You need to be nice at work. This doesn’t mean holding the door. Well, it does, but you need to do more than that. You need to do high-profile, from-the-heart niceness. People who are popular at work do better at work. Yes, it’s true, the popularity contest never ends.

So why not try cupcakes? Wait. Stay with me here. Cupcakes are good because they are easy to make. You can leave them in a central location in the office, or even on your desk, and people can just pick one up. They will be impressed and touched that you cooked. (I use the recipe in Joy of Cooking and believe me, I am no cook.)

Don’t tell me about Dunkin Donuts or store-bought-popcorn. You need to bake. It shows you really care if you take the time to bake. And for most of you, it will shock your office and show a side of you that people don’t usually see. The more you can show people that you are human and caring, the easier it will be to ask for major concessions.

You might say, why not cake? Why not cookies? Cake is hard to transport and hard to dole out. And cookies are not as fun. You want people to think you’re fun. People like fun.

For you overachievers, here’s a cheat sheet for cupcake decorating ideas.

For you who think you’re too cool for cupcakes, here’s the cupcake blog, written by an editor of Penthouse Variations.

For all of you who think cooking cupcakes is not in line with your workplace image, ask yourself: Why cultivate an image that cannot accommodate such a sweet and giving act?

34 replies
  1. Mike Berry
    Mike Berry says:

    I’m not a cupcake baker by nature, and I have to say it would be odd if I showed up with a freshly baked batch one morning. Believe me, the reaction would not be “Oh, what a fun chap is Michael!”

    But that’s OK. Because even though I like being on good terms with my co-workers, I would rather it be on terms that reflect my true personality. So, because I receive more books than I can ever read in a lifetime, I give many of them away to officemates. Sometimes I stick a box out where folks can rummage at their convenience. Sometimes I select volumes personally and hand them to the people likeliest to enjoy them.

    Books are me. Cupcakes aren’t.

  2. Anna
    Anna says:

    I can see both sides of this, but usually I am in the “no baked goods” side. The reason? Well, I think it’s kind of a cheap shot, and as a woman in the working place I’m usually trying to divest myself of the warm fuzzies. I’ve seen it work though- once at a job where I was an independent contractor, and despised for reasons beyond my control (hired in the last few months before bankruptcy by the board to scratch someone’s back). My sister-in-law had given me a big bucket of candy and I brought it into work so I wouldn’t be tempted. People actually came to my desk and talked to me- something that hadn’t happened in the months I was there.

    But usually, I think an interest in the employee’s personal life, a nice dinner on their entrance/departure, etc. or a gift card- I think those are better than baked goods that everyone ends up feeling guilty about eating!

  3. Wendy
    Wendy says:

    Penelope,

    Didn’t you once write (maybe in Business 2.0) that women who want to be taken seriously in a male-dominated career should not bring home baking to the office?

    Or, am I mistaken? I go by that comment. It’s great to be nice, but not if it undermines your ability to be taken seriously as a professional.

    * * * * * *

    Wow. Wendy, I can’t believe you remember a column I wrote from eight years ago. That’s impressive. You are probably right. Because eight years ago, I might have said don’t bake cupcakes. I think a lot has changed. When the young people at the office were Gen-Xers, baby boomers had way more power than they do now. I had to work very, very hard to be taken seriously by men who were still running a boy’s club and who were shocked that the Internet had given young people authority before they had “paid their dues.”

    Things are very different today. Everyone accepts the reality that young people have authority when it comes to technology. The boys club is hugely modified by a generation of men who grew up with moms who were executives themselves. And the demographic force of generation Y means that young people do not have to fight to be taken serioulsly. We have no choice but to take them seriously — we need them too much.

    So as hierarchy flattens and gender divides disappear, cupcakes become an option for everyone, because today the workplace is all about being nice.

    –Penelope  

  4. Rambler
    Rambler says:

    never thought on these lines. Next time I find someone getting something to work, my whole perception of that persons intentions is going to change.

  5. Rowan Manahan
    Rowan Manahan says:

    It really is the thought that counts. Ice creams for your immediate colleagues on a hot summer’s day will go a looooong way. Home baking, as long as it’s not out of character, is always a winner. Leaving champagne and a big bouquet of flowers in the company car when the new manager comes to pick it up. Relative to the cost of the car, it’s a tiny expense; but it says volumes about your management style and will be remembered forever.

    From what I can see, what’s appreciated is the gesture, rather than the recipe or even the cost. So few people make the headspace to think this way about the people they work with that it can really mark you out.

    My last gesture in this regard – I made extra rice krispie cakes (with good Irish chocolate, not the grainy American stuff!) when we were cooking up a batch for the cake sale in my kids’ school and brought them into the office. The entire team were instantly transported back to very happy places and memories of their childhood. Plus, anything to do with chocolate is very much in character for me!

