them to at least consider their views.

Now, if you have already shown respect to them and their beliefs (either by listening to their arguments or by researching the subject in your own time) but weren't persuaded, simply explain this. Explain that you aren't sold on their particular arguments for veganism.

It's probably reasonable at this point to concede that there's a possibility an argument or new piece of information may persuade you in the future (it's at least possible, is it not?). Perhaps suggest that they might persuade you better by allowing you thinking space, and that if this thinking space doesn't lead you to veganism, nothing they can do will. Obviously, this depends on what you're comfortable conceding, and how entrenched you feel your views are in the opposite direction.

On the other hand, if you haven't already shown respect to their views, perhaps you can offer to (maybe even on the condition that they stop talking about it afterwards). From your perspective, if feels like they're trying to force you to act a certain way. From their perspective, it's quite possible that feeling you've really listened to and considered their views might be all they were ever asking for.

The only alternative to listening and considering their views, I think, is to simply be rude, and to suggest that what they think doesn't matter, and the consequences they're concerned about are not important to you.

The point is, this person is unlikely to be convinced (short of you successfully persuading them of your views) that it's wrong to persuade you. You have to convince them that their attempts to do so are either futile or actively harmful to their cause.

In the meantime, if they do try to directly influence your behavior (as opposed to your beliefs), explain that you don't believe as they do, and you have to behave in a way that's consistent with your view of things, just as they do with theirs.

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    "if you respect this person at all, you owe it to them to at least consider their views." Not sure if you really have to go that far. Respect may also mean that you can if you want ignore their views as long as you respect their life style. And that's what I would also ask of them. It may result in not much sympathy but surely also in an end of further discussions. – Trilarion Aug 10 '17 at 14:43
  • Like I said, I've had "the talk" with them a couple times, out of respect for them as my coworkers. My respect for them is dwindling, however, as they continue to prod. – ArnoldF Aug 10 '17 at 18:59
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    Keep in mind that saying "Those arguments didn't convince me" is an invitation to keep bringing up new arguments everytime they think of one, which I'm fairly sure the OP would rather they not do. – Iker Aug 11 '17 at 14:57
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    @Trilarion – it is always possible to evade widening one's personal horizons by "not going that far", but OTOH considering the other person views is of mature forms of behaving. Learning about rationales of various groups and types of persons gives a boost to interpersonal skills paying off in many practical situations. So while I fully agree with you that it is not mandatory, it is definitely a higher way. – miroxlav Aug 14 '17 at 22:23
  • @miroxlav I agree that widening one's personal horizons is in general a good thing but I strongly doubt that it is a much higher way compared to "just" showing respect. This moral superiority might be an illusion if the ignorance only happens occasionally. There just might not be enough time to always consider everyone's view. Or one may be exhausted or may have already considered similar views in the past. – Trilarion Aug 15 '17 at 7:31
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The easiest way is to stop eating cheese in their vicinity. You don't need to become vegan just to avoid animal products for one meal per day on working days only. As you said, they smell it and it obviously bothers them. Imagine someone often eating surströmming in your office. Surely you would be bothered by it, and you would try to convince them to stop. Cheese to them is even worse than surströmming to you because it doesn't just smell, it's also morally questionable to them.

Of course, it's your right to eat cheese, but at the same time, it's their right to start a conversation with you about something you do that annoys them. Conversations are a normal part of office life. If you're that bothered about having conversations that don't interest you, it's your responsibility to avoid it, e.g. by not inviting the conversation every day by eating cheese.

Of course, you can also tell them that you're not interested in the same stuff they're interested in, and to stop talking to you about it, but there's no way to avoid that being considered awfully rude. It just is awfully rude. I imagine you, too, have something you're interested in, and would be insulted if someone told you to stop talking about it as they don't care. Especially so as you're the one that invites it every day with behaviour that annoys them. Going back to the surströmming example, imagine you told someone that it smells, and it annoys you, and they told you that they don't care and, even more, it annoys them that you keep talking about it whenever they bring surströmming. Seems rude? It is.

