new hire is crossing boundaries with my husband, asking a client why she didn’t hire me, and more

It’s four answers to four questions. Here we go…

1. Is a new hire crossing boundaries with my husband?

I work for my husband, a painting contractor. He hired an old friend from junior high/high school recently because we need to expand our administrative team. She’s been here about a month. A few days ago, she called and asked me what my husband’s favorite dessert was. When I asked why, she replied that she was planning a birthday celebration at the next operations meeting (I am on the accounting side and I don’t attend those meetings). She did not invite me to the celebration, but I did tell her my husband’s preference because I didn’t want to appear rude. But I was completely taken aback and uncomfortable with the situation. I talked to my husband immediately afterwards and stated my discomfort with this situation. I did later end up inviting myself (my husband’s suggestion) through text, giving her the opportunity to say yes, which she did. Come to find out she ordered a custom cake for the occasion, not a grocery store cake. As far as I know, she’s footing the bill for this.

To me, this came out of left field. And a few things bother me about this:
• Although they were Facebook friends and our company completed remodeling projects for her in the past, we’re not friends with her and her husband – we don’t hang out, so I’m not sure why we’re doing this.
• She’s been here a very short time and didn’t ask if there was a protocol, much less ask if I, his wife who also works here, would be interested in helping to plan a celebration for my husband.
• She did not invite our administrative assistant, who is also off-site – she was just planning on the meeting attendees, I guess?
• I don’t understand why she’s purchasing a custom cake for a birthday celebration – it’s a bit of a grandiose gesture.

Up until now, we have never celebrated employee birthdays. My husband says he doesn’t really want/need the attention and it’s “odd,” but we’ve decided to let this play out. He thinks she is just being nice and that other employees are in on this with her, but she didn’t mention that to me. Since she is one of three women in the office, the other possible counterparts to plan this would be men. I think it would be helpful to start setting boundaries/expectations. Please advise.

Eh, I don’t think it’s a huge deal. A lot of places celebrate employee birthdays with cake. Sometimes custom cakes! Maybe her previous jobs did. It’s a bit of a bold gesture for a new hire, but she’s an old friend.

I wouldn’t get hung up on not being invited or asked to help plan it. It sounds like she just planned to have the cake at a team meeting that was already occurring, so not a huge amount of planning involved.

What’s your specific worry — that she’s violating boundaries in some way? If that’s the case, there will be more incidents of it, and your husband can address the pattern at that point (presumably explaining that the relationship needs to change now that she works for him and they need to relate as manager/employee, not friends). But that something he needs to navigate, since he’s her boss; it’s not something you should be directly involved in. You can raise your discomfort with him privately, but you should stay out of it at work.

At work, you should be a colleague, not the owner’s wife. You definitely don’t want to come across as territorial over your husband with his employees, because that will quickly lead to some really weird places for everyone.

2. Can I ask my freelance client why she didn’t hire me for her latest project?

I’ve been freelancing for more than seven years, and I’ve worked on over 250 projects. Many of my clients are repeats, and I have a good reputation in my industry.

I have one client, Jane Doe, for whom I’ve done many projects. I’ve really enjoyed working with her, and have also been extra flexible during our last few projects when she had problems on her end that affected our timelines. I’ve done rush work and extra work in other ways. On the last project, there was quite a bit of rush and extra, and while I didn’t charge her an enormous amount, I did have to charge her more than the basic rate. She has many times expressed gratitude and said “I’d pay you 10 times as much because you do such a good job.” There have also been a few projects where I didn’t get to do the entire scope of my work because she finished so close to her own deadline that she couldn’t send me everything she’d intended.

Now I see that she has a new project launching … and I didn’t work on it. I’d love to know why. Scenarios I consider:
— She’s not happy with my work. Even if she never wants to book me again, I’d love to hear this feedback because I always want to improve my skills. If I’m dropping the ball somewhere, I’d like to know.
— She’s not happy with my rates. This is data I would like to know, though I probably wouldn’t change my rates for her or anyone else.
— There’s something else about my work process that isn’t working for her anymore. I want to be alerted to my professional blind spots.
— She still wants to work with me but didn’t for some reason on this one. Maybe this is part of it … but given that this current project is within a series of products I’d already worked on, it doesn’t really make sense for continuity.

So, should I ask her? If yes, how should I phrase it? I don’t want to appear angry or defensive. I am truly professionally curious. Or do I have to just chalk it up to freelance life and move along without asking? (The work is all remote so can’t just wait and hope I run into her to ask.)

It sounds like you have a good relationship, have worked together for a while, and she’s given you glowing praise, so I think you can ask her. The key is to not sound upset or like you think you’re entitled to the work, but rather to make it clear that you just want to make sure you did something to put her off. I would say it this way: “I noticed you’re launching a new X — it looks exciting! I hope this isn’t awkward to ask, but I wanted to make sure there weren’t any problems on our last project that deterred you from bringing me on for this one. No pressure at all, but if there is anything I can improve on my side our work together, I’d be very open to the feedback. And either way I’d welcome working together again if you have the right project in the future. I hope this new X goes very well!”

If she were a newer client or hadn’t given you such effusive praise, I might not be as direct; in that case, I’d probably wait a bit and just reach out more generally at some point. But in this case, I think you’re on solid ground in just asking.

3. We’re being asked to track all our time in a task log

I work in higher education at the business administration and finance level. We’ve been lucky enough to work from home with little interruption to our processes since COVID-19 shut things down in my state. Around July, my department head asked all exempt employees (salaried, not overtime eligible, no time clock to track hours) in my office to start filling out a task log. Initially, we followed it to the letter with start and end times and all that, but we’re painting broader strokes as time wears on, especially since our days vacillate wildly between one task to the next and we’re too busy to look at the exact mark for each task.

This task log is specific only to my office. The university at large has asked non-exempt (hourly) employees to do a similar log to combat against overtime claims. However, the same for exempt staff is not required. At first, my department head said it was only for a short while to get a data sample in the event he had to defend our roles against layoffs. Then he said the dean of the school is asking him to do it. However, he recently let slip that we’ll continue these logs as long as work-from-home orders are in place. As you can see, there are some inconsistencies.

Aside from bristling at being micromanaged, and what is clearly malarkey from my department head, my concern is that this somehow goes against HR policies for exempt employees. I’ve wanted to contact someone in a central admin or the union, but also don’t want to cause problems. What do you think?

Yeah, it sounds like he’s requiring the task logs because he doesn’t trust that people working from home are really working otherwise, which is the mark of a manager who doesn’t actually know how to manage or how to hold people accountable to outcomes rather than just activities.

That said, it’s perfectly legal to require task logs from exempt employees, and it probably doesn’t violate any internal rules either. If he wants to manage by hovering over everyone’s shoulder from afar, he can do that. (To be clear, there are legitimate reasons some managers ask exempt employees for task logs, like tracking project billing — but this sounds like it’s just because you’re working from home.)

It’s understandable that you’re annoyed, though, particularly since he seems to have lied to you about why he’s doing it. (Well, maybe. It’s possible the dean did ask him to do it. Who knows.) You can certainly try pointing out that it’s taking an enormous amount of time and making you feel untrusted and ask if, having done it for a while now and produced a bunch of data, the practice can be set aside.

4. Am I putting up a wall by not letting coworkers follow me on social media?

I came into my office as the first new coworker in about seven years. The team is very, very close and follow each other’s social media accounts, comment on things they see in them during calls, refer to posts, etc. and now I don’t know if I should open mine up to them too. A few have asked and two follow me, but I don’t want more than that. I prefer to keep work and home very separate, and it works for me. But it makes me wonder if I’m putting a wall up between my coworkers and me (they aren’t the most welcoming group as it is, everyone already has their cliques and friends and aren’t looking for new or more). I’m not desperate for them to know me in that way but sometimes I don’t know if I’m shooting myself in the foot in terms of social connection. It would just be Instagram, which isn’t nearly as opinionated as I was on Facebook but I’m not on Facebook anymore.

What are your thoughts on keeping those things separate? Is it worth letting them follow me in the name of coworker connection?

Nah, it’s not worth it if you’re uncomfortable with it. I’m skeptical that simply letting people follow you on Instagram will significantly change the social dynamics in your office, and there are lots of good reasons for keeping boundaries with work and social media. If you’re already feeling hesitant, I’d trust your instincts.

{ 630 comments… read them below }

  1. margaret*

    I work at a public university and we were told it would be a good idea to track our hours even as salaried employees so we can defend our jobs to the anti-higher ed state legislature and our conservative board of regents down the road. Doesn’t sound like that’s your boss’s motivation but if you reframe it as a way to protect yourself from layoffs it might feel less annoying.

    1. mourning mammoths*

      Agree with this.

      I also use my task list to document management decisions. It has saved my butt more than a few times, being able show my documentation of the decision AND be able to pull up emails from around that date as proof of the discussions – if there are any.

      I’ve found it very effective to use a paper calendar as a tool for capturing this info. One with a weekly spread and the days are broken down into hours. Rather than using this for scheduling meetings, I write down the tasks I’m working on as I work thorough the day, marking in which blocks of the day I’m doing those tasks. At the end of the day I check my outgoing email to check if I’ve forgotten something important. Then it doesn’t take so much time to fill out the official time tracking forms, no matter how often you’re asked to do it.

      If you want to take this system one step forward, I have found a very effective ‘bullet journaling’ method that keeps your weekly calendar + meeting notes + to do list + AOB all in one place. On Monday I take about 2 minutes to make a new weekly spread (I made a very simple template for this). Then in the empty pages that follow – here’s the good part – I take up as many or as few pages as I need for my meeting notes and to-do lists durring that week. Then repeat. I very regularly need to recall my handwritten meeting notes, so I check Outlook to figure out when the meeting was, and then bada boom all of my notes are in the pages after that week in my notebook. It is beyond convenient to have all of this information centralised. So convenient (and flexible) that I have stuck to this method for more than 3 years. FWIW I’m not a person who has stuck to any other journaling method previously.

      1. Thankful for AAM*

        I use a modified bullet journal but did not think to use it this way for tracking. I have one supervisor ask that we track for a time (typically not done in our system) and it took too much bandwidth. This will help if I have to do that again.

    2. London Student*

      Also, reframing it that way will be helpful if OP does decide to push back on the request.

      You’re more likely to position concerns in a collaborative way if you can hold the benefit of the doubt for the other party’s motivations. And whether OP’s department head is being forthright or not, approaching him with defensiveness/skepticism is likely to put his hackles up, which isn’t the best way to start the conversation.

      It’s easier to esclate conversations than it is to descalate them, so always strategic (and kind) to start off assuming the best.

    3. Caaan Do!*

      Same, I work at a UK university and we’re going through restructures and voluntary redundancies at the moment. If this doesn’t produce enough savings, compulsory redundancies will follow so I’ve been sending weekly overview updates on my workload to my line manager at her request, which she can use as concrete evidence that our team is necessary (we’re in the corporate side rather than the actual teaching). This reframing is definitely a good idea, if only to save your own feelings.

    4. Seeking Second Childhood*

      If there is any government funding of projects there may be a billables issue. I have vague 30 year old memories of Stanford getting audited for not correctly weeding out overhead admin costs from project-funded administration costs.

    5. Uranus Wars*

      I was going to say something similar. I am no longer in higher ed, but when our university looked like it was going to be “reshuffled” and some funding change our VP had us do this as exempt folks, so she could have evidence of our workload and positions needed.

      This may not be the case here, but since boss mentioned the Dean it could be that (if he doesn’t have a history of lying).

      1. JustaTech*

        My department (non-academia) did this for about 6 months because someone commented in the new CEO’s hearing that they wanted more projects to work on, and he decided that meant that none of us were working (and frustratingly we were in a slow period because management hadn’t decided on our next projects).
        So we had to document every single thing we did for months and months.
        No one got laid off, but we don’t know if that was all the data we collected or if the CEO just got distracted by something else.

        So if jobs are on the line and you can’t convince the powers that be with words, sometimes you can convince them with numbers and charts.

    6. AnonForNow*

      Yeah this is where my mind went. My mom is a VP of finance at a state university and they just do not have a budget this year really. A lot of their expendable funds come from student housing costs and hardly anyone is living on campus this year. They’ve had to lay off a lot of their admin and res life workers because they literally have not had work to do, and have been paid for doing nothing for months from a budget that has ceased to exist. I think a lot of people don’t realize that public higher education, who already have low tuition costs and subsidies that have been nixed, are struggling and can’t keep everyone employed and need to be able to justify keeping on the people they are.

    7. LQ*

      I don’t understand why folks are so aggressively put out by being asked to track their hours. It always feels as if there’s this “I’m too important to have to do THAT work that HOURLY people do” tone to it. I’m salaried and I track my hours and I always have. I did when I worked at a nonprofit so that I could report out on the work to the donors and grants. I work in government now. And partly I just want to make sure I’m not way over spending time in one area and under in another. Which I’ve found a few times.

      And people always talk about metrics, but chances are good your metrics in your job aren’t that clear anyway so sometimes additional tools are helpful.

      It’s not actually unreasonable to be asked to account for your time. If the boss is being unreasonable in other ways, focus on those things.

      1. Elysian*

        Agreed! I know it is all a matter of perspective, but as someone who works in an industry that bills in 6 minute increments, my day is run by a stopwatch (it is running right now on my “procrastination” timer!). This is the life I chose and I’m not complaining, but by comparison it always seems so reasonable to me when people ask employees to keep general track of what they’re working on.

        1. NotAnotherManager!*

          Billing is what my new-hire paralegals used to struggle with the most. Keeping up with demanding attorneys while also tracking client billing down to the minute was tough for them, but it was a job requirement and we provided a lot of training, technology, and support around this because it was client-facing and how we made money. When it’s just a ticker for your boss, the framing/importance is much different and it feels Big Brother-y rather than like part of your job and a productivity/bonus metric the way it is in professional services organizations.

          Jobs that bill to make money also usually have technology tools to facilitate that. Our billing system has timers one can run while working on tasks and allows people to replicate task descriptions from one day to another for long-running projects. Our newest billing system has an option to capture what you’re doing on your PC (responding to emails, viewing specific websites, working on Word) to allow you to quickly track time and draft your time entry descriptions. If your job does not offer these sorts of tools to support a business function, you’re stuck making up your own system that is likely more manual and more overhead. And I know that some of our businesses folks are the frequently fliers on the missing time lists because they’re so busy that time tracking falls down the priority list until billing deadlines.

      2. Tequila & Oxford Commas*

        It so depends on what kind of work you do. I’m in higher ed communications; some days I can proceed methodically through a few discrete tasks and tracking would be very straightforward. Other days I’m bouncing from one crisis to the next or taking care of fifty different small projects that are just disparate enough that it would be challenging to sum them up in a way such that my tracking log would be both accurate and coherent. “Answering email” would account for hours of my time each week, which isn’t tremendously meaningful from an analytics standpoint; to make it meaningful data-wise would mean I’d be spending as much time tracking as I would be actually doing the darn thing.

        I can absolutely see benefits to tracking your work under some circumstances, but it’s by no means a one-size-fits-all kinda thing.

        1. margaret*

          My work sounds similar to yours. I have “email triage” on my calendar and know I can always look at my sent email to figure specifics out if I were asked.

      3. nope*

        I think often the pushback comes from the amount of time it takes (if you are paid hourly you are getting paid for this whereas this is an additional duty for salaried people that will often stretch out the day).

        In my experience, tracking time does take a lot of time (ie think about responding to emails if your job is email heavy and having to log every single of the 100+ emails you send dailyunder what project it was for… In addition to doing your actual work)

        1. Res Admin*

          Serious question: I get a LOT of emails (I counted 47 yesterday before I even got into the office–and at least twice as many before lunch). The only time I log an email is if it is an action item–in which case I log the action item, not the email. Quick responses are either part of another action item (and therefore already tracked) or not a significant workload. Occasionally, the action item will be “respond to email from X dated Y” if it is going to take time/research to respond. Under what conditions would you actually log each individual email? I didn’t even do that when I was tracking billable hours years ago!

          1. KTstronger*

            There is nothing about billable hours here though (tracking billable hours is very different from someone being asking to track and log all the tasks they do daily) and if you are being asked to tracking your time precisely, you would need to include how you spent just about every minute of the work day day which would include emails. Some jobs are very email based. I have had jobs where I’ve spent 50%+ of my day responding to emails and most didn’t have “action items”. As someone noted above, tracking your time and the amount of time that takes is so very very job dependant.

      4. londonedit*

        The only time I’ve ever had to do it (when not self-employed and charging an hourly rate for copy-editing etc) was when I worked for an insane micromanager who was convinced everyone was slacking off at any given moment, so that’s probably coloured my view of it! It’s definitely not an
        ‘Ugh, tracking my time like some kind of HOURLY’ person thing for me, it’s a ‘stop treating me like a child who can’t be trusted and look at what I’m producing rather than nitpicking how long I’m spending working on task A or task B’. My job doesn’t have clients to bill, it doesn’t have budgets that my time needs to be set against – I have deadlines and I have things that need to happen in a certain order and by a certain set of dates. If I’m doing that, it’s all good. Don’t tell me I can’t spend another hour checking a set of proofs because I’ve already spent three hours on that project this week.

      5. Ann Perkins*

        It really depends on what the role is and how the employee is being asked to track. I have one friend who has to track her time, and literally every minute of the day must be accounted for. So if she spends 5 minutes using the bathroom she has to log it. They’re all WFH and child care tasks are also included on their task list so if she spends ten minutes prepping lunch for her kid that has to be logged with her work tasks also.

        1. Ann Perkins*

          Also, for some people it really does not provide any benefit to know exactly how many hours are spent on one task. For people who are more autonomous in their role it’s unlikely anyone will have useful insight into the logging anyway. The metrics for my role are, am I meeting deadlines for my weekly/monthly/quarterly/annual tasks and doing them in a quality fashion. Tracking my hours really doesn’t tell me whether I’m hitting those metrics.

          1. Wintermute*

            I don’t think that’s accurate at all. It’s important to know HOW a job breaks down. For instance, if you are meeting your deadlines and your quality is good, and a coworker is not, looking at how you spend your day might identify where they’re having trouble (“you spend twice as much time on email, how is that happening, do you need outlook training or writing classes?” stuff like that) it also helps them have a realistic idea of what parts of a job are big and what are small.

            In addition it helps a good manager identify where they can make process improvements, “it seems like a lot of your time is spent on X, lets see what we can do to reduce that for you” sort of thing, it might help them identify inefficient tools, tasks you’ve wound up with that they thought take a few hours that actually take up a lot more time, etc.

            and that’s before you get into the fact that not every job bills to one cost center for all their labor, and the fact many jobs do not have such clear deliverables so an idea of what you’re doing with your time IS a deliverable.

            1. serenity*

              This rings true for some roles, not for others. Some higher-level positions that rely less on consistent deliverables would probably not benefit from a deep-dive tracking of time.

      6. Dawbs*

        I think there’s an extra level of ‘ugh’ when WFH.

        I’m currently hourly and clock in and out on an app, but I already have to email my supervisor my corrections because yesterday morning lookedlike:
        8:50-clock in, answer emails
        9:12-don’t have time to clock out, but there’s a crisis in 5th grader doing math
        9:30-clock out and start on work so that I can try to correct for the ‘should have been working’ time
        12:23-realize that I forgot to clock back in because I did work, dealt with cat puke, explained 1st person narratives at an elementary school level, signed for a UPS pkg and managed to do a TON of actual work. Spend time figuring out approximately how many minutes of this was ‘work’

        Make everybody lunch.

        1:50-Get everybody started back at school, log in so I can leave to do some ‘onsite’ work outside of my home (paid door-to-door). Do stuff. Clock out so I can do errands because we’re minimizing my trips because of certain covid risks

        5:30-realize that because I was using a crappy public wifi, my clock-out never went through.
        6:00-do about 45 minutes of work, and try to figure out hours.

        For many of us, our days are pretty damn fractured right now which makes logging take a huge HUGE amount of effort (because yesterday was actually a pretty simple one–and I have fairly minimal kid stuff, and it’s still this)

        1. Tequila & Oxford Commas*

          Fistbump of solidarity; my day yesterday included 20 minutes of explaining the difference between similes, metaphors, idioms, and personification, at a fifth-grade level.

          1. Dawbs*

            oh, that sounds like deeper English than we did, congrats on simile/metaphor distinctions!

            We mostly got hung up on multiplying a decimal number times another decimal number with where you put the decimals.
            Until I gave up and showed her ‘my’ way of doing it instead of the teacher’s. She literally said “oooohh–THAT” then took the mini-quiz showed me the 95% on the quiz to show she knew the material. Gold star parenting.
            (I usually, since I work in ed, try to not to fight the different ways they teach, but, this was the way she’d get it, and sometimes, you trust that mom can do 5th grade math. usually.)

            1. Tequila & Oxford Commas*

              I can still remember plenty of algebra and even a little calculus, but I came up hard against my limit with fifth-grade long division the other day!

          2. KaciHall*

            I’m working in office (because my bosses don’t believe the virus is anything but an overblown political hoax, ugh) and my child is not in school yet.

            I still spent twenty minutes teaching one of my coworkers how to teach her kid algebra because she hasn’t thought of any math in thirty years and never wants to. But she could only work on it between her Zooms for science and English classes.

            Modern schooling is weird this year.

        2. turquoisecow*

          I work part time from home and I’m constantly forgetting to clock in and out. I get caught up in something, forget to clock in, then clock out to do something else and forget to clock in when I resume work. I try really hard to just make my own corrections, like oh I just forgot to log that 15 minutes so I’ll log out 15 minutes after I stop working so it lines up. And I set alarms on my phone to remind me. Because it’s also annoying if my boss has to take significant time out of his day to fix my errors!

        3. Veryanon*

          Oh man. I am happy I don’t have to log my hours, because my day typically looks something like this (I am a single parent):
          Prior to 8:30: wake up, get dressed, take dogs out for walk, 1st try at waking up recalcitrant teen for online school
          8:30 – log on; 2nd try at wake up recalcitrant teen for online schooling; making sure she is not sleeping through any classes
          8:30-10: answer emails, check voice mails from overnight help line, make toast for recalcitrant teen, feed dogs, throw in load or two of laundry
          10:00 – 5 minute sanity check and take dogs out for quick pee, check on recalcitrant teen to ensure she is still logged onto her classes
          10:05-12:00 more emails, phone calls, IMs, meetings as scheduled, project work
          12:00 – check in on recalcitrant teen (I got an email from her English teacher last week that she had been sleeping through classes, so am now forced to be more hands on)
          12:05 – make a sandwich or something for lunch since I forgot to eat breakfast
          12:15 – take dogs out again
          12:30 – log back in
          12:30-3: meetings, project work, emails, IMs, phone calls all punctuated by barking dogs and teen wandering around in the background; also occasional appearance by college student son, who is ALSO taking online classes
          3:00: another pee break for dogs
          3:05 – 5:00 (or later): more meetings, phone calls, IMs, etc. I might also fold a load of laundry in there or do some other light household chores if I have time
          5:15ish – log off for the day; sometimes log back in around 7 or 8 since I am handling COVID cases for my company’s East Coast sites and may need to respond to texts, etc.


      7. Dancing Otter*

        But they aren’t just being asked to put start, stop and break times, as hourly workers do. They’re being asked to account for every moment of their day. It’s not the same.

        Even when I did project work, I was only required to put 4 hours project X, 3.5 hours project Y, 1/2 hour administrative, for example, into the time & billing system.

      8. MCMonkeyBean*

        I don’t think it’s that they think they are more important than hourly people, just that it is already expected that hourly people might have to do it because they have to track at a minumum *when* they work in order to get paid–so expanding that to tracking what you do during that time doesn’t seem like a huge jump.

        For me, not wanting to track my hours is something I specifically wanted in a job and is one of the many reasons that I skipped public accounting as I didn’t want to be in a job with billable hours. So if tracking my work suddenly became a big part of my job it would be really annoying to me.

        I’m not sure how they jumped to “is this legal” but I definitely understand their annoyance.

    8. Lizzo*

      Similar situation here, #3. Our organization tracked time allocated to projects for a couple of years in order to get a handle on how time spent correlated with the budget. Everyone–both hourly and salaried–participated in the process. It was a PITA, but it was a good business tool.

    9. Some Lady*

      Agree. It’s possible that future potential grants and funding sources, restructuring, or other decisions and changes would really benefit from this information and they’d rather have it than not. Agree it’s an annoying task, though, even when it’s useful!

      1. The Rural Juror*

        I have a coworker who oversees our jobsites. We purchase a log book for every project and tell him to be as specific as possible when writing in it EVERY DAY to keep up with work being performed. He thinks it’s so annoying and constantly pushes back on having to do it. There have been times when we didn’t need the information, so I can understand why he thinks it’s annoying. But, there have also been times when the information was extremely critical and it turns out he didn’t document it as he’s supposed to…which ended up putting us in a tight spot!

        It’s much better to do the annoying thing and have it, but not need it, than to end up the other way around!

        BUT, I also understand that it’s not as critical for some positions and can understand why the OP would feel the way they do. My coworker does not have the same excuse *eyeroll*

    10. Res Admin*

      Same at my university. My boss asked her entire team to track their time. One team member found a Teams app that works sufficiently–individual records can only be seen by the specific owner and their supervisors. The reason given was specifically so that we could justify our time working from home in case of audit. As far as I can tell, no one actually checks the logs. I am certain my boss doesn’t (she has neither the time nor interest), however she very much wanted to protect her people from layoff, salary reductions, etc.

      It’s not like it is difficult or takes much time–esp. as I already keep a book with everything I am working on for my own use anyway. I just sync them at the beginning and end of the day.

      1. Not playing your game anymore*

        I work for a state owned university library. We have 5 people who can be called on to support any of the 3 librarians on staff. The 5 each have “their own” tasks, but if I need clerical help on something, or in theses work from home times if I need someone to be my eyes and hands… I need to have some idea how much work I gave J, R, and K to do. Tracking my time during these difficult days has made it much easier to report to the person who actually completes their performance appraisal what work they did in my area and how well it was accomplished. I just tag emails. Purple is for a, yellow is for b etc. Then I can simple sort through the email archive and say J did 6 separate tasks for me in April. 3 were quick 1-2 hour asks. The other 3 were related to Y, which is still ongoing. He has continued to just “take care of Y” so we probably need to add that to his job description and make sure he gets credit. Meanwhile, I get the oversaw a new process caused by the pandemic. It’s made things easier as we wrap up the end of year stuff.

    11. PeanutButter*

      The other thing you can do is set up an AutoHotKey for time and date stamps. In my lab, we use Alt+D for date/time and Alt+S for just time for our electronic lab notebooks. It makes date and timestamping things soooooo much less of an annoyance.

  2. Artemesia*

    I got very different vibes on Letter 1 — There are two possibilities that jump to me 1. inappropriate flirting or trying to become more personally involved with the husband her boss and 2. the escalating office wife/power grabbing assistant. I have worked in settings where the AA of a team panders to the boss in this way — fancy cake, elaborate gifts for occasions etc etc. And it tends to escalate until it crashes in catastrophe of some sort. This kind of proprietary attitude towards the boss, letting everyone else know how important I am — no good comes from that.

    This feels really off to me — best case she is a major suck up trying to cement her role as the most important person in the office to him — worst case, less savory.

    Of course you don’t want to over-react and make drama but the husband needs to think about some boundaries (are fancy cakes being planned for everyone else?)

    1. Coffee time!*

      yes I was thinking the same thing.. .they aren’t close friends…normally you ask what normally happens for birthday etc in a office.. and not inviting the other women… may be reading too much but definitely something to keep an eye on.

