how can I intervene with a bullying coworker, HR told me I’m going overboard with a charity event, and more

I’m on vacation. Here are some past letters that I’m making new again, rather than leaving them to wilt in the archives.

1. How can I intervene with a bullying coworker?

I work in a small organization where everyone knows each other. Just down the hall from me is a shy, somewhat awkward colleague who works in a different area from me. He is very sweet and does his job well, from what I can tell. Let’s call him “Clark.”

Clark’s boss reminds me of the popular boys in high school — confident, bro-ish, and generally relaxed. Let’s call him “Brad.” Brad frequently makes little jokes at Clark’s expense, sometimes at staff meetings in front of everyone. Clark tries to shrug it off as if it were friendly teasing, but I find it really inappropriate. Yesterday, after a conversation with Clark, Brad poked his head in my office to say something sarcastic about how nice it must be to be situated near Clark, which he certainly would have heard, being in such close proximity. I said (sincerely!), “I love being neighbors with Clark!” Brad then tried to play it off as if he had been sincere, too.

I really want to say something to Brad about his treatment of Clark, but it’s awkward because, while he is not my supervisor, he is certainly higher than me on the office hierarchy. I would go to HR, but we don’t have a dedicated HR department. We have been instructed to bring any HR issues we may have … to Brad. Is there any way I can have a conversation about this? Or perhaps intervene more vehemently when Brad says something unkind?

Brad sounds like an ass. A few options for you:

* Look visibly shocked in the moment — let Brad see on your face that you’re repelled by his comment. “Wow” can work similarly.
* Call it out: “That sounded really mean! I’m sure you didn’t mean it that way.”
* Feign confusion: “What do you mean by that?” (This can be a good way to deal with bigoted “jokes” too; the idea is that you pretend not to get it, so the other person has to spell out exactly what a jerk they’re being.)
* Continue making a point of saying nice things about Clark, like you did last time. Brad is assuming you’ll agree with his take on Clark; make it clear that you don’t.

If you know Brad well and have good rapport with him, you could also say, “What’s up with the way you talk about Clark? It seems so unkind, and that’s not like you.” (You can say that even if it is like him. People often want to live up to other people’s images of them.)

Also, you might help Clark simply by going out of your way to be friendly to him. Say hi to him in the morning, ask how his weekend was, and so forth. Sometimes you can counteract the crappiness of a Brad by directing genuine warmth toward his target.


2. HR told me I’m going overboard with our company charity event

I’m in my second job post graduate school. My first real job was at a small consulting firm where everyone other than me had 20 or more years of experience. I was very comfortably paid, and so was everyone else. Now I’m am at a more “traditional” company where pay ranges for workers range from minimum hourly wage to six figure salaries.

There is a team-based cereal drive competition where the team that donates the most cereal wins a free lunch. We partnered with a local nonprofit to be a collection site, the food goes to hungry kids in the metro area this summer. The company set up four large donation boxes in a visible area to promote competiton.

HR asked me to “knock it off” after I bought $100 worth of cereal and created a tower of cereal on the first day of the competition from the table where our team’s donation box is to the ceiling. I also have two 50-pound bags of oatmeal on the way. HR also asked me to keep further donations in my office until the end of the competition. They say I am creating a demoralizing work environment because while some workers who earn much less than I do wish they could donate as much cereal as me, they cannot and it creates a bad image for me and for the company. It’s not even a huge amount of money or cereal that we are taking about here.

I am not doing what they ask unless it comes from the CEO or my boss, who are the only two people up my chain of command. I work with them daily. If HR has a problem, I think they should take it up with the organizers of the competition and not with me. I am also slightly offended that HR thinks I am doing this to show off or flaunt my success in front of workers who make less than me or belittle them, because I was the first executive to include all stakeholders in the development of new company processes in the executive conference room meetings when prior to this only execs and middle management were included.

Without any additional context, I think they’re being silly, although I don’t know the dynamics of your company culture and they do and so it’s possible that they’re absolutely right in what they’re saying.

But it doesn’t really matter — this isn’t a hill you should die on. If they’re telling you to stop, refusing to do so is going to look oddly combative, whether their request is silly or not. You could certainly mention it to the competition organizers so they know that someone has been asked to scale back their charity donations. But beyond that, you should comply with what HR is asking. Unless you’re in an extremely senior position with a lot of standing, you’re going to use up a lot of capital pushing back.

No one can stop you from donating to charity on your own (as opposed to through your company) if you want to, though.


3. My coworker is running a snack shop from our work area

For two weeks, my employer ran a fundraising challenge where we were split into teams and whatever team raised the most money for a charity won a catered lunch. Most teams raised money via raffles or by selling stuff. The woman who sits near me, with an empty cubicle in between us, bought tons of soda and junk food from Costco and sold it during the challenge, with the proceeds going to the charity. She kept the merchandise in the empty cubicle between us.

It’s been two weeks since the challenge ended. Money was sent to charity, and the winners received their lunch. However, this employee keeps selling soda and junk food on the down-low. The prices are about half of the vending machines so she stays busy. This is lot of traffic in and out of my area. Since the fundraising is over, I am assuming the profits are going straight to her, and my patience for the regular disturbances are wearing thin. My area has become a de facto snack bar. Besides, there’s a “cliquey” factor as the woman selling this stuff and her friends discuss who should be “invited” to buy from the “snack shop.” Their department manager is tasked with running two departments at the moment and totally oblivious at the moment to this. Am I wrong to be annoyed by this and should I report it to management?

No, that sounds annoying.

If she’s at all approachable, can you try saying something to her? It doesn’t have to be a big thing — just something like, “Hey, I know you’re trying to sell off all that Costco stuff. It’s getting pretty disruptive to have people coming over here to buy things so frequently — any chance you can move it somewhere else or otherwise minimize how often it’s drawing people over here?”

But if she’s known to be defensive or your sense it that she won’t be receptive to this, or if you try it and it doesn’t work, then whether to go over her head depends on how distracting the flow of snack buyers is. Is it messing with your ability to focus on work, or is it more just annoying? If it’s affecting your ability to focus, then yes, you could say something discreetly to her manager, framing it in terms of the disruption it’s causing in your space.

(Or you could start a competing snack bar selling higher-quality snacks, and take advantage of the steady flow of customers already in your space. I hope you decide on this option.)


4. Employer says our stingy vacation policy is actually generous because of weekends

I work at a small independently owned automotive repair shop that has been owned and managed by the same family for over 50 years. Management consists of family and a friend of the owner — all of whom are exempt employees who are able to take as much time off as they please. The non-exempt employees are limited to two weeks of vacation and three sick days a year. The amount of time management takes off has always been an issue in the six years I have worked here. In our most recent employee reviews, the owner told all non-exempt employees that if we add up all weekends, holidays, vacation, and sick days, we are off four months a year so we need to make sure we are at work and working hard when we are here. We work Monday through Friday, 10 hours every day. Is his statement as offensive as I take it to be or am I overreacting?

It’s ridiculous and you’re not overreacting. Two weeks of vacation is the absolute bare minimum that’s reasonable in the U.S., and it’s stingy by many employers’ standards. Three days of sick leave is ridiculous — you could wipe that out in one go if you had an injury or the flu. If they’re going to be stingy, they should at least own it and not try to gaslight you into thinking that they’re really giving you four months off because of weekends. (Weekends! Ridiculous.)

You might look into what kind of hours and paid time off your business competitors offer their workers — either as data to take to your management on why their set-up isn’t competitive and/or to gather info for yourself about what your other options might be.


5. My interviewers all burst out laughing after I left the room

Last week, I interviewed for a position that would provide me some great experience right after I graduate. The position is not permanent, but would tide me over for a while as I search for a more permanent position. I was very excited to interview and practiced answering questions, as well as preparing questions of my own to ask as you advise. I thought I did well in answering all the questions, and was honest about the areas in which I had some, but not a great deal of experience.

As I left the interview room and closed the door, I overheard one of the interview panel members say something I could not make out and then heard everyone else in the room laugh. I think the people in the interview room thought that once the door was closed, the room was soundproof. I have no idea if the remark and laughter were directed at me, but I am wondering if this is a red flag. I am considering pulling my application as this may be an indication that these people found me ridiculous. Even if I was hired, I now feel uncomfortable with the notion of being around these people. Am I being overly sensitive? Should I let this go and see what happens?

Yes, you should let it go. Absent some specific reason to believe that they were laughing at you, it’s far more likely that they were laughing at something that had nothing to do with you. Someone could have commented on a funny text they just received, or pointed out that they’d accidentally worn mismatched shoes that day, or all sorts of other things.

A roomful of people isn’t likely to burst out laughing at a candidate who just left, unless the candidate did something truly outlandish (like pooping-in-the-potted-plant level of outrageousness, not jut not interviewing well). And inexperienced candidates in particular generally get cut a lot of slack and are the group least likely to provoke an instant post-interview group laugh. Really, the most likely scenario is that the laugh wasn’t about you at all!


{ 260 comments… read them below }

  1. Not A Manager*

    I’m surprised at the response to #2. I do think it’s weirdly tone-deaf to bring in $100 worth of cereal and build a floor-to-ceiling tower on the first day of the competition.

    The competition has two purposes. One is raising goods for the charity, yes, but the other is morale and team-building. I think it would be demoralizing for lower-paid employees to be priced out of a competition that’s supposed to be office-wide. Even if the LW’s peers can match her box for box, the cereal drive becomes a spectator sport in which the elite compete and everyone else gets to watch. More likely, no one cares as much as LW and the drive fizzles out to three variety pack boxes of sugar cereal, plus the LW’s daily towers.

    In any case, the focus shifts to the LW and her cereal and not on the group event it’s meant to be.

    1. Ellen Ripley*

      Agreed. It comes across as weirdly competitive. Even if they wanted to bring in 25+ boxes, maybe bring them in a few at a time

      I also am dying to know if LW2 still brought in the *100 lbs* of oatmeal they bought for the event.

      1. BubbleTea*

        I had skimmed over that the first time but that’s a HUGE amount of oats. What on earth would the charity do with two giant bags? Fifty 2lb bags maybe. But how can any family in need make use of so much oatmeal?

        1. bamcheeks*

          I guess it depends whether they’re distributing the food to individual families or catering for 20-30 kids in one place like a breakfast club or something?

        2. Totally Minnie*

          My middle school told a field trip to help at a food bank, and my class’s assignment was to take a massive cereal donation like the one OP describes and divide it up into smaller bags that could be distributed to families. It took the whole day to unbag everything, measure it out, and rebag it.

          1. soontoberetired*

            I volunteer from time to time at a food bank distribution center, and they do that for all sorts of things. they get a ton of donations from food distributors and they divide almost all of it up into smaller bags. Even frozen stuff. It is incredible, and it is all gone pretty quickly.

        3. Lydia*

          At the largest food bank where I live, they break down the oats into approximately one-pound bags that can be easily added to a food box. At times when I’ve volunteered, I was literally scooping oats out of giant boxes of 500 pounds into smaller bags to be weighed, tied closed and labeled and then put into smaller boxes to be shipped to other food banks in the state.

        4. PinkCandyfloss*

          That’s exactly the thing – does LW think the oatmeal will be opened, parceled out into smaller baggies, and handed out – that is not safe handling practice. If the charity makes breakfast regularly for 100 people and NEEDS a 50 lb bag of oatmeal then this is fine, but if the idea is a food pantry handing out boxes to families individually, this type of item will not meet their needs. It is a weird flex to brag about buying 100 boxes of cereal and 100 pounds of oatmeal and then double down on not understanding why this action might not fit the spirit of the fundraiser, which is supposed to be about the needy and not about building a giant tower of cereal to draw attention to yourself.