  6. Kate Davis
    Kate Davis says:

    I usually bake for my team meetings. The team’s favourite goody is peanut butter and snicker muffins. The advantage I find to baking is that people want to come to the team meetings and interestingly frequently tell people who aren’t on the team how good our team meetings are.

  7. Rahul
    Rahul says:

    This sounds like a stretch to me. If I bake cupcakes and bring them to work, people aren’t going to like me more, they’re going to identify me as the guy who brings cupcakes to work. And what good does that do me?

    * * * * * *

    It will humanize you in a positive way. The way to connect with people in authentic ways at work is to show some vulnerability. If you let people know you spent time at home doing something nice for them, and you show them that you tried to make your cupcakes look fun, you are putting yourself out there in a way that is vulnerable. That gives people an invitation for an authentic connection.

    I think that one of the hardest things for people who want to connect but can’t is that they are unable to make themselves vulnerable. These are the people who most need to bake cupcakes.

    –Penelope

  8. Greg
    Greg says:

    My wife bakes brownies for me to take to work. And everybody loves them! The division president calls her the "Room Mother" and brags to everyone about her great cupcakes. Kitsch-ish? Possibly. Is it a good thing for a senior executive to be telling his superiors and counterparts what a great guy I am because I share my wife's wonderful? Most definitely!!!

  9. Nerd Guru
    Nerd Guru says:

    I’m a little surprised at some of the negativity in the responses here. I get the overtones if you happen to be a woman or the appearance of brown-nosing, but I think the key sentence in the whole thing is:

    “The more you can show people that you are human and caring, the easier it will be to ask for major concessions.”

    Cupcakes is the example given, but it could be as simple as holding doors open for people and greeting everybody with a friendly smile. I was in Austin last week with some other bloggers and the conversation turned to th is sort of thing. Liz Handlin captured the conversation well, (it’s not about the cake) and that’s the same point here.

    While people see through insincerity, it doesn’t hurt to do something nice for the sake of being nice every once in awhile whether it’s cupcakes or something else.

  10. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    As Nerd Guru says, “it’s not about the cupcakes.”

    It’s about connection, caring and collegiality. It’s about saying, “I see you and care about you in some small way.” It’s about sharing. No quid pro quo.

    If I gainsay the idea, my reactivity and, perhaps my negativity, says more about where I’m coming from in the world, about my character, my values, my self-image (who I take myself to be…and why), my personal/historical relationship to acts of kindness and gift-giving, than it does about the one offering the act of kindness. Perhaps an opportunity for some self-reflection here.

    Why would I want to give a “cupcake” or random act of kindness so much negative energy and reactivity? Better maybe to be open to the experience, accepting, grateful and enjoy…less heartburn (literally and figuratively) that way.

  11. JCL
    JCL says:

    I once read in “Nice Girls Don’t get the Corner Office” that women who want to get ahead in the corporate world should not use food and candy as a way to lure people to their desks. If you think about it, when was the last time one of your male coworkers brought in home baked cookies or cupcakes that “he” made and next thing you hear is he was promoted two levels up the corporate ladder? It does not happen. I would say we should all be polite, but “nice” needs to be interpreted based on your corporate environment.

  12. Tom O'Brien
    Tom O'Brien says:

    The night before a BIG finals pitch for a million dollar HRO deal, I thought to myself “what would I really like at this long afternoon meeting”?

    Answer? Home-baked chocolate chip cookies. I baked them, served them halfway thru the meeting and won the deal!

    Never underestimate the power of home-baked cookies!

    Tom O’Brien
     

  13. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    I totally agree. A rough and tough probation officer I once worked with brought breakfast burritos in one day after having partaken of everyone else’s goodies without recipication for four years. You would have thought the guy had just won the Nobel Prize for Culinary Arts from the reaction.

    I bring brownies to work every Monday. Also easy to make. People bend over backwards to help me when I need it. Is it because of the brownies? Probably not–they’re just really great people. But at the same time, I know it doesn’t hurt if someone was having a bad day pre-brownie…

  14. Laura
    Laura says:

    I’m of two minds on the topic of this post. I bring baked goods to the office every once in awhile. The main reason for me is that I love to bake – I love to eat the stuff that I bake too, but I also enjoy the baking process independent of the yummy food at the end! But there’s always too much for my fiance and I to eat on our own, or we’d be walking beach balls. So I bring the extras to the office, where they usually disappear within 15 minutes.

    On the other hand, usually nobody knows that it’s me who brought the baked goods and it certainly hasn’t benefited me in any way except that I don’t suffer from sugar-induced hangovers and once my boss asked for my brownie recipe!