      1. Daisy*

        But it sounds like she didn’t particularly invite anyone at all, male or female – just the people who were already going to be in the meeting. I find it weird that OP seems on one hand to be complaining it’s too much fuss, but on the other apparently expected an invitation even though she doesn’t work on the team.

        1. babblemouth*

          I get where you’re coming from, but the personalized cake takes it to a weird place for me. If you want to casually celebrate “we’re in a meeting, we might as well take an excuse to eat cake”, you don’t take the step of personalizing a cake. It’s quite over the top (unless by personalizing, the LW meant “printing out a piece of edible paper and slapping it on top”)

          1. Doc in a Box*

            Eh, my Costco has started doing cakes again. It takes about 3 seconds to fill out a custom cake order form and write-in what you want, like “Happy Birthday, Boss!” If she were baking from scratch, or coming up with a truly personal message, I’d think that was odd, but no one will raise an eyebrow from a generic personalized cake from Costco.

            1. babblemouth*

              Yes, that’s a good point. I think a lot of the weird-or-not answer hinges on what the LW meant by “custom cake”. When I read that I was thinking of something you’d see in the Sunday Sweets section of the Cake Wrecks blog… but maybe I was projecting a bit too much the kind of custom cake I’d like for my birthday!

            2. Surly*

              Agree, I’m confused by why the personalization matters. Any time I’ve seen a store bought cake at work, it’s said “Happy birthday [name]” or “Congratulations [name]” on it. That seems…normal?

            3. PVR*

              LW specifically states it was not a grocery store cake which I would think a Costco cake would fall under, which leads me to believe that it was a much fancier bakery shop order.

              1. Uranus Wars*

                I agree Costco probably means grocery store. OP did clarify below it was a custom painters cake that was probably $60-$80. I don’t know where OP lives, but where I am a ready-to-buy grocery store cake costs around $40. The same size ready-to-buy from our local bakery costs $50. I usually spend the extra $10 to support local. But to me $60 (while out of my price range) doesn’t sound crazy pants to me.

                1. Oxford Comma*

                  When it comes to things like birthday cakes and contributions for retirement gifts, spending thresholds are often all over the map.

                  You know, I think this could be someone who is just super grateful to have a job. Or maybe they’re super into birthdays. Or maybe they came from job(s) where this is what they do and it hasn’t occurred to her that not all workplaces are the same. Or maybe they want to support a local bakery.

                  There are too many ifs here for the OP to know. I think you let it ride and if it becomes part of a larger pattern, well, then OP’s husband can deal with it.

                  OP: how did you find out what the cake cost? Did the employee share that?

                2. ReadItWithSpanishAccent*

                  I never buy “grocery store cakes”. I buy them off a website that lists all the bakeries in my area (seriously, it is great) and it takes me 30 seconds to fill the order of a custom cake, even with a photo.
                  To me the key information is that the employee is an old friend of Husband’s from high school. The whole letter gave me vibes of jealousy – whether her suspicions are justified or not, I can’t say, but nevertheless this isn’t a drama I’d bring to my SO’s workplace.

                3. myswtghst*

                  To Oxford Comma (since nesting has run out) – “There are too many ifs here for the OP to know. I think you let it ride and if it becomes part of a larger pattern, well, then OP’s husband can deal with it.”

                  That is spot on. I’ve known people who just really love birthdays, and love any excuse to celebrate, or any excuse to support a local small business (like a bakery). It’s really hard to tell from the outside if the new employee is just someone like that who sees this as a totally normal thing they would do for any boss, or if this is the beginning of a larger pattern of over-the-top and/or inappropriate attention directed only at the boss.

                4. Glitsy Gus*

                  Yep. Also, at my office, there are several small bakeries nearby and no big grocery, so getting a custom, personal cake is actually easier than a grocery store cake. That alone isn’t really a flag. Maybe she just really likes the bakery or it’s on her route to work. Yeah, $60 is kind of pricey, but again, that alone isn’t always a big deal. People have different priorities about cost on things like this.

                  I get why it was a little odd, but if this is the first instance of something like this I would let it go until you have something more solid to suggest a turf war of any kind. It could be she really likes cake and saw her boss/friend’s birthday as a chance to eat cake but wanted to make sure she didn’t get a flavor he hated.

                  You don’t have enough data here to draw a conclusion. Go ahead and keep an eye open, but I would also say, OP, try to be honest with yourself as you do so you don’t unintentionally start marking your own territory on your husband.

            4. Emi*

              To me a Costco cake with a custom message is a “grocery store cake” — I think this “custom cake” is from a bakery where you go and order the message, icing, design, cake, filling, etc custom. That’s fancier, which makes it weirder, and the added cost is an issue since she’s essentially gifting up.

              1. Miss Pantalones En Fuego*

                To me a custom cake would be anything that doesn’t just come off the shelf in a sealed container. The grocery store near my parents used to sell cakes ready for decorating in the bakery area and you’d take it to the counter, ask for a message, and someone would pipe it on right then. That’s what I was imagining custom was in this case.

          2. Roscoe*

            I mean, I feel like this is a very strong generalization. Maybe she knows somoene at the grocery store who personalized it for free. Maybe she thought the extra $5 would be worth it. It just seems that a lot of suspicion is being cast over a cake.

          3. HarvestKaleSlaw*

            Everyone in my office gets their favorite cake, personalized, on their birthday.

            I’m not trying to sleep with any of them.

            1. Annony*

              Yep. This is a single data point that really needs more context before being addressed, if at all. She may really like birthdays and have a friend who runs a bakery she wants to support. Wait and see if she does anything on anyone else’s birthday. Wait and see if she does anything else that is out of step with the office. She is new and bringing in a cake is not a big deal by itself.

              1. Lisa*

                Yeah, this didn’t stand out to be as particularly abnormal. While my office doesn’t exactly do custom cakes, we do have a doc that includes everyone’s favorite dessert and order each person’s favorite dessert for their birthday. Similarly, the dessert is shared out at a team meeting – no one is specifically invited or not.

            2. Birdie*

              One of my previous offices did this, too. It wasn’t a big to-do, either – it was brought to our weekly staff meeting. And if this is a casual, bring a cake to our standing meeting situation, I wouldn’t necessarily expect the celebrant’s spouse to be invited, so I wouldn’t consider that too alarming, either. I think there are just too many harmless explanations to make me feel like OP’s reaction is definitely justified. There could be more we don’t know, of course, but I’d be far more alarmed if this person had been around long enough to know this didn’t fit the office culture and was doing it anyway. As it is, she could very well be operating off norms from a previous job.

          4. PeanutButter*

            “we’re in a meeting, we might as well take an excuse to eat cake”,

            Ha ha, this is what I was basically told when I said my co-workers didn’t have to go to the trouble of doing anything for my birthday. “We get to charge goodies for birthday celebrations to the main organization, don’t deny us our treats.”

        2. tangerineRose*

          Since she asked the LW for the husband’s favorite dessert, it seems like she should have invited the LW.

          1. BuildMeUp*

            It was for a meeting for another department, though. It would be really strange of the LW showed up to a meeting that had nothing to do with them.

        3. BatManDan*

          The OP probably got herself invited to check out the dynamics, not because she felt excluded from cake. I’ve seen this sort of thing up close; it’s never a good thing.

      2. Natalie*

        She asked the LW what kind of cake to buy. If the answer was “none”, the LW probably should have said that.

        1. Snuck*

          Thank you.

          If the new hire asked for guidance then guidance should have been given.

          If there is shenanigans at play then it will all come out in the coming weeks, if the new hire has wildly different expectations and mores to the rest of the office it will become evident. If the wife is being overly sensitive then take a cup of coffee, sit back, and work out where the line is and then how you’ll maintain that professionally. And if birthday cakes in squirrelled away meeting rooms is not the norm for heaven’s sake just say “We do birthdays thusly…”

      3. Cait*

        I have to disagree. It sounds like the LW is jealous of this woman and her history with her husband. There’s nothing odd about getting a cake for a coworker’s birthday, even if it’s a custom-made one. There’s nothing odd about just inviting people in that person’s immediate department to attend. There’s nothing odd about not asking that person’s spouse to help plan an event that pretty much just involves eating cake. And there’s nothing odd about not inviting their spouse if they work in a different department and no one else outside the department was invited. And the wording just sounds so insecure: “Giving her the opportunity to say ‘yes’, which she did” (as if, if she didn’t, that means she’s up to something), “We’re not friends with her and her husband, we don’t hang out” (as if only people who are besties are allowed to plan a small birthday celebration at the office), and referring to the cake as “a grandiose gesture” (it’s a cake… even a custom one probably didn’t set her back a ton of time or money). I highly suggest the LW take a big step back and ask herself why she feels so threatened by this woman. Does she have a romantic history with her husband? Has her husband ever been unfaithful with a coworker or given her reason not to trust him? Does the LW often overstep her bounds and stick her nose in business that doesn’t involve her just so she can remind everyone she’s married to the boss? I take it that this woman just wanted to try to impress the boss or the rest of the department because she’s new, not because she’s being nefarious. If that’s not how things are done there, then the husband needs to be the one to tell her so and leave it at that.

        1. bleh*

          She is not necessarily jealous. Maybe she can easily smell this woman’s interest – one usually can – in her husband personally or professionally or narcissistically (needs supply). Even the husband said it was “odd” – he can smell it too.

          1. NaoNao*

            Yes, thank you. Nail on the head. As a woman (and men are like this too, often pointing out or otherwise nailing “he’s interested in you, that’s why he’s doing this odd behavior!”) I very well know “pick me!” crap when I see it.

            I have a platonic male friend who checked in recently and got hurt when I didn’t reply soon enough and did a digital version of the “flounce”. I told my fiance and the first thing he said was “Hey, it’s been a year, your relationship fall apart yet?” meaning he was calling out that “platonic” male friend for checking for me. And he was likely not wrong!

        2. Artemesia*

          Brand new to the department. First out of the box she gets a fancy cake for the boss. This is a territory marking move aimed at the rest of her peers as well as the boss. And it wasn’t enough to just grab a cake at Kroger — no she did research on ‘his favorite cake’ and had it custom made. Yeah nothing to see here, LOL.

          1. DarnTheMan*

            Seriously? It’s a cake. If it had been that new admin specifically ignored Bob, Janice and Malcolm’s birthdays, all which came before the boss’s and then bought boss a cake, yes that would be weird. But some commenters (and OP to an extent) are acting like new admin arrived on Day 1, dropped trou and peed on the bosses desk to mark her territory.

              1. DarnTheMan*

                What? It’s a cake, not a key to admin’s house with an open invitation for boss to drop by anytime.

          2. Snuck*

            It feels out of whack for me too. Usually something like this is an odd power play, whether it be for the boss’ favour, or even if suddenly there’s custom cakes for everyone’s birthdays – the introduction of new traditions should be run past someone before they start. To not run them past someone (to suddenly go from no birthdays to custom personalised flavours?!) is to assume you have permission to do all sorts of things that you might not. A good AA/PA/EA will check in with someone around them “hey, what’s the go for birthday’s here?” And if you are doing a cake for the boss you’d better make sure that you a) invite the wife, b) consider making it enough to feed the entire leadership team, and c) you are doing cakes or recognition of all the other staff at some level too. If you are doing it blatantly just for the boss, just at his once a week meeting without half the leadership team, without the wife, then you are missing something.

            1. Natalie*

              To not run them past someone (to suddenly go from no birthdays to custom personalised flavours?!) is to assume you have permission to do all sorts of things that you might not.

              But she did run it past someone – the letter writer, who is their HR and co-owns the business.

          3. BluntBunny*

            Or it could be she was grateful that OP’s husband reached out to her to offer her job during a pandemic. If he is the only person she knows at this job I don’t think it is that far fetched to want to be friendly with him, it’s hard to make friends at a new job. In my company there a lot of married couples it would be weird to invite them to things just because the other one is going.

            1. Jinkys*

              Right? What humorless places do these people work that bringing in baked goods is such a weird behavior. Based on what was written, she’s not kissing up or being a “pick me”. She got hired from a long time friend (their relative closeness at the time of hiring is irrelevant) during a pandemic and his birthday was shortly after, so of course she would think to bring something in.

              Honestly, I’m greatly disappointed by the amount of gendered judgement in the comments. Heaven forbid a female coworker ever do something nice and fun. It must be that she’s a kiss up or trying to make romantic moves on a man. I assure you if the newly hired friend was male, none of these commenters would call him a “pick me” even though male brown-nosers (and men who are into men) exist.

        3. and eat it too*

          I agree. The LW is the one whose behavior/attitude feels off to me. She’s definitely the one making this situation about personal relationships rather than professional relationships.

          Absent additional context, the details included in the story aren’t enough to warrant the level of suspicion the LW is expressing. It’s definitely worth her taking that step back and examining why she feels that way. She may be justified, but I’m having trouble seeing it with just the details we were given here.

          1. myswtghst*

            Completely agreed. It’s absolutely possible there are details not included in the letter about the cake-giver’s broader patterns of behavior that make this concerning, but on it’s own, it seems like a lot of concern over something I can think of 10 different completely innocent explanations for.

          2. Happy*

            I agree. And the way that LW keeps stressing that she’s his wife (when they should strive to make that irrelevant to others at work) makes me question her professionalism.

        4. Southern Gentleman*

          Agree. If the party-planner had something to hide or some ulterior motive, she wouldn’t have messaged the wife to ask about it. This seems self-evident.
          My wife and I work for the same organization (she’s been there much longer) and I learned very quickly to be a colleague and not a spouse at work (Interestingly, the lesson was learned when I sent an email my first year to alert a few co-workers close to her that my wife had a birthday coming up. I was told in a kind but firm way that was crossing a line).
          So, to me it seems like an overreaction.

    2. Anne*

      Agree, this seems off to me. But I’m not sure it makes sense to force the point until a pattern becomes more obvious.

      1. EPLawyer*

        It’s definitely worth raising with husband. He’s the boss. He needs to make clear that over the top birthday celebrations for him are not appreciated. Good time to institute the “gifts flow down, not up” Rule. You don’t want an office where the admin is running around collecting for the Boss’ annual vacation from the lower level employees because the admin wants to cement her position as the true power in the office.

        I also reallllly hope that is a work thing. But a talk with husband will also help figure that out.

        1. Snow Globe*

          Yeah, giving a cake to the boss, when other workers don’t get a cake, is the issue that would bother me most about this, and that is where the Boss should say something to stop it.

        2. MusicWithRocksIn*

          Yes – That was the part that made me most uncomfortable. If no one else ever gets bday things, then starting with a fancy cake for the boss is a bad place to start it. It is very gifts flowing up. I think the husband should discourage this and say that he doesn’t want a fuss made about his birthday, and that he believes that gifts flow down in a workplace so he doesn’t want anyone to feel obligated, even if that wasn’t the intention he doesn’t want to set this standard.

        3. Annony*

          I agree. They should decide how to handle this in the future but let this one go. If it never comes up again, great! But if it does they will be more prepared.

        4. Daffy Duck*

          Yup, yup, yup. Gifts and celebrations flow down not up. It is very rude for big boss’s birthday to be celebrated and workers are ignored, and employees may not realize she is paid for the cake out of her pocket (or even worse – asking them to chip in for the fancy cake).
          Husband needs to talk to her about office norms and expectations, and the difference between social and business relationships. If they want parties the company should host a summer BBQ or something.

        5. myswtghst*

          While I agree with other comments that the cake on it’s own doesn’t seem concerning, it is a good opening for the boss to set a precedent for birthdays going forward. He can make it clear that he doesn’t want people to feel pressured to celebrate him, and also revisit if people would like some type of small celebration so he can consider bringing treats for his staff birthdays in the future.

      2. Miss Demeanor*

        This is about where I land as well. Off, but nothing actionable. I think it also depends on the nature of the prior relationship. If OP’s husband was close friends with his new employee back in high school, I would read a custom cake as excitement and appreciation. And who knows- maybe she’s just effusive. If she does this for other employee birthdays going forward, then that’s an easy answer. But if not, and if she and OP’s husband were not very close, then that sounds somewhat iffy. Again though, I am not sure what I would do in OP’s shoes beyond mention my discomfort to my husband and remain professional in the office. This feels like it could devolve into some problematic rhetoric regarding this new employee and I want to be cognizant of that.

        As a note, when I spoke to my own spouse about this, they also came down on “weird, but not sure I’d do anything just yet.”

    3. AcademiaNut*

      I got a similar vibe. A new employee calling the boss’s wife to find out his favourite dessert to buy him a fancy cake for his birthday without bothering to check on how things are done in this office is not egregiously bad, but it’s a warning sign to keep a close eye on boundaries with this particular employee.

      Best case situation is that employee is naive and enthusiastic and doesn’t have a good grasp on workplace behaviour, or previously worked for a boss who expected stuff like this. It’s also possible, though, that this is a suck-up move or power play. The part that I wouldn’t worry about is that the LW or people out of the office weren’t invited – cake at a meeting is generally cake for people at the meeting.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I’d like to point out that if the boss’ spouse did not work at the company it would be weird to call her and ask his favorite dessert. Does she do this for everyone, call up their spouses and ask their favorite dessert?

        If they are friends, why can’t she ask him directly?

        OP, next time instead of answering the question, just encourage her to ask him directly. Let him deal with the awkward instead of you having to deal with it.

      2. EPLawyer*

        Normally I would not worry about other workers being invited to a birthday celebration for the boss. But in this case, the boss’ WIFE works for the company. If you are doing a personal celebration for the boss, you invite his wife if she works there. If she didn’t, yeah you wouldn’t invite her. But its weird to go all out for the boss’ birthday and his include his wife who works for the same company. This is one time where family members should NOT be treated just like any other employee.

        1. GirlfromIpanema*

          I mean, they brought a cake to an already scheduled standing meeting with an established agenda- I wouldn’t call that going all out. More like ‘let’s take 5 minutes at the end of the meeting to say happy birthday, eat some cake and then put it in the break room for others to help themselves to’. Inviting someone to the meeting who has nothing to do with the business at hand, just for five minutes of cake-eating, would be way weirder.

          I really think OP is reading far, far too much into this. If cake isn’t typically done, the OP could have said so when the woman asked for his favorite type of cake. I’ve worked for places where they would custom order your favorite cake for your birthday, with all the fancy trimmings and writing, from a local fancy pants bakery and it was literally all of 5 minutes work for the admin who managed that. If this person comes from other places who did that, and OP didn’t set her straight when directly asked, then I really can’t see where the assumptions of ulterior motives are coming from, unless there’s way more happening they didn’t share with us.

      3. Always looking for a reason to eat cake*

        I guess I wouldn’t assume that the cake is particularly fancy or that the assistant didn’t check on how things are done. She may have asked some people on her team if they normally did anything for birthdays and offered to do something when they all said no. And then it would have made sense to approach the boss’s wife, who would know what kind of cake he’d like. The LW’s use of the phrase “footing the bill” seems a little dramatic considering it’s just buying a cake for a team meeting, which is something people in my office do routinely. And many of us have favorite bake shops that we like to buy from that others might consider “fancy” or expensive. When I bring in desserts, they’re usually more expensive than what most of my peers bring from the grocery store but I share what I enjoy eating myself. Maybe LW’s picking up other signals that are causing her to read so much into this cake, but it seems equally possible that she’s feeling insecure and creating tension that doesn’t need to be there.

        1. Dust Bunny*

          The LW specifically said it was a custom cake, though, not a grocery-store cake. We don’t do birthdays at my job but when we order cakes for bigger occasions they’re still just grocery-store cakes. A custom bakery cake is ramping it up.

          1. fhqwhgads*

            I think this is not necessarily the big indicator the LW thinks it is. Some people just always buy cakes from whatever bakery. It doesn’t matter if it’s a work thing or a personal thing. To them “Birthday Cake” = from such and such. For that type of person it’d never occur to them to get a grocery store cake because it’s not a thing they ever do. This doesn’t amount to “ramping it up” to everyone.

            1. Nonny*

              Agreed. I was an admin in my former life and it was expected that if we ordered cake for anything (birthdays, weddings, baby showers, retirements, etc etc), we ordered it custom from a local bakery, not a grocery store. We also “crowed funded” for some of the food costs and asked people to donate a few dollars if it was going to be feeding more than 10-12 people. To me this reads like a new admin trying to make a good impression and going a little overboard, not some nefarious plot to steal a husband or take over the office.

            2. Annony*

              Yep. Also, it sounds like it was for a pretty small group. If she got a cake that was smaller than a standard cake (it sounds like she was planning on about five people), it may have actually not been that expensive. Also, I think not inviting extra people to the meeting is a sign she was trying NOT to overstep rather than the opposite. This wasn’t a birthday party, it was a cake. Taking over a meeting you are not running in order to turn it into a birthday party would be weird.

              I think the OP missed the perfect opportunity to nip this in the bud. When the employee asked her what his favorite dessert was and mentioned the plan, she could have easily said, “Oh, Husband does not like to celebrate his birthday at work. We don’t really do anything for birthdays here.” By not doing that, the employee may have though “Great! Boss’s wife is on board and was so helpful. I’m sure everyone will enjoy this treat.”

            3. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

              Yep. When we get cakes it is always from our favorite Japanese bakery (Asahi if you are in the PHX metro area – their mango and green tea cakes are to die for). It is only $10 to get a personalized message so we are talking $40ish for a cake that looks extra fancy

      4. High Score!*

        I’m very laid back about office stuff and this seems way off to me. It does sound like she’s trying to be the office wife and ignoring office protocols. Why does the husband allow her to give him a party when no one else gets them? Sure, have general meeting cake without the birthday if a cake is needed.
        Husband should be told to set boundaries with her before it affects office moral negatively.

        1. Alice*

          “The office wife?” Planning in-meeting celebrations is a normal admin assistant task everywhere I’ve ever worked, and no one ever called the admins that.

          1. HarvestKaleSlaw*

            Yeah I am side-eyeing the ever loving heck out of “office wife.” How much fun for women in an administrative support role. You’re not a professional. You’re a lesser, second wife.

            1. Brianna*

              Particularly when the actual wife works at the company. It doesn’t matter that she works in a different department.

          2. StlBlues*

            +1000. What a demeaning and sexist take on this. Both administrative assistants and wives everywhere should be offended. I’m a wife. I don’t consider it my job to make my husband’s life easier or do his little tasks. Gross. So gross.

          3. Artemesia*

            I have personally worked where AAs assumed this role of sucking up to the boss and virtually throwing rose petals in his path. It involved collecting money usually to buy increasingly elaborate cakes and gifts and making a big fuss about the boss. This is what that felt like to me. New person who wants to lay a claim to be being boss’s special friend and marking her territory with a cake.

            How one deals is of course a different thing. The boss needs to probably quietly discourage this in the future and not make a fuss about it. But the test will be if she buys a fancy cake for the next person in the office to have a birthday.

    4. Meg*

      Agree with this – something just seems off. The best and worst case scenarios you have mentioned seem to capture the situation accurately.

    5. allathian*

      Yeah, I definitely feel like there’s something off about this, but I agree with Alison, it’s up to the husband to set boundaries with his report. Communication with the husband is the key here, and the LW needs to be professional with the new hire at work.

      1. Some Lady*

        Agree–I don’t think there’s any reason to assume what’s ‘off’ is just that the new hire is coming from different work norms and hasn’t absorbed the culture of this office, plus feels more familiar because she knew boss before. I know people who are over-the-top gifters, and it’s just their MO with anyone that comes into their circle. And I know people who buy fancy cakes whenever they buy cakes, because they’re foodies, because they like fancy cakes, because they like a certain business or small businesses in general, etc. I don’t think there’s anything to do but maybe encourage boss to help new hire with the norms here and otherwise wait and see.

    6. Lulal*

      I don’t necessarily think it has to be a negative thing – I’ve done things similar to getting a cake etc for people I work with before, and have never meant it in such a way. Sometimes if someone has been very kind, gone out fo their way to help me or is just a fun person to have around, I like to get treats or cards or whatever and give them as a show of gratitude. It’s possible she didn’t invite the wife or others working outside of this meeting because she didn’t want to make a big deal out of it (and the cake might seem extravagant to you, but maybe she knows the person who runs the bakery and wants to support their business, or is in general trying to shop small or just likes these cakes).

      I’ve stopped doing a lot of things like this at work because I don’t want people to think things like some commenters here are thinking, and I think it makes the office a less happy, friendly place. Sometimes it’s just nice to be nice and there’s no nasty motives.

      1. Tuesday*

        This was my take too. It could be just a nice, friendly gesture, and she didn’t invite the others because it wasn’t that big of a deal. They were just having cake at their meeting. A bakery cake isn’t necessarily extravagant.

        1. Traffic_Spiral*

          Yeah, maybe the grocery store just makes crappy cake, or the bakery belongs to a friend she wants to support. Either way, I’d file it in the back of my head for later reference, but not get too worked up over it for now.

          1. doreen*

            I was wondering about the bakery cake being extravagant – bakery cakes in my experience are not that much more expensive than supermarket cakes and taste a lot better. The main advantage to supermarket cakes seems to be that you don’t always need to order in advance.

            1. kittymommy*

              And a lot of people are in a push to buy local. Like you said if it’s not that big of a price difference I can completely see someone spending an couple of extra bucks in this way.

              Assuming of course custom cake – bakery cake. It may just mean a specialty cake at the local grocery store. We do birthday cakes (obviously a little different than here) where I work and by default it’s been left to me to do the ordering. The last person who had a birthday I called his girlfriend (also a co-worker) to see what cake he liked. I ended up getting a specialty cake (had to give 24 hour notice) and because it was on sale it was cheaper than the pick up and go cakes. The girlfriend is not in our department and didn’t attend.

              Honestly, I don’t see anything weird about this.

          2. NotQuiteAnonForThis*

            Could be as simple as “the bakery is on my walk to work” while the grocery store actually requires planning to get to as well, or in addition to! At a previous job in a downtown major city, we could literally pop across the street for a gorgeous custom cake…while a grocery store cake required a twenty minute one way drive (the only chain grocery stores are on the borders of this major city) and the cake wasn’t that much cheaper, but it was definitely a step down in quality!

            I won’t discount your gut feeling LW#1, but definitely falls under “perhaps pay attention” as opposed to “hills to die on this is wRoNg!”.

          3. Some Lady*

            Oh, to go back to the days of living in Publix territory, where the grocery store cake is delicious!

            1. Partly Cloudy*

              Oh, I miss Publix so much!

              Anyway. The problem I’m seeing is that an employee bought a cake and threw a party for the boss. It seems like she’s sucking up, but also setting a bad precedent for the other employees.

        2. The Other Dawn*

          I agree. I think if the woman were planning an actual party outside of a meeting and not inviting OP, that would be strange. But this is cake at a meeting that’s already scheduled and she’s probably doing that because his team is all in one place at the same time. And a custom cake doesn’t necessarily mean an extravagant $150cake. It could mean the grocery store cakes suck (I’ve had great ones and I’ve had crappy ones) and she wants something a little more edible.

          1. Fieldpoppy*

            Yeah, I get serious vibes of “another woman treated my husband kindly therefore she must be AFTER HIM” from this” — the subtext I read was “why would any woman pay attention to a man unless she was after him.” And I think the LW needs to just examine her assumptions about gender and interactions.

            1. Emmie*

              I thought the same thing too. It seems like a one time instance. It reads like OP is a bit jealous.
              “I ended up inviting myself.” And “much less ask if I, his wife, would be interested in helping to plan a celebration for my husband.” If it is not jealousy, she’s bringing marital feelings to the workplace. It’s inappropriate. If she felt the cake was out of line, she could have told her that they don’t celebrate birthdays in the office when the assistant asked. Bringing cakes to work isn’t odd unless there’s something more happening. There isn’t here.