          1. Chirpy*

            Yeah, I once volunteered at a distribution hub that sorted food received in drives and sent it to the individual food pantries. They had to throw out so much stuff because their clients couldn’t use bulk items, and food safety guidelines wouldn’t let them break up large packages. I’m sure if they got a 50 lb bag of oats they’d try to find someone who could take it, but even things like big #10 cans were almost completely worthless for families and individuals.

      2. Jane*

        I think LW sounds like the kind of person who really enjoys throwing themselves into something – like if the company picnic has a volleyball tournament they would enjoy organizing practices or getting the department matching technical t-shirts. So they might see the tower of cereal as exciting and fun way to kick off the charity drive. But it sounds like other people in the office take this as being aggressive and competitive in a way that they don’t want the event to be – at least HR does and maybe others if they complained.

        There are definitely companies/groups out there where the culture would be all for volleyball uniforms and towers of cereal but the key thing here is that LW has been told that’s not the vibe in this office. It would be good to follow this request and watch and learn for the future. I think it’s also important not to read too much into the request – it’s not necessarily a comment on your entire work contribution.

        1. TomatoSoup*

          I have definitely worked with this person. They tried to convince us we should have practices after work for games that would be played at the annual BBQ. These games weren’t one department vs another. It was more of the, “Softball game is going to start at 1:30. Meet at the bleachers if you want to play. They managed to badger some people into vague agreement but were unsuccessful in getting anyone to actually commit to a time.

        2. learnedthehardway*

          Agreed, and the OP should definitely pay attention to HR on this – this is important information about the culture and the way things are done. It sounds like the culture is more of a collaborative one than a competitive one, and so even in a charity contest, being perceived as excessively competitive is not going to work well – especially not for a new employee. Add to that the issue that less senior employees can’t effectively compete, and it’s just not going to be a good look, regardless of the worth of the cause itself.

          If the OP feels strongly about the charity, she’s welcome to donate more on her own time.

        3. Falling Diphthong*

          I think this letter is really about how you respond to feedback–someone who has been there longer is telling OP that their action is not landing the way it played out in their head, and OP is doubling down on how that’s inconceivable and must be the complaint of some lone all-change-is-bad luddite.

          I can picture plenty of contexts where that would be true (see yesterday’s discussion of imposing change from above with no warning or input) but I think this is one where HR is right about the shock and awe approach being misaligned to the goals.

      3. sundae funday*

        I mean, the company is the one who made it a competition. I’m not necessarily saying that LW is right for buying $100 worth of cereal, but it seems weird to make something a competition and then get mad that someone is being competitive.

    2. Mark Roth*

      Indeed. A hundred dollars of cereal and a hundred pounds of oatmeal for a free lunch is a 100 bits overboard.

      1. Allonge*

        If the only outcome is to get a free lunch, sure.

        But the exercise is advertised as charity, not as a win-a-free-lunch-lottery. Normally in a charity drive, there is no such thing as collecting too much of [whatever].

        I guess my thing is: there are some conflicting messages in this whole setup, so it’s no wonder OP read it wrong. Totally agree with Alison that it’s not a hill to die on! BUt maybe HR could talk to new execs about it beforehand, and explain that it’s usually low-key and not to go overboard.

        1. I need a new name...*

          Thing is HR didn’t tell OP to stop donating. HR told OP to save any more planned donations till the end of the drive.
          That’s it.

          And yes, HR could could clearly benefit from briefing some higher-paid staff on the vibe ahead of time in future. But I don’t know that they handled OP’s situation badly. OP is definitely handling the conversation badly though.

          1. Allonge*

            I don’t think there is anything else HR could have done at this point either, so we don’t disagree there – but this is damage control, and they should be proactive. If HR is worried about a demoralising work environment, they can address the entire competition thing before it happens – what OP did was not that outrageous or unexpected.

            And yes, OP could handle this more graciously now, and is blinded by some privilege on what $100 means. There are probably people who would not have needed this to be spelled out.

            But I do believe they went into this with good intentions, and it’s never not a bummer to be told that you are coming across as show-offy and damaging company culture when all you had in mind was charity and friendly competition.

            Everyone messed up here a little. It’s just part of being human.

            1. Observer*

              what OP did was not that outrageous or unexpected.

              Maybe I’ve been very lucky. But I’ve never worked with people who would be quite this tone deaf and quite this ostentatious about their donations.

              So maybe not *outrageous*. But, unexpected? I think so. Apparently this competition has been going on for several years and this is the first time this kind of thing has happened.

          2. Czhorat*

            Yeah. OP was kinda crazy in the first place for donating orders of magnitude more cereal than anyone else, and is picking a very strange hill on which to die. He’s being oddly combative about it, and HR is right that if everyone else is donating a box or two the optics of a higher-paid employee building a stack to the ceiling and ordering 50 pound bags of oats is absurd.

            Last time I said that wanting the CEO to chime in on this is also a really bad look; the CEO has bigger issues to worry about. Making them deal with petty nonsense like this will NOT be doing the OP any favors.

            I really wonder how it ended up.

            1. Yoyoyo*

              Yes, I would be annoyed if one of my employees was told to cut it out by HR and then came to me hoping for a different answer. It’s like a child not liking the answer from one parent and going to the other parent hoping for a different answer.

          3. Loredena*

            This. I think it makes a ton of sense for higher levels to do a small kickstart to seed the donations, but a floor to ceiling tower is not that. Save the extravagant gesture for the end of the drive as a final push if you want. Besides looking weirdly competitive having that much donated day one could discourage other donations by making it look unneeded. (That mass amounts of dry cereal is a strangely specific food bank drive is a different issue, but I think that might be a problem too)

            1. Be Gneiss*

              Our local food banks do specific appeals all the time. January is cereal, February is pasta, March is toilet paper…and so on. I think it limits the “what nearly-expired questionable canned goods do I have in the pantry” donations. Also, the letter says the drive supports kids in the summer, where the food banks may be specifically targeting an item that kids of all ages can eat on their own with no prep, no cooking, no refrigeration & no adult supervision. A lot of kids rely on free or reduced lunches during the school year, and a lot of food pantries run programs to help bridge the gap for those kids in the summer.

            2. Observer*

              (That mass amounts of dry cereal is a strangely specific food bank drive is a different issue, but I think that might be a problem too)

              That may be the food bank trying to make sure that they get a reasonable amount of ONE thing, and a THING that they can actually use. A lot of food banks will tell you that a lot of food drives range from useless to counterproductive because they wind up with one can of this, that, and the other; three cans of this; 6 cans of that; 4 cans each of this and that; and 100 unusable cans. What good does that do them?

              1. Lydia*

                This. It’s also why food banks have lists of most-needed/useful donations. They also will tell you things like Tuna Helper without the tuna is not much of a helper.

                1. danmei kid*

                  This is why the best thing to donate to a food bank is money, the second best thing is your time.

                2. Hannah Lee*

                  I contributed to a couple “fill the cruiser” “had a bag to your postal carrier” food drives in my area a few years back. My mom had recently moved out and I had a lot of stuff in my cupboard that was perfectly good with good dates, but that I was never going to eat because of preferences and dietary restrictions – soups and broths, so much pasta, pasta sauce, boxes of mac and cheese, many canned vegetables and fruits – so it went in the bags along with some stuff I bought to donate, like tuna, peanut butter, coffee and other stuff that was on the food pantry’s want list, and a few of what others might consider non-essentials that I’d want to be able to grab for free if I was on a limited budget: chocolate, herbal teas, brownie and cookie mixes.

                  But ever since then, aside from occasionally dropping off bunches of fresh herbs and tomatoes in the summer (after asking if they’d find that useful) I’ve only given money. I figure they know what they need, they know what their clients will find most useful, and they can buy fresh items or take advantage of discounts when available.

        2. Falling Diphthong*

          There’s a sweet spot where the combination of camaraderie and friendly light-hearted competition are neutral-to-enjoyable for the people in the office, and much more is raised for charity than if people wrote checks in private. “I’m helping! With my group!” usually makes people feel good; with no visual reminder people are more likely to forget their intention to donate. “Logically, wouldn’t it be more efficient if everyone figured out how much they could donate and privately wrote a check?” is totally true logically while ignoring how humans actually work.

          Shock and awe on day one is a good approach if you want to stun the other teams into not bothering to compete, but not if the goal is to either maximize charity donations or promote office bonhomie.

          1. Allonge*

            I don’t disagree with any of this. But if a team-building, camaraderie-enhancing, charity event requires everyone to hit that sweet spot without any explanation whatsoever, it’s bound to fail in larger groups where there is any turnover.

            Because: there are plenty of places where ‘OMG, have you seen the tower Team A built?’ results in ‘we cannot possibly come in second, we need to build two towers, how do we arrange this!’, and that too is a perfectly legit approach. If someone comes from this kind of culture, then the ‘well, my two boxes of cereal cannot compete with this and therefore I am giving zero, and moreover now I feel crappy’ comes as a surprise, even though that too is a legit thing to feel.

            1. So they all cheap ass rolled over and one fell out*

              If the general office culture is “my two boxes can’t make a dent” then is a competition really the best way to raise money/cereal for charity, in that particular office?

              1. Allonge*

                I really don’t think it’s a good way to do charity anywhere, to be honest. Even with volunteering or something like a physical activity there will be people who just cannot contribute as much, for reasons a lot outside of their control.

                Build one large pile of cereal, take everyone out to lunch and that’s it.

                1. TomatoSoup*

                  Yeah. If you want to encourage extra giving, then do the lunch if the office donates beyond a certain amount.

            2. Czhorat*

              I get your point, but there’s a wide gulf between “this is a tiny bit over the top” and “TOWER OF CEREAL TO THE CEILING!!!”

              1. Allonge*

                OP misjudged this, no question. But if that causes such a hoopla, such resentment, then it needs a systemic solution (no competition, or for the company to handle its own charity from company funds), and not relying on everyone to thread that needle.

            3. Artemesia*

              If it were some charity where you walked miles or something like that, sure. But this is ‘well paid manager buys his team’s victory’. A truly tone deaf moment.

              1. Allonge*

                So: OP donated a lot to charity, and this will get their team a lunch. Horrible, horrible person, OP. /s

                Seriously: tone-deaf? Sure, a bit, could have handled it better. I just don’t get the hate. The rest of the teams have presumably just as well-paid managers.

                1. Annony*

                  That is not necessarily true. Not all managers get paid equally and the other managers may have more financial obligations than the OP does (large family, student loans, sick parents). No one said the OP was a horrible person, but they are tone deaf.

                2. Czhorat*

                  It was a bit tone-deaf, clueless, and overcompetitive. Not egregious, but not thoughtful.

                  What I think raises some of our hackles is that after it was explained to the OP that he was making waves and causing hurt feelings he chose to ignore the directive from HR to quiet down a bit and is doubling down by delivering 50 pounds of oatmeal the next day.

                  The first is questionable judgement, but this has escalated into a weird power-play and near-outright hostility.

              2. Michelle Smith*

                It’s just as tone deaf, IMO, do to it based on miles walked. As a disabled person, I will never be able to walk the distance of an average able-bodied person who is not in shape. Contests like that would immediately exclude me and make me feel bad for letting down my team.

            4. Observer*

              there are plenty of places where ‘OMG, have you seen the tower Team A built?’ results in ‘we cannot possibly come in second, we need to build two towers, how do we arrange this!’

              That’s only a viable and acceptable strategy when everyone involved makes good money (so that you can reasonably expect that MOST of the people have some disposable income to pitch in.) But in a place where you have minimum wage workers, that’s simply NOT an acceptable response. The fact that the OP failed to understand that is not something that HR should have predicted. But at this point, HR has a very good reason for trying make sure that this is NOT the response, because in this context that’s an even worse response than “Oh, never mind” even though it results in less food.