So you have basically three choices: stop doing things that annoy them, keep doing it and accept their conversations, or be rude and tell them you're not interested. What you choose will ultimately be decided by how much you like to eat cheese, how much these conversations annoy you and how much you value your relationship with them. It's not a decision anyone here can make for you.

Edit: There seems to be some confusion about what I'm saying here, as evidenced by the comments. It's not about the cheese being pungent or not. The asker says that they smell it, that's all that matters. If they smell (or see, or whatever) evidence of something that is morally questionable to them, they have a right to talk about it. It would be a scary world where you have to hide your beliefs because they might offend your colleagues. Eating at his desk or the lounge is hardly an attempt to avoid the problem. It's fully expected that his colleagues are going to pass by those places on a usual work day.

Talking to coworkers is very often more about being polite and respectful than about actually being interested in what they're saying. That shouldn't be a problem to a professional.

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    OP states that the problem happens whether he eats in the lounge or at his desk. Assuming this isn't very pungent cheese which most people would find offensive, he has already tried reasonable steps to change the vicinity. – AndyT Aug 10 '17 at 8:58
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Catija Aug 14 '17 at 19:01
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The whole group has established where different members stand.

You're not going to change your mind that you wish to eat non-vegan foods, and you aren't interested in becoming vegan.

They're not going to change their mind that they are vegans and they can and should convert you to being a vegan, no matter how many times you say "No."

Nothing within the interaction is going to change this.

More specifically, your improving your interpersonal and social skills in trying to find a way of saying "No" that vegan evanglists will respect as your legitimate boundary is not going to change the situation.

This is why it is appropriate to bring in HR, or if HR is REALLY clueless, followup on Witan ap Danu's suggestion.

(If the situation were something that would be improved if only you could learn to say "No" more politely, you would have found it by now and you would never have posted this question because it would have been resolved before this request for help.)

--UPDATE--

I also believe that factory farming is evil, and when I have a say in the matter, I prefer to get the kind of meat and an animal products (and, ideally, plant-based food) available from your local friendly Whole Paycheck Whole Foods store. I wouldn't specifically advise you following my lead in this case, particularly as it might come across as encouragement to further social pressure from your coworkers.

I mention this briefly; I tried to answer your social question because you explicitly opted-in to advice. I am not interested in advising you about your diet unless you explicitly opt-in to such, and nothing I have seen from you invites comments about "I eat meat but your co-workers are right about factory farming being horrible."

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    And one comment. Possibly you haven't thought of some offbeat answer: "I love vegans! They taste like chicken!" However, I really do not see any development of your interpersonal skills or techniques, all by yourself, that will change co-workers' perceived entitlement to give you an earful every single time you bring something non-vegan for lunch. I know going to HR isn't a first choice, but this situation has well crossed the line where it is HR's job to stop the bullying and stop what is full-fledged harassment. – Christos Hayward Aug 11 '17 at 21:40
  • Hey Jonathan, while I think your advice to point the OP towards responsibly farmed products is good advice and might assuage the vegans, I don't think that it's appropriate to push a plant-based agenda when the OP is specifically not interested in it. Please consider rewriting that part of your answer so that it addresses your suggestion without also suggesting the OP become a vegan. – Catija Aug 12 '17 at 14:24
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    I specifically did not advise the OP to migrate to better farmed products. I said that it could come across as (partly) caving in to pressure. – Christos Hayward Aug 13 '17 at 18:57
  • Apologies, I misread. I think the thing that matters considering that concern is that they don't know that this change has been made. – Catija Aug 13 '17 at 19:17
  • Thanks. He could perhaps clarify that he has sourced XYZ from Whole Paycheck's most squeaky-clean option, but even if he shows them the package, I don't think it would really cut into their perceived entitlement to tell him to eat vegan. I think they'd find a way, probably with little difficulty. – Christos Hayward Aug 14 '17 at 21:37

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