              1. High Score!*

                It sounds like she was caught off guard. I work with a lot of men and have gotten accused of flirting with then by jealous wives when that was definitely not the case. And I all did was join my work group for lunch.
                This woman doesn’t sound like she’s needlessly jealous. Who brings a bday cake when they are new at a job?? I bet there are other boundary issues too.

                1. Ada*

                  “Who brings a bday cake when they are new at a job??”

                  An adminstrative assistant who potentially believes it’s part of their job? It’s not unusual for a task like that to fall to the admin team, and depending on where she’s coming from work-wise, it may have not even occurred to her that there are offices out there that don’t do the birthday thing.

                2. Observer*

                  Who brings a bday cake when they are new at a job??

                  An AA who has done that in previous jobs. An AA who wants to be in the boss’ good graces in a tough economy.

                  The OP’s husband talked to her, and found out that she was expected to do that at her old job.

            2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

              TBF, when a young colleague was totally infatuated with me, he went out and got a gorgeous cake and got everyone else to come along and sing happy birthday to me. He also cooked lunch for everyone when I mentioned that I loved the cuisine from his home country. He just didn’t dare ask me out, but cake was a huge indicator.

            3. JelloStapler*

              I got that vibe too, either because she already had weird feelings about this friend, or she is on high alert in general.

              1. waffles*

                I mean, if I was infatuated with my boss and was trying to catch his eye, I probably wouldn’t call his WIFE and ask what kind of cake he likes… to me, the fact that she asked the wife at all means it’s not really inappropriate in that way (sure could still be inappropriate in other workplace-norm ways though)

                1. bleh*

                  You would if you were trying to pretend it was normal and / or were a narcissist trying to stir shit. There are some really not ok people in the world, and when you get a bad feeling, it’s just smart to attend to it.

                2. Much more cynical these days*

                  It is depressingly common for someone keen to have/is actually in an affair to use “friendship” or in this case, the wifes “approval” as an excuse to violate boundaries. OP should ask herself if she regularly gets jealous over other women smiling, working closely with or buying her husband presents? If not, I actually wouldn’t dismiss her suspicions out of hand. This is not proof but it is a flag.

                  Without the marriage, I would be still side eyeing her if she doesn’t buy everyone a cake because she is starting a terrible dynamic of spoil the boss but ignore everyone else. This is actually what I would focus on with your husband. Your husband needs to shut this down and tell her that unless she is planning on buying everyone a custom birthday cake with her own money, what she did was very awkward. The office usually does XYZ with birthdays. If she brings up asking OP, he needs to tell her that he knows she meant well (regardless of what she actually meant), but the only appreciation he needs is for her to do her job well. Please follow the office norms. If it was innocently meant, this should put an end to the matter and OP should let it go. The important thing is your husband needs to shut this down as her boss, not you as his wife.

        3. Happy*

          I agree. Bringing a cake to a meeting doesn’t seem like a big deal. (Much less of a big deal than it would have been if they’d invited others to a celebration!)

          If the owner wants to discourage such things then that is understandable (especially with the gifts flowing upwards)….but the LW is taking things that seem completely innocent (to me) as sign of something sinister.

      2. dogmom*

        This was my take too — they’ve known each other forever, she wants to do something nice as a thank you and was just piggybacking it onto an already-happening meeting for as little fanfare as possible. Honestly, I got bad vibes from the letter too, but from the LW, not the new hire. If there were other instances of new hire’s flirtiness/inappropriate behavior, I feel like LW would have included that, so flipping out over a birthday cake makes LW seem (to me) really controlling, and I’m glad Alison didn’t feed into the paranoia.

      3. Washi*

        Yeah, if an old middle school friend/acquaintance hired me for a good job in a bad economy, I’d be feeling very happy and grateful and might want to express that by doing something nice for them. This employee failed to read the room a little in not thinking about the gifting up dynamic and how it might come across as kissing up, but I would let it go. Picking up a chocolate cake for a chocolate-lover and asking the bakery to write “Happy bday Tim” doesn’t seem like a huge deal to me. She may even have picked up on the awkwardness herself and won’t be repeating the experience.

        As Alison says, if there really are boundary issues, it will all become clear and your husband will deal with it then. (Because you trust him, right, to handle this sort of thing?)

        1. Twisted Lion*

          +1 to this. I imagine she is just grateful for the job. We had birthday events at my old work and I never invited spouses for cake even though they work a few buildings away.

        2. Mainely Professional*

          That’s my read, too. It might come across as a little “much” but the intention is probably gratitude for the job!

        3. LL*

          The new employee was gainfully employed before coming to work here. So, I get your point, but I think that part is a little off.

        4. Not A Girl Boss*

          Thank you. Honestly my warning bells were at the wife’s very strong reaction to this, not the new hire. Sometimes it takes a minute for new hires to figure out new norms, and its particularly tricky as an admin assistant. If the admin was trying to move in on her man, she probably wouldn’t have called and asked her about his favorite cake…. she would have kept it a secret.

          1. Annony*

            Yep. I think it is worth taking a step back and examining where this feeling is coming from. A cake at a meeting is not in and of itself a romantic gesture. Has the new employee been doing anything else to put you on edge? Has your husband? Is there something else going on in your life that has put you on edge? Try to address the root cause and don’t treat this employee unfairly if it isn’t really anything she has done.

        5. matcha123*

          This was my read, too. I’m female and while I don’t have a lot of male friends from my school days, if one hired me, I’d totally want to show my appreciation with something nice on their birthday!
          If she planned a lunch at a raunchy restaurant or something, yeah, that’d be weird.

          As an aside, it’s people like the first letter writer that make me afraid to even try to reach out and chat with the small number of male friends I have from back in the day. Being a woman doesn’t mean that I’m trying to throw myself at any man in the room. And if they are in a committed relationship, and he felt like the friend was trying something inappropriate, he’s an adult and express his views himself.
          I am definitely the type of person who would try to make a friend’s birthday special, even one I didn’t have super strong ties with. Especially if they helped me when I was down!

        6. lemon*

          This was my take as well. Seems like an awkward act of gratitude for the new job. Time will tell if it’s more than that, but in and of itself doesn’t seem terribly devious.

      4. Clever Alias*

        I agree! Sometimes its just nice to be nice.
        And also, if I’m buying a cake, I want to eat some, too, and I want it to be delicious. So sometimes I’m nice… and selfish.

    7. Beat*

      But for any of those possibilities, she should be able to trust her husband to deal with it. If she can’t, that’s a problem that has nothing to do with the new employee.

      1. London Student*

        Yes – and another reason for her husband to manage this is with regard to optics.

        Even if OP’s motives are entirely grounded in running a smooth workplace, she runs the risk of looking like she could be motivated by romantic insecurity. I don’t necessarily think it’s verboten for married couples to work together, but unfortunately it does often mean that you have to more closely consider if your actions look like they come from a work mindset vs. a romantic mindset.

        1. London Student*

          Especially with actions that are disciplinary/boundary-setting or actions that are rewarding/incentivizing.

      2. Zanele Ngwenya*

        LW 1 came across as weirdly paranoid and territorial to me. I wonder how she’d feel if the gender of the new admin was male who bought the cake? Given that new admin is new, it seems like she just might not be aware of the company culture if we are to assume good intentions from her (my workplace does cake, treats, and chit-chat for every birthday and life event and everyone who chooses to join enjoys a few minutes of collegial socializing). Also, LW1 didn’t ask husband to exercise boss authority to stop it, so it’s best to just have husband explain birthday procedure moving forward and that’s that.

    8. arjumand*

      So many bad vibes from that letter, lol!
      I think OP is underreacting, tbh – I mean, she starts out with ‘old friend of his from high school’ but then adds that they as a couple aren’t friends with new hire and husband as a couple. Ok, fine – but ‘old friend from high school,’ though!
      As soon as she heard the birthday celebration idea, she should have countered with ‘we don’t do that here’, and shut it down.

      “the husband needs to think about some boundaries (are fancy cakes being planned for everyone else?)”

      I like this idea, and I’d take it one step further – make a list of upcoming birthdays, and ask new hire what she plans for them. This is when husband might explain that she’s set a precedent now, which is precisely why they never did it before.

      1. London Student*

        I have people I would call “old friends from high school” who I don’t interact with nowadays.

        I agree that there’s wisdom in having a consistent appraoch to staff birthdays….but I really don’t think it’s a good idea for OP to follow-up in a way that makes it look like she’s punishing the new employee for having the gall to buy a cake (!)

        Lots of offices do cake at meetings for birthdays.

        Depening on the new hire’s position, it might make sense for husband to prompt her (or her team) to create a budget/standarized plan for birthdays. But also some companies let these traditions be decided department by department.

      2. Keymaster of Gozer*

        I am of the opinion that reacting in the way you describe would be a catastrophic mistake. Alison has it right in my view that this isn’t really an issue that the OP needs to get involved with at all. It’s their husband’s place to direct to emulate good behaviour for his staff, the OP has no need to get involved.

        Having the manager or anyone really compile a long list and try to use it to ‘trick’ other plans out of the new starter is frankly bizarre to me. Either you trust your employees and your husband or you don’t.

      3. EventPlannerGal*

        I think that would be a bit excessive, to be honest – quite passive aggressive, big “rubbing the puppy’s face in the mess so they don’t do it again” vibes. I do see why the OP is a bit weirded out but I think that sort of thing will make her look very insecure, and also create a very unwelcoming environment for this woman if she’s wrong about her intentions. Does OP really want to play the “angry wife who gets big mad at husband’s female coworkers over cake” role? I wouldn’t.

        1. LL*

          I agree. My husband handled setting the boundary. Since we’re expanding, we will set a formal policy down the road – if we all agree that we want to celebrate birthdays. I’m not opposed to celebrating – I like cake, too!

      4. Not So NewReader*

        I agree everyone can have cake, their *favorite* cake that is. Here we always talk about women in the work place and NOT being that person who gets cakes and other treats. So, clearly, the cake-bringer is not the one asking for advice here. But it makes the situation feel even more strange.

        OP, I think the bottom line is that if you have cause to not trust your husband this one example here is nothing to rest your case on. At MOST, it’s a vague symptom, but it’s not the core issue. My suggestion is to let go of this and step back to take a look at the whole picture. How’s things going on the home front? Are you happy with how things are overall?

        I say this but at the same time, I think I might raise an eyebrow here myself. And if I did, I would ask myself why, what else is going on?

      5. Insert Clever Name Here*

        I don’t understand what is so scandalous about her being an old friend from high school. By definition, the people I went to high school with are “old friends from high school”…and I’m currently friends with only about 2 of them to the degree that we hang out as couples. That doesn’t mean the other 45 or whatever people are all secretly pining after me…

        1. lemon*


          I have a ton of FB friends from high school that I don’t keep in regular touch with. But if they posted something about hiring for a role I was interested in, I would feel comfortable reaching out about it. It’s called “networking.” It wouldn’t be a devious plan to break up someone’s marriage just because I happen to be a single woman who needs a job!

      6. Annony*

        She had the chance to shut down the birthday cake and didn’t. At this point she should let that go and move forward. If there is something off about her husband’s friendship with this employee, she needs to address it with him.

        It doesn’t sound like the employee has actually done anything wrong. The cake is out of step with this office, but there are other offices where it wouldn’t be and the OP basically green lite the idea. Honestly, the OP sounds like she is looking for reasons to dislike the employee.

      7. metadata minion*

        I’m really confused as to why describing someone as an old friend from high school is a warning sign. Is there subtext here I’m not getting? It sounds like they were close in high school, and then lost touch as so many people do, and then are happy to reconnect. There are plenty of people who I’d describe as an old friend from high school or college where no, we haven’t talked in 10 years, but since the friendship didn’t actually end in any sort of catastrophic way it kind of exists in potentia. Do you only use “friend” for people you’re actively in contact with? It absolutely could be that there’s something skeevy going on, but the high school friendship part seems completely normal to me.

    9. Junger*

      That seems like a lot of assumptions to make from someone buying a cake.
      Honestly, none of this seemed very weird to me. The gesture by itsself is nice, and well within the normal boundaries for their relationship and the occassion. And OP just doesn’t have enough information to see if there is a weird pattern.

      It also feels a bit skeevy to immediately assume a romantic relationship because someone gave someone else a small gift for their birthday. That has a lot of those office shipper vibes that we all rightfully despise.

      1. UKDancer*

        Yes, this strikes me as co-worker is pleased to have a job and wants to do something nice for the person who hired her.

        I mean it’s cake at a regular meeting with colleagues. She didn’t ask him to eat it off her body in a boutique hotel room.

        Unless you have a lot of reasons to be worried about your husband’s fidelity I’d just let this one go. If she brings him cake every week / starts doing inappropriate things then your husband may want to stop it but at the moment I think it would look like an over-reaction to do anything about what to me is a fairly normal gesture in the office.

        1. londonedit*

          Yup, I’m with UKDancer. The woman got a job working with an old friend, she knew his birthday was coming up, she thought ‘Oh I know, I’ll get him a cake for the meeting, that’d be fun!’ I really don’t see how it’s weird or pushing any boundaries.

        2. TechWorker*

          ‘She didn’t ask him to eat it off her body in a boutique hotel room’ LOL very true.

          Plus, if she was buying him a cake as a flirtatious thing, would she really ask his wife about it beforehand? That doesn’t exactly read ‘nefarious’.

        3. tiny cactus*

          There’s a good chance she’s just trying to make a good impression as a new coworker. It’s also possible she’s trying to get in the boss’s good graces, so he should be prepared to step in if she goes any farther down that road, but a cake in itself seems pretty inoffensive. If this is some kind of misguided office flirting technique, it’s a weird one.

      2. H2*

        This is where I land.

        And if I were going to make a play for my boss, I wouldn’t call his wife to ask what his favorite dessert is. I think most explanations for this are pretty harmless.

    10. Seeking Second Childhood*

      It’s a pandemic. Personally I’m glad she’s not inviting people not required to be at the meeting.

    11. Karia*

      Honestly, it is completely normal to buy cake for colleagues birthdays and I think the wife may want to examine why she’s so worried about this.

      1. EPLawyer*

        It wasn’t a colleague. The new hire is the admin to the Boss for whom she bought the cake. They aren’t peers. She bought a cake for her boss. A custom cake. Amongst other things gifts flow down, not up.

        1. Always looking for a reason to eat cake*

          While I agree that gifts flow down, I wouldn’t consider bringing in cake for the whole team to enjoy at a meeting to be a “gift” for the boss. Also, in our office, the admins are usually the ones who coordinate birthday celebrations, including those for their bosses. Often other employees chip in for cake and food (our office doesn’t have a budget for these things) but just as often the admins buy (or bake) things themselves and it’s never been seen as gifting up.

          1. Totally Minnie*

            This is where I’m landing on the situation. In a lot of offices, it’s totally normal for the admin to arrange a cake for a meeting that happens to land on someone’s birthday, and it’s entirely possible that this is what’s been done at all of the admin’s old workplaces. The idea that she got a slightly better cake than normal on account of the birthday person being a childhood friend who helped her out by giving her a job during a difficult economic period doesn’t seem too over the line to me.

            LW, if anything, I’d say this is a “watch and wait” scenario. It’s entirely possible that this was a one-off nice thing the admin wanted to do. If other behavior feels sketchy your husband can address it at that point.

          2. GothicBee*

            This! I really don’t feel like this is that weird. I mean she’s on the admin team, so it makes sense they’d be the ones to organize this stuff. And does LW know for sure this is something they’re only planning to do for the boss? Or is it possible that the new hire suggested starting birthday celebrations and this was the first one to come up? Even if it was a one-off, I don’t think it’s worth getting worked up over unless there’s other boundary crossing stuff and, like Alison said, then the boss would be the one to address it. It’s also really not weird to have done this at a regular meeting and therefore not invite the people who don’t normally attend.

            The only part I’m side-eyeing is the idea of having a shared cake during a pandemic.

          3. Rusty Shackelford*

            Really? The admins in your office buy or bake things for the bosses, and it’s not seen as gifting up? It should be, IMHO.

            1. kt*

              Yeah, I agree — that stuff should be expensed or paid for by the boss or paid for by higher-paid colleagues.

        2. Observer*

          She bought a cake for her boss. A custom cake.

          OOOOOH the dastardly woman! She’s trying to curry favor with her boss in a tough economy? How DARE she! /SARC

          She needs a job. It’s a tough economy. She wants the boss to like her well enough that he’s not going to want to lay her off the first second things start looking tight.

          Amongst other things gifts flow down, not up

          And the only reason we’ve seen for people to violate that rule is because they are making a romantic play for their boss?

          1. Karia*

            For goodness sake, it’s cake. I’m genuinely baffled by the amount of people that think publicly shared birthday cake is a romantic or seductive gesture.

            In many places, birthdays are part of the job description for admins.

      2. Dust Bunny*

        And it’s not always normal. We don’t do this at my job–it would definitely stand out as an overreach if I bought my supervisor a cake.

        1. Cake is nice but...*

          Yes! It seems the new hire is trying too hard. It’s a bit too much. I’d be wondering what she’d do next.

        2. Environmental Compliance*

          Yes! It’s very normal at some offices, not so much at others. Neither office is “wrong”, but it does come across as a little weird when a brand new hire brings in a nice cake for their new boss when no one else in the office does Cake Days.

          I don’t think it’s a romantic play or something dastardly at all, but I would be casually watching for any other reading-the-room or boundaries-related issues from the new hire as a supervisor, just to make sure the new team member meshes well with the rest of the team, and that a pattern of overbearing gifts/actions doesn’t start.

          Even if the new person *was* making moves on the Husband, it’s still not Wife’s job to step in and shut it down. It’s the Husband – he needs to act as the Boss, because that’s what he is here.

          1. Green Tea for Me*

            I’ve seen a couple commenters accuse the admin of ‘reading the room’ wrong but- she asked. She literally asked the co-owner and de facto HR of the business. If I flat out ask the person most likely to know office norms ‘I want to get a birthday cake for boss for the meeting on Monday. Does he like chocolate or white cake?’ And the answer is ‘Chocolate’ and not ‘oh, we really don’t do that here’ how did she read the room wrong?

            She took the answer at face value instead of breaking out her decoder ring to decipher that what the LW really meant was ‘stay away from my husband you vile temptress’

    12. Cat Tree*

      I think what runs me the wrong way here is Alison’s advice that gifts should only flow downward. A cake to share isn’t necessarily a the same as a gift, but getting a a custom cake and going out of her way to find out his favorite flavor (rather than just asking him what he likes), pushes this over the line for me. Maybe she just wants to thank an old friend for getting her a job, but maybe she’s sucking up to the boss. I still don’t think it’s a romantic interest though.

      1. fhqwhgads*

        I donno. The last place I worked that did things for birthdays in office not only asked people their favorite cake, they’d ask them specifically what they wanted. So like one person who wasn’t big on sweets asked for an received nachos for the team for her birthday. Another got pie. Another got rainbow sherbet. And they’d decorate the person’s cubicle. It was all Very Specific (and I thought, unnecessary) but that’s just how they did things. I get this is not how they do things at this company, but if anything’s amiss in the letter, it seems to me Old Friend doesn’t seem to care how they do things and is just running with what she thinks ought to be how it’s done. Some people are weird about birthdays at work.

    13. Anon This Time*

      This all seems like a bizarre escalation to baked goods at a meeting. Attending a meeting you normally don’t go to just because cake will be served for your husbands birthday elevates this to “A Thing” instead of the 2-5 minutes that it would be to say Happy Birthday Fergus and hand around a piece of cake while discussing the next months scheduling. I think her only misstep was calling to find out what kind he liked instead of just showing up with it.

    14. Person from the Resume*

      Yes, I got a vibe from the LW that she is concerned that the new employee might make a move on her husband. It doesn’t impact Alison’s response at all. LW needs to stay out of it. If that’s happening, it’s the husbands responsibility to deal with it appropriately. The LW is bringing her personal jealousy into the office.

      It’s a bit odd, but OTOH (1) the new employee contacted the wife with the question so she’s not exactly secretive about it and (2) the “party” was during a regularly scheduled meeting with no extra invitees until the wife horned in. Both these factors lends it an air of innocuousness of an office cake. It’s not even a party; it’s a meeting with cake.

    15. KayDeeAye*

      Eh, she wanted to bring a nice cake to someone she’s known forever and who she now works for. That truly doesn’t seem like a big deal to me. She probably just really likes cake. I know I do.

      Now, if this is the start of some sort of pattern of boundary-crossing or pandering to the boss, that’s another matter, and the OP’s husband needs to keep an eye open for that. But as it is, it seems perfectly fine to me.

      I mean, there are people who look for excuses to buy cake, and in my opinion, those people should be encouraged. :-)

    16. cake lady defender*

      I feel like everyone’s getting really hung up on the fact that getting a custom cake for the boss when you just started a new job is awkward…and yeah, true, it’s awkward. But TONS of people are just, awkward. It doesn’t mean that anything unsavory is going on. What strikes me more than the awkwardness of this is the fact that LW1 is so stressed out about it. If I were in this exact situation, my husband and I would be laughing about it. In fact, even if some woman who worked for my husband were openly hitting on him, I would think it was funny and wouldn’t lose a minute of sleep over it. So it seems like the crux of the issue is maybe more of a relationship/insecurity thing? It sounds really stressful to be worrying about how other random women might be behaving around your husband, because it’s so out of your control.

      1. Environmental Compliance*

        Agreed. I think it is very awkward for New Hire to do this, and as a supervisor I’d just casually keep an eye out for any other, more overbearing type of behavior….but it’s just cake, she’s probably overexcited about the position.

        To be fair, I have also watched women (and a couple men) openly make moves on my husband, who is generally completely oblivious, and laughed my butt off.

        1. Pyjamas*

          TLDR: Husband set boundaries, wife trust her gut

          Agreed that husband should handle this but the wife can do that and listen to her gut. I’ve seen letters here that describe problems with having friends as subordinates. While it seems like husband and new hire are not close friends, at one point they were on an equal footing.

          Also, IF the new hire is attracted to the husband, it would still be natural to approach the wife, as a way of convincing herself and wife this was just friendliness. I don’t think most ppl wake up in the morning wanting to have an affair. Rather they like the spark of attraction and let it go from there.

    17. Jubilance*

      Agreed – the new hire is clearly trying to set herself apart, and it’s not because she wants a raise. I’d keep my eye on that woman, she has bad intentions.

      1. Baffled99*

        Wait, what?! This is a wild over-reaction. It’s interesting that you call her “that woman” – I can’t imagine you’d say something like this about a man.

      2. SummerBreeze*

        Quick, put a scarlet letter on her clothes!

        Some of y’all have the absolute worst intentions of women, my god.

      3. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Whoa, come on now. A lot of women have been harmed by people assuming they must have sexual intentions toward men at work. Please don’t do that here.

        She bought him a cake. A cake. Offices do that. It’s not a big deal.

      4. Heather*

        How on earth can you know that? I’ve baked cakes for coworkers – because I love to bake! Not because I want to sleep with them. Jeez.

    18. Anon for Today*

      Yeah, maybe I’m cynical, but I’m getting weird suck-up vibes too. It would be one thing if she’d worked there for a long time and also invited everyone, but this seems like a weird flirtation that she can explain away as just being nice.

      That being said, this is something the husband should deal with directly if the behavior escalates.

    19. Brusque*

      Also: usually Alison has a lot to say about gifts goind upwarts. Since when is it adequate for an employee, a new one nonetheless, to buy a fancy cake for her boss to celebrate his birthday? Then also asking his wife! about his preferences. Not ok.
      So not ok. Husband shoud stop this. Immediately.

      1. Insert Clever Name Here*

        1. She’s an admin, and in many offices admins get cakes when it’s someone’s birthday. The letter writer (LL below) herself even said this admin did it at her old job. So sure, while gifts should normally flow down, it’s been the norm where this woman worked to get a cake for the boss’ birthday.
        2. The letter writer should have 100% shut it down since it’s Not Done at their office (and as HR had the responsibility and authority to do so)
        3. EVEN IF the letter writer didn’t want to shut it down, the husband should have instead of “letting it play out.”

        There’s a problem here for sure, and it is with the LW and her husband not using their words and saying ahead of time “hey Jane, we don’t do cakes for birthdays here so please don’t bring one.”

    20. Caroline Bowman*

      I was thinking similarly. It’s tricky because ”on paper” the spouse is second-guessing herself and her husband is trying to placate her, but… in my experience as a very non-jealous person, when your spidey sense starts ringing, there’s often a reason, even if it’s hard to fully and rationally articulate.

      Then again, OP1 knows herself and if she’s honest with herself, does she battle with insecurity and such in her relationship generally? Has there ever been reason to doubt your spouse? If she is usually really not concerned and has always had a happy relationship, felt secure to date, then I’d listen to that little voice and get husband to very kindly but firmly nip it in the bud. If he won’t, that speaks volumes.

    21. CeeBee*

      Agree. There is the possibility of it being an innocent case of “sucking up” – but even then, ewwwww. However, I’ve seen some THANGS and yeah, totally possible that she’s got designs on the husband. Husband should shut it down and keep it professional. If she was just trying to curry favor, she’ll back off. If she’s up to something, she’ll try something else.

    22. Spouse and Boss*

      OP as a spouse and coworker I see your unease. My suggestion is to absolutely follow Allison’s advice. It is stellar. However, if it just doesn’t sit with you have a conversation with your spouse. At the end of the day it really is your business (and your business) too.
      If you feel you must hit this head on. Put on your best AAM vibe and have a nice matter of fact conversation with AA that cakes are not done and neither are gifts. Coming up on holiday season this may need to be done quickly.
      If OP feels like something is off it probably is, but a conversation while the new AA could set everthing straight.

    23. Happy Pineapple*

      Woah, speaking as an administrator this is a lot to read into a new employee getting a cake for the head boss’s birthday. None of this is out of the ordinary for any of the jobs I’ve ever held, and for most would be expected. At a very small business like this one I had to go on a wild goose chase to get a custom almond cake, because that was what I was told was the boss’s favorite dessert and of course NO local grocery stores or bakeries had that has a normal grab-and-go option.

      The employee was too new to know that the company didn’t celebrate birthdays, didn’t plan a separate event just for the birthday, and didn’t hide anything. She went so far as to ask OP about it, which was the opportunity to say, “No we don’t do that here” if that was the case.

      1. Clisby*

        But … did you pay for them with your own money? Or was there a budget for this kind of thing? The LW says as far as she knows, the admin paid for this – if that’s true, it seems really strange to me, regardless of how much the cake cost. If the company budgets for birthday celebrations, that’s different – having an admin arrange for whatever’s bought seems routine.

        That doesn’t mean I automatically think she’s after the LW’s husband – she might just be trying too hard in a new job.

        Or are there actually places that expect admins to take care of office celebrations (of whatever sort) and pay for them with their own money?

        1. Happy Pineapple*

          At all the smaller businesses I’ve worked for there was no official budget for celebratory things like this yet it was still expected for the head bosses, and yes, I would pay for it with my own money if there was no company credit card. Usually I could get reimbursed through accounting at the end of the month if I submitted an expense report.

          I’ve shown this and the comments to a few of my fellow admin coworkers and everyone is shocked that so many people think a normal part of our job is taken for being “trying too hard” or being a tart. I am paid to do little morale boosting things like this and have been berated and shamed by past employers when I mistakenly assumed I didn’t have to.

    24. GG*

      This is an incredibly sexist take and I highly doubt if the AA were a man these would be the only two possible scenarios you could come up with. All we know from this letter is the AA bought a custom cake for the boss’ birthday to be shared at a small team meeting. There’s nothing nefarious about any of that and I think LW would do better to assume positive intent until boundaries have clearly been crossed than to let her imagination run wild with sexist stereotypes and unfounded accusations.

