Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

Money Can’t Buy You Love; Neither Can Bagels, Pizza, or Ice Cream.

hungry-chipmunk-1.JPGMany supervisors and managers regularly spend a great deal of their own money buying rolls, fruit, cookies, cakes, pizza, snacks, candy and other treats for the office.  If you do that and enjoy it, I’m not trying to talk you out of it. However, I want you to think about why you do it, if there are drawbacks to it, and are there other ways to achieve your goals. Some of you may never have spent a dime on food, snacks, decorations or anything else for employees. If that’s the case, you may have some issues in the other direction! As with most things, a balanced approach is the most effective.

  • Why do you do it? Are any of these thoughts lurking in even a small corner of your mind?
  • *The employees will appreciate my efforts.
  • *If something negative happens, they’ll remember that I did this for them.
  • *This will soften employee’s attitudes about some of the things that are happening at work.
  • *This will let employees see I’m not as bad as some of them may think.
  • *My manager will be impressed at what a caring person I am.
  • *This will inspire the employees to do something similar.
  • *I’m going to look better than the other supervisors who don’t do things like this.
  • *This will let employees know I appreciate their work.
  • *This will be fun and we’ll start the day with a smile!

If you have similar ego or emotion-laden reasons, you probably can stop spending your time and money, and you won’t see any difference at work. If you do it because you think the employees need it, want it, expect it, will be angry or upset if they don’t get it, or will suffer without it and can’t reasonably be expected to provide it for themselves, you can also likely save yourself the pressure and cash.

Food and treats don’t off-set a bad work environment or poor supervisory practices. If you are ineffective, discourteous and uncaring, all the food in the world won’t make you popular. If you are effective, courteous and caring, you will be appreciated more for that than for food–but, food still won’t make you more popular. When employees are unhappy about work issues they don’t make comments like, “Usually I’d file a grievance about what she did, but she was really nice to spend her own money on pizza for us last Halloween.” 

Food, snacks and candy treats are not considered by most employees to be requirements for them to think well of a supervisor. In one of my programs I ask people to say the name of a supervisor they remember in a positive way, and why. The reasons tend to be repetitive: Fairness, mentoring behavior, and overall work effectiveness. Not once, in the twenty-five years I have taught that class, has anyone ever mentioned the fact that the supervisor brought food to work.

Most employees eat enough, drink enough and take enough breaks, that food and sweet or fattening treats are not only unnecessary, they are unhealthy and unwanted. Employees don’t expect you to provide those things, and may even wish you wouldn’t. Participants in my training programs frequently complain that they desperately try to avoid calorie temptations, then come to work and find food everywhere.  If you are the only one bringing food, you could do others a favor by not doing it. If other people are bringing it too, you can bow out gracefully, except for an occasional very small and more healthy item.

What are the drawbacks? Apart from the health issues for employees, there are other drawbacks to regularly, or even semi-regularly, providing food or snacks for an entire office or work group:

  • It is very expensive! It doesn’t sound expensive to say you’ll buy bagels. But, by the time you add cream cheese, plastic knives, napkins now and then to replace others, and jam or jelly, you can spend twenty or thirty dollars easily. If you’re buying more expensive food, you can easily spend fifty or more dollars.
  • It is time consuming, usually in the morning when the last thing you need is more time pressure. And, if you do the awful thing of delegating the food pick-up to a support person, you’ve ruined that person’s morning.
  • It’s messy and disruptive at work. The set-up is time consuming, and whether people gather at once or wander in to eat, it takes time away from work. You or someone else will need to clean-up the war zone after the food is gone, and that takes time as well. Even having rolls and fruit on the counter requires some set-up, maintenance and clean-up.
  • If you are trying to thank employees through a food gift, it does little good to arrive early, set up the food, then go to your office the rest of the morning–no one will get the connection between the food and your thanks. (And if they do it will be a brief one.) On the other hand, it would seem tacky to put a card next to the rolls and fruit that says, “Provided by…… Thank you for your work.” To make it effective, at least you need to send out a message thanking people for their work and inviting them into the break room for the food you have provided. Otherwise you have to gather people around to say thank you, then tell them to enjoy the food. See how much trouble that is?
  • Setting up food, even light snacks, detracts from your work focus for considerable amounts of time, as well as detracting from your appearance of having a work focus. I don’t mean this to be terribly feminist, because that’s not my style–but seeing a female supervisor or manager struggling with grocery bags, setting food out, serving it, and washing dishes and putting things away, doesn’t seem to me to be the image most women want to portray at work. Men who do the same thing may look cute or impressively non-sexist, but it still tends to look as though they have little to do at that moment except kitchen work. 
  • It can become a way for some employees to show their hostility by sneering at the food and refusing to eat it, demonstrating to their co-workers that they can’t be bought by supervisors or managers.
  • It can become an unofficially regular activity that is difficult to stop, like feeding deer! I once kept apples in a bowl in my office, and let employees know they could come in to get one. I wanted to encourage the face-to-face contact, as well as having them eat something healthy–and it worked very well in that way. But, six months later I had to stop it for several reasons:

*Three or four employees were eating two or three apples each, a day.
*When I had stepped out of the office momentarily, employees would still come in for an apple and there was some question about privacy of materials in and on my desk.
*It seemed that an employee inevitably wanted an apple just about the time I was receiving a phone call that needed privacy, or that prevented me from talking to him or her–which was my purpose for the apples in the first place.
*If I wanted the apples to be crisp and fresh, I had to buy them every few days, not buy them and let them set around and get mushy.
*I was spending about $30 a week on apples, and that was several years ago.