              1. NeedRain47*

                Yes. I don’t think any organization that’s not paying all their workers a living wage should be asking anyone for charity donations. Having been one of those workers, it’s insulting.

                1. Chirpy*

                  Yup, my company asks for donations and volunteers for a fundraising event for a medical issue one of the original company founders had. If they want me to donate, then they can damn well pay me enough to live on first.

                2. anon today*

                  Same here. I’m also in some volunteer groups that have members making very good tech industry money alongside folks who *use* the food bank, and part-time paid organizers whose hours are often cut on short notice.

              2. Allonge*

                So then HR should not let this be a competition at all; spell it out for new execs that this is not their game to play, or in some other way prevent this from happening (maybe argue for corporate charity be financed by the org, how about that).

                I totally disagree that this is not foreseeable: people are invited to donate to charity in a competition. Someone (who can afford to) donating a lot is not an unimaginably out there response.

          2. Olive*

            I agree when the people in the office are all being paid a livable salary. It’s a poor idea where some people are making close to minimum wage and some are making 6 figures.

        3. Observer*

          If the only outcome is to get a free lunch, sure.

          If it were just the free lunch this would be less of a problem (but still a problem.) But the issue here is that it’s clearly interfering with ONE goal of the competition, which is morale. And it’s probably interfering with the other goal, which is to maximize the amount of food given to the organization.

          Normally in a charity drive, there is no such thing as collecting too much of [whatever].

          Of course not. But what makes you think that this approach is actually going to result in a NET increase in donations?

          1. Allonge*

            I don’t know that this will have a net increase in donations: apparently plenty of people who could afford to donate suddenly don’t feel so charitable when they cannot win a contest at the same time. But OP is the competitive one and to be blamed for this, sure.

    3. another glorious morning*

      I agree with this. The OP probably could have gotten away with the massive cereal donation by not building a tower, or as someone else suggested bringing them in a few boxes at a time. The tower building thing, is like wheeee look at me I can donate 100s of dollars in cereal and WE WILL WIN THIS FREE LUNCH.

      1. EPLawyer*

        Yes. It is so hypercompetitive. It misses the point which is to raise donations for charity. If the FIRST DAY other people feel its not even worth competing because they are already outclassed, they won’t bother donating at all. So OP’s OTT donation actually might have reduced donations.

      2. The Prettiest Curse*

        This kind of thing is why I think that any type of workplace competition, even those for a good cause like this one, isn’t a great idea. There are always going to be people who are hyper-competitive and take it too far, or who want to buy their way into winning. (I think the OP in this case has a bit of both factors going on.)

        1. to varying degrees*

          Ehh, that hasn’t been my experience. In my last work place they have 2 big fundraisers a year, one for kids going back to school and one for food at the holidays. Departments and divisions all”complete” against each other and the only prize is just the recognition of winning (there’s like a home made prize and a photo). That’s it. There’s never been any actual toxic competitiveness and everyone remembers who is for.

          Personally, and I know there’s can be some hyper-protectiveness to LW’ s here, but this sounds like a LW issue not a competition issue, especially with the doubling down on “only the CEO can tell me…” language. This is side is likely not going to reflect well on them to their new colleagues and possibly set a bad first impression.

    4. Wintermute*

      100% I was surprised by the answer as well.

      The goal is to get contributions to the charity from everyone, having a giant, literally towering monument to one person is not a good look– it’s liable to cause a lot of people to go “well I can’t compete with THAT so I’m not going to try” and cause donations overall to plummet. It also really does scream “look at me”. It’s not just the amount, it’s the tower and how much time that would take to set up. if it was just neatly stacked in the donation box that would still be odd and probably not be great, but the colossus of cocoa puffs is another thing entirely.

      1. Phony Genius*

        This is the problem. If you’re going to make this large a donation to this type of event, save it for the last day.

        Also, I wonder if there are any OSHA regulations regarding towers of cereal that reach the ceiling. The whole thing could collapse in an avalanche of Froot Loops.

        1. Wintermute*

          I doubt there’s any actual safety concern because they weigh next to nothing… but it does speak to how it comes off and to motivation because it’s a real risk of damaging the product for the sake of drawing more attention.

          1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

            They would impede egress in an emergency and are flammable, so my guess is that fire marshals would object.

    5. Daisy*

      OPs actions give an exceptionally bad look if the “teams” are at all split or skewed along economic lines (e.g., main office that includes execs and managers vs line workers vs janitorial staff). Any “competition” that depends on expendable income will, of course, have the folks who make the most money win if they are invested in winning.
      OP needs to consider this competition may have an unofficial goal of giving the lower-income staff a free meal in addition to bragging rights over the exec staff. There is more than one way to win a game, and improved staff morale is certainly one thing good management takes into consideration for a “win.”
      I would suggest OP anonymously sneak an equal amount of food into the boxes of the other teams, but that may not be feasible.

      1. I edit everything*

        Agree. OP should have either chosen another team to add their donations to, if there’s one that’s primarily lower-paid employees, or a team that has generally shown positive performance or attitude or something else that might not be rewarded. OR when OP’s team won the free lunch, persuade the rest of the team to donate to another team that’s especially deserving.

        It sounds like OP is executive level or near it, and the last thing the execs need is a free lunch.

    6. SheLooksFamiliar*

      There’s another element to office food drives that the OP might consider: some of their own co-workers could be facing food scarcity themselves. It would be extremely difficult for those folks to deal with the pressure from a presumptuous, hyper-competitive co-worker to WIN! WIN! WIN!, or see piles of food for charity when they need it themselves. Tone-deaf at the least, but also cruel and insulting. I found this out years ago at a much less competitive office food drive. We really don’t know how many people suffer in silence.

      HR could have delivered the message to OP in a more effective way, but I’m glad they said something. Office food drives are about bringing food to people who need it. It feels really wrong to me when someone takes the opportunity to help people feed their family and makes it all about their own competitive drive.

      1. Jack Straw from Wichita*

        Yes. I worked at a high school that had 100% free lunch because so many kids qualified they just gave it to the whole school.

        Some teachers would offer bonus points on exams during December if students brought in a bag of flour/sugar for the food drive. I always hated it because the disparity was so obvious–not to mention that I’m sure we had parents using food assistance dollars to buy donations that they really needed themselves.

    7. Smurfette*

      Glad I’m not the only one who thought that this behaviour is a bit OTT and Alison’s response surprising.

      OP wasn’t told to scale back their contribution, just to be less, you know, building cereal towers that reach the ceiling.

      OP comes over as a little tone deaf and defensive (“It’s not even a huge amount of money or cereal that we are taking about here”). What constitutes a “huge amount” is extremely subjective. And including everyone in a project doesn’t give you immunity from offending or upsetting your colleagues in a completely different context.

      I would question whether OP has the necessary maturity to be in an executive position.

      1. Daisy*

        Yes, very early in my career the purchasing office told me to just buy dry-erase pens out of my own pocket instead of putting in a purchase order. Except…it was the end of the month and I didn’t have $5 to buy pens and being told to look for spare change in my vehicle so she didn’t have to type up an order was embarrassing. I know exactly how much money is in my wallet and there darn sure isn’t any floating around on the floor of my car two days before the end of the month. I had multiple degrees and was earning poverty wages in academia. I ended up “borrowing” from another classroom but never forgot the embarrassment.

      2. Qwerty*

        “I would question whether OP has the necessary maturity to be in an executive position.”

        Very much agree with this statement. I’d be willing to give a pass on the initial screw up if they had taken what HR said to heart. But the doubling down, requiring the CEO to make the call, boasting about clearly they care about the little people because they let non-executives into the executive conference room…

        I’m used to execs being the helping hand for equality or tipping the scale in favor of the disadvantaged. For example, when my company would do penny wars, execs would hand a $10 or $20 bill to a intern or less experienced employee and tell them to vote with it. It was known that any unclaimed Letters to Santa would be given to the execs to fulfill happily with credit going to all the employees and nary a word on what percentage were employees vs execs. A big cereal donation like this would have had a back room pile where the execs put their donations so that it counted towards the overall donation but not the team competition.

    8. Annony*

      Yeah. I think making a show of bringing in a ton of cereal on the FIRST DAY is going to be demoralizing. Maybe she could have gotten the rest of the team involved and done something like that in the middle of the competition but doing it alone at the very beginning is going to discourage others from participating and can be seen as showing off. It would probably have been ok to bring in that amount of cereal if the just put it in the box instead of building a tower. Or she could opt out of the competition and build towers in each box. There were a lot of options available to donate without demoralizing other employees.

    9. Season of Joy (TM)*

      I actually misread it the first time and thought that LW is the one who organized the charity drive, and the tower was kind of a “let’s do this!” fun way to draw attention to the challenge. Doing that on your own is… a choice.

    10. Junior Dev*

      In case anyone is thinking of following OP 2’s example…as someone who has worked in food nonprofits, my immediate thought was that they should be donating $100 to the organization, not buying food at retail prices to donate. There are certain community aspects of a cereal drive that may make it worth it, but this is not an efficient way to donate to charity at all. The food bank can use that money to obtain and distribute way more food (and frankly, probably more nutritious and high-demand food) than the amount of cereal you’d get for $100.

    11. Observer*

      I’m surprised at the response to #2. I do think it’s weirdly tone-deaf to bring in $100 worth of cereal and build a floor-to-ceiling tower on the first day of the competition.

      Agreed. And if you look at the comments on the original post, a number of people said most of what you are saying, plus. Iow, you are in very good company.

      The other thing that surprised me is that Alison totally missed some of the office dynamics pieces here. Yes, she did point out that pushing back here is likely to burn social capital and that in any case, they should comply with what HR is asking for. But I think that it’s worth pointing out that in general “you’re not the boss of me” is generally not a good look when dealing with HR.

    12. WillowSunstar*

      Even now with inflation, I don’t think I could afford $100 for cereal to donate. Maybe like $20. It’s like the person wanted bragging rights.

      1. Observer*

        Actually now with inflation, $100 is a lot harder for a lot of people because wages in many sectors have not kept up with inflation. And if people are at the minimum wage? At this point I think you can forget about any of them being able to afford even one box (unless they are literally working for “fun money” and are otherwise being totally supported by someone else.)

    13. Alex*

      Agree, although I would also fault the organizers who made this a competition. Don’t have a competition that depends on how much money you have to spend–that is in poor taste. Maybe a prize for everyone for reaching a certain goal collectively would be better.

      This reminds me of people who “adopt” a kid for Christmas (buy them presents) and go way overboard, not realizing that that kid a) may come to expect the same lavish Christmas next year and b) be opening presents in front of other kids who had different gift donors who didn’t give as much.

    14. Meep*

      Yeah, it is the tower and the two bags of 50lb oatmeal that make me side-eye OP#2. At best it comes off as humblebragging.

    15. Avril Ludgateaux*

      I find it notable that the OP of #2 is so insistent of making a spectacle of their charity, too. Ultimately the ends justify the means, I suppose, because the food is going to a good cause, but it really seems like the wrong intentions behind it. “Look at me and how much I can offer!” with the emphasis on the “look at me.” Because why else would you be so peeved to be told to do it less flagrantly? You’re not being told not to donate, only to scale back on the spectacle.

    16. danmei kid*

      Completely agree with you – I was also surprised at the response. LW is turning a friendly fundraiser into a major competition and setting a bar so high nobody else will even feel like doing anything. LW needs to not turn a charity event into a LOOK AT ME situation, which is exactly what they are doing.

    17. Chirpy*

      #2 is just a bad competition in the first place. Of course people making 6 figures have the advantage in winning over people making minimum wage, for whom a box of cereal costs around half an hour’s pay, and who could use the free lunch a lot more.