    25. aurora borealis*

      The LW said this person was recent hire. It’s possible that custom cakes were the norm at their previous job or she may be one of the “Yay! It’s a Birthday!” type person. I think jumping to the conclusion that the AA is being sneaky and that she’s out for the LW’s husband is very premature. As a seasoned AA, if a spouse of my boss was this territorial, I would think about finding a new job. You will never do right in their eyes- and according to what I am reading, she is already looking for problems.

    26. MCMonkeyBean*

      I just think this is reading way too much into one single event. If this were part of a larger pattern of boundary-crossing I might be concerned, but this doesn’t seem weird on its face to me at all. Maybe she just really loves birthdays! Maybe she is grateful for the work opportunity from an old friend and wanted to seem appreciative! Maybe her friend owns the bakery and she likes any excuse to support the business! There are so many extremely normal reasons to bring a birthday cake to work that I think it is very odd to jump right to the worst assumptions without anything else suspicious happening.

      To be honest, I think based only on the facts laid out in the letter, it reads to me like the OP is more likely to be the one with boundary issues. In that she needs to have more boundaries between herself and her husband at work. She should not want people to reach out to her to plan her husband’s birthday celebration, which would box her more into the “wife” role than the “employee” role at work.

  3. Chelle*

    My job has time tracking down to the .25hr because some roles are billable, and I actually think it’s a good thing. If a manager is concerned about an employee’s output, they can look at their time log and see if certain tasks are taking longer than expected and, if so, probe into why. Since it’s provided by the employees, it feels way less invasive to me than software that tracks what you’re doing.

    1. allathian*

      Yes, so does mine. I work mainly on two projects, so it doesn’t feel like they’re tracking exactly what I’m doing. It’s just that although I don’t have set working hours (I can basically work my 7 hours 15 minutes per day at any time between 6 am and 11 pm, with the expectation that I’ll attend meetings that I’ve accepted the invite to) the system is used to ensure that I don’t either work too much, or too little. We do have a ticketing system where my boss and grandboss keep track of how much work we actually get done. I don’t feel that it’s intrusive at all.

    2. Jack Be Nimble*

      I had a former job with a similar set-up — we did client work, but only some tasks were billable, so we were required to track our time down to six minute intervals. Some people thrived in that environment, but I found it absolutely stifling (hence former job).

      If it’s the new norm, LW should seriously consider whether or not they still enjoy the job if the task tracker is part of the work now.

      1. allathian*

        My employer used to do this, but they decided that it was too detailed and required too much work from employees. Our current system is flexible and easy to use.

      2. Katie from Scotland*

        I also had a *former* job where I had to track everything, across multiple spreadsheets for different types of work. It was infuriating because the manager never did anything useful with the information. I’d rather gnaw my own arm off than do anything like that again – it wasn’t the only reason I left but it definitely contributed. I hope you’re able to get out of it sometime soon!

      3. Insert Clever Name Here*

        SIX minute intervals?! That is…detailed. 1/4 hour is the smallest I’ve encountered, and that is bad enough when everything is billable but six minutes! Yikes.

          1. Lost academic*

            6 minutes is standard for lawyers. My consulting firm does 15 minutes (30 for some clients) and if you think about it for project based work when you’ve got multiple balls in the air, it helps you not lose track of time spent on short tasks like email or calls. If you’ve never tracked it, it takes a little getting used to but you find a good balance quickly. It’s very helpful even if you’re not in a billable hours environment really because it lets you really see what you do with your time.

    3. Grace*

      My work asks that we time-track to a reasonable accuracy for resourcing – we all task-hop a lot so they want to see what proportions different tasks take up, if they need to allocate more resource to different tasks etc. It’s annoying, but it’s always been a thing, not just in lockdown or because they think we’re lying about work. A sudden implementation of something like that would make me think, though.

    4. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      Since it’s provided by the employees, it feels way less invasive to me than software that tracks what you’re doing.

      This might actually be the part of scrum I hate the most, tracking yesterday’s activities. I feel like I lose 2-3 tasks per day to just filling out the busywork. At least during the actual call I can put the phone on mute and rest my eyes.

        1. Delta Delta*

          Depends. Some lawyers do a flat rate for all emails. Some bill the time spent on the email. I’ve spent some considerable time on emails to clients, and if it goes over 15 minutes or so, I’m apt to bill that. I’ve done it before where I’ve had an email thread that goes back and forth a bit, and depending on the work that went into it, might bulk bill. For example – I go back and forth with opposing counsel and client over the course of about 15 emails about scheduling something. None of it’s especially hard, but does take a little time. Doesn’t feel fair to bill 1.5 for that. Maybe I bill .2 and say “series of scheduling emails on December 8.”

          If you have a client who is a complete time sink sometimes the best thing to do is to bill every email as a way to get them to stop. Or they don’t mind paying for every email, which is also fine.

          Of course, I run my own shop, so I make my own decisions about billing. If you work for a firm they may have different expectations.

    5. Lacey*

      I used to work in a job where I had to track time for specific projects. It wasn’t helpful though, because management would just get annoyed that certain jobs took longer than they wanted to charge the customer for and they’d charge them for less time.

      It was mostly just annoying. I’m glad I don’t have to deal with it anymore.

      1. Lost academic*

        Sounds like bad management: you have to tell staff on your projects what the expectation for time spent on tasks is and always if there are hard limits: if it costs more time/money we need to go back to our clients when possible and increase the authorization – and explain why.

        1. Lacey*

          It was definitely a management issue. There are a number of things they could have done to fix the issue, but they just chose to be annoyed instead.

  4. MissGirl*

    OP1, I read this as less a woman trying to steal your husband and more as an employee trying to score brownie points with a new boss. Sometimes women feel the need to do this through food, which of course is problematic but for other reasons. Unless there are boundary violations, I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

    Side note: I’ve seen some wives (whose husbands work in predominantly male jobs) expressing misplaced jealousy at their husband’s young female coworkers. I don’t know if it’s because they are not as used to their husbands working with women or if it’s easier to target when there are only a few women versus men.

    1. X. Trapnel*

      Ooh yes, you are spot on in your last paragraph unfortunately.
      I’ve worked 25+ years in a male-dominated industry (agriculture) and have been the young female employee working for a man. The nasty flak I copped from farmers’ wives was unreal. I remember in sheer frustration telling one hypervigilant jealous wife that even if I were the remotest bit interested in hanky panky at my job that I wouldn’t take her hubby if he came free with a packet of cornflakes. Went down like a lead balloon so that did. Can’t win either way.
      I must admit though that I never arranged fancy cakes or suchlike for any of my bosses, nor would the idea ever have occurred to me.

      1. Lonely Aussie*

        I too work in Ag (but usually the kind owned by large companies because I like things like HR and being paid on time which can be a bit hit and miss on the family owned farms) and discovered that best way to deal with it was to make closer friends with the wives than the husbands. I’m close with a few male co-workers but have brunch regularly with their wives. It’s not always possible but work had a lot of work do’s prior to covid so I saw them a few times a year already.

        1. Ayanimea*

          I have the same strategy. Especially when I know that the husband has a crush on me (happened once, it’s very uncomfortable).

        2. Sparkles McFadden*

          Yup. I worked in a departments where I was the only woman. I was closer to some of the wives. In one case, I gave a coworker grief for needing a new pair of glasses. The current pair was held together with tape and I said “Dude, we don’t want to look at your raggedy glasses anymore.” After he got a new pair, his wife called me and said “Do you think you can get him to go to the gym?” In another case, I asked one of the wives if her husband was annoying at home. She said “Oh yes. I really feel bad for you because you have to spend a lot more time with him than I do.”

          1. Clever Alias*

            Ha! Now that we’re working from home, I can sometimes hear my husband’s female #2 getting exasperated with him over idiosyncrasies that also annoy me. And I want to smack him *for* her because I’m the wife and I can. To be clear, I can do it because I’m the wife, and she’s the employee. Not because I’m the wife, and she’s another woman.

      2. Dennis Feinstein*

        Yes, somehow “I wouldn’t touch your husband with a 10 foot pole” doesn’t go down too well. You can’t win.

      3. Keymaster of Gozer*

        Lines from Keymaster: “I’ve watched your husband pick his nose for 20 minutes straight WHILE scratching his arse. I think you have little to fear from me”

        (Also got me in a bit of trouble, although my boss was nearby and creased up after she left. Working at a sewage plant was a good way to get a boss who could take a joke. Miss that guy a lot)

          1. Keymaster of Gozer*

            Now THAT would be a talent! No, it was one hand up the snozz and the other giving the rear end the kind of intense scritching my cat does. In a way it was kind of mesmerising how it could go on for so long…you know, without fingers ending up inside frontal lobes etc.

        1. Bean Counter Extraordinaire*

          Peppermint flavored coffee in the sinuses is a most unpleasant feeling. Thanks for the laugh Keymaster!

          1. Keymaster of Gozer*

            I highly recommend Earl Grey tea for nasal evacuation during humour. Doesn’t sting as much. Unless you leave the tea bag in….

      4. NotQuiteAnonForThis*

        And its every male dominated profession and industry. Construction and engineering is a similar mess. I’ve either gotten my job through who my Dad is, or I’ve slept with my boss. (Spoiler: neither) And I’m always after someone’s husband. (Again spoiler: no, no I am not.)

      5. Alas rainy again*

        Well, the wives might not be wrong. I mean, you did *not* hit on their husband, but maybe they *did* hit on you? I am female, and was a cattle vet in my twenties and early thirties. I have definitely been hit on by farmers. Personnally, I was more interested in their (sick) bulls. I was usually oblivious until clued in by the farmer wive’s attitude and death stare. Upon paying closer attention, the wives were usually quite right. One of the reasons I left the job (the other one being the long hours). Lots of colleagues work with a big dog, to guard the vehicle (narcotics in the pharmacy) and as bodyguard.

        1. Uranus Wars*

          Yea, but that is still on the husband! Not on your for existing and choosing a profession you were interested in. You weren’t doing anything wrong.

        2. SwitchingGenres*

          If the husbands were hitting on you the wives should have been mad at their husbands, not at you.

          1. Caliente*

            Never how it seems to work though. People are weird. Actually I think they just don’t want to get mad at the person they go home with so they blame it on the other person.

        3. Observer*

          Why were the wives giving YOU death stares and attitudes?

          They WERE and ARE wrong – you did NOT go after their husbands. YOU are NOT responsible for these guys acting like jerks.

          1. Keymaster of Gozer*

            Because it’s obviously the woman’s fault for looking nice/being friendly/smiling…..she must have done *something* to make the men act like that. Maybe she should try being surly and cold to the men and then their wives would have nothing to fear. /s

            (Had an extremely bigoted boss when I worked in a lab who held this EXACT view. Never have I wanted to lock someone in the autoclave so much in my life)

    2. BarnacleGirl*

      Totally agree. Maybe new coworker can discover a love of playing that Keisha Cole song ‘Let It Go’ in the office. The chorus happens to be “I don’t want your man” :)

    3. Keymaster of Gozer*

      Think you might have pinpointed the underlying reason here!

      For context: I’m a woman who has worked most of her career in IT in heavy engineering, both really male dominated environments (and still sexist to this day). Before I hit the big 4-0 I’d be able to guarantee at least one peeved off wife/girlfriend/insert partner here of a coworker worrying about my ‘threat level’ every time I was a friend with that coworker, or did something friendly (once caught a rant because I drove James -not real name- home when his car broke down)

      However, I’ve never ever worked in an office that is NOT predominantly male so my views are going to be heavily biased.

      1. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

        I once had a wife greet me at an employee picnic with a peeved “Oh I know you. You called my husband in the middle of the night!” Yeah, because I was on call that week for application X, and got a misrouted call in the middle of the night, that was for application Y, that your husband supports, and he was on call that week too. That’s the standard procedure. Calm down, lady.

        1. Name Required*

          Oh, for Christ’s sake!

          Nope, I have no productive thing to add here. Just exhausted by sexism.

        2. Rusty Shackelford*

          LOL! Although maybe she was just peeved because your call woke her up, not because she thought you were after her man. ;-)

          1. Clisby*

            Entirely possible. I worked for years in a computer programming job where I was on call 24/7/365. I called plenty of guys in the middle of the night, and don’t remember getting any flak from wives.

        3. Keymaster of Gozer*

          I’m guessing you’re a fellow application support veteran? Have had the ‘no you dingbat you want Fred, THEY support the Oracle boxes, I do the Microsoft stuff!’ at O-dark-hundred….

          1. Sparkles McFadden*

            I once got called AFTER I had been laid off. That happened TWICE.

            The first time, I politely told the tier 1 person that I didn’t work there anymore. He said “Uh…so do you know the person I should call now?” I said I had no idea what was going on there anymore and wished him good luck.

            The second time, I was equally polite, even though it was three months after I had been laid off. The tier 1 guy was indignant and said “The person we’re supposed to call wasn’t helpful, so the user asked for you by name, so you have to answer!” Yeah…no.

            1. Keymaster of Gozer*

              Former employer’s tech support manager rang me up at 8pm one night, 4 months after I’d quit (due to their place being a toxic dump of unpleasant people) and demanded that I come in and fix an issue for a client.

              So, basically “get dressed, drive 60miles to the office on a road you nearly died on when a lorry hit you and which we refused you time off for, solve a coding issue you’ve likely forgotten and by the way we won’t be paying you because you should have loyalty for us”.

              Hahahaha, no. Go suck a cactus.

      2. Mme Pince*

        Oh my gosh, you’ve just given me a flashback to the time I drove my drunk coworker home after a work happy hour. He threw up several times out the window of my car and I literally had to half carry him into his house. As thanks, his wife angrily accused me of having an affair with her husband. I mean, there’s nothing like having to check your car for stray puke to set the mood, right?

        Also, as some above commenters mentioned, the situation said a lot about the level of trust in their relationship that she thought he was drunkenly bringing home women while she and their children were sleeping in the same house. Mind you, his wife was right and he did have an affair with a different coworker and married her after his divorce. I would absolutely keep the cake situation in the back of my mind and have a conversation about watching for crossed boundaries with the LW’s husband, but I don’t think it’s definite proof of a problem.

      3. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

        But the admin isn’t younger. She went to high school with the husband, so they are at least close to the same age. I’m kind of wondering if the LW isn’t comfortable with the husband being FB friends with an old high school friend with whom they do not socialize as a couple? And is even less comfortable with said friend working at the same company? The cake seems like a distraction to what is really going on.

    4. Trillian*

      When I was younger, single, and working in male-dominated labs, I swear I could see the soundtrack from Fatal Attraction playing in some of my colleagues’ partners’ heads when they met me.

  5. alienor*

    #4: If you do want to have one social channel where you follow/are followed by coworkers, I think Instagram’s the safest one apart from LinkedIn. I don’t allow current coworkers as Facebook friends, full stop (I’ve nicely explained this policy to directors and VPs in the past, so I’m pretty serious about it) and my Twitter isn’t under my real name, but if anyone wants to follow me on Instagram and see photos of my pets and my food, they’re welcome to.

    1. Ally McBeal*

      Agreed – most of my department follow each other on IG. I have really strict rules about who I’m friends with on FB, but IG feels much safer – mostly because, as you said, a lot of it is food and pet photos.

    2. JustaTech*

      I’m also a big fan of “no current coworkers on FB”. It was a policy I made up on the spot because I had just started a new job and there was this one guy who was on the border of friendly and pestering. When you say it’s a “policy” you’re less likely to hurt people’s feelings.

      And in the before time I didn’t *want* to be FB friends with my coworkers, because then what would we talk about at lunch?

      I guess if my coworker really, really wanted to follow me on IG that would be OK, mostly because I very rarely post anything there.

  6. Hiker*

    OP #1 – I’m going to address your four bullet points:

    • Although they were Facebook friends and our company completed remodeling projects for her in the past, we’re not friends with her and her husband – we don’t hang out, so I’m not sure why we’re doing this.
    -Her husband wasn’t involved, right? Also, a bringing a cake to a work meeting is nowhere near “hanging out”, so I’m confused how you make that leap. I bought a Christmas gift for someone’s son in my office, and I’ve literally never seen them outside of work. I just like buying gifts for kids.

    • She’s been here a very short time and didn’t ask if there was a protocol, much less ask if I, his wife who also works here, would be interested in helping to plan a celebration for my husband.
    -… I mean, was it a celebration, or just a cake? Sounds like she just brought cake to a meeting. The notion of there being a protocol for free food is pretty unusual in any office (allergies aside, maybe). Why would she ask you to help for a meeting you’re not attending?

    • She did not invite our administrative assistant, who is also off-site – she was just planning on the meeting attendees, I guess?
    -This seems pretty normal for the course of “bringing food to meetings.”

    • I don’t understand why she’s purchasing a custom cake for a birthday celebration – it’s a bit of a grandiose gesture.
    -Maybe she likes good cake? Custom cakes are often not that expensive, way more delicious, and support a local business.

    I guess what I’m trying to get at is that every part of this seems like a bit of an overreaction on your part… if things get worse, maybe there’s a reason, or maybe there’s things not evident in the letter, but overall, this is completely within the range of normal workplace behavior. Also feel free to send her my way, we’d all love free cake. :)

    1. Artemesia*

      Is she planning on buying a custom cake for everyone else’s birthday? If not why? if we are just sucking up to the boss, then why?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Well, they were friends before she took the job. That might be all there is to it.

        Or not. But in that case, there will be more things that are off and the husband can address it at that point. It does the OP no good to feel angst about it when this is all that’s happened.

        1. Keymaster of Gozer*

          * It does the OP no good to feel angst about it when this is all that’s happened.*

          If this year has taught us anything it’s that being anxious and worried about things is a finite resource, so you need to allocate it wisely.

          (Cat yak on the floor? Clean it up. Coworker being flirty at my husband? Meh, let him allocate his own resources to manage that…I gotta cat to deal with…)

          1. Seeking Second Childhood*

            (I read your parenthetical bit to my family this morning…thank you for the mirth.)

      2. Pennyworth*

        I think that is where there might be a problem. LW#1 should discuss with her husband if they need a ‘birthday policy’ so no-one feels left out, or if he would prefer to revert to the previous custom of not celebrating birthdays at all. Then that needs to be communicated. I’m curious how the new employee knew when his birthday was.

        1. JustEm*

          They’ve been friends since middle school and are Facebook friends, so not surprising that she’d know his birthday…

          1. allathian*

            Yes, this. And if it’s a case where the new hire only wanted to celebrate the birthday of her boss, the LW’s husband, because they’ve known each other since middle school and are FB friends, then the husband needs to tell his report that while they have been friends for a long time, that friendship needs to be toned down at work for as long as she’s his report. This is similar to when there’s a group of peers and one of them is promoted to manage the rest. Especially if the new boss hasn’t been work friends with all of their former peers, there needs to be a visible change in the relationship to avoid an appearance of the manager favoring their work friends over mere reports.

            1. uncivil servant*

              Yup! I agree that it’s not the OP’s problem to deal with and she risks making more drama than if she just lets it slide, but I’m not sure why Allison seems to feel that this time, it’s okay for gifts to flow upward and the boss to get a celebration (paid for by an employee!) that no one else gets. We’d tell the OP not to throw a huge birthday bash for her husband at work unless they want to do the same for other employees, and he’s her husband.

              Again, not a good idea for the OP to get involved. But the husband should very firmly and kindly shut it down.

              1. 10Isee*

                But this isn’t a big birthday bash. She’s essentially bringing snacks to a pre-existing meeting.

                1. UKDancer*

                  Yes, one of my colleagues turned 50 so another one of them made him a cake and decorated it with his favourite Star Wars toy (which we all chipped in for) and brought it to the regular staff meeting. I can pretty much promise this was not due to her overwhelming attraction to him, but because he’s a nice chap and thought it would be fun.

                  In my current company it’s more usual for the person with the birthday to bring in the snacks but someone bringing in a cake isn’t unheard of.

                2. londonedit*

                  I once made a birthday cake for a colleague (technically above me in the hierarchy though not my direct boss) because they happened to have a moan about how their favourite cake is Victoria sponge and you can’t buy decent ones in the shops, they have to be homemade, and they hadn’t had a really good one in years. So I went all out and made a huge Victoria sponge with strawberries and cream, and they loved it. I didn’t make birthday cakes like that for other colleagues, and no one minded – they got the usual M&S Colin the Caterpillar cake from the team, and were perfectly happy. It was a one-off thing based on a particular conversation. I wasn’t trying to suck up to or have an affair with my colleague.

              2. Observer*

                but I’m not sure why Allison seems to feel that this time, it’s okay for gifts to flow upward and the boss to get a celebration

                This is hardly the most egregious action the new admin could have taken. And, Allison is not responding to the Boss or to New Admin, but to the OP whose stake her seems to be “I think she’s going after my husband.” And that’s what really needs addressing here.

              3. Roscoe*

                I don’t know that I’d call a cake in a meeting a gift exactly. Sure, its celebrating a birthday, but its not like its a watch or something.

            2. Not So NewReader*

              “that friendship needs to be toned down at work for as long as she’s his report”

              Right on. And that is on HIM, not her. He’s the boss.

          2. EventPlannerGal*

            It doesn’t sound like they’re actually very close, though? OP says”Although they were Facebook friends and our company completed remodeling projects for her in the past, we’re not friends with her and her husband – we don’t hang out”. That doesn’t sound like a close, friends-since-middle-school birthday-celebrating friendship, it sounds like they knew each other in school enough to be FB friends but not much else.

            I think this all just sounds like a nice but misjudged gesture but I can see why OP is a bit weirded out.

            1. Natalie*

              This seems like a really easy solve? Facebook tells you about your FB friends’ birthdays. And privacy trends aside, I bet dollars to donuts most FB people still have their birthday on their account.

              1. EventPlannerGal*

                Oh yeah I’m a dumbass, I forgot facebook does that – I turned the notifications off ages ago. Ignore me!

                1. waffles*

                  Not to mention she might have access to his birthday for her position. All of my admin assistants have known my birthday. In the before times, it was pretty important for booking international travel – they would all have had the info on my passport and it would be something that a new admin would be made aware of very early in the job.

            2. jbouv*

              Exactly. People saying “this is normal for friends/close friends…” – they are NOT close friends. They are FB friends and that’s totally different. That said, I’m not sure it changes the advice at this point (i.e. mid stream).

              1. matcha123*

                I’m sure a third party would think that I am a bit extravagant with people who aren’t “close” friends, when I offer to send them treats from my area (Japan) or buy things for them. I do it because I consider them friends and like making people happy and like making them feel appreciated.

        2. Observer*

          I don’t think the OP should discuss this with her husband at all. She doesn’t manage the staff, so it’s going to be a much bigger deal than it should be.

      3. London Student*

        Depends what a custom cake is? At my old office they used to just go to the local store and order the person’s favorite dessert. So if that was plain vanilla, there would likely be one ready-made.

        But if it was, say, tiramisu, you’d “custom” order it, which really just means placing the order 2 days in advance so that they’ll have one available. It wasn’t really more effort or more money.

        1. Harper the Other One*

          Yes, I know several bakeries here that make “custom” cakes in that you choose layer flavour, filling flavour, and decorations. They cost the same as a grocery store cake but are WAY better.

        2. Name Required*

          I think the whole “custom” vs standard cake is a complete red herring, because it’s not about the cake. It’s about some *woman* buying things for *her* husband … which are feelings that OP needs to deal with privately. I’m of the opinion that women shouldn’t manage their husbands relationships at work or at home, but if they have a different dynamic at home, it still shouldn’t impact the way things are managed at work.

          1. Rusty Shackelford*

            I don’t know… if I were already at a freakout level 10 because someone was buying a cake for my husband, going the extra step of making it a *custom* cake would probably bump it up to 11.

            (But then, I wouldn’t freak out over a cake.)

      4. Mookie*

        I think the third question answers itself. In the real world, people unfortunately suck up to the boss, particularly when it’s so small a business the owner’s spouse is also an employee; these organizations are less apt to identify the problem with and discourage gifting up, a moratorium most common among white collar professions.

        As a former friend, this helps explain the slightly more intimate (but private! in front of lots of people! who may, in fact, have helped plan and contributed funds towards this small gesture, which is not a celebration but a regular meeting with dessert) gesture. Don’t cakes always feel like a token gesture? Is there any reason that a brand-new employee might not plan to continue this new tradition for her colleagues? Why is LW not asking her these questions directly, rather than apparently polling other employees in private and then extrapolating intent.

        Finally, maybe she’s grateful for the job in this economy? Feels like she owes him for extending an old friend a good offer?

        The gender dynamics the LW is pushing, either by intuition or paranoia, makes this utterly benign gesture so much for fraught than it needs be.

        1. Absurda*

          “Finally, maybe she’s grateful for the job in this economy? Feels like she owes him for extending an old friend a good offer?”

          This is where my head went. Maybe she did a cake for his birthday as a way of saying “thanks for the job”. Or maybe she did it because she wanted an excuse to butter up her department with some free cake (nominally it’s celebrating the boss’s birthday, but the others get cake); it’s unclear, to me, if they pitched in for it.

          Maybe she’s on a strict diet, really wanted cake and needed a reason to justify it.

          Just seems to be a lot of reading into something that, with all the evidence provided in the letter, seems like a pretty mundane occurrence.

      5. legalchef*

        Because people can get more out of sucking up to their boss than to their colleagues? That’s not an unusual phenomenon…

      6. Observer*

        if we are just sucking up to the boss, then why?

        “I want to keep my job!” is far and away the most likely reason. FAAAR more likely than romantic designs.

    2. Roci*

      I agree that this doesn’t look that problematic unless it’s in a list of other, escalating incidents.
      But also the husband is the boss, so he has the power to dictate expectations for her behavior.
      If he’s uncomfortable with this, he can just say, “Hey I appreciate the thought, but we don’t really do that here, so please don’t do it again.”
      OP doesn’t really need to get involved, and should probably take a step back from monitoring her husband’s work interactions with women.

      1. Malarkey01*

        Look I don’t care if the free meeting cake is for boss’ birthday, assistant’s self work anniversary, because Bob adopted a new cat, or because Barbs son made parole….it’s a free treat to enjoy while talking about the TSP report. Why squash this? It’s so low stakes.

        1. KayDeeAye*

          I know! The world needs more good cake, IMO (and good pie!), and people who supply it should be encouraged, not discouraged.

          It was just a cake that she brought to the meeting. That’s it. If it escalates or otherwise gets weird, by all means deal with it. But as it is, it’s a meeting with free cake, and that’s much better than a meeting without cake. Or so it seems to me.

        2. DarnTheMan*

          Before we all got put on WFH my team used to have a terrible two-day planning meeting (the planning was good but two days of all day meetings is draining) and I regularly brought minibon packs from Cinnabon on at least one of the days because decadent free food almost always improves peoples mood during long meetings.

    3. MK*

      What is meant by a custom cake? Most grocery stores don’t sell cakes where I live, you have to go to a bakery or pastry shop, but you just get one of their cakes off the self. If she actually ordered a special cake to be made for her boss, yes I would agree it’s an over-the-top gesture, but if she just got the cake at a bakery, it’s probably just that she likes their goods or it’s on her way to work.

      1. London Student*

        I had the exact same thought — if it’s an expensive, elaborate dessert, that’s weird.

        But if they just mean “ordered a day in advance to ensure one would be available with chocolate frosting” or “asked them to stencil ‘happy birthday Jim’ in frosting”, then that’s less worrying.