You’d think I would have caught on that even God couldn’t deal with the problems related to apples!

  • Here is the biggest drawback, from my perspective: Most supervisors and managers who provide food or treats want employees to appreciate it. When appreciation isn’t shown or expressed, the supervisor or manager can feel angry, hurt, disappointed, frustrated or simply become more and more cynical and detached from the employees. I have heard far too many supervisors comment bitterly on lack of appreciation by employees to not think that isn’t an issue.  Sadly, the employees who don’t say thanks or show appreciation would be surprised to think they should. They didn’t ask you to bring it in, you make more money than they do anyway, they ate it and enjoyed it OK. What more do you want?

 Are there other ways to achieve your goals?

  • The most justifiable reason for a supervisor to personally buy and bring food or other items to work is as a specific thank you for effective work over time or for a special project. You can do that by writing a thank you note to each person, if the number of employees is not too large. That allows you to mention each employee’s specific contribution. It also avoids the problem of thanking all employees in the same way–with a cake in the break room or pizza at lunch–no matter what their levels of support and participation in a project.
  • Now and then provide a snack other than a food item. Consider giving a package of sugarless gum to each person. If they don’t want it they can take it home.
  • Limit the times you bring in food, but make it nicer when you do. For example, save the money you would dribble away the rest of year on doughnuts, and have professionally made deli and bakery trays delivered once or twice a year.
  • Take your tone from the contributions made by other employees. If employees routinely take turns bringing in food and everyone contributes cheerfully and without rancour about the few who do not, do your part. If few or no employees bring in items, you need have no guilty feelings about not being the office host or hostess.

  Put your energy and focus on effectiveness as a leader for the group and for individual employees. Put their energy and focus on effective work and the energy and enjoyment that grows when a team is working well together. Employees will bring their own preferred snacks, and they’ll remember you as the supervisor or manager who made the work environment fulfilling for everyone, all the time.

February 16th, 2008 Posted by | Life and Work, Supervision and Management | 5 comments


  1. Excellent post again. I’m wondering now what you think about the birthday parties, holiday pot lucks and that type of thing. About once a year that becomes an issue in our office, with people on both sides of the issue. Should managers and supervisors just make a decision, or do you think we should have a democratic vote?

    Comment by LMV | February 16, 2008

  2. Oh! This is SO good! Neat web site – or blog.

    How many pixils wide is it? It looks enormous – a huge pixil-ated blog.

    I’m pleased for you – it’s exciting and Casey’s photos are great.

    – Bob

    Comment by Robert N. Adams | February 16, 2008

  3. LMV: I don’t think a democratic vote is a good way to solve tough workplace issues. Voting will only create some unhappy losers and chortling winners.

    The managers and supervisors, or just the managers, should consider the value of these events compared to the problems caused by them, and decide. The nature of the work, number of employees, contact with clientele and customers, and space available for socializing, will all play a part in the decision.

    Perhaps a twice a year event could be planned, so work could be scheduled around it if possible. Or, a celebration could be spread out over lunch times if those are staggered, rather than during work time. Or, every person could get a birthday celebration of equal status, at the beginning or end of shift,so work is not disrupted. (Not easy to do unless there is money available for it, and someone to answer phones and help customers.)

    Here’s my preference: Friends of employees who are having birthdays can go out for lunch with the honoree, or have lunch together in the break room. People who don’t want to celebrate can just say no without being hassled about it, or take their birthdays off.

    I’m not in favor of impromptu food or cakes for birthdays because it sets people apart so much. One day someone has a birthday, but because he or she is not popular with an office clique, nothing is done. The next day someone else has a birthday, and because he or she IS popular with an office clique there’s a big cake and decorations. It’s embarassing and unnecessary. And, if it’s decided to have one day a month for a cake for all birthdays that month, invariably someone’s friend will want to do a cake on that person’s specific birthday as well. What a big mess!!!

    Holiday pot lucks nearly always are uproarious, laborious and distract from work all day. (I can’t think of anything that ends with “ious”, to fit that!) I do not think holiday potlucks have enough value to merit the time and effort on them. Oh yeah…they’re non-meritorious! And many people don’t feel comfortable eating food cooked in someone’s home and brought to the office, then set out where people cough all over it.

    I love to have fun and I don’t mind some very limited office celebrations that all employees pay for. I’m just not in favor of the disruption, odors, cleaning problems, hurt feelings and resentment, complaints about contributing money, and the negative affect on customer service and productivity, that often results.

    Keep in mind that an office can be happy, friendly and productive without any of those social functions, or it can be uncivil, unhappy and unproductive with many such functions. It’s the daily and hourly interactions between supervisors, managers and employees that make a good workplace. Ultimately the issue of social functions at work is a managerial decision that needs to be made at that level.

    Thanks for your very good question and comment! T.

    Comment by Tina | February 16, 2008

  4. Bob: Thank you for your note! You have all the great material you need for a wonderful website, so I hope that comes together soon. I don’t know how many pixels this is, but I picked this Theme just because it is so wide and not the skinny, dark look that so many sites have. I’m having tremendous fun with it…but it’s work! Thanks for commenting! Please do so often!

    Comment by Tina | February 16, 2008

  5. Hi again, Tina! You don’t have to respond to this, because I know you must be a busy woman. I just wanted to thank you for your response to me. Really, it was a lot more than better than I expected. I’m going to take it to work and call the supervisors in and make a decision. Thanks! L.V.

    Comment by LMV | February 17, 2008

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