    But more importantly, I take issue with the insistence cupcakes are the only baked good that will produce the desired result in terms of your office popularity. That’s absolutely ridiculous. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to becoming popular, and a grating personality will undo all the brownie points a tasty cupcake can buy you. Besides, if you’re bringing cupcakes with the goal of becoming popular as a result, then you’re really not doing it from the heart are you? You’re doing it for brown-nosing purposes. And people can usually see through that. I say you should bring baking to the office if you feel like baking for the office. Not if you feel like being popular.

  15. Jacqui
    Jacqui says:

    I’m shocked at so many (harshly) negative reactions to this post. Maybe this is just me from a GenY prospective, but since when has work become so hard-nosed and focused on climbing to the top that we can’t be nice to one another or try to make a few friends along the way?

    I’ve baked for my office (especially the smaller ones). I’ve even gone as far to make special recipes based on what I knew to be a few peoples’ favorites, and I can’t say I’ve ever lost an ounce of respect for it. In fact, people felt appreciated and it boosted morale. What’s wrong with that? Why is it that to prove I’m a successful working woman, I have to give the impression that kitchen-incompetant? Can’t we be both?

    I respect Machiavelli as much as the next guy, but in the office, sometimes being liked can take you a lot farther than being feared.

  16. Maya
    Maya says:

    This is an interesting conversation. My husband is working full time and getting his MBA. He’ll graduate in December. He’s an exceptionally nice guy and we occasionally debate as to whether this gets him ahead or holds him back. After reading this, I think maybe he just needs to find a company that will value this quality in him, in addition to his other good qualities.

    And, as a happy WAHM who likes to bake, I look forward to the day I can send him off to work with a bunch of cupcakes for his coworkers.

    * * * * * * *

    Now that I have kids and we bake way more cupcakes than a healthy family could eat, I have, on occassion, sent my husband to work with cupcakes. It felt incredibly 1950s to wrap them up and send him on his way. I kinda liked it. Like, I don’t fit into the retro clothes at hipster thriftshops, but I have my retro moment with the cupcakes.

    –Penelope

  17. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:

    I’m all about the cupcakes. Mostly because it fits my personality and I like to bake. But as a result of doing so, I do feel like my colleagues approach me differently than they would if I didn’t make nice gestures like that. I currently work in an office of all women and try to make cupcakes, brownies, or other goodies for each of their birthdays. In fact, every year on my birthday, someone now does the same or the whole group takes me out to lunch. Because I spend time to appreciate them, they appreciate me. And I think that’s worth a lot.

  18. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:

    This is great- I LOVE the idea. I work across the street from a Food Pantry, where volunteers and staff have access to store-bought goods all the time. But they rarely take advantage. The moment, however, someone brings in home-baked goods, everyone is happy!

    And I think women shouldn’t “divest themselves of the warm fuzzies”. Men use their masculinity; we should use our feminity to our advantage! And if that’s cupcakes, so be it.

  19. laura
    laura says:

    Penelope, Maybe for you & your friends it is easier to be a woman in the workplace. And, I agree overall it is probably easier.

    But, there are many of us Gen Y or X/Y who still have to struggle with being assertive without being bitchy, being feminine without being flaky, etc.
    The sexists haven’t all died off yet.

  20. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    I bring cupcakes to work every Thursday! We have a tip jar in the teacher’s lounge so I can buy the supplies needed for the next week. Every teacher at school looks forward to Cupcake Day.

  21. Sheila at Family Travel
    Sheila at Family Travel says:

    This is an amazing thread, with such contrasting opinions about….cupcakes.

    A few years back, there’s no way you’d have caught me doing something so girly/fluffy as bringing baked goods into the office, as though I have to play Mommy to be liked.

    Now, my attitude is, what the hell; if I wanna bring in cupcakes or whatever to share, and someone then wants to impugn my ability to lead or whatever, I really don’t care anymore and I’m bringin’ in the cake. They can eat it. Or not.

    I must confess that I like being an independent entrepreneur these days, and not giving a rat’s patootie about whether some guy in a cube in an office thinks I’m a wuss because of cupcakes.

  22. A friend
    A friend says:

    I’d like to think that one can take this advice liberally–not literally. Baking cupcakes could seem very contrived for some people, and the action would backfire. Better to do something authentic.

  23. Cupcake Queen
    Cupcake Queen says:

    I brought a dozen homemade cupcakes to my colleagues every week for 52 weeks at the Univrsity of Maryland…they were my testing ground!

    And, almost everyone wanted to eat the cupcakes and were more than happy to see them. An email would go out that the cupcakes had arrived. Folks began hovering around the front office every Monday morning at 9:00 so they would be one of the 12 lucky cupcake eaters! And, so much disappointment if they didn’t get one!