      2. fhqwhgads*

        “Custom cake” usually just means “ordered a few days in advance in specific desired combination of flavors and guaranteed to be ready for pick up on the date and time you specify” because not every bakery has house cakes in all flavors they offer on the shelf every day. “House cake” meaning “cake that’s already made and in the case and available for anyone who walks in to buy”.
        “Custom” could also mean “a specific combination of flavors they don’t usually make unprompted”. So like, say their menu has a lemon cake with strawberry buttercream or a chocolate cake with vanilla buttercream, but you want chocolate cake with strawberry buttercream. They’ll make that for you, but it’s “custom” because they wouldn’t have made that and had it on the shelf. It could also mean some fantastical usually-seen-on-food-network complicated sculpted cake, but that is so so so so so much less likely because they’re extremely expensive as well as for way more people than are likely to be in this single department meeting.

    4. JustKnope*

      This was my read on it exactly! This feels like an unnecessary reaction (especially with all of the debate over what constitutes a custom cake…) plus, the fact that she called the wife and wasn’t trying to hide it to me signals she’s just trying to bring some food to an already existing meeting. Keep an eye on her moving forward to make sure nothing else escalated but this alone isn’t that big of a deal.

    5. Jennifer*

      But why not ask his wife to stop by? She asked for the cake preferences but didn’t invite her? That seemed a bit off to me. Plus I just don’t like telling women to ignore their gut when it comes to situations like this. It seems we do that as a society way too often. She knows her husband. We don’t. She’s met this woman. We haven’t. I think Alison’s advice is spot on for how she should conduct herself within the workplace, but at home she should definitely tell her husband how she feels. I think this woman’s behavior is odd.

      1. Karia*

        Because they’re in different departments? I’m sorry, but a lot of ‘gut feelings’ are utter nonsense, and certainly shouldn’t affect someone’s employment.

        I think this woman’s behaviour is perfectly normal; she brought cake to a meeting, for a whole department.

        It wasn’t a candlelit supper for two.

        1. Jennifer*

          I never said it should affect her employment. I’m talking about their relationship. Gut feelings definitely aren’t nonsense, but of course, I would never suggest someone be disciplined or fired based on a gut feeling.

          1. Karia*

            I’m sorry but I need to challenge you on this. I am an LGBT woman. I have had numerous situations, where, *only* after that was discovered, people started having ‘gut feelings’ about my competence or ability to do my job. What was ACTUALLY happening was that they were uncomfortable with me having a girlfriend.

            But they didn’t want to admit to themselves that they were homophobic, so they had a ‘gut feeling’, and began searching for reasons to justify that ‘gut feeling’. So they’d tell themselves they were mad about that typo, or that I’d made a risqué joke, even though the straight man next to me had done far worse.

            So YES actually, ‘gut feelings’ are really quite often nonsense.

            1. Karia*

              And for clarification here; she’s jealous of her husband’s middle school friend and is interpreting an utterly innocuous gesture as sexual.

              And insisting it’s acceptable because ‘gut feeling’ is more socially acceptable than “I’m jealous of this woman whom my husband has known since childhood.”

              Which is odd, because to me that’s a far more reasonable and mature reason to be jealous, than… cake.

      2. Colette*

        Because the wife wasn’t in the meeting? This wasn’t a huge party, it was a regularly scheduled meeting with cake.

        If the wife is concerned about her husband’s relationship with his employee, that’s for her to deal with with her husband. But from what she’s said, she’s feeling very threatened by this employee (and this cake). That doesn’t mean the employee has done anything in appropriate.

        1. Jennifer*

          As someone mentioned below, I think the friendship needs to be toned down a bit a work, and “gifting upward” even if it’s just cake, is strange to me. But that’s just my take on it.

          1. Colette*

            Sure, if the new employee wrote in, that’s probably what we’d all say. But she didn’t, so it’s not really relevant to the OP.

            1. Jennifer*

              I don’t see how it isn’t relevant since she’s asking if this employee crossed boundaries. Plus the OP has weighed in and said that her husband agreed with her and decided to address it with the employee.

      3. Rusty Shackelford*

        But why not ask his wife to stop by?

        Because she wasn’t throwing a party. She was bringing a cake to an existing meeting.

  7. Abbey*

    LW1 – The employees at your company don’t need your permission to do something nice for their boss, even if you’re the boss’s wife. It sounds to me like this is someone who is grateful to have a job (especially in times like these!) who wants to show some appreciation to their boss. Sure, they might be out of touch of what is normally done in the office, but they might also think that’s okay given that they’ve known each other a long time. My team and I do something similar for our boss every year. We order cupcakes or cookies, and we eat them during our team meeting. If you’re not usually in that meeting, you’re not invited. It’s usually a 1 minute intro, “Hey it’s Boss Man’s birthday! Everyone have a cupcake!” And then it’s business as usual for the rest of the meeting. I wouldn’t read too much into this as an isolated incident. If it’s paired with other, more explicit boundary crossing behavior, maybe it’s worth a conversation between your husband and them, but you should stay out of it.

    LW4 – I’m also a person who keeps work and home separate. My favorite excuses: “I’m trying to limit my social media use right now. Have you seen The Social Dilemma on Netflix?”, “Oh, I don’t really check those things”, “I don’t even remember my Instagram handle, it’s been so long since I logged in!”

    1. allathian*

      Yeah, I definitely think it’s up to the husband to set the boundaries here. The boundaries need to be professional. Their friendship needs to be toned down at work. And never, ever gift upward! That’s so inappropriate and gives off a vibe that you’re trying to get better treatment by sucking up to the boss. The only exception to this, as Alison has said, seems to be that it’s fine to share home-baked goods with your boss. Hey, maybe that’s why the LW mentioned that the cake was custom-made? As in, home-baked goods are best, but if you’re not a baker, buying a cheap industrial cake from the grocery store is borderline fine, but a custom-made bought cake is a step too far?

      I get it that the new hire who is friends with her boss is just trying to be friendly. Judging by the letter, I don’t think the LW needs to worry about sexual impropriety, if they’re old friends they could’ve acted on any temptation long before now. It’s just that the new hire needs to be told by her boss that she can’t expect any preferential treatment at work just because they’ve known each other for a long time, and that next year, there will be no cake for the boss’s birthday, because there’s no tradition of celebrating birthdays at that office and it won’t look good to make an exception for the boss because he’s an old friend.

      1. MK*

        I don’t get the impression that the OP is worried about their having an affair. But frankly, hiring an old friend is not without its pitfalls, and worrying about crossing boundaries is not reasonable.

    2. Keymaster of Gozer*

      Like your social media answer, mind if I borrow it?

      (Don’t even have a TV in the house anymore, have LinkedIn and do have FB but my friends list is very small and pretty much all I do is post images of my cat)

    3. Jennifer*

      I don’t think employees should have to pitch in to buy anything for their boss, even if it’s just cupcakes.

    4. Elspeth McGillicuddy*

      Cupcakes are, weirdly enough, a lot less ingratiating gift in my mind. I think it’s because just one is actually for the boss/birthday person and the rest are eaten by everybody else. A whole cake is all a present for the recipient, even if other people consume the same proportion of it.

      1. CatsOnAKeyboard*

        I don’t see this at all. To me, office birthday cake isn’t a present at all. The cake is always for everyone – not for the individual whose birthday was an excuse.

  8. Aspie_Anything*

    Just FYI – my org requires task logs largely because we receive finding from a variety of sources and need track the time spent on work related to the COVID crisis. Not saying it couldn’t be micromanage-y, but it could be for an innocuous reason if her department receives any specialized funding.

  9. PR*

    OP2–another possibility is that your client is doing some risk management by diversifying the freelancers they use.

    But as Alison said, ask!

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Yep ask. And be prepared for a sheepish, embarrassed answer.

      My husband’s motorcycle crossed 100k miles and needed a rebuild. There were two repair shops to choose from. We chose Shop B. Meanwhile, Hubs grew a good friendship with the folks at Shop A. And you can see this one coming, right? Shop B messed up the job. He ended up going to Shop A (friendly shop) to get the last parts and work he needed.

      The wife in Shop A caught me one day off to the side and asked, “Why did you guys go to Shop B?”

      My answer does not fit the exact situation you have, OP, but it does show how a weak, unsatisfying answer can actually be the truth. I said, “We did not know either of you when we made that original choice. We guessed. And we guessed wrong, we picked the wrong shop. Going forward, I know Hubs will only come here now for parts and help.”

      I don’t think they ever knew how much business my husband sent them. It was a lot of people. Sometimes how the customer makes it up to the business owner over the long haul is not obvious.

    2. CaseyJD*

      Yes, I’ve hired freelancers in past jobs, and you never want only one person available to you. It’s always good to have several people who know your firm and can get up to speed quickly when work comes in.

    3. Mainely Professional*

      Ugh, please don’t ask! I disagree with Alison today. I manage a lot of freelancers, all of whom do good work for us, and I frankly don’t want or need my business decisions interrogated by them! Maybe it’s different for the OP and their client, but yeah, I work with more than one person for the various jobs I have to give out to freelancers. Sometimes I give the job to Cersei because it’s “her turn.” She’s just as qualified as Sansa to do this teapot lid testing, and if I don’t give her a few jobs a year, she’ll never have time for me. And I need Cersei in my stable because she’s the only freelancer who knows how to do QA on pour-over style teapot spouts, which means I always have to give her that work, but I actually don’t have any QA work on pour-over style teapot spouts in this quarter…but I need to keep Cersei sweet so she gets the lid job.

      I live in fear and dread of “Why didn’t you give it to me?” emails from my freelancers. Like applying for a job you didn’t get: move on. Send an email to your client reminding them you’re available, you’ll be in front of mind.

      1. EPLawyer*

        that’s where I come down. Even with a good relationship questioning why you didn’t get a particular job could harm the relationship. Oh this person questions my decisions on who I give work to? Maybe I should just ease them out of my list of freelancers altogether so I don’t have to deal with all the questions every time I assign a job to another freelancer.

        Who knows the reason. Maybe the overcharge busted the budget and they can’t afford you right now. You were RIGHT to charge for the extra on the project. But they have a right to look at other options for their budget.

        1. Liz*

          I’m also on Team Don’t Ask.

          I’m a freelancer. I wouldn’t contact a client to ask why they chose another freelancer over me. I trust their judgment — whatever the reason, it was a business decision, and it’s not my business. At most, I might send an email to update them on a new service I recently added to my business that might be useful to them. But mostly, I’d just focus on doing great work for my other clients, and pursue new leads.

      2. Reba*

        I think you are exaggerating, but still, “fear and dread”? What the OP is asking for and Alison suggested are certainly not interrogation! Maybe you truly don’t have any more time for more emails. But a reply like “we are happy with your work, we have several freelancers we work with” is all that would be needed. You would never need to explain why you gave it to Cersei specifically.

        It’s similar to the situation that’s been discussed here before — giving feedback to job applicants. Many don’t due to the risk of the applicant not handling it well, and I totally get that. But in this case, these are people you know, whose work you know!

        I hope you can see it from the freelancers’ point of view, too, they want to be sure you are on the same page and that there isn’t feedback they are missing about their livelihood.

        1. Mainely Professional*

          Yes, I was exaggerating for humorous effect. But the point is: there is absolutely zero upside to asking your client why you didn’t a get job, and all upside to just reminding your client “I have availability,” as others have mentioned.

          I probably wouldn’t drop a freelancer who asked me why I gave a job to someone else, and yeah, I would be able to give them a vague answer…but I sincerely would not like being asked. I shouldn’t have to defend myself to someone I give work to. I would have a slightly more negative impression of them going forward. Sorry! I just would! It’s comes across as unprofessional. The most I could see telling the OP is sending an email reminding the client they’re available at their regular rate and that they welcome feedback at any time if the client is ever unhappy.

          1. Lisa*

            You’re the one putting the “dread and fear, ha ha jk” into this, which makes you sound really insecure. It’s pretty strange that even daring to ask for your opinion is so unprofessional that you would forever view them negatively.

            Also, I disagree that there is “zero upside”. She listed all the reasons she’d like to know – but mostly, she wants to improve her work if there is a need. So if you had a problem you hadn’t discussed and now she knows about it and fixes it, you’re both happier – that’s a potentially large upside. If there is nothing to improve, then you’d simply say that. No drama, no defensiveness, no impugning anyone’s professionalism.

            1. Mainely Professional*

              Um, ok. Here’s my professionalism: “if you had a problem you hadn’t discussed” — THAT’S unprofessional. I wouldn’t do that. If I have a problem with your work, I will let you know.

              I said I would have a slightly more negative impression. Because yes: I think it’s generally bad to ask why someone else got a job.

              Maybe stop picking at my words, and just take the two cents of someone who deals with freelancers constantly and has had nothing but good feedback from them on how great I am to work with. Go bother EPLawyer who agreed with me now, too.

              1. Liz*

                Mainely, for what it’s worth, I agree with your take, and I’m on the freelancer side of the equation. And I have no idea why others are rather rudely responding to what you wrote — you’re just offering your opinion; they are free to offer theirs, without needing to make it personal.

      3. Lacey*

        Yeah, I do a little freelancing on the side and while I certainly notice when my clients don’t hire me for a job – I’ve never asked about it. I know there are a lot of different reasons they could have and it doesn’t change anything to know which one it is.

        And, I’ve never had a longtime client just drop me entirely. They might use someone else for some projects, but I’ll get work from them again at some point. And if I make them uncomfortable by making them explain their decision – I think there’s a good chance I might not get work from them again in the future. No one wants to work with a needy freelancer.

        1. londonedit*

          Definitely. I’ve freelanced and I now hire freelancers, and these things are all part of normal freelance life. I go through patterns with the people I hire – someone might say they’re unexpectedly free, so I throw a few things their way, or someone might say they’re swamped and I might end up leaving it three months before I think ‘I wonder whether they’ve got any free time yet?’. If I have a problem with someone’s work, I will tell them. But otherwise I try to share the work around fairly evenly, or I pick particular people to work on particular projects, and sometimes that means I might skew away from certain people for a while before circling back to them. It’s always appreciated when a freelancer sends an email letting me know they have some availability, but I’d be put off to receive a ‘Why didn’t you hire me for X?’.

  10. Titta*

    For LW1:

    I would give her some slack. Obviously us readers don’t know the whole story, but at this point, I would read her behavior kindly. She is new to her job, wants to make good impression and bond with her new team, has someone she knows as boss… Bringing cake to the office is usually accepted behavior. And yes, ideally she probably should have asked what was the convention or discuss her plans ahead and ask if that sounds appropriate for the office, but things happen.

    But if I was the boss and someone did this is my office, I would talk to them privately afterwards, thank them for the cake, but explain our office traditions regarding birthdays. (whatever it might be) And then maybe announce said policies to all in an appropriate way.

    1. London Student*

      Yes — and depending on her previous experience, she may see this is as totally standard. Some companies do this sort of thing routinely, while others don’t.

      1. allathian*

        Sure, but the new hire seems out of touch because she never asked what people usually do for birthdays, she just went ahead and did it.

        1. Uranus Wars*

          But maybe she did ask another co-worker who said something like “we don’t usually but sure” or maybe they do bring in cupcakes/snacks for this particular team meeting if it falls on someone’s birthday and the wife just doesn’t know because she doesn’t go to those meetings.

          I just feel like there is a lot we don’t know based on the letter and if the issue is “new hire brought a cake” the OP is probably investing a little too much time in it — and if new hire was a man would she care as much?

        2. GothicBee*

          The only thing we know is she didn’t ask the LW. It’s possible she asked someone else. The letter even says that the husband thinks other employees are in on the celebration with her, in which case she definitely would have asked because she would have told them her plan.

    2. Lacey*

      Yeah. At this point she’s just awkward and overly friendly. It doesn’t need to be anything more than that. Or maybe she’s just one of those dreadful people who immediately thinks they’re in charge of anything less than 10 feet away. Those could certainly be issues in the office, but they’re going to be solved by a simple, calm directive by her boss to let other people handle things.

  11. Batgirl*

    OP1, there does seem to be something a little off about this employee’s way of going about things; usually you defer to the status quo where birthdays, especially the boss’s birthday, is concerned. It’s possible the pre existing friendship is messing with that a little. However the thing that most seems to be bugging you is that she spoke to you about it and you didn’t feel able to speak plainly without “being rude”. Women are cursed with extra considerations there and it’s always annoying when you feel you can’t be straight with someone without being judged as cold/bitter/jealous/a bitch. I think your husband’s reactions are pretty on point tbh, and he can handle anything that reads too much like “friend” instead of “new hire” if it becomes a pattern; so you’re probably done. However I don’t think there’s anything wrong with your saying things like “What usually happens for birthdays is…” or “Bob actually hates fuss, especially at work” or “We don’t gift up here” or “A custom cake is kind of fancy for that”. She was asking you for preferences, so it would have been fine to point her in the right direction.

    1. Mae Fuller*

      Yes, this struck me too – the new employee did ask the boss’s wife for advice, although not as directly as LW would have liked. It’s also completely possible that she asked one of the other employees (who will be at the meeting) about protocol – eg “would I be stepping on anyone’s toes if I brought in a cake for boss’s birthday” – “no, we’ve never done that and I think it would be lovely”.
      If anything, the boundary crossing there would be LW expecting to be involved as the boss’s wife.

      1. Uranus Wars*

        HA! I commented similar above. Also noted that there is also a chance they actually do have small cupcakes/snacks for these meetings if they happen to fall on someone’s birthday…and the wife doesn’t know because she doesn’t go to these meetings.

    2. Mookie*

      Excellent comment.

      This employee read the room several times over. Didn’t keep it from the wife or try to hide it, performed a task usually expected of female employees (who knows what expectations and experiences she had entering into this workplace), consulted the employee best placed to identify the birthday haver’s favorite flavor. And, as you say, spouses, irrespective of their role in a company owned and operated by their spouse, are great resources for gauging culture and internal etiquette; the LW was in the best position to discourage it, didn’t, and is mad.

      1. MK*

        The employee best placed to know the boss’s favourite flavor… because she is his wife. If you want to respect a married couple’s boundaries at work, you don’t ask one about the other’s cake preferences, nor do you try to treat them like they have DPD.

      2. LL*

        But did she?

        Actually she did plan this on her own, because I am the person who wrote the letter.

        She was not able to attend the event. So, she got the cake to the office and we all arrived to it already there. She had a custom cake ordered, decorated with a paint can, brush, and roller. It was a cake upwards of $60-$80 (USD) for what ended up to be 6 people – with the new hire, it would have been 7 (the totality of the admin staff for this company). I invited the admin assistant after asking my husband first. The cake was left at the office.

        It weirded my husband out and the vibe in the room was also weird. Employees said they didn’t plan this with her. My husband agreed that the gesture, whatever reason for doing it, was not okay. That it put him on a pedestal and that made him feel icky. He said that in his discussion with her, she said to him she did that for her old boss. He asked that she not do that again because we don’t do that sort of thing and if we were to, it would be done for everyone. A formal policy would need to be put in place.

        I have never said a word to her about it and don’t plan to, even though I do own 1/2 of this company and I’m the ad hoc HR person.

        People can call me what they will. I have every right to feel that this was weird. I haven’t just worked in paint contracting. I’ve worked at a couple companies large and small over the last 20 some odd years and have never seen a gesture of this type.

        The optics were not good and it was reflected by employee and owners reactions. She overshot the mark.

        In the 24 years of my relationship and 13 years of marriage to my husband, I have never felt weird about things. Excuse me if my ears prick up for this. I don’t know what the motivation was for her, I’m NOT her. So, others’ supposition on my thoughts is just that. I merely asked if boundaries were needed. I think they are.

        Bottom line: as a new employee you should acclimate to their surroundings first, inquire about what the birthday person’s wishes are if birthdays are celebrated, and don’t blow it out of the water.

        Just because you want to do a certain something doesn’t mean you should.

        1. Uranus Wars*

          It sounds like your husband handled it appropriately by talking with her; if you own half the company, handle HR and feel like it was out of bounds for any employee (not just her because she is female) you could also coach her about professional boundaries if you think she will try to do this with any of your other employees.

          FWIW I’ve worked at a few large companies and a cake like you’ve described has been typical at some, not so typical at others, so that might be her background.

          1. LL*

            I think leaving it with what my husband said to her is the best route. If I chime in it would be total overkill. If she ever mentions it, I’ll be honest, but I hope it’s over and she doesn’t feel a need to revisit it.

            I agree that after finding out she did this for her boss, it explained a lot.

            1. Observer*

              I think you are completely correct in leaving this, at this point.

              And the fact that she did this for her old boss does explain a lot.

        2. Clever username goes here*

          This is a weird thing to do. I read “custom cake” as something bespoke that is pre-ordered and costs a fair bit of money, which it seems was the case. This is a very weird thing to do for a) a new hire b) a work birthday celebration and c) someone with no motivation other than pre-existing ‘friendship’. Sorry OP, but I think you’re right to keep an eye on her for any other indications that she’s overstepping the bounds of what should be a professional working relationship.

          1. Egads!*

            It struck me odd that OP was hung up on ‘custom cake’. I think custom cake means you can choose your flavor and add a message. I’ve worked at places where it’s very common to have a cake in a meeting to celebrate a birthday. Leftovers were free to the rest of the office. So the new hire may have done this other places and it was natural for her to do so. Keep an eye out if you feel suspicious or if hubby has given reason to make you suspicious. Otherwise, it’s just a cake for Pete’s sake!

        3. That Girl*

          I read the original question and your response and am curious:

          Is this (getting a cake for a birthday) the hill you want to die on? Why are we so weirded out about cake? I wonder if the vibe that you and your husband created weirded others out and that’s why the whole thing was off. She explained that it was a custom at her previous place of employment and was (from what I am reading) trying to do something nice. Instead she got reprimanded for getting a cake – sheesh – its cake, people.

          After reading this, I would not want to work at your workplace (not that that matters, but it turns me off). At my new-ish place of employment, I have reinvigorated birthday cards because it is a morale booster and it makes people feel good (note I am not in charge but took it upon myself anyway), and it costs me nothing aside from the money for the cards.

          And I’m always surprised by how people jump all over women for things like this and make it appear shady. If it was a male colleague who suggested they go out for drinks to celebrate (and maybe paid for one round), there would be no question of infidelity or flirting, but the second a woman does it – other women jump all over it. It makes me sad.

          1. Jennifer*

            I think their friendship and the fact that it’s out of step with the office is what made the OP uncomfortable, not simply the fact that the employee is a woman. I do understand your point about double standards, but I just don’t think that’s what’s happening here.

            1. That Girl*

              Although I think that “out of step with the office” can be easily attributed to the fact that she was accustomed to doing it at her old place of employment. That’s an easy correction and (if that’s it) a simple misunderstanding that doesn’t have to make it all weird.

              And it seems that the LW husband hired an old friend. My fiance has old friends who are women. If one of them got him a cake at their shared place of employment, I would think NOTHING of it. Because I trust my fiance and his judgement. From my (outsider) limited perspective – that’s what the underlying issue is here – and its a relationship issue, not a workplace issue.

            2. Scarlet2*

              Sure, it’s out of step with that particular office, but it’s also commonly done in other workplaces. In fact, the employee herself said it was done in her previous workplace. So, is the boss entitled to tell her she shouldn’t do it again because they don’t want to start doing it for everyone? Sure. But all this talk about “everyone being uncomfortable” and “she should have asked about the protocol” about a cake seems either overblown or extremely rigid? The woman just bought a cake, she didn’t dress like Marilyn Monroe to sing a sultry rendition of “Happy birthday to you”.
              And the talk about friendship and boundaries at work should have probably happened as soon as she was hired, but it’s never too late. However, it’s on the husband to put some boundaries in place, if necessary. I guess I just don’t understand why several commenters are reacting like a woman who brings a birthday cake is some sort of Jezebel.

              1. Jennifer*

                The Marilyn Monroe reference made me crack up. I don’t think anyone is implying she’s some sort of Jezebel, that’s a bit extreme.

                I just think 80 bucks on a custom cake for your boss, in these times, especially since it seems she was pretty hard up for a job, is weird. When I was single, that was a week’s groceries. I think it’s important to speak up in your relationship when something makes you uncomfortable instead of just letting it fester. That’s why I said below it’s more of a relationship question than a work question. It sounds like the OP addressed it with her husband and he handled it.

                1. Observer*

                  Not weird at all – notice that she said that she did this in her old job.

                  And just look at the letters that show up here, with TONS of pressure on people to give gifts to the boss – and often more than $60-80.

                  It’s good that the OP’s husband told her not to do this again.

                2. Scarlet2*

                  The “Jezebel” reference was hyperbole, but I was surprised that multiple commenters seem to see something potentially nefarious in an employee buying a birthday cake. I guess I don’t really understand what the big deal is.

                  Agree that the husband seems to have handled it well with his employee.

          2. Uranus Wars*

            I agree with your entire comment. I mentioned above I think her husband did the right thing [based on his feelings] but I also think that this is a gross overreaction to cake. Especially (and I think I mentioned this) if the conversation would not have happened if a male employee did this.

            If I were this old friend/new hire, I’d be thinking really long and hard if this is somewhere I’d fit in long-term.

            1. That Girl*

              The double standards also make me think about how men are also not held accountable. (I’m now not directly referring the LW and their situation, but in general). Where is the expectation that the man sets the boundaries with said co-worker? Why is the female co-worker always the guilty party? It baffles me because we very0 quickly blame the woman for being too “flirty” but we also don’t expect (or think men are capable of?) managing or handling the situation.

            2. H2*

              I also agree, with both of you. A new hire did something with presumably benign intent that was generous, and a misstep for that particular workplace (but not all workplaces). It sounds like it was handled appropriately, but the LW sounds really angry. If I were this employee I would be scared to see what would happen if I made an actual, meaningful mistake.

              People make mistakes. I think that the LW should think about why this one elicited such a strong negative reaction that honestly doesn’t seem warranted.

            3. AvonLady Barksdale*

              Yeah, I’m getting the vibe that there’s still a ton of hostility, even though the LW says in the comments that her husband has spoken to the woman. That should be the end of it unless she does it again.

              It was a custom cake, not cheap, and decorated with cute stuff. The gesture was a little extra and out of step with office culture, no more nefarious than that. It wasn’t a hugely expensive gift given in secret, it was a cake. I just find it off-putting that a person’s clumsy, out-of-step gesture seems to still be generating hostility. File it away and make a note if something similar happens again, but for now, enjoy the cake.

              1. Insert Clever Name Here*

                I’m with you. And she wasn’t even there for the meeting! Put the cake in a central location and let it go.

            4. Batgirl*

              I actually think I would judge a male employee for this; its way too brown nosey and shoving the friendship with the boss in the face of others. Even if I found out they did the same for their old boss I’d still feel it was overkill and an example of why you should hang back in new environments instead of presuming.

          3. MK*

            Personally I think birthdays are for children and would not want a new person at work take it upon themselves to reinvigorate such a tradition. And would probably not want to say so, because the person doing it obviously means it as a nice gesture. Not every nice gesture is a good idea, and just because this woman meant well doesn’t mean the OP and her husband have to let her do what things the way she is used to.

            And if a male new employee proposed to go get drinks for the boss’s birthday at his own expense, most people would think he was sucking up and it would be weird. Sure, a woman has to deal with the added suspicion of maybe flirting, but crossing boundaries at work is not good for anyone. Nor is it acceptable to tell people who feel their boundaries aren’t being respected that they should get over themselves.

            That being said, I don’t think the OP handled this very well.

            1. Jennifer*

              Agreed. Maybe a man wouldn’t have to deal with the flirting accusations but people would definitely think he was a kiss up.

            2. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

              I think birthdays are for children

              That’s fair, but office birthdays are less about birthday celebrations than they are an excuse for people to have dessert.

            3. Annie Moose*

              Plenty of adults celebrate their birthdays, and plenty of offices will mention birthdays/get a snack for them! It’s common and normal.

              1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

                Common and normal (for those who enjoy it) in North America, though. Something that’s come up frequently here is that folks in some European cultures tend to have a much more negative view of office birthday celebrations (and maybe adult birthdays in general, not sure).