      By all means, do a donation drive for the charity, but if you’re going to make it a competition at least pair up groups to even that inequality out so it’s a fair competition.

    18. Tiger Snake*

      It makes me wonder if the reason HR asked the OP to wait until the last day for big donations (not even not – just wait) is because someone did say that they feel like there’s no point in them donating because its just… already done. The tower’s been built, there’s no way the little donation they can make feels meaningful anymore, so its just not fun for anyone.

      Very recently our company had a competition where each business area was meant to create a christmas tree of canned/non-perishable goods for donation. Points for creativity and how you dress it up. The CFO’s assistant made an entire nativity scene.
      In theory that’s great and means no one feels compelled to overdonate. But the problem is that my business line is so overworked and under capacity that even if we might bring in goods no one has literally even have a minute free to start a stack, much less decorate a Christmas scene. Everyone else is wasting time with tinsel and we’re working through out lunches with 2-5+ hours overtime a day. So every other business like had an absolute blast but we just felt like corporate is massively out of touch and doesn’t appreciate us in the slightest.
      That’s what happens when someone goes overboard in a way that others’ just can’t match.

    19. Siege*

      I went back and reread the comments on the original. Turned out I’d commented on it a lot, and I don’t know whether it’s funny or sad that I first read the repost and was annoyed by how OTT the OP was about their donation, then read the original and was reminded that at the time I was annoyed by how OTT the OP was, and now I’m commenting on the repost to indicate that yep, I have confirmed that over a span of several years, I am STILL annoyed at such an OTT donation. It’s fantastic that OP gave that much, because getting food into bellies is a good thing, but in no other measure was this a good, considered, or wise way of achieving that, and it was probably actively harmful both regarding donations to the charity and regarding OP’s perception in the workplace.

    20. Art of the Spiel*

      For the LW whose interviewers laughed — I have a somewhat similar experience. I was asked to “walk someone through” a process for a help desk type of position. I described what to do, step by step; and the two interviewers eyebrows shot up, one of them sort of gasped, and they looked at each other meaningfully.

      I was SO rattled, I had a hard time continuing the interview. When I got home afterward, I looked it up… and I was even more confused, because I was sure I’d answered correctly or at least very, very close.

      I didn’t get the job, but the next time they had an opening they reached out and I got hired for that opening. A month later I finally got up the courage to ask one of the interviewers if they remembered, and if so, what had I done so wrong? She laughed – no, it turns out they were *impressed* with how thoroughly and step-by-step I’d replied, and they could visualize the process as I went. Which was not only exactly what they wanted, but also something they rarely came across without having taught someone.

      So – maybe they laughed because you did WELL. Maybe the person before you was so out of whack, they couldn’t help but compare your normalcy to the loon before you. You just don’t know!

  2. Goody*

    Re : #2 – this involved a team competition in addition to the charity component. I could absolutely see OPs generosity backfiring on the overall goal – other teams may see how much OP has already brought in, know they have no chance in winning the competition and simply decide to not bother at all, resulting in an overall smaller collection to the charity.

    Perhaps the request came from HR because another employee brought it up to them, not knowing where else to go.

    1. Tio*

      Yeah, this is what I was thinking. If I could afford one or two boxes of cereal and the other team already had a tower, it would be demoralizing.

          1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

            I really like this idea – start all the teams off on equal footing (or a few extra boxes in the departments that don’t have as many high earners to make it a balanced competition from the start.

            But really – why does it need to be a competition at all?

    2. Allonge*

      I can see this but for me it’s an argument against making this a competition in the first place.

      Either it’s a charity event in which case the more people give, the better, or it’s a competition, where the purpose shifts from the charity to winning (and the possibility of not winning is demoralizing).

      (I mean, I just hate unnecessary competition in general, so…).

      1. Emmy Noether*

        I agree. As soon as I read disparate incomes + money-spending competition, I thought “recipe for social strife and hurt pride”. I thought the question was going to be about how to make it suck less, but then it went in the opposite direction.

        1. Greige*

          Agree. OP just took this event to its logical conclusion. Disparate incomes *set by the company* + money-spending competition… seriously, what were they thinking? This is on the organizers.

        2. Kristina*

          Yeah…I feel like having a charity event that’s dependent on spending money is tough, especially as a competition. It’s hard on a lot of people. Giving people the option to volunteer at a charity/nonprofit of their choice might be better. I worked at a place that gave people a day of VTO (in addition to PTO) to volunteer.

      2. Wintermute*

        It’s something where you really just have to read the room. There’s a difference between kicking in a little extra because you have it but trying to leave room for others at the table, or dropping a fat stack on them to flex.

        There’s nothing wrong with friendly competition, as long as it stays friendly and good-natured, and 99% of people don’t have a problem with that concept– but it can just take a few people to make the tone ugly and adversarial.

        1. Allonge*

          I don’t know if it’s possible for ‘how much money you spend on this’ to ever be friendly competition, especially among people with large pay differences.

          Some people will struggle to buy the damn cereal for their own selves/kids, you have OP who can throw $100+ at this without any issues and most likely the CEO could afford to buy cereal boxes by the thousands if they wanted to. Pretending it ain’t so is not going to fix this.

          So, I am still on the no competition side here.

          1. Daisy*

            Absolutely agree. The free lunch should definitely NOT go to the executives who have more disposable income.

            1. Wintermute*

              in my experience that isn’t how these things go, because the executives have been around long enough to be able to read the situation and have some emotional intelligence– they usually pitch in a relatively average amount to get the ball rolling, they don’t drop a stack to crush the little people.

              Now, are there socially clueless people in executive positions? absolutely, and that’s a risk, but in most decently-run businesses the ability to navigate situations like this is part of the job expectations of an executive.

              1. Daisy*

                Exactly, an executive or high-level employee should realize this. OP’s situation may or may fall into this category, but it appears she is missing some social cues here (which is why HR talked to her).

      3. Jo*

        I think if there’s a competition element, it should be collaborative. Something like, let’s hit X target *as a company* and if we do, we’ll get catering for everyone to enjoy.

    3. Green great dragon*

      Yeh. It’s not even about the chance of winning, it’s about how it would feel to walk over with your single box of cereal when LW’s just built a tower, and the chance of people preferring to not contribute at all. I think HR’s suggestion of waiting till the end is the best one to maximise total charity donations. And if they want to maximise the team spirit building side of it, LW should ensure their donations don’t overwhelm the others (I can’t tell if that would happen here).

      As Alison says, you can donate outside the competition too.

      1. Lady_Lessa*

        I want to thank all of you commenters about LW2. She turned what should have been a friendly competition into a “Look at what I can do, (and afford).

        If the past could be changed, a real moral booster would have been for the organizer to spread her donations to other groups so that all came up to the same amount. The charity wins and morale goes over the roof.

        1. Jackalope*

          That’s a really uncharitable read of the situation. Unless the OP’s team was made up exclusively of the higher paid employees (in which case the contest was rigged from the beginning), the fact that she was trying to donate a lot up front sounds like it wasn’t bragging, only trying to spur on the competition. Obviously she misjudged the spirit of this specific competition, but as other people have pointed out, this is perfectly normal in many such competitions.

          And spreading out her contribution to all of the different teams IF they are insisting that this is a competition is a really sucky move. It’s going to put her team’s morale into the basement to have a bunch of donations that are suddenly spread to all of the other teams because it’s “not fair” that they have one person who is really dedicated to charity donations.

          1. Grith*

            I’m with you…up until the point of the LW’s final paragraph.

            The entire tone of that section isn’t “I’ve misjudged this and need to know how to fix it” – it comes across much more as a combative “I want to blow away the competition and HR is telling me I can’t”. If she’d genuinely made a mistake, I don’t think there would have been the same level of pushback or refusing to accept HR’s suggestion that we’re seeing here.

  3. eeeek*

    #2 reminded me of when I was chided for being “morally superior” by seeking something in lieu of the birthday operation in our unit. Standard OP was to pass a card, collect donations (cash gift), AND do a potluck/food party in a party-committee staff-decorated conference room, AND have a decorated cake of choice. This was for every person in the 15-person unit, with parties scheduled on a two-hour block on the workday closest to THE day.
    At the time, there were 4 other people who had birthdays within days of mine.
    I’m really busy, and higher up in the chain, and tried to opt out…but alas, that was not allowed.
    I pointed out that in a two week period, during a very busy work season, we were going to devote more than an 8-hour workday to parties. Could we do an omnibus party? (Vetoed.)
    Could I at least control my own party preferences, since I don’t like the attention. (Yes.)
    I chose “you are all so great; please bring a can of food to my office, and I’ll take it to the food bank! If I’m not in, drop it in the box by my door!” No party. Only a card – and any cash in the envelope also went to the food bank. My coworkers decorated a big box to gather the cans of food. It was delightful, and we did this for 3 years or so…
    Until a coworker who preferred the party complained that I was deliberately shaming others by having a “morally superior” celebration. I was insulting them and their desire to have a party by giving food and money to a foodbank. I’ve never bothered to read the complain that was sent to HR, but I hope it’s as amusing as I think it is. (yeeesh.)

    There are no parties any more. The manager who encouraged so many parties left. There are new leaders in place, and a far better atmosphere. I wonder why…

    1. Cedrus Libani*

      #2 gave me flashbacks to high school. I went to a highly competitive “magnet school” where we were all more than a bit…extra. We had a tradition for Homecoming Week that involved daily competitions between the classes. To give you a flavor, one of those challenges was a dress-up day where the theme was Peter Pan. I dressed up as Skull Rock. I painted my face to look like a skull, and then disguised the rest of myself as a pirate island, wearing a contraption that involved hula hoops, a 50-yard faux-pine garland, a treasure chest filled with costume jewelry, and a train painted with sand and seashells. There was a rule that you had to arrive at school in your costume and wear it all day. So I did. I took a linear algebra midterm while wearing an entire pirate island. Alas, I was not chosen to represent my class in the competition – that honor went to a classmate who showed up in a legit, fully movie-accurate cosplay of Captain Hook.

      Yes, there were food drives too. And yes, there were food towers. I don’t know if that’s something to be emulated at work, but it was at least entertaining.

    2. Ellis Bell*

      Wow, that is someone who is super keen on free cake and was not afraid to sling around some insults to get it.

    3. Slow Gin Lizz*

      I don’t really understand the point of doing cash collection birthday present for every member of a group of people. Don’t you just end up giving away the cash you personally receive as your present to the other members of the group throughout the year? So basically it’s just a pot of money that keeps circulating around the group? (This is of course if everyone always gives the same amount of money each time.) Oh, and of course this breaks the etiquette rule of never gifting upwards, if the group is a team that includes managers and their direct reports.

      Aside from that, it is totally ridiculous that your company had a separate party for each coworker whose birthdays were within days of each other. At OldJob where we did a cake for each birthday (~15 employees), we did combine birthdays that were near each other, so the one year I had a coworker whose birthday was two days before mine we did one party. And it was great, actually, since we got to divide the awkward attention one gets at work birthday celebrations. Now, for kids, sure, if their birthdays are close in date it is a kindness to give each of them their own parties but for adults? Nah. And especially NAH for a work environment.

    4. Here for the Insurance*

      People who are insulted by you not making your birthday all about them and what they want are a special kind of exhausting.

    5. General von Klinkerhoffen*

      In the UK we tend to do it the other way round – you bring in treats for your team on your birthday. So if you like to go all out, you bring in Many Treats and suggest going out for lunch and/or afterwork drinks (attendance at either very much optional); if you’d rather it passed unnoticed, it does; and if birthdays crop up close together then you combine celebrations.