    It was funny…some people would gobble theirs right away and other would save it for lunch! All in all, the weekly cupcakes became a positive gathering point on Monday mornings, and the event took on a life of its own. Soon, I was making 2 dozen cupcakes a week and delivering the extras to our vice president’s office…and occasionally to the president’s office! It was a blast!

  24. CR
    CR says:

    My choice at my new job is going to be to have chocolate on my desk. Everyone loves chocolate. ANd it will get people I don’t even know to come over and take chocolate, and if I am there, they will have to at least say “hi” or “thank you” and then I have a chance to connect with them.

  25. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    I think you are sorely mistaken about the disappearing gender divide. It may not be as apparent, but it is still there. Take Greg’s comment for example about his wife being the “Room Mother”. That’s just weird. Using your wife and her skills/labor for social capital is very much a boomer thing, not a “huzzah all gender disparity is gone because it’s 2007!-read “Men and Women of the Corporation” by Rossabeth Moss Kanter (circa 1975?) to see what I mean.

    That being said my spouse and I have occassionally brought food to our offices, but we always make it ourselves. I can’t really see my husband asking me to make his office-mates cookies, because he’s a completely capable baker (makes awesome pies!). And honestly, I’m not into playing a mother role to anyone but potential offspring of my own. You can’t have equality among adults if someone is playing mommy/daddy/child roles in the workplace (or in relationships for that matter.)

  26. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    Ok, so here’s another thought about the food thing. For women (overall) if they bake or cook something really fantastic with great skill, people regard it as a nuturing act, not as a demonstration of skill. However, men (overall) when they cook or bake something, they aren’t regarded as doing it for love, but as a demonstration of skill. Think restaurant chefs (mostly men) vs the home cook (still mainly women). Also think of prepackaged baked goods, which are largely female branded like Sara Lee and Marie Callendar, or the general statement of “just like mom/grandma” used to make. Why? because females cooking=nuturing. Geez, I should change my thesis topic to this. :D

  27. Linda
    Linda says:

    I originally operated on the ‘no bake’ policy. After all, you have to be tough to be taken seriously as a woman in a man’s world. On top of the old boy companies I’ve worked for, I also work in IT, so tough has to go to a new level or they’ll think I’m stupid (pre-internet world). Then I met a manager on one of my assignments who baked. Yes, she was feminine, but she was also not to be messed with. I discovered people appreciated the baking and her for doing it, and no one called her competence into question. It also made the dungeon a bit more civil. My initial attitude of “why should I bribe people to like me” changed to “everyone likes to be appreciated,” and that became the spirit with which I baked when I chose to do so. To bake or not to bake, that’s a personal preference, but I think putting some effort behind a ‘thank you’ tells someone you mean it, and there are always people to be recognized if you think about it that way. If you don’t think about it that way, you probably shouldn’t be baking cupcakes.

  28. Heather
    Heather says:

    Late reply on this, but I have to admit I’m pretty shocked by the reactions too. I agree that there are still many sexists out there, but um, a power suit and stone heart won’t change their minds about what you are or aren’t. Neither will cupcakes.

    Your actions, attitude, and overall approach to life define you as a person. If you are someone who likes to bake, bring cupcakes to the office if you want to. If you don’t like to bake, bring your coworkers a coffee now and again.

    The point of the article wasn’t, “Turn into June Cleaver and your coworkers will totally like, love you,” it was, “Hey, do something nice for your coworkers every once in a while that has ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with business.”

    We’re still human at work. We’re still men, and women at work. And sometimes, a random cupcake is just what everyone needs to lighten up.

  29. Heather Rose Russell
    Heather Rose Russell says:

    I like the idea of bringing cupcakes to work; however, I’m more in favour of oatmeal chocolate chunk cookies with regular (or seasonal) Smarties (or other similar candy) on top.
    Or brownies rather than cupcakes.
    But the idea is, all the same, a nice one.

  30. david rees
    david rees says:

    We have a receptionist here that we all just LOVE.

    We LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE her – all of us.

    Every week she brings something that she bakes – it is usually on a Friday and it is frequently cupcakes.

    We all feel that she is kind, sincere, decent and caring.

    Incidentally – most of us are in the 34-44 range and the receptionist is 18.

    I consider the cupcake rule to be once step from scripture:

    When I was in 8th grade, I had a teacher that really did not like me – she made my life miserable. My mom said “don’t let her control how you feel – take control and make her like you”

    My mom helped me bake and I brought her baked things. EVERYTHING turned around – it was stunning. You can’t be unkind to people who bake for you.

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