                1. UKDancer*

                  I don’t know about being negative about office birthday celebrations in European cultures. I think it’s less common to celebrate someone else, certainly in the UK. So if it’s my birthday I don’t expect people to host a party for me. If I want to celebrate I bring in cake / organise drinks at the pub depending on how well I feel about my colleagues. I had a feeling that in the US it was more the done thing not to organise your own celebration and that someone else should do it.

                  When I worked in Brussels the major difference was that people brought in croissants and similar things rather than cake. That could have been because the bakery opposite the office was amazing.

                  I think some of the more Eastern parts of Europe celebrate name days more than birthdays (so the feast day of a saint you might be named after) but I never thought they viewed birthdays in a negative light, they just celebrate the name day more. I remember I had a meeting in Romania and it was my counterpart’s name day so we were celebrating rather extensively with him. I’m not sure if they celebrate in the office there but we certainly downed some palinca that evening!

                2. Annie Moose*

                  This is a site run by an American, most letters that specify location are from the US, most commenters appear to be from the US, and the advice defaults to American work culture unless otherwise specified. There’s no indication that either the letter writer or the commenter I was responding to are from somewhere outside the US. In fact, the commenter I’m responding to was fairly clear it was a personal sentiment, not something broader within their culture!

                3. Scarlet2*

                  I’m a European who’s lived in 2 different European countries and has a bunch of friends in several other EU countries and it hasn’t been my experience at all. Adults absolutely celebrates their birthdays and birthday cake in the office is definitely a thing too.

          4. ThatGirl*

            This is apropos of nothing but I just want to point out that I am a different ThatGirl than this one :)

          5. Let Them Eat Cake*

            I agree. It’s such a small company, why not take a minute to celebrate special occasions for everyone? I thought the perk of working for someplace so small is that it would feel like family. They should have gotten an ice cream cake, it’d never melt :)

              1. Let Them Eat Cake*

                I don’t see how a family style dynamic is avoidable at a company that small. Especially when it’s a husband and wife running it. You either embrace it, cake (hopefully) and all, or try as hard as you can to find a job in a larger organization where that dynamic is less likely to form.

          6. OhBehave*

            I agree with your comment, That Girl. It is definitely a thing to do in my offices. It was common to celebrate in meetings too. Not all the team was based in the office. It’s all about the cake (in a good way – CAKE!).
            A hint of defensiveness to OP’s rebuttal too. The described cake was over the top but really not a big deal. I hope they were nice in informing new hire of the protocol.

        4. Delta Delta*

          You’ve added some details here that are helpful. There feels like a difference between a $60-$80 cake with paint rollers and brushes than a $15 cake from the bakery where someone wrote “Happy Birthday Wakeen” in frosting. This feels a little overboard. Sounds like your husband nipped the situation in the bud. Maybe if she wants to start celebrating birthdays at the company (some people like that!) talking to your husband about how to do do it would be best, rather than going overboard right out of the gate.

          1. Tammy*

            From my reading of the letter, it sounds like she was originally planning to be/supposed to be in attendance at the meeting, and ended up not being there? IDK about anybody else, but in her shoes — particularly having known her boss for so long — if I’d decided I was going to provide a birthday cake for the meeting, I’d also be very tempted to spend the extra money for a “custom” cake. If I’m going to eat a calorie-rich slice of birthday cake, it’d be worth it for me to get one that tastes good! I think, the rest of the situation aside, that the LW is reading too much into this detail without evidence that it’s part of a pattern.

            And really, I think this is where I come down on the letter overall. I think LW is trying to extrapolate from a single data point to a larger pattern. And given that she, as de facto HR person for this company, had an opportunity to say “you know, birthday cake just isn’t a thing we do here” and didn’t say that in the moment, that’s a problematic path to go down. Wouldn’t it be reasonable for the new admin to say “this is what we did in my old workplace, and I asked the boss’s wife — who is also our HR person — about it and she didn’t tell me not to do it, but now she’s upset with me that I did it”? I get being taken aback in the moment, but you know, that’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way: In a leadership role, you have to learn to manage that in-the-moment reaction, because like it or not, your employees will read (sometimes undue) gravitas into your reactions.

        5. Malarkey01*

          I really think you might be to sit and think about the optics of your reaction though. The thing she wanted to do was bring a treat to an office meeting and tied it to a birthday. You invited other people to the meeting and asked about who participated and said it put him on a pedestal. I think you took what was a normal office thing (even if not done in your office) and blew it out of proportion and people felt icky. Mentioning that you are the HR, even odder- HR mandates no treats.

          You may have made this seem like something more to other employees and now every interaction is going to seem heightened and suspected.

          1. MK*

            I think describing this as “treats” is disingenuous, considering she asked his wife about his favourite cake and ordered a theme one, and then made a point of bringing it over to a meeting she wouldn’t attend. That’s a birthday celebration, if a lowkey one. Also, a normal office thing is to bring generic treats on a random day, not tie it to the boss’s birthday and order a customized cake.

            1. MCMonkeyBean*

              But the customization was themed to the business. It’s not like she “I know you like guitars so I got you this very personalize guitar cake.” Bringing a paint-themed cake to your paint-industry work meeting still sounds extremely normal to me. It may not be done at that particular workplace, in which case you tell her so and move on, but there is nothing about it that comes off as particularly unusual. It is so bonkers to me how much everyone is getting worked up over cake!

        6. EPLawyer*

          Thank you for the additional info.

          This right here “Just because you want to do a certain something doesn’t mean you should.”

          New hire is not realizing that different companies do different things. She didn’t check first. She just went and did it … because she wanted to. Hopefully your husband’s talk got through to her and that’s the end of it.

          Someone said why are we blaming the woman here instead of the man. Gender has nothing to do with it. Lower level employee who is new to the company didn’t bother to learn the work culture before doing something that made a meeting awkward. Boss spoke to lower level employee about it in a constructive way. Boss was not at fault in the situation since he didn’t KNOW the LLE was going to do this. So why should he be blamed for the situation that the LLE created? Conversely why shouldn’t the LLE be counseled about the situation they created?

          1. DarnTheMan*

            Except lower level employee did make an attempt – by asking OP#1 about the cake – and now is getting blamed by OP and her husband for not knowing that when OP says “oh [Husband] likes chocolate” that actually means “Oh we don’t do birthdays here so don’t bring a cake in.”

            1. TTDH*

              Yeah… she *did* check first, just not using the spotlessly, pedantically accurate way that a lot of commenters would have preferred.

        7. MK*

          To be blunt, OP, I think you mishandled this. Ideally, as co-owner and acting HR person, you might have told her that your workplace doesn’t usually celebrate birthdays and perhaps that she should clear it with your husband first. I realize that you might have been too surprised to respond in the moment, but then, when your husband also thought this was off, why didn’t he call her to tell her he would prefer she not do anything for his birthday? Why did the both of you decide to let it go on?

          Look, if you say you got weird vibes from this person, I believe you. But it would have been better to nip this situation in the bud, not let it play out and then reprimand someone who might have been acting out of misplaced gratitude or been conditioned to think this normal or even expected.

          1. LL*

            I think you’re right. I should have said something, but I just didn’t feel it was “my place” to say it.

            1. RagingADHD*

              She asked you directly. And, as you have repeatedly pointed out, you are the co-owner and HR person.

              It was completely your place. How could it possibly be more your place?

              1. londonedit*

                I agree – she specifically asked you what his favourite cake was, and you could easily have said ‘Oh – we don’t really celebrate birthdays in the office, please don’t worry about getting him a cake’ or something. Instead she thought it’d be perfectly fine to get him a cake, and then it was weird in the meeting and your husband had to speak to her about it afterwards. Far more mortifying than if you’d just said ‘Don’t worry about a cake, that isn’t something we do here’.

                1. Coffee time!*

                  yes but an expensive cake vs a reg cake is a big difference to me…you can think someone want to bring in treats so asks if there is allergies, flavours etc but the price tag on a special cake like that? I don’t know anyone who would spend that level of money unless it is a very special family occasion.

            2. never comments*

              Of course it was your place- your place as apparently the defacto HR?? I think it was disingenuous to first describe yourself as working in accounting for your husband’s company- but it turns out that you own 1/2 the company and function as HR? yikes

          2. Batgirl*

            Yet look at how many comments have automatically assumed the OP is jealous and targeting the employee for being a woman because she didn’t welcome the cake with open arms. I think she should have been able to say the idea was a bad one/over stepping and have that advice received as a professional tip, but some of the comments here make me less sure.

            1. DarnTheMan*

              I’m one of the people who thought “does OP1 think the cake is some nefarious way of starting an affair?” after reading the letter but even if OP did privately think that, all it would take to shut it down would be a professional but neutral “oh we don’t celebrate birthdays here but thanks for the thought” in response to “what kind of cake does [Husband] like?”

        8. SwitchingGenres*

          So she called you, the HR person, and told you what she was doing, and you didn’t explain that just isn’t done in your workplace, and then you got mad about it? Why didn’t you just tell her not to do it in the first place? Either way, sounds like your husband handled it fine and it wasn’t a big deal.

          1. StlBlues*

            It raises all kinds of red flags to me that the “de facto HR person” is also the owner and wife of “the boss.” Then, when confronted with an actual HR situation, she gets mad and jealous. Repeatedly through the original letter, she comments that “as his wife” and so forth. No, you’re EITHER his wife OR you’re a coworker/HR lead. You don’t get to get riled up on both fronts. So dysfunctional. This whole story is like a microcosm of why small businesses can be nightmares to work in.

            Imagine getting reprimanded for bringing cake. I feel so bad for the poor admin, now dealing with this woman at her job that she desperately needs.

            1. GothicBee*

              Yeah, that stood out to me too. I don’t think there was anything wrong with the boss telling the new hire to avoid bringing in cake if that’s something he prefers, but the LW clearly wasn’t approaching this situation as the HR person, she was approaching it as “boss’s wife” which isn’t doing anyone any favors.

            2. Willis*

              Yeah, I agree with your first paragraph. Also, if they don’t usually do anything for birthdays, I can understand thinking this is a little unusual but she brought in a cute cake, she didn’t buy the guy a pair of underwear or something. It kind of sounded like OP made it a bigger thing than it had to be by inviting herself and the other admin in for it. And then everyone stood around awkwardly with a weird vibe vs just appreciating the thematic cake, having a slice, and moving on with life? It just sounds exhausting to me.

            3. Heather*

              Seriously. I feel so bad for the new hire. Imagine her side of the story! “I just got a new job working with an old friend, and I knew from Facebook that it was his birthday so I ordered a cake from a meeting. I mentioned it to the HR person, who is also his wife. She didn’t try to dissuade me in any way. I wasn’t able to attend the meeting, but now I hear through the grapevine that it was super awkward and that they clearly signalled that they thought I had overstepped in a major way. I don’t want to show my face in the office ever again.”

            4. PVR*

              That’s one very possible interpretation that seems a bit unkind to the LW. But it should be pointed out that the new hire didn’t ask what the existing birthday culture was, if there was a budget for cake and leapt right into asking what his favorite flavor of cake was and footing the bill for a rather expensive cake. If she just called up and asked his favorite flavor the LW may have automatically answered thinking it was odd and not put together why she was even asking in the first place. Once she figured it out, it would feel very awkward to try and shut it down after the fact. She and her husband probably assumed it would just be a simple store bought or homemade cake and not the elaborate Cake Boss cake that ended up happening. I think that people don’t always respond perfectly in the moment when they are caught off guard no matter how good at their jobs they are. In some ways I see this as a comedy of errors, each side reacting to the other imperfectly with the resulting in a super awkward moment. It’s easy in hindsight to blame the LW for not immediately shutting it down or to blame the new hire for not asking first but I can see this would have occurred from both sides with neither side having malice for the other or being bad at their jobs (!!) as has been implied. I’ll bet that the new hire was probably just really excited and thankful to have a job and wanted to do something really nice but completely missed the mark. But I can also see why a cake that was so elaborate and expensive that the new hire paid for on her own felt a little too… personal. I don’t see that as the “wild overreaction” that others do. I also don’t see gender at play here as much as other commenters. If someone of any gender did something so over the top for me, I would truthfully feel a bit uncomfortable like it was just too much even if I couldn’t verbalize exactly what made me feel uncomfortable. Ultimately it sounds like the husband handled it as well as could be expected after the fact and hopefully going forward there are no more miscommunications.

              1. Jennifer Strange*

                he LW may have automatically answered thinking it was odd and not put together why she was even asking in the first place

                Except that the LW specifically states in the letter that she asked right then and there why the new hire was asking, so she did know. She should have stated right then and there that birthday celebrations were not something they did in that office rather than assume the new hire should just know that.

        9. Krakatoa*

          Honestly, reading the letter it doesn’t sound like there was anything malicious here. She probably wanted to show appreciation for the job and misread office norms. I don’t think it was really worth talking to her over when it does just seem like an act of niceness vs. something with an ulterior motive.

        10. AngryOwl*

          LL I agree with you. You weren’t asking if you could fire her or throw a scarlet letter on her, just whether boundaries were needed. It’s weird to only do fancy cakes for a boss and no one else—not because someone is flirting or whatever, but because of the optics (which your husband noted). It’s always odd/unpleasant if only the higher ups get recognized with stuff like birthdays. (Also, these things are usually paid for by a company—why in the world is an employee blowing $80 of their own money?)

          I’m glad it all got settled and hope the oddness stops.

          1. Uranus Wars*

            I wonder if it would have happened for other employees? Was the boss’ birthday the first while she worked there? Either way, I think it sounds like there will be no cake for anyone in the near future.

        11. Kay*

          It seems that many may be reading in /speculating on lw1’s thoughts or intents. The interaction felt off.. And ultimately cake day reaction from staff and boss reflected that her initial reaction was spot on.. Who knows what old schoolmate’s intent was.. It sounds like lw and boss handled it appropriately.
          I do think gut checks are too often disregarded.. Not that this instance was high stakes but it can be in certain circumstances..

          1. Batgirl*

            Amen. I always find it amusing when complete strangers think they can second guess an intuition felt by someone on the scene.

        12. Roscoe*

          This rant seems a bit… much.

          Like you throwing in how much of the company you own, so you have “the right” to say something” even though you aren’t her boss, doesn’t come out great.

          She bought a cake, and you are going on and on like it she showed up naked to a meeting with him.

        13. Alice*

          As the ad hoc HR person, you knew in advance about her plans to get a cake, you knew it doesn’t fit your company’s culture, and you didn’t tell her not to, and you told her boss who also didn’t tell her not to.
          If I were the new employee I would be quite put off that management would let me do something and then counsel/reprimand me afterwards when they’d known from the start.
          Completely aside from issues around jealousy/suspicion/trust in your marriage, avoiding minorly difficult conversations is not a great strategy for anyone doing management/HR.

          1. Batgirl*

            I think assuming there are issues in the OP’s marriage is way out of line! She hasn’t said anything that indicates anything other than their being on the same page as each other. Hiring friends doesn’t always equal the best professional relationships, without at least some boundaries, and its ok to note that. It’s not jealous and I wouldn’t call noticing something that definitely happened in plain sight as “suspicious”.

            1. LutherstadtWittenberg*

              They still had plenty of opportunity to tell her not to buy the cake before the meeting. They didn’t and now blame her for the problem. They made it a lot more awkward than it needed to be.

        14. RagingADHD*

          I’m seeing a pattern here, where there’s a bunch of stuff you knew and thought but didn’t say, and then you get irritated because people can’t read your mind.

          None of this info was in the letter, so people responded without that context. Just like you felt the cake was odd/inappropriate from the start, but gave the new hire a green light anyway.

          The boundaries that you need to establish are with yourself: Stop and think about what’s really important to you, and then say that part out loud, up front!

          It’s completely unfair to people (especially people like this new hire, that you have authority over) to validate their suggestions or leave out important information and then resent them for trusting you.

          1. LL*

            You’re right. I should have said something, but again, I didn’t think it was exactly my place. Going forward, I won’t deflect. I’ll state current policy myself when asked.

            I don’t have authority of this new hire. She does not report to me.

            Nor was I asking for anything to happen to her. Just how to set a boundary.

            1. never comments*

              But you own 1/2 the company and function as HR? The new employee probably thinks you have some authority over her.

            2. Alice*

              You don’t have to “have authority” in order to share info about your company’s culture with a new colleague. (And anyway, if you’re the co-owner and HR, I think you do have authority.)
              I’m also reading “state current policy when asked” — look, probably you’re not like this, but I have a colleague who only ever answers the specific question you ask — no context, no supplemental information. If you ask “Is PY-73 the form we use when a llama needs a vaccination?” he will say yes, but he won’t tell you where to submit the form unless you ask a followup. Or if the answer is no, he won’t tell you what is the right form. It is exhausting — I feel like a lawyer deposing an uncooperative witness. So I hope that your approach is not that of my colleague, when it comes to stating policy!

            3. Observer*

              Well, as half owner, you DO have authority. And as HR, it is TOTALLY your place to let people know about policy or “how things are done here” when it comes up. In fact, that is one of the jobs of HR

              There actually WAS a boundary crossed here – and you were the one who crossed it. You treated this like a social interaction, rather than an interaction between a new and HR regarding a work function.

            4. Traffic_Spiral*

              Well, thing is, you seem to think it’s perfectly your place to say something after the fact. You’re fine making angry and passive-aggressive comments – not just to your husband, but to the other members of the team – but only after you’ve tacitly given the whole thing your approval by telling the person what type of dessert to get. Therein lies the problem.

              Think of it from the employees’ view: they’re just trying to enjoy a nice piece of cake in the break room and there you are, looming about with The Face Of Wifely Anger asking them if they think this cake is inappropriate. Obviously they’re going to tell you “um… yeah, totally wrong,” but I can assure you that none of the employees wanted to talk with you about your issues with this cake. They’re just awkwardly nodding along with what you say in the hopes that you will leave them alone and work out your marital problems elsewhere so they can get back to enjoying their cake.

              As a spouse I would forgive this under the general principal of “not everything your spouse does will make sense, but you married them so deal with it.” As a boss, I would be deeply annoyed if my HR person was like “hey, so the new employee wanted to get you a present so I told her what type to get but now I’m gonna make things awkward by talking about how she shouldn’t have done that.”

              I’d be like “um, maybe do your job as HR and tell the new hires not to buy me gifts? Because my taking the gift that you told them to get, and then telling them ‘thanks but also don’t get me anything,’ makes me look like an ungrateful jerk so… um… thanks for putting me in that position?”

              And since we’re a work advice column and not a relationships column we’re just gonna address your work behavior. So, as far as work goes, you messed up, and you made things weird for everyone. If you want to work in HR you’re gonna have to do better than ‘I was so shocked I couldn’t give a good answer’ when questions come your way.

        15. socks*

          If I was in your husband’s department, I’d be weirded out too — but not because of the cake. I’d be weirded out because 1) the arrival of two other staff (including the boss’s wife) turned this from “a meeting with cake” into “a birthday celebration,” 2) the boss reacted weirdly to the cake, and 3) after you and your husband visibly reacted negatively to the cake, you started asking people if they were part of the planning??? THAT’S the really weird part, not a new admin bringing in a slightly-too-fancy cake.

        16. Arctic*

          You’ve never seen anyone bring in a cake for someone’s birthday in twenty years of work experience?!?!

        17. Ask a Manager* Post author

          You are being really rigid here. Lots of offices do cakes for birthdays. It’s not weird. Yours doesn’t, and now she knows that, problem solved. This isn’t about boundaries. It’s truly not a big deal, and I’m not sure why it’s making you uneasy or turning into such a big deal.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            One other thing I want to add: Please reconsider being the one to act as de facto HR! Having the boss’s wife be HR is really problematic — it’s highly unlikely that people are going to report problems with him to you (especially with something like sexual harassment — not saying your husband is harassing people, of course, but it’s a really bad set-up if someone ever did have a concern — and even if no one does, people are going to be aware that the current set-up is one that would make reporting nearly impossible). Even contracting with an outside HR contractor would be better so people have a place to take concerns that isn’t the boss’s wife.

            The current set-up actually creates liability for the company since it means people will be far less likely to report problems before resorting to lawyers.

            1. DarnTheMan*

              +100 to Alison. My old job was run by a married couple (though not a family owned business) and the husband of the couple was HR, meaning no one felt comfortable bringing up his wife’s egregious behaviour. It was so bad that when a former staffer quit she sent a letter to the org’s board of execs about how bad, to which they responded by appointing an external HR/complaints person… who happened to be close personal friends with the owners.

        18. WinterPixie*

          But she did ask. She asked you! His wife, the co-owner of the company, and the HR rep. She asked, and you gave her the go-ahead, and now you’re saying it was “weird” and she didn’t ask about protocol (even though she did–she asked you about this) and you’re continuing to escalate the weirdness and make this whole thing uncomfortable and bizarre.

          It was just a cake, LW. I don’t understand why this has blown up into such a Big Deal. This seems like way more anger (over something that you should’ve handled in the first place when she approached you) than the situation warrants.

        19. Coffee time!*

          Sounds like you are right about things and it was handled so now you have a plan for the future.

    3. AvonLady Barksdale*

      I really hate it when we as commenters say things like, “Why didn’t you say X???” (not that you are doing this, Batgirl– bear with me here), but in this case, I’m very surprised that the response wasn’t, “Oh, please don’t bother, Jim hates things like this.” Especially in the workplace, where, “I am going to do Z” can very well be met with, “Please don’t, we save Z for certain scenarios, use Y instead.”

      At work, she is a fellow employee. A colleague. She is not “Jim’s friend from middle school.” You are “person who works here who is also Jim’s wife.” Work language and work relationships are different than social relationships.

      1. Traffic_Spiral*

        Well, I think in this context it’s not Monday morning quarterbacking, so much as pointing out that you have much less grounds to complain over something you gave an ok to. OP basically gave it the green light when she told her what dessert to get, so there’s less room to blame the new employee.

  12. Jane Smith*

    4. Nah, I’m not on Facebook or Instagram and my Twitter account isn’t even in my real name – it’s NSFW and I don’t allow my colleagues to see it. If they followed me, in the back of my mind would always be the thought how will they view this post?. I’m careful about what I post anyway, but colleagues being able to see it brings an additional layer of caution to it for me.

    It’s fine to refuse to be social media friends with your colleagues. Even if the only thing you posted on Instagram were innocuous pictures of your cat e.g. (which would be delightful btw!) then it’s ok to draw the boundary between work stuff and stuff that’s personal. Trust your instincts and tell them you prefer to keep work and personal life separate, it’s not personal!

  13. KayEss*

    LW4: The time I worked with a group that was all up in each other’s Snapchats, it was one of many signs that I just wasn’t a good fit with them. (I didn’t even have a Facebook.) They were a cliquey, catty pack of disasters all the way up to the company owner (think like: everyone even had a decoy Snapchat to add the owner on because otherwise she’d be offended, but no one wanted her on their actual Snapchat because she’d 100% use stuff she saw on there against them) so… yeah, not playing into that group pecking order culture did definitely put a wall between me and them? But I also wasn’t participating in either benign stuff like the Bachelorette bracket betting pool or distasteful stuff like the toxic office prank culture (and in fact made my strong opposition known) either, so I probably would have wound up in the same position of being targeted for a layoff as soon as that was on the table even if I had Snapchatted (is that what you do with Snapchat?) with all of them.

    So basically I would say Alison is right in that opening your social media to your coworkers, especially if you’re uncomfortable about it, is not going to fix any interpersonal dynamic issues you have with them. Do what makes you comfortable, and try to make connections in other ways if you prefer… maybe see if you can peel a couple of them off the social media hive mind and connect with them one-on-one?

  14. London Student*

    OP #2 – when I’ve asked for this sort of feedback before, I found it helpful to have a few different (trusted) friends/colleagues look at my request first. They were able to tell me if they picked up on any hints of resentment or entitlement.

    I worked in a cultrally diverse environment, so I felt that I really benefited from different eyes (my version of polite is sometimes someone else’s passive-aggressive hint, or visa-versa) but YMMV.

    1. Mookie*

      I’ve been in both positions re LW2 and I wholeheartedly endorse vetting a letter with others first, especially as it appears it’s the first time the LW has encountered/discovered this phenomenon. Getting tone and communicating intent exactly right has saved me loads of time for future letters with long-term clients who’ve chosen someone else to consult/sub-contract for a specific project; it’s true that there myriad reasons for doing so (client of client preference, seeking specialized expertise, diversifying/broadening one’s resources, contractual obligation) that have had little to do with my pricing or our past experience working together, although those have been the reason for a minority of clients I still work with and that’s good information to possess.

      I was very nervous about asking like the LW, and I’m much more confident now having done it before, both in my execution and with the knowledge that this isn’t unique to me but a less common but perfectly reasonable feature of my industry. If the LW starts to regularly encounter this more frequently, I’d pick and choose which clients and for which projects to broach the topic for most valuable intel coupled with least inconvenience for the client. And when I interview prospective clients I always ask what can they disclose to me about how they choose subcontractors and what their plans on going forward, which saves me asking the ones who regard me as one of many (which is fine! and preferable! I similarly share what work I wouldn’t necessarily want first dibs on and I recommend known and trusted peers when asked.)

      I wouldn’t overthink this, especially because it’s remote work. These inquiries, shaped correctly, are perfectly normal.

  15. Maureen*

    LW3: If your job is a union-represented position, reaching out to your union rep is actually a great option for pushing back on the task log. Employers are required to negotiate with the union over changes to working conditions, including when the reason working conditions have changed is because people are working from home due to covid. The union would probably also be able to keep the fact that you were the one who raised this concern confidential–they’re not always able to do that, but in this case it sounds like any of your coworkers could have been the one to raise the issue, so your employer probably won’t have to know who brought it up initially.

    But as Alison always says, you’re going to be more successful in pushing back if you do it as a group, and that’s true even if you’re relying on your union for help. The union rep will have a much easier time negotiating a different system for you if there is a big group of workers who are all willing to be public about not wanting to have to do the task logs.

  16. Susan*

    OP4 you are putting up a wall by not connecting with your coworkers on social media, especially if they all use specific options to keep in touch.

    Sometimes those are good walls. Sometimes they are bad. Really depends on how you use social media, how your coworkers do, and whether you want to be more socially connected to your coworkers.

    I opt for connected for work focused, public social media. Zero connection hidden profiles for others. And then real name limited connections to select few for others. I have colleagues whose social media I don’t want to be involved with (ignorance is bliss), some I know would be aggravated by mine, and others I just have zero interest in connecting with. I figure if I wouldn’t invite you to my house I have no reason to invite you in to my personal, not public, social media.

    1. Prague*

      Having personal and public social media both sounds exhausting. Is this common? I’m genuinely curious because I’m in a field where it’s common to avoid all social media.

      1. JustaTech*

        I have friends in tech who have a more “work” (but still plenty of non-work) Twitter accounts, where they talk more tech stuff and engage with people in the industry, and then a fully personal FB.

        I also have friends who use their Twitter to do science communication (actually a lot of my friends, now that I think about it) and those are almost all focused on their science subset, with a minimal amount of personal stuff. One of them then has a private and personal FB for the usual stuff, kid pictures and whatnot.

        Both of those cases are outward facing from their work to the rest of the world.

        Then you have people like my spouse, who’s work FB is the same as their personal FB, because they work at FB. I would have a hard time with the separation, but they’ve figured out how to make it work.

    2. Uranus Wars*

      This is how I feel. I have a public Instagram and don’t mind when work people follow me there. I do post frequently but it’s positive and for the most part supports what I do at work (in a good way).

      When I had Facebook I was on strict lockdown, mainly because so much family stuff was on there and it was just a little too much to share. I’ve been over FB for over 2 years now, though, and I love not having it!