      Props to my grandboss who sent me out on his birthday to get cakes for everybody (to order, on his dime, on paid time) rather than bring in the equivalent of sheetcake.

      1. General von Klinkerhoffen*

        That said, when significant birthdays come up there tends to be a big card sent round, collection for a gift card, etc. But I’m talking 18/21/-0 birthdays, not every year.

      2. Retired to Morning Room to Write my Letters*

        This isn’t quite my experience of UK birthdays. I think it varies quite a bit.

        Yes, there isn’t as much fuss made (thank GOODNESS! I would haaaaate to work somewhere that had a sodding work party at every birthday! I’m getting physically tense just imagining I might ever have to endure this). But I don’t often see the “I brought treats because it’s my birthday” thing.

        My industry is more like: You’re in a team meeting and you mention it’s your birthday; everyone says “yay”; at lunch someone sticks a candle in a cupcake and they all sing at you; it’s very nice and you say thanks and there’s a bit of chit chat; everyone goes back to what they were doing.

  4. Captain dddd-cccc-ddWdd*

    OP2 (cereal tower) “You could certainly mention it to the competition organizers so they know that someone has been asked to scale back their charity donations.”

    I wouldn’t be surprised if this has originated from the organisers (or someone complained to them and they took it to HR thinking that it would be weird to say ‘stop with all these donations’ for an event they were running)…

    IMO it was right for HR to say something, although I think they were wrong about OPs motive. It seems to me that OP was just very goal driven, sees a way to “win” easily and optimizes for that — exactly the sort of thing they’d have been doing in the consulting world… missing the ‘team spirit’ mentality that these things are meant to engender.

    I’m not a fan of competitive charitying exactly for reasons like this, it is too easily “brute forced” by people missing the point.

    My suggestion to OP (as this is an old letter I suspect they’ve discovered for themselves now) is revisit the thinking about not taking “orders” from anyone other than the direct chain of command… it’s an oddly hierarchical way of thinking, and ‘orders’ can come in a lot of different guises!

    1. I need a new name...*

      I agree with your characterisation of likely motives. It seems like OP completely disregarded the ‘team building’ portion of this exercise and jumped straight to winning. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that OP gets intensely competitive in other areas of their life.

      The middle ground here is gradually bringing in the £100 of cereal and 100lbs of oats over the whole period of the competition. OP gets to donate the amount they want, so mass demoralisation of the entire office straight off the bat.

      1. Putting the Dys in Dysfunction*

        The scale of OP’s indignation seems awfully out of proportion here. I don’t know if it’s competitiveness, absolute certainty that the over-the-box-top cereal donation was in everyone’s interest, or simply irritation at being told what to do.

        But it’s only a charity cereal drive, really…

      2. Lily Rowan*

        Yeah, I assume the organizers meant for the competition to be a participation competition — if everyone on the team brings in 1 or 2 boxes of cereal, your team will win. Not via the boss doing it all out of pocket!

    2. FashionablyEvil*

      Well, and something doesn’t have to be an “order” for it to still be a good idea in the context of your organization.

    3. Richard Hershberger*

      I actively dislike corporate charity, where the actual funds come from someone other than the corporation, whether its employees or customers.

      1. Emmy Noether*

        Absolutely! They would at least have to do donation matching to have some skin in the game. A crappy catered lunch just doesn’t cut it.

        Also, PSA: collecting foodstuffs is not the best way of giving charitably. Someone will have to sort through that (and you know some of it will be expired or damaged and will have to be disposed of), it has to be transported to wherever, it has to be stored correctly, it may not be the thing that is most needed or useful (will they actually be able to use those huge sacks of oats?). Giving straightup money may not be as satisfying, but is most efficient.

        1. Observer*

          That’s almost certainly why they are specifying just dry cereal. It’s a LOT easier to deal with a large lot of all of one type of food and it also generally means that a larger percentage of the food will actually be usable because it’s less likely to be a matter of what someone was able to scrounge from the back of they food cabinet.

          And although money is more efficient, a lot of people are just not going to do it. Not because they are greedy but because if all you can afford is the $3.27 (as of current pricing) that an average box of cereal costs, it just doesn’t feel like you are DOING anything. But a box of cereal is something that you can feel what you are accomplishing. (And also, individual donations of that size are not all that more efficient than dealing with a new box of cereal. The efficiency comes when donations are a BIT larger.)

          Which is to say that if you do have a decent amount of disposable income, then yes, better give money to the organization rather than food. And do not use your donation to one of these drives instead of a donation you would otherwise have made, even if it’s a small one.

          1. Emmy Noether*

            Yes, this is probably why foodstuffs are accepted at all: that kind of drive reaches a segment of the population that wouldn’t donate otherwise. Just know that spending time on a 100$ cereal shopping spree is counterproductive (though it may be fun for some people – me, I’m glad I don’t have to do it, and can feel good about that to boot).

            Some of that cereal will probably be expired from the back of someone’s cabinet, or someone will drop 10 boxes in a puddle because they tried to carry too much.

        2. Observer*

          collecting foodstuffs is not the best way of giving charitably. ~~SNIP~~ Giving straightup money may not be as satisfying, but is most efficient.

          I wanted to call this out. This is generally true, which is another reason why I was put off by the OP’s behavior. If you have that much money to donate, the DONATE IT. Especially once you hear that your behavior is not leading others to donate more. If your real motive is to increase net donations, then it would have made sense to put out a small amount of cereal to “seed” the contest, then donate the rest of the money. At the very least once HR alerts you to the problem, that’s the route to take.

    4. EPLawyer*

      Also an excellent point about HR and where they fall in the company structure. I hope OP has learned this in her time at the company. HR suggesting you not do something is something that should be listened to and considered. Sure this is just a cereal competition. But if HR tells you to not make that racist joke should you ignore it because “they aren’t in the chain of command?” That would be a really bad idea. HR sometimes has the job of delivering messages about how to behave in the office. They should not be written off because they are not in one’s reporting structure.

      1. Czhorat*

        You MAYBE can push back against HR sometimes, but I can’t think of a good example. What happens when HR sends the annual mandatory sexual harassment awareness training? Would OP make the CEO personally tell him to?

        And even IF you can push back, every time you do costs a bit of your capital; you want to save that for things that matter. Not the charity cereal competition.

    5. Observer*

      although I think they were wrong about OPs motive.

      Except that we actually don’t know what HR thinks the OP’s motives are. Yes, the OP says that THEY think that that’s what HR thinks, but it’s not clear that this is what they think.

      And regardless, whether they think that or not, the OP is being REALLY obtuse in failing to recognize that “what a show off” is going to be a very common (and one of the milder) reactions that people will have. Because it’s not just the AMOUNT of the donation, but BUILDING A TOWER. That’s waaaay in your face.

    6. Observer*

      My suggestion to OP (as this is an old letter I suspect they’ve discovered for themselves now) is revisit the thinking about not taking “orders” from anyone other than the direct chain of command… it’s an oddly hierarchical way of thinking, and ‘orders’ can come in a lot of different guises!


      This is more important than the charity drive, imo. The OP was being waay too adversarial about the matter and also totally failing to understand the role of HR and how most offices actually work.

  5. anon24*

    #4 Automotive has absolutely terrible PTO. My husband has worked his entire career in automotive and the most he’s ever gotten was 2 weeks and 2 days of sick time. His current job he gets no sick days, and I think 2 weeks of vacation but the fun part is his holidays (Christmas, Memorial Day, etc) all come out of those 2 weeks so he actually only really gets like 3 or 4 days. The rest of his benefits are just as terrible too.

    1. Richard Hershberger*

      This seems odd. Based on various conversations with shop owners over the years, mechanics are in short supply. This is not a Covid thing. I have had these conversations long before that. Perhaps shop owners are just a bunch of complainers?

    2. Shiba Dad*

      When I sold cars many years ago, someone asked the owner of the dealership when we got more than the one week of vacation that we started with. His answer was that we were off every Sunday, so we already had seven weeks.

    3. I am Emily's failing memory*

      Let me guess – he’s paid as an independent contractor and has to buy all his own tools, but he works for a single owner and has little to no control over his working hours or assignments.

    4. Season of Joy (TM)*

      My husband started his career in transportation and during his first year had three days of PTO (combined sick/vacation). He took one day for Christmas and two days for our wedding (both required flying out of state).

  6. Elle by the sea*

    I did have a similar experience with one of the most famous tech companies. Right at the moment we started the interview, the interviewers were dismissive, rolling their eyes and signalling to each other in a weird way. At the end of the interview, when I was supposed to ask questions from them, they burst out laughing already after the first question I asked. Laughter was their only answer to my question. After that they said, ok the interview is over, bye, and they stopped the call. It was a Zoom interview (way before the pandemic). The weirdest thing is that I am a woman and this was an all female interview panel consisting of people who were a lot younger as well as less experienced than me, but they treated me as if I had never worked in my life, had no knowledge of the subject matter, were overall dumb, incompetent and desperate to get their glamourised sweat shop job.

    1. WellRed*

      That’s less weirdness and more immaturity with a side of the arrogance of youth. One can only hope that a few of them look back on their younger selves and cringe.

    2. Season of Joy (TM)*

      I had a similar experience (in person) when I interviewed for a campus guide position in college. Their final question, asked with a smirk, was “what do you think we’re going to say about you when you leave?” It was really unnerving!

      …15+ years later, as a successful adult that owes my fast career progression in part to my warm and friendly personality, it still baffles me what vibe I could have possibly put off for them to take an instant disliking to me.

      1. The OG Sleepless*

        OMG that is making me cringe. If an interviewer asked me that I would run for the hills. What an awful thing to do to a job candidate.

        1. Season of Joy (TM)*

          It was really terrible, tbh. This was my freshman year, I had gained a ton of weight was in an emotionally abusive relationship (boyfriend was constantly on me to lose the weight). I really felt like it was because of how I looked, and I had tried really hard to look nice for the interview. Pretty devastating.

  7. Luna*

    LW1 – “What an odd thing to say…” in that type of surprised, but calm voice that is just dripping with passive-aggressiveness. You can be worse than Brad!

    1. Richard Hershberger*

      An excellent application of passive-aggressiveness. It gets little respect, and it is frequently misused, but it has its place.

  8. FashionablyEvil*

    I’m also surprised by the response to #2. The LW seems far more concerned with competition and hierarchy than with the impact on others. I know they want to contribute to charity, but they’re not coming up roses here. It seems like they’re more concerned about winning than anything else.

    (Side note: everyone I know who has worked on hunger related causes says the best donation is cash. Food banks can get much better prices than you can and they can buy exactly what the population they serve wants and needs.)

    1. I am Emily's failing memory*


      Cash also mitigates the problems of “we need storage space big enough to hold the 4 months worth of cereal that comes in all at once around the holidays instead of being spread evenly throughout the year” and “these donated goods have expiration dates and we legally have to throw them out after that date.”

      Sending a volunteer to the grocery story with the charity credit card and a shopping list for the exact things they most need in a reasonable quantity for storage and timely use is much easier from a logistical standpoint than perishable inventory management.

    2. squid*

      Yes! My mom was the director of a food pantry growing up and cash is always the best because we can get really good rates and then fill in the gaps of what we happen to be running low on that week.

      As nice as cereal is, people… can’t really live just on cereal. I haven’t the slightest idea what we would be able to DO with 100 lbs of oats. That is so many oats…. We would be sitting there begging people to take the oats, handing a bag of oats to every person for free (and I don’t know if many of them would know what to do with plain oats, since you need other stuff to combine them with to cook them into something).

      Oats is, unfortunately, not a balanced diet.

      1. irene adler*

        Oats also requires some means of cooking them- microwave, stove, hot plate, etc.
        Items that one should not assume everyone has access to.

