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Tales from the trenches: The sheet cake that shook a manager’s resolve

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

It was a sheet cake that ended Neil’s days as a cool manager.

The birthday party that Arthur’s product team threw for him in the break room was going fine. The stuffed crust pizza from Bando’s was a huge hit, and a friendly debate over whose fantasy football team was performing worst resulted in a sudden shocker of a running back trade. Neil had put up the decorations himself—his personal investment in these celebrations was one of the things his employees liked about him.

Then Gary and Ellen, the legendary office pranksters behind every killer gag since 2009, strolled in with ... The Cake.

Now, Neil could have made an argument that the icing pattern on its sweet surface wasn’t technically erotic. But the self-amused look on the culprits’ faces told him there was nothing unintentional about it; the schoolkids inside them had simply gotten carried away.

The birthday boy chuckled when he saw it. So did most of the team. Heck, it was kind of funny. Then, out of the corner of his eye, Neil saw Grace kind of, sort of, roll her eyes a little.

Fun Neil, the guy who always had a quip ready and staged spontaneous game shows for his staff on Fridays, was desperate to brush the cake off as a forgettable prank. But Suit and Tie Neil knew it represented the slight possibility of not just ill-feeling but a lawsuit if anyone else in the room remembered their offense beyond just today.

And so Neil spoke the words that had to be spoken: that blithe though the intentions were, he couldn’t allow the cake to be served. The sugar hawks in the room looked like he’d told them all their 401(k)s had just tanked.

“Oh, there’ll be cake, I promise,” Neil went on. “I'll jump in my car and go get a new one myself. We just can’t have this kind of thing in the workplace. Sorry, folks.”

The damage was done. For the record, three of the people Neil supervised never really perceived him again as a “fun” manager—but he lost no one’s respect. That night Neil, thirty dollars lighter for having bought a replacement cake (and walnut fudge ripple ice cream), looked around his home at some of the good things his job had given him, and silently accepted the trade-off. He was bound to have arrived at that crossroads eventually, but he never thought something so trivial and full of frosting would put him to the test.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Shari December 29, 2014 at 12:59 pm

Hi Neil,
A difficult position to be in. I think you made the right choice–it was loud and clear where you stood legally and ethically. I think also, I would talk with Human Resouces to get their take and then do a follow-up training on what is and what is not acceptable behavior in the work place.


john December 15, 2014 at 9:23 am

Hey Neil,
Good for you for maKing the hard…er, difficult choice. Might’ve been faster (and funnier) to grab the knife and smooth over the offending frosting though. Look for the “fun” answer if you can but when you come down to it manager is the job you get paid for.


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