    3. Beckie*

      Agreed — especially because the coworkers specifically reached out to you to connect on social media. To me, that sounds like they are making an effort to welcome you to their group. I would suggest giving it a shot — you may be pleasantly surprised how it helps you navigate a situation with a lot of “cliques”.

  17. Anonymity*

    Unless she’s outright flirting with husband, I think this is an extreme overreaction to bringing a birthday cake to a business meeting. It’s like LW is ready to mark her territory.

    1. Peachtree*

      I also find it a little strange that OP seems to think that the men in the office couldn’t have been involved in planning the cake (based on her comment that she’s one of only three women, so would have had to ask the men for help). It seems old fashioned to me to assume that the new assistant must have planned it herself because, good heavens, otherwise a man might have contributed to a cake!

    2. Anonnie*

      Marking her territory is how I read this, too. I wonder if their couple has struggled with cheating or infidelity, as this whole letter sounds very insecure. LW1 needs to learn to leave work at work and handle home at home. It’s just cake.

    3. Sylvan*

      Yeah, I just kind of find the whole thing confusing.

      It’s food at a meeting… A lot of people like bringing food to meetings because it makes them more enjoyable. A birthday or a holiday or whatever provides a reason to do it. Besides, in this case, they’re already friends.

        1. Krakatoa*

          I read it more as she’s was probably happy about having a new job an was trying to be overly nice and not knowing the norms of this office, as opposed to having an ulterior motive.

          If she was trying to flirt with her husband, I highly doubt a birthday cake with a paint roller would be the opening salvo.

        2. Aitch Arr*

          It’s custom because the cake had a paint roller on it, to tie into the company’s business.
          Personally I think that was a sweet gesture (no pun intended).

          The overreaction by OP is surprising to me, as are some other commenters’ reactions.

          Some groups do cakes. Mine does and yes, they are ‘custom’ in that our coordinator orders them in advance (sometimes from a nearby high-end grocery store, sometimes from a bakery) and sometimes they are unusual (I love Boston Cream Pie, so my cake is always Boston Cream Pie). We sing happy birthday and then enjoy cake during the rest of the team meeting.

          1. PVR*

            But do people spend $80 out of their own pockets for it? I’ve worked in offices where we did cakes—even custom ones—and this still would have felt like an out of step gesture.

            1. MCMonkeyBean*

              Everyone has different thresholds for what is a reasonable amount to spend on something like cake, I don’t think it’s fair to try to pull any meaning from a price tag.

              Maybe that’s her favorite place for cake so she ordered from there because she planned to eat it too, or maybe she tries in general to support local businesses over chain stores and is willing to pay higher prices to do that, or maybe someone else she knows recently posted a photo of their own custom cake from the same place and she thought “oh that’s so cute, I think it’s almost my boss’s birthday so I’ll get a similar one but with a paint theme!”

    4. Astro*

      I agree and wonder if there could be something going on in her marriage. A cake isn’t that grand of a gesture (even a custom cake) if she’s used to buying pastries to show her appreciation. I’ve bought several custom cakes to celebrate coworkers, but probably not every time (celebrating a promotion, celebrating a personal achievement, celebrating an award, etc.).

      I work in a heavy burn-out, goals driven culture, and we’re also buying each other little things (a brownie, latte, etc.) when we notice someone is really stressed. Maybe she started there and realized how hard the boss works but doesn’t get appreciation.

  18. Jinkys*

    Op1: If a friend since junior high, even one I’m no longer that close to, hired me and his birthday was right after I started, I’d probably bring in something too. She’s trying to show she’s grateful and probably came from a work culture that does this. I don’t even agree with some of the commenters that she’s kissing up, because they were acquainted before she started. The dynamics are different. Most people don’t ask what “the protocol” is for bringing in treats. That the only people invited were the people in that meeting also makes sense. As for the customization of the cake, if she ordered a particular flavor and/or had his name written on it, that’s pretty normal too. If she had it built to be a life size multi-layered cake in his likeness, then you can be worried. Or if you’re concerned she’ll feel the need to always buy everyone cake, so what. Let your husband handle that as he is her boss. Maybe cake on birthdays will be a part of your work culture now.

    Obviously, something could have been left out, but based on what you wrote I’m genuinely worried about why you singled out this woman and think something this innocuous is inappropriate. I’d spend time reflecting on what about this made you uncomfortable, and make sure it doesn’t impede your ability to be cordial to your coworker. Be sure you’re not treating your female coworkers differently. Them doing something nice for their coworkers (who happen to be mostly male) is not inherently boundary-crossing, and it’s unfair/sexist to think so.

    Finally, do not try to convince your husband to feel uncomfortable if he doesn’t. That’s not only disrespecting his boundaries, but trying to get him to see his employee in a negative light just because you do is really a overreach.

  19. Beth Jacobs*

    I used to time track in a previous billable role and I liked it! It made it easy for me to recall what I’d achieved that week and helped me spot productivity patterns.
    I am no longer in a billable role but still keep a simple timesheet in excel for my eyes only. It’s great for managing my time.

  20. Mannheim Steamroller*

    OP #3…

    Remember that time-tracking and task-logging are themselves tasks that take time and thus should be logged. For example…

    9:00AM to 12:40PM
    – Revised teapot design for Smith account.
    – Increased teapot size from 750 ml to 1 liter.
    – Changed color of lines on spout from Green 3 to Green 2 .

    12:40PM to 12:45PM
    – Log entry for work on Smith account.

    12:45PM to 1:45PM
    – Lunch

    1:45PM to 1:50PM
    – Log entry for lunch.

    1:50PM to 1:55PM
    – Bathroom break.

    1:55PM to 2:00PM
    – Log entry for bathroom break.

    1. Beth Jacobs*

      Except that the vast majority of time tracking jobs do not require bathroom breaks to be tracked (nor lunch, since it’s unpaid) and an entry takes about five seconds once you’ve got a system. With legal services timekeeping software, it’s as easy as pressing a timer associated with the account. The same effect can be done with an Excel log. Excel can also calculate the time not associated with any specific task and put it under “general admin”.

      Do you honestly think that lawyers spend two hours a day doing their timesheets?

      1. CTT*

        You have to type up an entry to go with the timer, which can sometimes be difficult depending on the client (and also depending on the client, they may have sub-codes to the matter number that have to be filled in). It doesn’t take two hours, but it usually takes me 5-10 minutes depending on the day, so I typically put .1 or .2 down in an admin client-matter number to entering time.

      2. Workerbee*

        The point I took from this method is that of malicious compliance. And I would most likely do it too, or lump it into a sum at the end. Maybe even include a Pivot chart. :)

      3. JustaTech*

        I don’t think lawyers, or anyone else who is used to tracking billable hours, takes nearly that long to log their day.

        I will say that when I briefly (~6 months) had to track my days for “I don’t think anyone is working” reasons, it did take me a while to get a system set up. Partly because it’s not a norm in my industry, and partly because my work was really variable. If I spent three hours fixing an instrument, was that “lab upkeep” or “experiment prep” or ? If I spent half a day searching for and reading scientific papers and none of them turned out to be the thing I needed, was that also “experiment prep”? What about “cleaning out the archives of another department”?

        After a while I got rolling with the system, but since there was always a touch of malicious compliance to the whole experience, I always recorded 15 minutes of “recording activities”.

    2. Mockingjay*

      I’ve always had to track hours and tasks throughout my career. Some managers used the info for a myriad of business reasons: proper billing, staff resource allocations, workload evaluations. For others it was just a checkbox – Company requires a weekly report, here it is. File and forget.

      Tracking can seem an imposition if you’re not used to doing it. I actually like doing task tracking (mostly) because I work on things over time and it’s a great way to see progress or lack of same. I find it easiest to record as I go daily; I keep a simple spreadsheet open and log approximate start/end times and quick notes. At the end of the day I’ll take 5 minutes to review the worksheet, add/correct info, and flag action items to carry over.

  21. LifeBeforeCorona*

    What happened to the leftover cake? Was it left in the breakroom for the other employees to share? Or did the new hire take it home? That might help with motives. It was either an office cake or she claimed it because it was a personal gift meant only for sharing for a select few. Which is not a good precedent in an office.

  22. NewYork*

    I agree with LW1, the new employee is out of line. I also think husbands and wives should be honest with each other and LW1 should tell her husband she is very uncomfortable with this person.

    1. LL*

      Thank you.

      We did talk, in detail about how it made both of us feel. I was trying to give her the benefit of the doubt, but it was out of line.

      He was not jazzed by the gesture – a custom cake upwards of $60-$80. He discussed it with her. She’s now in the know on how we do things.

    2. LutherstadtWittenberg*

      This is ridiculous. New Hire asked beforehand and could have been told not to bring in cake. Don’t bring relationship issues into work, and don’t drip your sexism nonsense into this, either.

  23. ADB_BWG*

    LW#3 – I’m a first-level manager in the Federal government with salaried employees. We have flexible schedules (80 hours in 2 weeks), track leave in the 30 minutes and up level, and do a very crude hours breakout (kind of leave, training time, regular work, some special categories)

    I’ve asked my direct reports to keep a general weekly log of what they work on and send it to me weekly and have since maximum telework began in March. I’m doing this so I have details on our tasking and productivity in support of long-term telework and even remote-based positions in the future.

    1. JustaTech*

      I really like the weekly report thing, because it lets me see what I did this week, what I’m planning to do next week, and share that with my boss.
      It’s also a really useful record to have come review time, so I can go back and check what I actually did last year. One year I would have left off a *huge* project I’d done on a very tight timeline; so tight I’d forgotten about it by the end of the year!

  24. I'm just here for the cats.*

    #1 are you sure that she ordered a custom cake and didn’t make it herself? There are people who can and so like to bake cakes and go all out with the fondant and everything. And being that she called and asked what his favorite dessert was leads me to think that she bakes. I think she’s just trying to be nice. Maybe there’s been some tension on the team and she’s just trying to be nice Ask her where she got the cake. But please be her. I don’t think it’s a huge deal.

    1. LL*

      She ordered it. Had it decorated with a paint can, brush, and roller on it. It was about $60-$80 USD.

      1. Coffee time!*

        yes that is where it gets a bit weird..I know people who make cakes like that for fun but to order it. my hubby has lots of allergies so people ask me about flavours etc but big difference then store cake or cupcakes made from cake mix vs a fancy cake that would raise eyebrows at most places I worked at.. so I think you guys handled it right.

  25. Jennifer*

    #1 I think this is more of a relationship question than a work question. You definitely don’t want to appear territorial over your husband at work, but if you are getting a bad feeling about this woman, definitely listen to your gut and talk to your husband about it. I think her behavior is a bit odd especially considering that birthdays normally aren’t celebrated in the office and she spent a good amount of her own money buying one just for his birthday. It’s possible she’s just a kiss up, which is annoying in and of itself, but your feelings matter and if something feels off to you, talk to your husband about it and make sure he takes you seriously. Just keep it outside of work.

    If she does the same for every other employee maybe you won’t have anything to worry about.

    1. LL*

      Thank you.

      We did discuss it. After the celebration, he discussed how he was not okay with the gesture and attention.

  26. EventPlannerGal*


    “it makes me wonder if I’m putting a wall up between my coworkers and me”

    Well, if social media is a big way that your coworkers stay connected and they’ve started asking to follow you and you don’t want them to then… yeah, kinda? It’s totally up to you what you do with your social media but if they’re otherwise not especially friendly and there aren’t many other opportunities for social connection with them, not doing social media either is probably isn’t going to help.

    FWIW, while again it is totally up to you what you do, I’m connected on either FB or insta with most of my coworkers and many former coworkers and I have always found it a pretty positive thing that has encouraged more friendliness and connection. E.g. I recently graduated from a degree that I was doing in my spare time that I didn’t talk about much at work because it never came up, being totally unrelated to our work. I posted about it on my insta story and the next day multiple coworkers came up to congratulate me, chat about the subject, share studying-while-working woes, etc. It was nice! And probably would never have happened if I didn’t have them on insta because I wouldn’t have had reason to mention it IRL. (Also when I do want to post stuff that I don’t want my coworkers to see, I post it to my story rather than as a main post and change the settings so that they can’t see it for the 24 hours while it’s up.)

    I agree with Alison that if you’re not comfortable having them on there then it’s not worth it, but that’s just my perspective coming from quite a social workplace where a lot of social media connection is normal. Hope it works out!

  27. Susan*

    OP1 I can’t help wondering if your husband has had workplace affairs before or has otherwise cheated on you. It’s the only explanation I can come up with for your odd reaction to food at a team meeting. It might not be the norm at your workplace but it’s very common for people to bring in cake to celebrate a birthday. You feeling that you needed to be there to see people share cake is frankly weird. What did you think your husband was going to do that you had to prevent?

    From my perspective you bring in cake on your own birthday. But I’ve worked with people where that’s a culturally weird thing & you shouldn’t self-celebrate, so you bring in cake for other people’s birthdays. I once had a celebration with 3 cakes because three of us thought it was our role to bring the cake. Someone bringing cake is really not that weird. Asking someone who would know what their preference would be sounds to me like trying to be nice.

    To me it seems you’re thinking this employee is engaged in some sort of attempt to seduce your husband. And while sure that’s not impossible I can’t help thinking that chances are your husband is highly unlikely to be irresistible . The most likely scenario is that a new employee thought it would be nice to bring in a cake for a colleague’s birthday, to share at a meeting, and likely leave the leftovers in the break room. And that’s it.

    If you cannot trust your husband speak to him about his behaviour. But leave your colleagues out of your marriage. In a male dominated work environment it is very important that you aren’t blocking women from employment behave they “can’t be trusted around the men”, or at least around your husband.

    1. Karia*

      “ In a male dominated work environment it is very important that you aren’t blocking women from employment behave they “can’t be trusted around the men”, or at least around your husband.” – This.

    2. Jennifer*

      I don’t see where this woman has been blocked from employment. She felt uncomfortable. She addressed it with her husband. It’s over. I agree with all of you about double standards, but at the same time, it’s okay to address it with your spouse if another woman has done something to make you feel uncomfortable. You don’t have to ignore your feelings because feminism.

      1. Karia*

        You should consider whether your feelings are *warranted* because of feminism though, especially if you have power over the other person.

        I know we disagree on this, but feelings are not always correct or factual.

      2. Susan*

        I think it’s not that simple when you are talking normal workplace behaviour. She didn’t just talk to her husband, she interfered in the workplace.

        Part of her solution was to attend her husband’s work meeting to keep an eye on things. Her discussion with her husband resulted in her inviting herself to a work meeting, solely in the role of married to the boss employee.

        The issue is, the perception that female employees are husband-stealers affects the ability of women to have normal workplace interactions. Will her husband, being made aware of his wife’s concerns about him interacting with a female employee lead to boss treating female employee differently simply because his wife doesn’t want them interacting? That needs to be defended against, especially with a couple that thinks it is normal for someone to invite themselves to a work meeting in the role of “wife”.

        This is definitely a complication due to working with a spouse. If they don’t work together, this would come up as a marital discussion because husband said something to wife about it – and then they have a conversation, and it would stay out of the office.

        1. PVR*

          This wasn’t a normal workplace interaction though. Both for that company and many others that have cake giving cultures. A $60-$80 cake to feed 6 people is excessive in a lot of places, especially when the new hire paid for it on her own.

        2. TTDH*

          Exactly. Interfering with employment doesn’t have to mean someone has been fired, it can (and usually is) much more subtle than that.

      1. Karia*

        It’s also extremely unkind to assume that an employee is trying to sleep with your husband because they bought a cake.

        1. AngryOwl*

          No one except the commenters here assumed the employee was trying to sleep with her husband.

          And saying it seems like she’s been cheated on before is over the line. What on earth is going on in here.

  28. Natalie*

    LW#1, why not reimburse her for the cake as a business expense? I agree that this is likely nothing sinister, and having some kind of big talk with her would be a huge overreaction and make this working relationship really uncomfortable for everyone involved. But reimbursing her would be the right thing to do, since your employees really shouldn’t be spending their own money on birthday cakes for the boss, and as a bonus it’s an extremely mild reinforcement that this is a working relationship, not a personal one.

    1. Colette*

      I wouldn’t want to start the precedent of reimbursing stuff that you haven’t agreed to pay for.

      1. Natalie*

        I think that’s treating it too much like a social relationship issue. If the employee had overzealously bought, I don’t know, coffee or paper towels for the break room even though you have a coffee supplier, you would still reimburse them.

        A company doesn’t have to worry about subtly setting a precedent, they can explicitly outline the rules they are following – “please submit an expense report for the cake. And in the future the procedure for company birthday celebrations is blah blah blah, unapproved expenses won’t be reimbursed.” And then just don’t reimburse future unapproved expenses.

        1. Colette*

          If the office normally supplied cake, I’d be more open to that idea – but based on that argument, the employee could order lunch for the company and the business would be expected to pay for it because they hadn’t told her not to.

          Maybe it’s just that I’ve mostly worked for large organizations, but I would never have been able to expense a cake unless there had been a previous discussion about it being a business expense. And it’s pretty normal for people to bring food into the office to share; I doubt the business wants to start paying for all of that.

          1. Natalie*

            Well, again, they don’t have to start paying for everything people bring in. A company can set their explicit rules about reimbursement, and also accept that their new employee might have misunderstood (like when they asked what kind of cake they should get) and thus should get reimbursed. It’s not a magic spell, they won’t be bound to reimburse every cupcake going forward no matter the circumstances.

            She certainly doesn’t have to! But it’s a pretty simple gesture to cement this in “work relationship” territory.

          2. TTDH*

            I would consider offering reimbursement for a cake purchased for a meeting more professional/businesslike than a spouse inviting themself to said meeting for nebulous monitoring purposes, and also more likely to achieve the desired result. Considering that OP’s husband is the owner and probably wants to head off any more conflict himself, I doubt that it would be too difficult to get this one-time cake expense reimbursed even if it’s not usually policy.

            Since the OP didn’t take the extremely obvious opportunity to shut this down professionally by saying “actually, we don’t usually celebrate birthdays that way in this office” when asked about desserts, she could take this opportunity to send a strong message about what is appropriate in this workplace in a way that is non-confrontational and less likely to continue escalating the situation.

  29. Karia*

    LW1: I’ve seen your update so I know you don’t agree, but honestly this is just cake. Buying cake for birthdays is normal. Not inviting other departments is normal.

    I think she called you to ask about cake so that you would feel included, and ironically so that you wouldn’t consider it underhand or inappropriate.

    Unless this woman has been overtly flirtatious or inappropriate in other ways I think you’re overreacting.

    Not all ‘vibes’ are real.

    1. Workerbee*

      I also wondered if there is something about the husband’s behavior, whether consciously or subconsciously perceived, that made LW #1 displace her uneasiness onto this coworker.

      Regardless, the husband can use his words to stop any displays he’s comfortable with.

  30. staceyizme*

    I don’t know, LW 1- it would give off a weird vibe to me too. It’s not a good indicator of her ability to “read the room” and in your shoes, I’d have just said “oh, we’ve got that covered thanks… we don’t really do employee birthdays here and don’t plan to start”. Gifting up is weird, it’s bold and it’s really bold that she didn’t consult you or ask you to attend (or the other person off-site). I don’t think you need to be territorial, but in a smaller company, it’s a different culture. She doesn’t seem to get that. I wouldn’t smooth the way for her if she makes any additional requests and that should be enough “drag” on the situation to shut this down. (Because if you’re not socializing outside of work, you’re NOT old friends and so that’s not actually an exception here. You’re acquaintances and she should be keeping things professional herself.)

    1. LL*

      Thank you. I agree and will say something instead of letting it play out, if there’s a next time, but I don’t think there will be.

    2. Natalie*

      It’s not a good indicator of her ability to “read the room”

      How do you figure? If a new employee asks the accounting & HR person about boss/their spouse’s favorite cake flavor so employee can bring it in, and the answer they get is the favorite cake flavor, it seems like they’ve read the room fairly reasonably.

      1. Rusty Shackelford*

        It is, in fact, thinking you’ve read the room and then being told “oh, wait, you didn’t realize it was opposite day.”

  31. Marie Antoinette*

    It’s funny how much meaning we attach to cake.
    One place I worked had cake once a week, we all took turns bringing it in. My first time I brought in fancy cupcakes from a local bakery and everyone reacted with horror because they were ‘too expensive’. I just wanted to show my appreciation for welcoming me to the group, but it was seen as too lavish. I learnt quickly to bring in supermarket cake from then on!
    Now I’m worrying they thought I was planning some mass-seduction…

    1. Delta Delta*

      My local grocery store cake is terrible. I went to a wedding in Tampa where the couple had a tiny fancy bakery cake but the cake they actually served came from the grocery store because that particular grocery store’s sheet cake is ah-MAY-zing. I’m hoping your local grocery store cake is the latter. (if you know about Florida’s grocery store chains, you know which store I’m talking about)

    2. Lacey*

      It is weird how entrenched office norms are. I worked at a place where people occasionally brought in baked goods or a box of donuts. But I didn’t really, for the first several years. And then when I did, people wouldn’t eat them.

      The thing is, I’m a pretty good baker. Lots of people compliment me on it, so I knew it wasn’t that. It was just that Lacey doesn’t bring desserts. So, several more years down the line, I made something amazing – but the recipe was way too much to keep at home. I literally had to sneak it into the office so people wouldn’t know I made it to get them to eat it.

      That said, I read the LW’s update and it does seem like the employee way overshot the normal type of office celebration.

  32. FuzzyBrain*

    Hi #3 – task log

    I’ve instituted the same for my team, not because I don’t trust them or think they’re doing a great job, it’s because I need a full picture of what we’re juggling so I know what kind of Resources I need to bring in for 2021. I need someone that fills the skillset where we’re spending most of our time to alleviate the high pressure deadlines.

    I only mention because sometimes it is not about tracking YOUR work, it’s about looking at where the overall team is spending the majority of their time to better resource.

  33. MissDisplaced*

    I think the situation in LW#1 is also very odd!
    But on the other hand, I’m also not convinced it’s something to overreact to either. Yet.

    But if your company doesn’t do the birthday cake/recognizing thing, I think I’d bring that up in a casual manner like “Yeah, we’ve never had a habit here of doing any birthday stuff. Is that something your last company did?” I think it might also be worthwhile to see if your other employees actually want to do this kind of thing. Sometimes there is an underlying need employees have where they like those bits of personal recognition (or cake).

  34. Lacey*

    OP4 – It’s totally fine to not be on social media with your coworkers. A lot of my coworkers are close friends and they’re on each others social. They spend a lot of time outside work together. That’s just not what I want out of my work relationships.

    I’m still friendly with them at work (or over slack) and I’ve found that the convenient thing about coworkers being buddies is that you really only need to put effort into becoming friendly with one of them and the others will follow as long as you are generally pleasant in their direction.

  35. Ana Gram*

    My husband and I work at the same place and he has a female employee (the rest are men). They meet briefly before each shift and, if she brought him cake, my only thought would be that I hope he brought some home!

    Honestly, bringing a cake for the boss at a new job just seems a little overly excited, not like she’s angling to be his mistress. My judgement may be clouded by my love of cake, though…

  36. Oh No She Di'int*

    #3: OP claims they are being micromanaged. I’ll take them at their word on that. However, I don’t think it’s fair to draw the conclusion that asking for work logs are, necessarily, an example of micromanagement or mistrust.

    I’ve had my entire team working from home since April. Some positions are easily quantifiable in terms of output. X number of TPS reports either get done or not.

    Other positions, however, are much more nebulous. One position is quite variable and includes a number of tasks that are different every single time they’re done. For example, organizing files to participate in certain bids. This task can take 2 hours in a single afternoon or it can take 40 hours spread out over weeks depending on what’s required. And there’s no real systematic way to know how long it will take until you’re somewhat into the process.

    When we were all in the office it was easy to see if this person was into the 10th, 12th, 16th hour of working on the bid files. This is a lot harder to see from a distance because so many other things are happening simultaneously, spread out over so much time. Having a work log provides hard data to say, “Ok, it looks like 10 hours have already been spent on this project over the last week. Let’s reassess whether it can be wrapped up in another 2 or 3 hours, or if it would be better to switch to another bid with a faster turnaround.”

    Without that information, you’re left with: “Is it finished yet?” “No, I’m still working on it…” And even if you set a hard deadline of next week, you have no idea whether that’s taking up a couple of hours of that person’s time over the next week, or whether it’s absorbing every waking minute over the next week. Knowing that might lead to very different decisions.

    1. JustaTech*

      You make a really good point, and I think where you’re different from OP3 is that you have a specific reason that you’ve communicated to your direct reports about *why* you want the log. You’re using the log to make sure that work is getting done in a reasonable timeframe and people aren’t overwhelmed, adrift or bored. That’s great managing!

      To me part of the issue with OP3’s situation is that they were given several, possibly conflicting, reasons for keeping the log but it doesn’t sound like the OP was getting anything out of it in terms of additional or different management. Little communication and no clear benefit makes the task log seem like a pointless exercise.

  37. Roscoe*

    #1 Honestly, you sound a bit insecure here. I have a feeling if this wasn’t your husband, and just a random colleague whose new hire got them a cake (during a meeting no less) that you may think it was a lot for the new person, but nothing more. But, you seem to be treating this as a relationship issue. If he, as her boss, finds her behavior to be a problem, let him handle it. You need to let him handle HIS employees.

    #4. I say this as someone who typically doesn’t follow cur co-workers on social media, and if I do I have a “co workers” group that has very limited permissions. That said, if EVERYONE else follows each other, and its already a tight knit group, it may help you break in a bit easier. Especially with Covid and there being less chance of getting to know each other as people than there used to be, I think it may not be the worst idea.

  38. notacompetition*

    Re: #1: I waffled on commenting about this, but an acquaintance of mine recently split with her husband after he admitted he was cheating on her with his new assistant. Runs a similar business. So yeah, I’d have my hackles up too, letter writer. It might just be a nice gesture but…yeah.

    1. LutherstadtWittenberg*

      Good grief. I hope you wouldn’t torpedo a woman’s career because of your sexist superstitions.

    2. Week old sourdough*

      This is incredibly unhelpful. Lots of cakes are brought in for innocent reasons instead. Y’all have got to handle your own insecurities.

  39. Bopper*

    Social Media:
    Make / Direct your coworkers to your LinkedIn account and just say you keep work and home life separate.

  40. Oryx*

    LW #1, I’ve read your comments in the updates but I feel like you mishandled this. From what I can tell, you didn’t tell the employee that’s not how things are done. She asked you what flavor of cake is your husband’s favorite. You tell her. She buys a cake and now you are holding it against her because she didn’t know what you didn’t tell her.

    1. LL*

      You’re right. I did mishandle this. I should have said that our company doesn’t celebrate birthdays. Although it made me uncomfortable, I thought: cake is benign and that my husband should handle the boundary setting. I guess I should have set the boundary when asked for dessert preference?

      1. Titta*

        Hmm, I don’t think it’s “setting boundaries”, but “telling a new emplyee how the office runs”. As you would in any situation a new emplyee is about to make a miscalculation.

    2. Name Required*

      Can you imagine how this New Hire feels? She made a point to contact the boss’s wife, who (as she pointed out in her update) also acts as HR, about getting the boss a cake for his birthday. Even though LW KNEW it would be weird and uncomfortable, she A) didn’t share info on the office culture with New Hire, B) encouraged New Hire’s idea by telling her what cake to buy, and C) turned a snack into a party by inviting herself and another employee to a meeting unrelated to their job functions. And now, D) they are creating a company-wide policy to prevent birthday celebrations because LW was too busy assuming that New Hire was being unscrupulous to act in her role as HR and plainly tell New Hire about their office culture to begin with. Woof.

