My birthday is next week, I’ve only been in this office two months – it’s my first job – and I’m not sure whether to bring a cake in or whether it’s up to my colleagues to provide one for me. I’m told differing things by different members of staff. I don’t want to put my foot in it, and I’m not sure whether it would be a good thing to mention my birthday or not. But presumably people know my date of birth – or at least my boss does, because it was on my CV. My friend says I’m making a fuss about nothing, but I don’t want to get it wrong because I’m enjoying my work.
Yours sincerely, Yolande
Your problem is not really about your birthday at all. It’s got nothing to do with what the office protocol is. It’s entirely a matter of confidence. And it’s quite understandable. You’re young – I presume – and this is your first job and you’re terrified that you’ll make a false move and be kicked out before your probationary period is up.
It is highly unlikely that you’ll be edged out because you got the birthday cake situation wrong. Let me be even firmer. Unless you bring in a birthday cake covered in cream and shove it into your boss’s face, having got p***ed on champagne, it is, I’d say, actually impossible for you to get fired for anything in connection with your birthday.
However, if you behave as if you are completely terrified the whole time, and daren’t make any move at all without checking and asking permission, that might add to some vague feeling that, at the moment, you’re not quite up to the job.
The sign of confidence (and it’s one I wish I had learned earlier in my life) is having the courage to ask. To go to a play and not understand the ending, then say to your companion: “I completely failed to get that. Did you have any idea what was going on?” To go, as a student, to a lecture you don’t understand, and say to yourself: “There are two possibilities here. Either I’m thick and arrived at this university under false pretences, or the lecturer is unable to communicate his ideas to his audience.” Nine times out of 10, it is the confident listeners who get on in life, the ones who can say: “I couldn’t make head or tail or it.”
So, next time you’re in the office, put your cards on the table. Say: “I’m becoming obsessed with birthday protocol and everyone gives me different answers. Do we celebrate birthdays here and do I bring a cake or do you, or what’s the form? I really don’t want to look a complete idiot.” It’s a strange paradox that the moment you admit to not wanting to look an idiot it is almost impossible to be made to look like one.
If you can’t face being so bold, simply bring in a cake and offer it around. You can say: “I’m too new to know what the birthday scene is here, but I just know that I’d love to celebrate my birthday with you.” Even if no one has ever brought a cake in before, no member of staff can fail to be delighted that you’ve bothered to buy – or even better, make – a cake and offer it around. See it not as a case of whether you’re breaking some kind of social rules or not, but a flagrant PR exercise that will put you ahead of the game.
Relax – and let them eat cake
My heart ached when I read your dilemma, Amy. Just bake a nice sponge cake and take it in to share with your immediate team. A homemade cake is always popular and can be an effective icebreaker. Then relax and enjoy your job and next year you’ll have 12 months under your belt and will be able to judge how best to proceed.
Mandy Halford, by email
Just get on with your work
I realise that this is not everybody’s piece of cake, but I think that remembering people’s birthdays and bringing in cake is a burden on busy people. How about instituting, every now and again, a lunchtime treat on a Christmas-club basis? Or just getting on with your work. Yours, scroogefully,
Cole Davis, by email
Best to ask your boss
I know exactly how you feel Amy, offices can be difficult places with things like that. Has anyone else had a birthday while you've been there, if so what did they do? If no one has, and differing information has been given by your colleagues, speak to your boss, who should be able to advise best, without listening to colleagues who may be trying to cover the fact that they don't know either. I personally would bring in a fairy cake tray from Tesco (depending on office size) for your department/room, so that you feel good, and none of your colleagues feel put out or obligated. Have a lovely birthday!
Eloize, by email
Don't mention the b word too early
If you do bring in a cake, make sure it's big enough for all the team to have a piece. Mentioning the birthday in advance may cause a few people to think they need to bring a present - or an extra cake! You could get bogged down in buying various presents all though the following year, or possibly offending people if you miss someone out.
An alternative is - not bring a cake, and just email the team, saying you didn't bring one but they are welcome to your birthday drinks, at <name of pub> on <date> at <time>. Even if they live miles away and won't come, it's a friendly invite.
AD Keith, by email
Next week's dilemma
My friend is 50 and has always had problems with drink. She managed to stay dry for about 15 years while she was bringing up her children, but then relapsed and has been drinking on and off ever since. Recently, I persuaded her to go into rehab (for the third time) and everything seemed to be going well until the day she came out, when she went on a huge binge. I now get daily phone calls from her begging for help. She doesn’t want to go back to rehab, or back to AA, either. What can I advise?
Yours sincerely, Derek
What would you advise Derek to do? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org. Anyone whose advice is quoted or whose dilemma is published will receive a box of Belgian Chocolates from funkyhampers.com