        1. UKDancer*

          I had assumed it was somewhere that served breakfast to people (children before school for example) hence the need for cereal and breakfast type goods. I could see bags of oats being useful if you were serving large amounts of porridge.

          1. irene adler*

            Yes- that’s one useful avenue for oats. If this was a food giveaway, there is the issue of cooking them.

        2. Jackalope*

          This is veering into “not everyone can eat sandwiches” territory. It’s good to have a variety of food to make sure there are a lot of options available. But insisting that you only donate food that is accessible to everyone is doomed to failure. One person’s “I can eat granola bars without cooking facilities” is another person’s “granola bars are too hard for my teeth” or “I am allergic to nuts”. And no one food item provides a balanced diet. You need a range of things to nourish your body properly.

          1. Laney Boggs*

            OK but we are talking about serving poor communities and people who cannot afford to purchase food themselves. “Is this ready to eat / how many additives are needed to prep” and “Do the people we serve have the means to prepare this” are extremely relevant questions.

          2. Observer*

            This is veering into “not everyone can eat sandwiches” territory.

            That’s not entirely true. In many cases, food pantries are serving populations that are HIGHLY likely to have a problem with cooking, so that’s not an edge case for them.

            So, it’s generally important to know what makes sense for the population the organization is serving.

        3. Observer*

          Oats also requires some means of cooking them- microwave, stove, hot plate, etc.
          Items that one should not assume everyone has access to.

          That’s true. But food banks do no one any favors by providing ONLY foods that don’t need ANY preparation. Because a lot of foods that don’t need any preparation either require cold storage (ie a fridge) which can actually be harder to obtain that a hot plate; are highly perishable; are low quality nutrition; or just are so un-tasty when uncooked that people just don’t eat it.

          So while it is crucial for food banks to do their best to offer foods that don’t need cooking, it makes no sense to NOT offer foods that need cooking to people who can do at least some cooking. Oatmeal is a perfect example. It’s generally far more nutritious and filling than most dry cereals so giving someone the option to get that instead of the dry cereal is a good idea.

          1. Jackalope*

            This is what I was trying to get at with my comment right above this. The food banks I’ve worked with have a wide range of foods including fresh produce, dairy, instant no-cook foods, and cans of veggies or beans. I will admit that given the highly specific nature of the food drive mentioned that I’m assuming the food bank *asked* for cereal, rather than a random employee at OP’s job picking it randomly. Cold cereal tends to require something to put on it – milk, yogurt, etc. – that needs refrigeration, so it’s reasonable to guess that a number of the families being provided this food have some sort of housing if they have refrigeration. Oatmeal can be made with just boiling water and oats if needed; it tends to taste better when you add other stuff to it, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to. So while it does require a source of heat, again given that they were trying to get cereal that’s not an outrageous guess that they’d have access for that.

      2. Pippa K*

        Our local food bank manager said the same about cash when I asked what would be most useful, since they can make it go farther buying at discounts, etc. She said menstrual products would be welcome too.

        Then she added, quietly – sugary children’s breakfast cereals. She said they’re one of the most popular things families pick out, and she can’t buy them out of her budget because she has to adhere to nutritional guidelines. But sometimes kids just like a bright sugary treat. So I bought some boxes of Lucky Charms or something and now I try to include something treat-like whenever I drop things off.

      3. General von Klinkerhoffen*

        I volunteer for a charity that gives away food (among other things) and we are currently desperately trying to get rid of our cereal mountain, so this letter made me smile. We’ve reached out to every school, preschool, etc in the area, and as grateful as we were to get it all in the first place, we do not want to have to do that again!

    3. doreen*

      The “best donation” depends on the exact organization. My church had a small food pantry pre-pandemic. Small enough that they weren’t getting any better prices at the supermarket and small enough that financial donations would have meant more volunteer time was needed, as they would have to shop for the food. They preferred food donations. Post-COVID, everything changed – now they only want financial donations and people are given supermarket vouchers. Someone has to go buy the vouchers, but they no longer need to staff the pantry so it probably requires less volunteer time rather than more.

      1. EPLawyer*

        I run into this with my organization. EVERY time we raise donating to a new charity someone inevitably says “its my understanding that they want a check so they can go buy things at a discount.” I have to say “No I talked to them, they want the stuff.” I use the they don’t have a dedicated staff member to go buy stuff line. People don’t realize that there is not someone sitting around a non-profit just waiting to be given money to go spend. Someone has to find time in their regular schedule to go do it.

        1. Emmy Noether*

          But someone has to sort through the donations of stuff! For food donations, some of it will be expired or damaged, for clothes donations, some of it will be basically rags (because people suck). Sorting through that and disposing of the heaps of trash takes about as much time or more than buying something new.

          Now, if you have strict rules for your drive and take care of the sorting, so that what arrives is 100% usable, and they can trust you to do that, that sounds useful. Just dropping off boxes of indiscriminate whatever – no.

      2. Observer*

        The “best donation” depends on the exact organization.


        Also, sometimes an organization knows that the supposedly “not optimal” donation is better than NO donation, which is often what the other option is.

        All of which is to say that it’s important to really talk to the organization and understand what the really need and want. And what you can realistically do yourself and / or with your group.

  9. I should really pick a name*

    #2 feels like grandstanding to me. It’s one thing to bring in a bunch of food, but building a tower? That’s calling attention to yourself.

    And I don’t understand what they would gain by ignoring HR’s explicit instructions. They’re still able to bring in all the cereal they want.

    1. Allonge*

      Or maybe it was a human being having some fun with a bunch of boxes. Is arranging them in four piles one-quarter the height really going to be that much better? A perfect cube?

      Totally agree on (not) ignoring what HR says.

      1. The Eye of Argon*

        I see I Should Really’s point. If the LW was stacking everybody’s boxes of cereal into a tower, that’s having fun with a charity event. Instead, they were showing off their own individual contribution.

        Since it was all their own, however, it smacks of “look at all this cereal I bought! I have a tower of cereal! No one else has this much cereal! I have a boatload of cereal and I’m being really obvious about it! I win at cereal!”

        Had the LW quietly donated their 100 boxes and 100 lbs of oats (wut?) HR wouldn’t have said a word.

        1. Allonge*

          I mean – if OP integrated others’ cereal boxes into the tower, they would be accused of taking credit for it, the way this goes.

          I don’t know. Maybe OP is grandstanding and wants to call attention to themselves and is too competitive. Donating to charity is not the worst way to go about all these, though, and I am finding it weird that people take it so personally that someone gave that much. There are people who donate millions. All the better.

          And as I said above, if HR does not want people to get competitive about things, they should make it so that the charity drive is not arranged as a competition. Because you don’t need to be extremely competitive to feel like a competition is something you want to win.

          1. STG*

            Yea, this is where I’m at. It shouldn’t have been a competition if it was a charity or they should have let it play out.

            Ultimately, those 100 boxes of cereal and 100 lbs of oats went to charity which is the greater good here.

          2. The Eye of Argon*

            Well, you can do good things because you want to do help people, or you can do good things so that everyone will see the good things you’re doing. The latter isn’t going to sit well with some people, especially those who wind up feeling bad because they don’t have the means to keep up or who worry that their own smaller contribution will look inferior.

            Plus, I can foresee some grumbling amongst the other teams: “Teapot Division A only won because Farina brought those 100 boxes. The rest of us never had a chance.” Because people get bitter and grumbly over far less than a free lunch at work.

            1. Allonge*

              I don’t objectively disagree with your first paragaph, but it’s such an alien concept to me.

              If I donate to a charity, it’s because I think it’s doing some good – I appreciate the recognition but for me it can go either way. If it gets more money from others, with or without recognition to them, the charity can go even more good. What’s it to me if Obnoxious Millionaire gets a series of tweets or whatever out of their donation, and that makes them happier? How does that devalue my contribution, or theirs? I just got a totally form email from someplace I donated to and I am still sniffly about it, it’s so nice to have some feedback, any feedback. Why would I resent it that others want a bit more?

              1. The Eye of Argon*

                I’ve been on both sides of the issue – the lower income person who can’t afford to give much while the big donors show off and get all the attention, and the big giver who’s been resented. Neither side feels good to me so now I just prefer to do good quietly, and I appreciate when others do the same. This is obviously one of those cases where our mileage is going to vary.

      2. I should really pick a name*

        I think arranging them so they best fit in the area provided actually does present a different image.
        Also, my opinion is coloured by the rest of the letter. The writer seems very invested in other people seeing how much they brought in (they are resistant to the idea of keeping things in their office).

        1. Colette*

          Yeah, I wonder how they knew who was the one donating all of the cereal. It sounds like she wasn’t subtle about it – and may even have been bragging/trash talking the other groups.

        2. I should really pick a name*

          The more I think about it, without the bit about pushing back against HR, I’d just chalk this up to misjudging the office culture as opposed to grandstanding.

      3. Wintermute*

        I think it’s pretty obvious how making a literally towering edifice to your own contribution (not the teams, or everyone’s, just yours) comes off as hijacking the intent and looks self-aggrandizing. That’s a lot of time and effort for “having some fun”. It might not have been conscious and intentional, but it was certainly the goal on some level.

        1. Allonge*

          It’s what, 40-50 boxes, top? It takes five minutes to put on top of each other, including going for a chair if you need one to reach; let’s say ten minutes if you enjoy the building. Let’s not pretend that OP was spending half a day on this.

          1. Antilles*

            OP probably didn’t spend much time on it, but it still comes across as a showy thing to do. Basically the difference between simply driving your new car versus cranking the sound system and honking the horn to make sure people notice your new car.
            Maybe OP didn’t intend for it to come across that way, but it sure seems like a “look at me! look at my donation!” move in a way that simply putting the boxes into a pile wouldn’t.

            1. Allonge*

              It certainly comes across like that to a lot of people, but I was reacting to a comment that said “That’s a lot of time and effort”. And it’s really not, either. Lugging the whole thing into the office likely took more time and effort.

    2. Meep*

      Don’t forget the 50lb bags of oatmeal someone is going to have to lift at least twice. EACH. That is just being obnoxious for attention.

      1. Chief Petty Officer Tabby*

        I agree with you, Meep. LW sounds obnoxious and immature to me. I think she needs to scale the competitive spirit back, back, WAAAAY back.

      2. Jackalope*

        Or trying to get the best bang for her buck; 50 lbs. of oatmeal will provide a lot of breakfasts for hungry kids. Seriously, this response is seeking out the worst possible interpretation of the OP and then pushing beyond that for something even worse. I know the comments at the end of OP’s letter about not wanting to listen to HR were not the best, but jumping from that to assuming she bought the 50 lbs. of oatmeal specifically to try and be a jerk to a hypothetical coworker who would have to lift it later is… really something.

  10. New yorker*

    I think companies need to stop with competitions and fund raising at work, or at least do it privately. My employer matches contributions, so I assume if anyone in HR or leadership wants to know what I donate, they will, BUT no one is shamed into donating. And, as someone noted, the charity gets CASH, which they can use better.

    As to the auto repair shop, I think that as many, if not most are open at least Saturdays, it is somewhat reasonable what the employer is saying.

    1. KRM*

      If I work at Target, they’re open weekends, but if I get weekends off because I work 7-4 M-F, my weekends aren’t “vacation time”. They’re time off from work that you get because your schedule doesn’t include them. Museums are open 7 days a week and often people negotiate schedules that are T-Sa or Sun-Thu so everyone works a weekend day. That doesn’t make M/F vacation days. It’s a standard day off.