      1. LL*

        I didn’t encourage/discourage anyone, I just answered a question. I’ll accept responsibility for that. The new hire was the one who made it a celebration – she didn’t ask, she just informed.

        Our company has a total of seven office staffers, so yeah, one might want to include everyone.

        I’m not the only one who had decision power with regard to letting it play out. I asked my husband what he wanted to do and he said let it play out.

        1. Oryx*

          By answering the question of cake flavor when you knew she was planning on buying a cake for your husband’s birthday, you did encourage her. Whether that was your intention or not, how else was she supposed to interpret that? If you are as close to an HR department as your company has, you should be helping new hires navigate the company culture. That includes telling them what the protocol is around birthdays.

        2. socks*

          “I didn’t encourage/discourage anyone, I just answered a question.”

          And by answering the question, you gave tacit approval for her to go ahead. Any reasonable person would’ve expected that if they talked to HR about getting a cake, HR would tell them if it was wildly out of step with company norms.

          “I’m not the only one who had decision power with regard to letting it play out. I asked my husband what he wanted to do and he said let it play out.”

          Ok, so you BOTH laid a trap for her. How is that better?

          1. DarnTheMan*

            My old bosses, who coincidentally were also a couple, used to do this a lot – discuss work stuff at home, agree to “let it play out” and then get mad at whatever staff member fell into the trap by failing to divine what they actual meant, instead of what the staff member was told.

        3. Rusty Shackelford*

          I didn’t encourage/discourage anyone, I just answered a question.

          You answered it in a way that very explicitly did encourage her. And the fact that you and your husband both teamed up makes the whole thing really icky to me.

        4. That Girl*

          Why did you think she was asking what kind of cake he liked? I mean, I love cake, but it’s not an opening line for me in a conversation (although now I’m thinking it should be).

          At that moment, a follow-up question could have been “Chocolate, why do you ask?” and you could have nipped it in the bud right there. I think you’ve misstepped here by not informing her as to company practice.

          1. Coffee time!*

            I can see letting it play out and see what her intentions are..tells you something about the person and if there is more things in play. Can be just a thank you for the job since they know each other from the past.f Or just used to do that for bosses or likes to celebrate. Or a suck up, hey everyone I know the boss from the past. So all you can do is see how she behaves in the future. There are women who are competitive with other women just cus they are women. I have experienced that in personal, volunteer and work life. It doesn’t have to be blatant and lots of times has nothing to do with you. Would be any woman.

              1. Seacalliope*

                It’s baffling that you chose to gameplay to discover her intentions instead of stating your policy outright.

              2. Apatosaurus*

                Yikes. You are HR! It is literally your job to correct new employees on this, not to expect them to be psychic or set weird passive aggressive tests for them.

                This workplace sounds like a nightmare.

              3. Week old sourdough*

                You are setting this woman up for failure. You’re making a competition where there isn’t one, you seem incredibly insecure, and it’s alarming your husband is in on it.

                Allison, can you please chime in and amend the advice?

            1. DarnTheMan*

              And I’ve never had the happen ever, despite working in majority women staffed companies. Yay anecdata!

            2. LutherstadtWittenberg*

              You’d rather play some weird game than setting the rule outright, because “women are women, amirite?” Your comment is troubling and somewhat repellent, Coffee time.

            3. Scarlet2*

              So do you also play weird mind games with men or do you think women are just devious by nature?
              The sexism is just off the charts…

        5. staceyizme*

          It’s clear from the variety of perspectives in the commentary that “Cake-gate” could be interpreted any number of ways. But I don’t think that LW owns the awkwardness here. Cake is just cake, sure. But the awkwardness factor here is significant. “I’m bringing cake. But I need help with the right flavor. Yeah, its’ for the boss. I’m new. I’ll just call his wife and get the favorite flavor. And I won’t invite her or the other offsite employee. Nope! Just me, in a meeting, throwing down my custom cake…”. Sorry. It’s still awkward. Not seductive. Not power-grabbing. Just plain old vanilla awkward and (sorry, just my take) icky. People have all kinds of preferences about their birthdays. Some hate the day. Some don’t “do” cake. Some think “the more the merrier” and love the attention. And some don’t want to be the center of attention or acknowledge it with anyone other than those they choose. You don’t step on Superman’s cape. You don’t spit into the wind. You don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger… (and somewhere in there should be a line about not bringing cake, gifts, telegrams or other personal acknowledgements to people unless you are fairly certain they’d be welcoming of the gesture and comfortable with it…).

          1. DarnTheMan*

            Admin didn’t invite OP or other offsite admin because it was a team meeting though? Even if I bring in enough cake for the whole office for my birthday, I don’t invite everyone to my pre-existing team meetings for the sole purpose of having some cake. And OP needs to own more of the awkwardness than they’re currently doing because they were the one who was clued into the plan and more or less gave a go ahead by telling admin Husband’s favorite cake flavor, instead of shutting it down from the get and avoiding any more awkwardness (plus inviting themselves and the other admin to a team meeting they don’t normally attend because…. why?)

          2. LutherstadtWittenberg*

            For many offices, this wouldn’t be a -gate in any way. No awkwardness at all. LW made it weird by not stating at the outset that they don’t do birthdays at their company. Simple.

        6. Roci*

          WTF. I don’t think this has to be a big deal or that it automatically signals anything about New Hire’s intentions or your relationship, but… why on earth did you both decide to “let it play out” and then turn around and judge her for what she did?? You can’t complain that the cake she brought was too much when you both encouraged her and allowed her to bring it!

          If you & husband were uncomfortable with the idea of her bringing cake, or wanted to make sure that her intentions were professional and boundaries well calibrated, then Tell. Her. When. She. Asks. You.
          You literally want to “eat your cake and have it too” here.

          Next time she’s going to ask you something work-related, are you going to “let it play out” and then reprimand her when she doesn’t interpret your “just answering questions” as “No”?

          1. MCMonkeyBean*

            And, like, what was there to let play out? She asked what flavor of cake she should get so the obvious next set of events was… her bringing in cake. And then that’s what happened. What were the other possible outcomes here?

        7. MCMonkeyBean*

          “I didn’t encourage/discourage anyone, I just answered a question. I’ll accept responsibility for that. ”

          I mean, the first sentence is literally denying responsibility. So I’m gonna have to disagree with the second sentence.

  41. Bopper*

    New Employee:
    Issues I see:
    As you say, workers shouldn’t gift up. Her buying a cake is gifting up.
    Is this a new policy for everyone to get a birthday celebration? or just the boss? Is that then sucking up to the boss?
    I also think the wife is concerned that the new employee may be trying to kindle a romantic relationship with her husband.

  42. Office Grunt*

    Re: #4, when I was active on Facebook, I made a concerted effort to block anyone and everyone I worked with, and their immediate family. The efforts I went through to do this (and my “prowess”) came out when a co-worker claimed that no one at work could find them, and I correctly “guessed” what she listed as her hometown on the platform.

    I had hobbies/interests outside of work that very much went against the grain of the internal culture (all of upper management were regular churchgoers, and I play noted “demonic card game” Magic the Gathering), and I did not want to deal with the two clashing.

  43. AngryOwl*

    I realize many commenters disagree, but I am not comfortable with the employee in #1 at all. Not because I think she’s trying to get at the LW’s husband, but because it’s just weird to:

    – Spend $80 of your own money on a boss’ cake.
    – Do this for only the boss (if she planned on it being a new tradition, I expect she would have said that). Higher ups should not be the only recipients of things like birthday celebrations, I feel that’s a given.

    If she regularly did the above at her old job, then they were weird too. Multiple places doing a strange thing doesn’t make it less strange. I don’t believe the employee is nefarious or anything, but she came in and did all this without seeing what the norms were at the new place. At some point, common sense has to come into play.

    From the LW’s update above, it seems like it was all handled well, so hopefully everyone can move on.

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      I don’t believe the employee is nefarious or anything, but she came in and did all this without seeing what the norms were at the new place.

      She asked the co-owner and defacto HR person. How hard to you think she needs to try to see what the norms are?

      1. AngryOwl*

        She didn’t ask if she should do it, or if it was normally done at the company. She asked a flavor because she had the intention of doing it. That’s informing, not asking.

        I 100% agree that the LW should have said something then, but she was taken aback and didn’t. There are no evildoers in this story.

        1. Rusty Shackelford*

          The onus was on the HR head here, not the new employee. Unless you’re deliberately (and inappropriately) setting a trap, the answer to a question about how to do Things We Don’t Do Here is “oh, no, that’s not a thing we do.”

          And personally, I think the HR head and the company owner realizing she’s going to do this and deciding to just let it happen and reprimand her later is definitely on one side of the spectrum of work-related evil.

          1. UKDancer*

            I think if you don’t want someone to do x at your company, tell them not to do x.

            I don’t do well with mind games. If you want me not to do something, just tell me “we don’t do cake for birthdays in this company.” I don’t mind being told directly not to do things or that something isn’t within the company culture and I’d much rather someone said beforehand so I don’t make a fool of myself.

            If you’re HR then it’s part of the job I think to tell people what the rules and policies (written and unwritten) are.

        2. Observer*

          Except that she then discussed it with her husband and they decided to “let it play out” rather than saying anything to her.

        3. Apatosaurus*

          Not saying something and later holding it against the new hire is passive aggressive and really unprofessional for HR.

        4. Roci*

          I think ESH.
          New Hire shouldn’t have brought the cake, especially one as expensive and overkill as that.
          But LW and husband should have answered “Actually please don’t bring a cake” instead of “chocolate.”
          Then nobody would need to ask a workplace advice column about “is it OK to bring cake” with lots of dogwhistles for “I think this woman is trying to get with my husband”.

          1. AngryOwl*

            To Roci and all above: I never said she was right to “let it play out.” I spoke to the oddity I saw. The “handled it well” was the husband explaining it’s not done.

            Y’all can do what you want to make the LW1 seem like a stereotype of an angry, jealous wife. I’m not buying it.

            1. Observer*

              I don’t think the husband handled it well, to be honest. Instead of agreeing to “let it play out” and advising the OP to give the new AA a chance to invite her, he should have either told her himself not to do it or encouraged the OP to go back and tell her not to do it.

              But at least he did talk to her afterward and tell her not to do it again rather than just sitting and stewing, so it could have been worse. But secret tests are just a REALLY bad way to manage. Nothing to do with “jealous wives”

              1. PVR*

                I think if it was a simpler cake then there’s a good chance the husband would decided it wasn’t worth bringing up and just let it go. But then the cake turned out to be a bit of a spectacle and that changed it from kind-of-awkward-but-not-worth-addressing to having to say something.

              2. AngryOwl*

                I’m referring to the conversation afterward. I’ve said several times now that it should have been stopped before hand.

    2. Apatosaurus*

      It wasn’t handled well. LW didn’t correct the new hire when asked about what flavour cake to get, and then reacted weird and frostily when they brought a cake.

      1. AngryOwl*

        I feel the husband kindly explaining it’s not done in their office was the handling it well part. I never said I thought the LW1 did the right thing in not stating policy upfront.

        None of this means the LW has deserved the outright misogyny in the commenting section.

    3. TTDH*

      Handled well? Sorry, not seeing it. If you decide to let something “play out” in the workplace rather than making a(n easy and obvious!) correction at the beginning, you need to actually be open to, well, how it plays out – including the fact that things might not be the way you think they are. In this case the OP seems like she’d already made a judgement of what she thought was happening, and decided to let the situation go on so that she could continue feeding that confirmation bias, which is pretty much a trap for the new hire. Does any possibility even exist that would satisfy the OP that nothing is going on?

      I don’t think it’s reasonable to be as literal as many commenters are being with New Hire – it’s total nitpicking to say that she should have explicitly said the words “is it ok for me to buy a cake for Boss’s birthday” when she was already asking questions that made it abundantly clear that she was planning to buy one. The OP isn’t approaching this from a place of “omg, I only realized later that New Hire had asked this question because she wanted to buy a cake!”. She had already clearly inferred that it was happening, so it’s disingenuous to act like there wasn’t an opportunity to intervene.

      Ethically, at this point the LW should probably hand all of this over to a different HR person and recuse herself from anything involving New Hire. It’s really distressing for this kind of mindgame to come from HR.

  44. Let Them Eat Cake*

    Letter 1: Am I not reading enough into this? While I think it’s a little off that she went to an actual bakery and didn’t just grab something from a grocery store, it doesn’t raise significant red flags. Maybe she’s friends with the baker of the bakery. Maybe the bakery specializes in diet-restricted cakes (nut/gluten/dairy free for example). Maybe she just really likes their cakes and is looking for any occasion to support the business during the pandemic economy.

    The LW and her husband gave her a job to which I would assume she is thankful for. Time will tell if she’s making power/romance moves on the husband, but at this point, I feel like the nefarious tone that is implied in the letter is a vast overreach.

  45. AngryOwl*

    Also, if we’re talking about sexist tropes, insisting the only reason that LW is uncomfortable is because she is jealous, wants to “mark territory,” or is otherwise threatened by another woman is right up there.

    1. Jennifer*


      It reminds me of an episode of a show I watched where a woman didn’t think a female applicant was the best person for a job she was hiring for, and other people in the office accused her of being jealous. It’s possible to have real misgivings about another woman without being jealous, marking territory, or thinking another woman is a Jezebel (!). You can dislike another woman and still be a feminist.

      1. AngryOwl*

        Exactly! I cannot with the “have you been cheated on in the past” and other nonsense. I don’t usually let the comment section here get to me, but dang.

      2. Arctic*

        You can dislike another woman and still be feminist. You can’t tell another woman what cake should she buy and then get mad at her for doing so and still be considered in the right.

        1. AngryOwl*

          The LW wasn’t mad, she was taken aback and wondered if things were awry.

          I honestly don’t know what you’re trying to say, or how you got from “you can still be feminist” to talking to a woman about cake. So agree to disagree there.

      3. Roci*

        Of course you can dislike a woman and still be a feminist, if your reasons for disliking them are not based on her gender. Why does OP dislike this woman?
        She has no reason to dislike New Hire. All we know about New Hire is that she is an old friend of Husband.
        Is the concern about “is this appropriate” based on “gifting up”, or based on “getting too close to my husband”?
        Why the history of where this new hire came from? Why the weird focus on gender: “Since she is one of three women in the office, the other possible counterparts to plan this would be men.”
        Husband says “let it play out, I’ll handle it”. Presumably it is handled. Why is OP still worried about New Hire and needs a workplace advice column to weigh in?

        If OP is getting a gut feeling of discomfort that New Hire is trying to hit on Husband, then fine, deal with it as his wife. If OP is uncomfortable that a new worker is trying to gift up, then deal with it as co-owner. But don’t deal with discomfort of a new worker as the Wife.

    2. AnonForNow*

      YES! Thank you. I’m so annoyed today by everyone defending this new hire by trying to accuse the LW of being an insecure woman scorned and that her husband must have cheated on her in the past for this reaction. Like those assumptions are incredibly sexist and unnecessary. LW didn’t ask for relationship advice, she asked for advice about professional boundaries in her small business.

        1. LL*

          It’s pretty hurtful, I’ll admit. Assumptions flying. Nasty comments.

          I didn’t explain some of this very well and that’s maybe why.

          1. AngryOwl*

            It’s not unusual for fiction (sometimes novels of fiction) to be written by commenters, but it was particularly nasty in here. I hope you don’t take any of it to heart. Some people just really like acting as if they know a situation better than the person in it.

    3. Observer*

      I agree. I actually think that the OP handled this fairly poorly, and over-reacted. But it’s pretty gross to think that the only (or even the most likely) reasons for this is because her husband has cheated on her in the past or she just a deeply insecure woman.

      To me it sounds like she’s the HR equivalent of what we call an “accidental techie” and could use some guidance in handling the interpersonal type of issues that come with HR functions.

      1. AngryOwl*

        Yeah I think some training in HR stuff (or making someone else the HR person?) could definitely help everyone.

  46. OP #2*

    Hello, all. I’m the freelancer in question 2. I appreciate the feedback so far, from Allison and some commenters. I’m definitely cognizant of the fact that clients come and go — it’s happened to me many times before, and I do explicitly know that a few of my clients purposely use multiple freelancers. But I think it’s this particular client that’s got me confused/curious. Both our work history together (extensive) and the size of the projects (very large, so 1-2 projects per year are this person’s entire output). However I think the true root of my question is one that many freelancers face: How can we get meaningful feedback on our work quality other than “this person hired me” vs. “this person didn’t hire me”? Sometimes freelancing is just operating in a vacuum, you know? At any rate, thank you for all the feedback offered.

    1. PR*

      I’ve never worked as a freelancer, but am coming to the discussion as someone who has engaged and worked with many.

      Unfortunately, from a client’s point of view, one of the advantages of using a contractor is that you don’t have to give detailed feedback or do staff development — I would think of it as the contractor’s problem.

      Thinking it through, perhaps an option for the future would be to build an evaluation/lessons learned session into each contract?

      Or perhaps a client satisfaction survey?

  47. Veronica Starr*

    LW1- I think the gesture was nice. The company is small, celebrate employee birthdays, every month to boost morale. Cake and pie are inexpensive ways to do it. Cake is cake and you made a mountain out of a molehill.

    I think you may be a little upset with yourself for not being direct and speaking up when given the opportunity to do so. Please do yourself and employees a favor and do so in the future. Passive-aggressive behavior is not a good look for anyone.

  48. blink14*

    OP #4 – keep the boundaries. I’ve had a Facebook account since college – my university was one of the first to get it – and I have only ever added a very small handful of co-workers, at most 5, in the time since, and none at my current job. My FB account is actually pretty locked down as it is, and its harder to find me than on there than someone with a more open account. I do have an Instagram that is a public profile, and I do not have any current or former coworkers on there at all.

    I very much believe in keeping a firm line between work and personal, it’s both what makes me feel the most comfortable, and really delineates between work time and personal time. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having boundaries set up like that, and I’ve never had any issue socializing with coworkers because of it.

  49. food for thought*

    #1 – a bit separate from your question, but I noticed that you responded in the comments that you are the de facto HR person at the company. I would encourage you to consider if this is the best decision for the company. You noted in your letter that even though a cake for a birthday celebration isn’t the norm at your workplace, “I did tell her my husband’s preference because I didn’t want to appear rude. But I was completely taken aback and uncomfortable with the situation.” I understand that you were caught off-guard, but this absolutely would have been an appropriate time to put on the HR/office management hat and tell her that isn’t how things are done. It totally makes sense that it might make you uncomfortable to do so, but if that’s the case, you probably shouldn’t be in a role (even unofficially) where uncomfortable conversations are required (and even expected, to an extent). It’s also very easy to envision employees being uncomfortable with the prospect of coming to “HR” if they have any problems with your husband because, after all, you’re his wife! And from what you’ve noted, it seems like it may sometimes be hard for you to separate the personal from the professional at times. I’d really urge you to think about whether you could have someone else take over some of these responsibilities, both to make your life easier and to give your employees a little separation.

    1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

      Yeah. There’s an idea that if someone crosses a boundary of yours that they don’t know about or that you don’t assert up-front, your anger towards them is a bit misplaced. People aren’t perfect, and it’s really difficult to live by that rule in one’s personal life, that’s fair. Acting in a capacity where you have authority over people at work, though…that rule is an intrinsic part of you doing your job as well as giving others what they need to do their jobs.

      At the end of the day, you gave an employee the green light to do something that you thought would be an issue an a few different levels. Being able to separate the personal from the professional means that in a professional sense, that’s on you. We all have blind spots, and we all have personal lives, but we need to make sure that those things don’t keep us from holding ourselves accountable when it comes to dealing with employees.

  50. Week old sourdough*

    LW1 – she told you what she was going to do, you blessed her with his preferred cake, and you’re still mad about it?

    And you’re the HR a person who’s also married to the owner?

    Dont make a mountain out of this molehill.

  51. Rebaroo*

    Letter #1 you are so far out of line. I think you should really examine whether you should be working with your husband. You are taking an innocent action from an Admin, and making it into A THING. Go ahead and set those jealous wife ‘boundaries ‘ and make rules about it and everyone that works there will brand you, correctly, as a paranoid kill joy. This is a normal thing for an admin to do. She reached out to you for god’s sake. Take several deep breaths. And let it go.

  52. pyewacket*

    OP#1: You are correct that something feels off about this but I don’t think it rises to her trying to start an affair with your husband. If anything it is a situation of gifting up but with an added show of self congratulation. Don’t you see how thoughtful she is? (Can you hear my eyes roll?) So I would advise your husband to stop the cake (and show) by using the wording that Alison advises for holiday gift situations. If the event already took place reimburse her for the cake, thanking her but specifically let her know that no more gifts. Then think about if recognizing birthdays is something you want to do in the future.

  53. Amethystmoon*

    #3. I would make sure to detail exactly how long it takes you to put each entry in the log. Tally it up at the end of the day, if you can. Maybe that will at least clue in boss about how time-consuming the log will be.

  54. sssssssssssssssssssssssssssss*

    LW1 issue.

    There are people who prove themselves in a job by doing the job well.

    Then there are others who “prove” themselves by laying on the charm, and “thoughtful” gestures like the cake, but aren’t really getting the serious work done. And they charm both genders because that’s how they get by.

    We had one of those at my old job. She was pretty and she got by as far as she could on charm alone. Because it came out later that her work was not up to snuff. Her charm only annoyed all the women in our branch (like, we just want you to get work done, okay? You’re close to missing deadlines and others are picking up your slack – they had to hire a 2nd secretary because she was the “boss’s secretary” and no one else’s. There was no jealousy but more along the lines of “what is up with this?”), but it worked wonders on men and women at the other branch.

    I wouldn’t worry about the boundary crossing angle. I’d worry more about “is she getting the work done and is doing it well” angle. The charm could be used to hide the fact she’s not sure of what she’s doing.

    1. LL*

      Thank you for the insight.

      She’s doesn’t report to me, but from what I know she does a great job so far!

      1. socks*

        You really are looking for the reasons to believe the worst of your new hire, aren’t you? She was *expected* to buy elaborate cakes for the boss at her last job. She talked to the de facto HR person/boss’s wife about getting a cake, and wasn’t told it would be any kind of issue. The easy, obvious explanation is she thought this was normal! There’s nothing “insightful” about speculating that she can’t do her job, based entirely on buying a cake.

        1. LL*


          I don’t share the sentiment in the comment above, but I was trying to be nice.

          I would hope that noting the new employee does a great job would express that.

          1. socks*

            Sorry, you’re right, I misread your comment. I do still think you’re being very unfair to this employee in general, but that comment wasn’t an example of it. Mea culpa.

  55. Anne Tifa*

    I had a manager who required logging tasks like LW3’s manager. I started logging the time spent logging my tasks, so at the end of the week she’d see “2.5 hours: logging tasks in SystemName,” as it took me about 30mins each day. After 2 weeks of that, she dropped the task-logging requirement.

      1. Observer*

        It is both. The OP over-reacted. But the idea that not doing birthdays cakes makes a workplace dreadful to work at is just not fact based.

        I’d far rather work at a place the doesn’t do birthday cakes but has reasonable coworkers than a place with people that jump to “You are terrible because you don’t do the thing I enjoy.”

        1. Traffic_Spiral*

          It’s more the fact that they *did* the birthday but then everyone got interrogated by the wife: “were you in on this?” “do you find this appropriate?” when they’re just trying to enjoy a slice of dang cake.

          1. Observer*

            Yeah, that’s a problem.

            But @NoFunAllowed is not complaining about that, but about the fact that they don’t do birthday cakes. And the comment about “jealous wife” is pretty gross. As poorly as the OP has handled – and (mis)defended – the situation, it’s not at all clear that this is an issue of a “jealous wife” and assuming it is really is unkind and not based in reality.

  56. bananab*

    I’d never ask a client why they went elsewhere, because if it’s something to do with me, I probably already know what it is; and if it’s not, it’s not my business. I think the ask would also make you seem sort of unsure wrt your offerings, and while it’s ok to feel that, it’s something I’d just privately examine rather than express via a “how come.”

  57. Esmeralda*

    OP #3 (and Allison): it’s academia, it’s entirely possible that the three different reasons are all true — only for a short while to get a data sample, and then the dean requires it, and then it must continue as long as WFH. Not clear if this last one is the boss’s preference or if the directive is coming from above. Also, just because other depts aren’t doing it doesn’t mean the directive couldn’t be coming from the dean just for the OP’s dept.

    Your boss may hate it too, but may have decided that this is not the hill to die on.

    It’s worth your while to press on this one with the manager to see if you can get it changed, but I would not assume that it’s a micro managing untrusting boss without further evidence.

    1. Esmeralda*

      For instance, some years, we had a butts in seats, 9 – 5 with no flexibility scheduling allowed (if you were out and not at a meeting, you needed to use PTO) because the dean liked to stroll around the various offices in his fiefdom. That was ok — but the problem was, if someone was not in the office, he’d check their calendar, and if it wasn’t a meeting or PTO, there was hell to pay.

      So the rigid schedule had nothing to do with our immediate supervisor’s preference (it changed when we got a new dean, in fact), and everything to do with the dean. Our supervisor was very professional and did not blame the dean — we figured that one out ourselves. And there were plenty of other more important issues (such as getting us needed additional positions, raises, and so forth).

  58. Screech Owl*

    I do not have colleagues on social media. I think it’s a terrible idea. Something could be taken the wrong way and then gets slipped to the wrong person.

  59. Observer*

    For everyone who is sooooo amazed that an AA might even THINK to get a cake for their boss, I suggest that you look at Allison’s article at The Cut. Even if you can’t access it, just look at the list of questions that are here on the site.

    Including the one where the boss is actually expecting not just a gift, but an expensive one.

  60. Madeline Ashton*

    LW#1 – the problem is entirely you. I feel so bad for this employee. The spin you are trying to pull in this comment section is quite frankly sad.

    1. NoFunAllowed*

      I 100% agree!!! Can you imagine taking a job with someone you’re acquainted with and having their wife be the defacto HR department and start getting this intense over a birthday cake? We DoN’t dO bIrThDAys HeRe ThAtS mY HuSbAnD barf barf barf.

    1. Name Required*

      Yes, seconding Toggl. So convenient! I’m an exempt employee that has to track time for billing purposes, and Toggl makes it so easy. And it’s free.

  61. Maltypass*

    OP1 I’ve worked places before where everything becomes a policy – you can’t bring in this cake because then we have to make a cake policy is a life I’ve lived, and in my experience it comes from people who are uncomfortable addressing things in the moment. You don’t need a cake policy! But it’s easier than an uncomfortable conversation. Unfortunately a large part of being HR is having uncomfortable conversations, and I think the policy acts as a way of shielding yourself from repeating that particular uncomfortable conversation. I know Alison already encouraged you to leave the HR position, but this may be another reason to do so – maybe your gut is also telling you that this part isn’t sustainable?

  62. edit.your.story*

    LW3: I work at a non-profit. Over the summer, my direct supervisor asked for us to email her a “weekly update”, just listing what we worked on everyday. Hourage was needed and she didn’t direct us on the format, so it wasn’t for project tracking purposes; she’s just a rubbish manager and didn’t want to meet with staff when she could just read our updates. Needless to say, I was livid — UNTIL! I started actually tracking how many hours I worked a week and realized that I was giving more of myself to work than I needed to. While salaried, I don’t earn a great wage (I make 1/3 of what our ED makes, despite being a staff of 40 and I’m a manager/mid-tier). Tracking my projects and hours was enlightening to actually see how much I output regularly and without recognition. Honestly, it helped me put better boundaries in place with work. My manager’s ineptitude and micromanaging actually enables me to feel like I can say “I’m too busy” when she tries to add projects to my already full plate.

    TL;DR: trying changing the situation to your advantage if possible, even if it’s to use it as documentation for adding to your resume to leave.

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