You Don’t Get Office Birthday Cake Over Zoom, Sorry

Send questions about the office, money, careers and work-life balance to workfriend@nytimes.com. Include your name and location, or a request to remain anonymous. Letters may be edited.

For many years, I have participated in regular team meetings by phone or video conference because my work location is more than three hours from our regional office. At a recent meeting, my colleagues were assembled in the conference room. I was surprised to see members of another team walk into the conference room. One of them was carrying a cake. The individual with the cake announced that they were celebrating the birthdays of two colleagues, one on their team and one on my team.

My colleagues proceeded to enjoy the cake and socialize, while I looked on. At one point, someone jokingly asked if they should describe the cake to me since I wasn’t able to have any. I muttered “no” and busied myself with looking at email until my colleagues were done with the cake. At that point, the other team left, and my team proceeded with our meeting.

This was the first such gathering where there has been a birthday celebration. It was very awkward to watch my colleagues celebrating and I felt excluded. I am planning on talking to my boss about this and am going to propose that birthday celebrations take place outside of our team meetings. What do you think?

— Anonymous

I understand feeling awkward and left out of a birthday celebration because you attended this meeting remotely, but it has only happened once in many years. Is it really something you need to discuss with your boss? Pick your battles. This is the kind of thing you bring to your friends and your group chat. Regardless, I don’t want to ignore your feeling excluded. One of the liabilities of remote work is missing out on the collegiality of sharing an office — socializing, celebrations, impromptu collaborations and the like. Some people are fine with that obligation, but perhaps you are not.

If you want to say something, you can certainly propose birthday celebrations taking place outside of team meetings. You could also ask your team to give you a heads up when such celebrations will take place so you can join team meetings after the cake cutting. I, personally, wouldn’t do anything but I’m not particularly bothered by such things. Any time I can turn my camera off in a meeting and pay attention to something that actually interests me is a good time.

For the last five years, I’ve been fortunate enough to have remote employment but I’m looking for a better paying job. After the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, I won’t apply to work for any company whose office is based in a state that prohibits reproductive freedom. But I’d also like to narrow my search to companies that do not contribute to candidates that oppose reproductive rights. I think political donations are public record, but it’s not easy to find. Assuming I am interviewed, is it a bad idea to ask about the company’s political stance?

— Mary, Pennsylvania

Many of us want to work for companies and organizations whose values ​​align with ours. In the corporate world, that is much harder to do. Many companies support candidates from both political parties if it will, in some way, benefit their bottom line. That said, Open Secrets, a research group that tracks political spending, shares information about corporate donations that could be useful in your job search.

It is not a bad idea to want and ask for a complete understanding of a company where you want to work. It’s commendable, really. But how many companies would view it as such? If you want to live your values ​​fully, asking difficult questions will get you answers, but those answers may come at a cost. As an aside, most companies work against the interests of women in one way or another. If you want to think more expansively about equitable workplaces, you also want to consider parental leave policies, pay ratios across the gender spectrum, commitment to work/life balance and everything that contributes to a healthy professional environment.


I work with a small community-run organization that is queer, trans, environmentalist and holds what we describe as liberatory politics. Sometimes I craft a thoughtful email to our mailing list about an event or issue and get back a bunch of one-line responses like: Why don’t you give your entire budget to unhoused trans people instead? Instead of doing this event you should rematriate all of your resources to the first peoples of this land! Why isn’t there any transparency about issue XYZ that was not at all the subject of the email?

I’m not quite sure what to do with these emails. While they reference causes, ideologies and practices I support, they also fail to recognize the mission, needs and realities of our particular organization. These notes use up quite a bit of emotional energy, and not in a way I find useful and productive. I think of these emails as a form of lateral queer cultural trauma. It feels misplaced, projected and in bad faith. Instead of yelling at some evil tech lord, they are directing their rant at a multiply-marginalized member of their own community. I don’t believe they are truly attempting to enter into conversation with me or the organization with which I work. Sometimes it feels almost hateful, an attempt to destroy a target to which they can actually gain access.

Or maybe I’m just tone policing, being thin-skinned, defensive and deflective. I don’t know, so I’m asking for your advice regarding how to respond.

— LN, San Francisco

In progressive spaces, it often seems like the goal posts are always moving, that there’s nothing we can do that’s ever good enough. This is largely because there is so much at stake for the most vulnerable among us. There is more need than resources to address that need. Relentless activism is how most meaningful change has ever happened. And as recent events have shown us, when we aren’t relentless, we lose precious ground.

You’re not tone policing. You’re frustrated because you’re doing good work, with the best of intentions, and want that effort recognized by the communities of which you are a part. There are few things more painful than being criticized by people with whom you share affinities. Those critiques can, when well-intentioned, be productive and contribute to a positive change. This is not that.

As you note, when people respond with off-topic one liners, they are not engaging in good faith. They aren’t being hateful. They don’t have bad intentions but they’re doing the easiest possible thing to feel like they’re making a difference. Ignore these emails. They have nothing to do with you or your work. They are sent by people who want to share an opinion and know that if anyone will listen, it’s likely to be someone like you. This is likely linked to cultural trauma, but that is an explanation, not an excuse.

People who are multiply-marginalized are usually contending with the constancy of tyranny. They are intimately aware of the work still to be done to address inequity and bigotry. It’s hard to appreciate progress because so much of it is incremental. But you are only one person at one organization with a specific mission. You cannot nor should not be everything to everyone. And not every email requires a response. Delete and continue your good work.

Several of my friends burned out during the height of the Covid pandemic. They either left their jobs or stopped looking for work because, emotionally, they simply couldn’t cope with it all. How does someone explain that gap in a résumé?

Most people don’t work at companies that offer generous leave or resources for mental health care so all too often, the only choice we have is to quit our jobs, if we can afford to. The best thing about taking extended time off is being able to replenish emotional reserves until you can find a way back into the workplace. The most challenging thing is finding the best way to explain the employment gaps.

The most important thing your friends can do is acknowledge and explain employment gaps in a cover letter and, when the time comes, during the interview process. People with résumé gaps don’t have to share very personal reasons they stepped away from their professional lives, but they do need to account for that time in some way.

If, during an employment gap you started a business or went back to school or engaged in some other form of professional development, talk about that. If you focus on raising children, or cared for sick relatives, share that information. If you took time off and played video games or learned to knit or gardened or otherwise cared for yourself in ways employers might not value, be creative in your explanation without lying.

Employers mostly care about gaps because they want to trust that a new employee will be reliable and a worthy investment. Figuring out how to effectively explain these gaps will help demonstrate that taking time off from work is not synonymous with being unreliable. Frankly, when you reach your emotional limit, taking time off is a pretty responsible thing to do. We are human. We get burned out and need time off. This is neither weakness nor failure.

Roxane Gay is the author, most recently, of “Hunger” and a contributing opinion writer. Write to her at workfriend@nytimes.com.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.