      1. New yorker*

        Of course it is not a vacation day, but it is a preferable schedule to many in that occupation (as another poster noted). Working no weekends is good. I really doubt many people in retail do not work weekends, even if just one day

        1. KRM*

          But great schedule =/= vacation day! The employer is arguing that because weekends exist, 2 weeks of vacation is totally generous and acceptable. That’s not a good argument! Many people in retail work a weekend day. Some prefer it, and would rather work both weekend days and have weekdays off (I was one such person). But the existence of days off in your schedule does not make a two week vacation policy generous. They are two separate concepts.

          1. doreen*

            The owner is dead wrong about 2 weeks of vacation being generous because weekends exist. But it’s not unusual in small retail stores ( and in my experience , mechanic shops) for people to work 5.5 or six days a week , with only one day fully off. My husband had one of those jobs once and he would have gladly given up a week or even two of vacation to have every Saturday off rather than working Mon-Sat.

            Target and other large retailers are open enough hours to have part-time employees so that full-timers can have 2 days a week off but if you are talking about a mechanic shop or a retail store that’s open M-F 10-6 and 9-1 on Saturday, most people ( if not everyone) are probably working six days every week.

            1. Observer*

              y husband had one of those jobs once and he would have gladly given up a week or even two of vacation to have every Saturday off rather than working Mon-Sat.

              I get that. But that’s just the flip side of the argument. Vacation time is NOT the same as a reasonable schedule. Reasonable employers provide both. Unreasonable ones? Not so much.

    2. EPLawyer*

      The work week is generally five days with two days of non-work. (personally I think this could be balanced better but that’s not the point right now). WHICH five days are worked is a matter for the company. But that does not mean the two days off are vacation.

      Any company that pulls this But you get two days off each week that’s just like vacation time is playing games to get out of giving you decent benefits.

      1. Jackalope*

        Yes, most people I know refer to their 2 days off per week as their weekend. It’s not relevant whether it falls on the actual Saturday and Sunday; they use it to refer to the days they aren’t working.

      2. Antilles*

        Any company that pulls this is playing games to get out of giving you decent benefits.
        This is absolutely the case. You know how I know?
        Because they *also* only offer three sick days, which is as stingy as you can get while still offering sick leave. And because they aren’t applying the policy to themselves – management (family and friends of the owner) can take as much time off as they please even though OP says they take enough time to actually cause problems.

    3. Observer*

      As to the auto repair shop, I think that as many, if not most are open at least Saturdays, it is somewhat reasonable what the employer is saying.

      No, it’s not. 2 days off a week (ie a 5 day workweek) are not “vacation”, they are the normal part of a reasonable schedule.

    4. Here for the Insurance*

      The only way it’s reasonable is if you start with the premise that an employer has the right to every minute of your time when the business is open; therefore, not requiring you to work every one of those minutes is somehow magnanimous. They don’t and it’s not.

    5. General von Klinkerhoffen*

      There are 168 hours in a week and the employees only work 40 of them. That’s more than 3/4 of the year vacation! They should count themselves lucky!!

      /s, very obviously

  11. The Eye of Argon*

    In high school, I had a particularly bad history teacher (his method of “teaching” was to put on a bad film that had nothing to do with the subject matter and take off for the teacher’s lounge for half an hour).

    The other thing he was famous for was his holiday food drive. If you brought a can of food you got a point, and if you earned I forget how many points you could raise your grade by half a letter, i.e. C+ becomes a B. There were people bringing in cases of soda because each individual can was a point. My year, there was a case of sardines, 48 cans of them, so 48 points to somebody. There was no limit, so you could theoretically buy yourself from an F to an A as long as you could haul cans to class.

    I didn’t donate anything because I hated that the slackers were able to pump up their grades even though they were sneaking out of the room and/or raising hell while Mr. Evans was camped out in the lounge.

    1. L*

      This reminds me of a chemistry teacher I had in high school who was probably objectively a better teacher but I really, really struggled in STEM classes (finally got diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, yay) and I found it near-impossible to pay attention in her class. I spent a significant amount of time staring at the periodic table and forming words in my head.

      I was managing a C- in her class (mainly because of a friend who helped me a lot) and at the end of the semester, she offered an extra credit activity where you could get a grade point for every 3 words formed from the periodic table.

      I thankfully wound up with an A in her class.

        1. L*

          It’s possible! My friend who helped me was definitely her favorite student in that class but I do remember being really embarrassed about not being able to follow along/pay attention and I don’t think I mentioned it. But teachers were always a lot more observant than high-school-me gave them credit for.

    2. Leems*

      As a completely pathetic athlete in high school, I took advantage of my Phys Ed teacher’s similar plan and donated canned goods to secure my A in gym class, as successful overhand volleyball serves were utterly beyond me.

  12. Not teenage but still ninja turtle*

    #1–I can always tell when a letter is old without looking at the date by looking at Alison’s suggested response. The old ones were very passive, typically “feign ignorance and hope that makes them reconsider their behavior.” In the newer ones, she realizes that that doesn’t work, and is much more direct. Less “whatever do you mean?” and more “why are you such a bully?”

    1. ecnaseener*

      Which recent letters are you thinking of? I don’t remember any where she recommended that level of bluntness/adversarialness from a non-manager to a manager. Particularly not when the retaliation is likely to fall on the bullying victim. And I do remember plenty of letters where she advises using the whole “you’re such a good person I’m sure you don’t mean to act like this” thing.

    2. Still trying to adult*

      Oh, I think Allison’s responses should be just the tip of the spear; bully needs to be confronted and shut down, and by management!
      This guy is doing college frat-bro stuff and it needs to stop ASAP!

    3. Ann O'Nemity*

      Times have changed, and so have workplace power dynamics. I like that Alison’s advice has always been pragmatic – here’s what you can do to get the best outcome possible, even if the circumstances are unfair.

  13. inko*

    Oh I remember LW2 from the first time round – I also thought their approach was weirdly tone-deaf and was slightly surprised by Alison’s response. One specific issue was that actually, two vast bags of oatmeal are probably not a helpful donation. Multiple smaller containers can be handed out to families, or can be used up steadily over time rather than unsealing it all at once and then having to either use it quickly or store it safely while open (obviously oats keep well but I’ve no idea what storage facilities there would be, potential issues with pests etc.). So the idea that this is all about doing the most for the charity is a little disingenuous. Not to mention that what the charity would probably really prefer to receive is money.

    Sooo, given that the company is not just donating a wad of cash, it’s clear that the donation drive is about more than getting the most possible food to the charity on this one occasion. It’s about getting people on board and excited about the charity’s mission, which a) might generate more long-term support for the charity and b) functions as team-building for the company. If LW2’s huge ostentatious stack of boxes makes it seem pointless for the low-paid employees to participate, both those goals are dead in the water.

    LW2 was just a bit too wrapped up in their own perspective and excitement about what they themselves could do, and they missed the bigger picture.

    1. STG*

      I regularly volunteer for the local Food Bank and breaking large bags of food into smaller, family bags is pretty much the daily task 99% of the time.

    2. Jackalope*

      I’ve had a couple of volunteer experiences at food banks, and one of the things that they did with bull donations was divide them up in smaller quantities and donate them like that. I don’t know all of the logistics but I’m assuming that they did that in a way that made it most likely that the food would still be good; for example, in this situation they might bag it up in smaller quantities right before the next time they were open for people to come in, knowing that that meant it would all be taken and used fairly quickly.

      1. The Eye of Argon*

        Yep. I did a couple of stints at a place that had a storage area for bulk goods and they left the stuff in its original packaging as long as possible. It seemed like most of it was stuff they had bought from suppliers, since they were in sealed bags inside boxes with all the same kind of labels. Some of it got packed up by itself (dry beans one time I was there. So many beans.) and others got made into kits.

        One time it was chicken soup pouches. One person would go down the line and put in a scoop of soup base, the next would put in dried vegetables, the next one noodles, then the pouches would get sealed and the cycle would begin again. 50 lbs of soup base is a lot when you have to dole it out one scoop at a time :D

        1. STG*

          Separating the frozen meats was probably the worst experience when we were breaking into small packages.

          I’ll never forget the hot dog day. The experience and smell is seared into my memory.

      2. inko*

        Thanks Jackalope and STG for the perspective, I’m parroting what I’ve heard rather than having direct experience of the work so it’s appreciated!

  14. Aunt Bee’s Pickles*

    I’m trying to picture how much cereal $100 would buy. Even buying the cheapest store brands, I can’t imagine it being enough to build a ceiling height tower.

    1. ThatGirl*

      Cereal has gotten expensive! Maybe it wasn’t so bad when the letter was first published. But yeah a box of Cheerios, for instance, will run $4-5. Even if you manage to get a store brand for, say, $2.50 that’s still “only” 40 boxes of cereal.

      1. Curmudgeon in California*

        Mostly you pay for the box and the branding. The actual cereal only costs 50 cents, the rest is packaging. That’s why the bulk generics are cheaper. Cold cereal is a racket.

    2. Seven hobbits are highly effective, people*

      Cereal boxes are pretty tall, though. I haven’t bought boxed cereal in a long time, but if we assume the boxes are about 10-12 inches tall, and the typical ceiling is between 8-10 feet tall, that’d only be 8-12 boxes tall. Fewer if this box tower started out on a table rather than the floor, of course. You could probably build a tower with only two boxes per level alternating at 90 degree angles each layer if you were steady of hand and committed to Cereal Jenga as a concept, so this would probably be do-able with 20 boxes of cereal or less. (This would also be an unnecessarily show-offy way to display 20-ish boxes of cereal compared to putting them compactly in the space so designated, which would probably be a major component of the talking-to.)

  15. Delta Delta*

    #2 rubbed me the wrong way in 2018 and still rubs me the wrong way. OP2 went out and bought all of General Mills, and can’t possibly see how this looks like grandstanding or how it might make other employees feel inadequate.

    Never mind the fact the people OP is competing against are very possibly the very people who might get the cereal from the food bank.

    And never mind the fact this system gives incentive to the haves to overspend on food to donate in ways the have nots can’t do. And the reward for the haves is…. more food for them.

  16. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

    I appreciate the name theme for Brad bullying Clark. (But neither of them is going to get Lana in the end.)

  17. Jackalope*

    I’m going to go against the flow here and put out a comment in support of OP #2. Obviously she misjudged her new workplace, and should have listened to HR about that. But I’ve been in workplace food drive competitions where people did this sort of… grandstanding not as a “Hey, look how cool I am!”, but more as a throwing down the gauntlet and challenging the other teams to rise to the implied challenge. I could easily see someone who went through one of those sorts of team competitions carrying that mindset into a new workplace where it might come across as time deaf.

    (I say this in part because as someone who also worked in a place with that sort of food drive competition, when I saw the bit about the tower of cereal my immediate thought was along the lines of, “That will really push this into overdrive for everyone!” I couldn’t fathom someone coming up to OP and telling her to donate LESS. So everyone saying that she’s awful for – checks notes – wanting to donate a lot of food to a food drive competition just comes across as strange to me.)

    1. Artemesia*

      It isn’t so much the act itself although well paid employees buying their win in a competition is a tone deaf look. The shocking thing about the letter is the ‘I don’t have to take direction from anyone but the CEO and actually think involving the hierarchy in this issue is a good thing for my reputation.’ If s/he approaches other workplace feedback like this, I would think disaster lies ahead.

      1. Person from the Resume*

        But whoever wins is “buying their win.” It is collecting items that you purchase from a store. I can’t imagine employees doing a neighborhood, door to door collection of cereal and bringing it into the office. HR admits when they say LW is “creating a demoralizing work environment because while some workers who earn much less than [LW does] wish they could donate as much cereal as [LW], they cannot

        That said, I completely agree that the attitude of ‘I don’t have to take direction from anyone but the CEO or my boss is problematic and that the LW is taking the competition a bit too competively.

        1. inko*

          Of course, but some individual employees have a ton more buying power than others, so can storm to an immediate win without lower-paid employees having a chance.

      1. Yangtze River*

        Nobody is shaming anybody. OP stacked up a bunch of cereal boxes. Calling that “shaming” is a weirdly aggressive escalation.

        1. Kit*

          Not shaming, but demoralizing – stacking up a bunch of boxes on the first day of the donation drive is likely to discourage others who feel as if their donations are pointless. That might be because they see they have no way to win the lunch, or just because they can’t afford the sort of conspicuous giving that OP2 can, but it defeats the purposes of encouraging charitable giving and of improving office morale.

            1. Appletini*

              Stacking up a huge tower of cereal at the start sets a standard that shames people who cannot contribute that much, no matter what language you use.

    2. Ellen Ripley*

      They didn’t ask OP to donate less though. They asked her to wait until the last day to donate more.

  18. Gray Lady*

    OP #2 probably needs to know that going over the top in a situation like that is going to draw the not-right-kind of attention to himself, and tone it down.

    On the flip side, if companies don’t want people to throw themselves into getting competitive, maybe they shouldn’t run things as competitions?

    1. Clobberin' Time*

      There are competitions where the point is to win, and there are competitions where the point is to encourage each other to reach a goal. The company is running the second kind of competition. The OP is throwing a fit because she wants it to be the first kind.

    2. Curmudgeon in California*

      This. I am hella competitive, even though I suck at sports. Anything I can succeed at? Game on! I have to sit on that side of myself so that it doesn’t come out at weird times.

      Yes, as a kid I have had event organizers ask me to stop competing to give others a chance. I grumbled about it at the time, but as an adult I understand it.

      Not everything in life is a competition. But when I was a kid in school, it sure seemed that way, and I seldom even was an “also ran.”

  19. Keymaster of Gozer*

    1. I’ve worked with a few Brads. IT seems to attract the ‘bullying men’ as much as it attracts the ‘I don’t want to talk to people I prefer the computers’ type.

    Although it’s hard to state tone in a text comment the best way I’ve seen to push back is a flat ‘oh come on mate’ (alternative words for non UK speakers are available). Escalate up to a very abrupt ‘no’ if they do not get it.

    I’ve been bullied a lot in life and the dearest memories and closest friends are the ones who just outright said ‘not cool dude’ when it happened. You don’t have to stop the bullying, but a simple show that you are NOT an appreciative audience to someone’s arsehole behaviour can make a bigger difference than you realise.

    1. allathian*

      Yes, this. When bullying occurs, people are split into bullies, victims, and onlookers who can be divided into those who support the victim and those who are more or less silently complicit in the bullying. There’s no such thing as a neutral onlooker.

  20. Hiring Mgr*

    I don’t understand why bringing in all the cereal would dissuade others from donating. If the cause is worthy who really cares if some other people win a free lunch or whatever.

    1. Observer*

      In that case, why is the OP so wrapped up in displaying their donation? Allison is wrong when she calls out that they were asking the OP to donate less. All they asked was that the OP stop displaying their donations. According to you, this should have been a total no brainer for the OP, not something to get on their high horse about.

      1. Hiring Mgr*

        It doesn’t say the donations were wrapped so I’m not sure. Since this is an old letter though it may or may not be holiday related.

    2. doreen*

      This is one of those things I call “You’re fighting over the same $5 I am” . If the OP displaying all that cereal is unimportant and shouldn’t dissuade others from donating, then being told not to display it shouldn’t dissuade the OP from donating or result in “I only take direction form my boss or the CEO”

    3. Ann O'Nemity*

      Instead of a casual and fun competition where teams keep adding a little more each day to one-up each other, the OP basically “won” on day one. No more competition, team building, or morale building.

  21. The Eye of Argon*

    For #3, I’m remembering a story from Chuck Jones’ (the animation legend) autobiography. In the early days of Warner Bros. Cartoons, they were produced by a bunch of oddballs in a dilapidated building known as Termite Terrace, with executives who took the cake for cluelessness.

    One guy was running an ad hoc cafeteria out of his office. He had one drawer of his desk wired up as a hot box so he could sell hot dogs and things like that, and kept another full of ice for cold soft drinks, as well as other snacks. When people on other floors wanted something, he’d lower a basket out his window, they’d place their money in the basket, and he’d lower their food back down to them.

    He was never caught because the handyman had wired up a warning light system to let everyone know the boss was coming.

    So if #3 really wants to one-up their neighbor’s snack shop, the possibilites are endless.

  22. Mary*

    I find #1 very upsetting how the coworkers are enabling Brad’s behavior. Poor Clark. I’m not saying Alison’s advice is wrong (it’s definitely the mature way to go), but I hate how people like Brad get enabled. Like, LW is literally writing how to (politely) intervene. Why is all the effort about intervening about tiptoeing around Brad? Shame on upper management who ignores this.

    I wish there was a follow up to this.

    1. I should really pick a name*

      The advice takes into account the power dynamics of the situation. Bothering Brad could result in retaliation. The advice is to approach this in a way that reduces the risk of the LW ending up in the same situation that Clark is in.

      1. ecnaseener*

        Not just the risks to LW, but the risks to Clark. Bullies who get called out often take their embarrassment out on the current victim rather than the caller-outer.

    2. Observer*

      I wish there was a follow up to this.

      I agree with the other responses. But, yes, I’d love an update to this.

  23. MsMurphy*

    I realize these are old letters, but #5 reminded me of yesterday actually – only I was part of the interview team. As soon as the candidate had left the room one of the interviewers said „Okay, can we have our debrief later? I‘ve needed to pee for at least the last hour!“ Our manager‘s dry response was „Fine, everyone who needs the restrooms go do that, everyone else cleans up the meeting room.“ – Cue everyone suddenly rushing up to get to the restrooms, and we burst into laughter at the situation.
    In short: Yeah, after a non-bizarre interview laughter can have many reasons other than the candidate.

    1. ecnaseener*

      Yep! And also, sometimes as the interviewer you embarrass *yourself* and need to laugh about that. The interviewer obviously isn’t anywhere near AS nervous as some candidates, but I find I’m usually a bit nervous and have put my foot in my mouth in funny ways.

  24. Critical Rolls*

    There’s a fair amount of debate over Cereal OP’s motives, whether she’s grandstanding or being hypercompetitive. But it doesn’t really matter. It’s the old intent/impact thing. It *looks* like grandstanding. It *looks* like and ostentatious pay-to-win moment. And OP’s reaction to being asked to back off is really bad. She has refused to understand the optics *and* is basically telling HR they’re not the boss of her. She is still pretty new to the working world and this all reads as very immature.

  25. Still trying to adult*

    Oh, I think Allison’s responses should be just the tip of the spear; bully needs to be confronted and shut down, and by management!
    This guy is doing college frat-bro stuff and it needs to stop ASAP!

  26. Mr.MissManage*

    Oof I have been the manager/bully in #1. When I was newly out of college, I was working at a small office on a tight team that would regularly meet up outside of the office for drinks, games, etc. After about 9 months our org grew and needed more structure so I was promoted to team lead and now managed my former peers. We were pretty sales based and most of the promotions went to the best sales people who (not shockingly) were not always the best managers myself included. Since we had been a pretty casual group there was plenty of shit talking and joking around. It took me longer than I care to admit that jokingly teasing a coworker and doing the same to a subordinate had vastly different implications. I saw myself as one of the gang but obviously now there was a power imbalance.

    Fortunately, for me I still had some close friends on the team and one of them pulled me aside to say that my joking around which I meant as a term of endearment wasn’t landing as I intended. I stopped it immediately and stopped going to the outside of work events, which did hurt since it was a lot of my social scene at the time.

    When the annual reviews happened the following year, I received almost universal feedback from the team that my more professional management style was a significant improvement over the “buddy” approach. My slight distance from the team allowed me to give better feedback, reduced perceived favoritism, and overall improved our performance.

    Our org continued to grow and I was able to move up as well as promote my team members and in a couple cases deliver the same advice I received. If it wasn’t for my friend giving me some honest feedback I easily could have become one of those managers that is written about on this page so often.

    1. ecnaseener*

      Thanks for sharing, and good for you for taking the correction right away. Stepping back from the social events was smart, remove even the potential to do harm while you sort it out.

  27. NeedRain47*

    So, I guess other peoples’ workplaces don’t have United Way drives where they hardcore pressure you to donate for a full week every year? Because I’ve been subject to this for the past 22 years, including when I was one of the lowest paid people in the place. I’d really like to never be asked for money at work, period, as I don’t think it’s their business how I donate money. This year I’m extra salty about being given a raise that’s well below inflation and *still* asked for money.

    1. Observer*

      That’s all the more reason why the OP’s behavior was out of line. One can discuss whether the competition in question was already too much pressure, but at least HR was trying to keep it to a minimum. When someone does something that feels like additional pressure, that’s not good. But we all make mistakes. So, that’s not the really big problem. The really big problem is that once HR alerted the OP to the matter they should have just backed off instead of choosing this as their hill to die on.

    2. Curmudgeon in California*

      When I was in the office I used to hate the United Way drives. For starters, I despise the United Way – they take too much off the top and their executive compensation is astronomical. In the offices where they had these, and the intense pressure to donate for some silly prize, I was often the lowest paid employee and needed all the money I made for bills. When they wanted us to commit to a payroll deduction? Oh, hell no! I didn’t ever do that.

      1. Aphrodite*

        I hate, hate, hate the UA with the passion of 10 million suns flaming out. They are the biggest, nastiest, most vicious, and most rotted out nonprofit corporate bully around. The community college where I work uses them and from day one I refused to donate even a single penny despite pressure.

    3. MEH Squared*

      In my first job out of college decades ago, we were heavily pressured to contribute to the United Way campaign so they could claim everyone participated. I made $18,000 a year. Yeah, that did not go over well with me. I wil never, ever, EVER give money to the United Way. Ever. Did I mention never ever ever?

  28. Here for the Insurance*

    The advice for OP1 is okay, but I think it depends on how committed he is to acting like this. I worked for someone who got off on being a bully and none of this would make a dent. He absolutely meant it the way it came out and couldn’t be shamed. He liked people being shocked/surprised/upset, thought it was funny. Feigning confusion made him treat you like you were a dumbass. Assuming good intentions made him think you were naive and weak. Ignoring worked a little, although it mostly resulted in him simply changing his target. The only thing that made any real difference was giving as good as he gave. He would lash out, but at the same time I think he respected you for standing up to him. Most important, it reduced the overall incidences to everyone. I was one of the few who stood up to him and never regretted it, although I recognize there were reasons I could where it would be more problematic for others:

    – I grew up with a bully & learned a long time ago to stand up for myself. You can’t worry about whether they’ll hurt you, all that does is give them power.
    – I knew that no one in my agency would ever deal with him (they’d known how he is for years and ignored it), but I also knew they wouldn’t do anything to me.
    – I knew both him and our culture enough to know it wouldn’t harm my career. I actually think it helped. He made me his deputy despite (because?) me not taking his shit, and they gave me his position when he retired.

  29. CerealReally*

    Man, I kind of envy whatever financial situation LW#2 has – $100 is like, most of my monthly grocery budget. I’d definitely feel pretty demoralized if I had to see the leaning tower of oat bran pop up on day one of something like that!

    1. Observer*

      What I think makes it worse is that the OP is saying “It’s not even a huge amount of money or cereal that we are taking about here.” And they are saying it in response to HR telling them that people are being demoralized because they are being paid so little and can’t afford this “small amount”!

      I’m betting that this attitude is showing up elsewhere. So, yes utterly frustrating.

Comments are closed.