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In the company I work at (more than 200 employees), it's customary to buy cakes for everyone when it is your birthday. This is all but an explicitly stated requirement -- it's taken very seriously. Although they can't fire me for noncompliance, I would really like to avoid annoying my boss significantly over this.

The problem I have with this is, as an apprentice, I earn only about a third of minimum wage (this is legal where I live), so last year, buying even cheap cakes for everybody (for which I got some dirty looks, too) was about a month's worth of my salary after bills. I can't bake my own cakes because my apartment doesn't have an oven. I'm the only apprentice here, so I don't know what others do.

How can I make the case that I can't/shouldn't follow this tradition without severely annoying everybody? Asking for extra compensation is out of the question -- they'll never pay me more then they're legally required to. We don't have HR people.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Jul 15 '16 at 14:34
  • Just to clarify: Are you sure the cake is always for everyone? I have seen quite some workplaces with a culture of bringing cake for your birthday, but it was always restricted to having enough cake for your immediate team, with the rest of the company getting some cake only if they were lucky enough to be there in time. – O. R. Mapper Jul 17 '16 at 11:44
  • Are you sure you are not being pranked - hence the dirty looks. In over 20 years working in Germany I have never heard of such a thing (it is generally considered nice if you do it for your team, but only if you want to). But I have heard a lot of really harsh pranks played on Apprentices. "Lehrjahre sind keine Herrenjahren" as they say... – Daniel Jul 13 '17 at 11:15
  • Also, when do you work? there are only 250 working days in a year, so you eat cake and celebrate 4 in 5 days? – Daniel Jul 13 '17 at 11:19
  • 200 employees ... no HR. I'd be looking at an escape route. – mcalex Sep 5 '17 at 8:28

10 Answers 10

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Working for a Germany company, I am surprised that you are included in this. Normally, trainees should be exempt from anything that costs private money, because everyone knows they don't earn much money.

With 200 people, you are basically guaranteed a free breakfast every day. You could easily be eating as much cake all year as you bring yourself once a year. Now your budget does not account for eating cake every day, but it's not as much cost as the plain bill could make you think. You get a lot in return. As with all expenditures, plan in advance and save some money.

You could ask your direct supervisor, who will know exactly that you cannot afford that kind of money how you should handle this. Chances are he will realize this is a hefty cut in an Azubis'1 paycheck and make room for an exception.

If possible, you could find somebody close to your birthday and split the bill with him, doing a double birthday celebration. If you both bring 60% of the cost, 120% will be more cake than anybody can eat.

Another option is to find a cheaper alternative. Maybe if your birthday is in the summer, Icecream for 200 people bought in bulk might be cheaper than cake.

Or bring a waffle iron and make waffles there. Ingredients are dirt cheap, but having a waffle fresh off the waffle iron goes a long way to make it memorable.

Alternatively, there is a lot you can do to make it cheaper.

  • Don't buy cake, make it yourself.
  • Put up some nice decorations

If you make the cake yourself, you can easily come up with about 100€ for 200 people. It does take a lot of time though. It does not take as much skill as people would like you to believe. Grab an easy recipe and try it a few times before the big day. Personally, I do Brownies. Take your time on the weekend and you should be set.

Nice decorations are cheap and don't feed hungry colleagues, but they do show that you care. It's a completely different feeling if you are going for a second piece and there is an empty box on a nicely decorated table versus an empty box on a plain table. You cannot really be angry at someone who cared. After all it's not your fault it's all gone, you did not eat it, they did.

And as a last resort... you could take the week off. Maybe they'll forget.


1 - Short for Auszubildender, an apprentice or trainee.

  • 27
    Good point. Ask your manager whether this social obligation extends to trainees and interns – keshlam Jul 14 '16 at 16:06
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    Good advice all around. I just want to warn against waffles. I can guarantee that your co-workers will not get "a waffle fresh of the waffle iron" if you're trying to serve 200 people single handedly. – Buhb Jul 14 '16 at 21:54
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    You should go ask your local bakeries for a price as you are buying a lot of cakes! Ask for simple cakes so it's going to be cheaper yet better than industrial stuff, and ask in advance too. – Shautieh Jul 15 '16 at 3:33
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    "Kalter Hund" cake can also be done without an oven ;) – Noldor130884 Jul 15 '16 at 9:42
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    Sorry but I find this answer ridiculous. Planning in advance, learning to bake, training beforehand to get it right... ? Such a hassle! Come on! This worker is under no obligation to get into this kind of trouble if he doesn't feel like. I know I would never do that, and it's not just about the money. I personally don't eat other people's sweets so I don't feel obligued to bring my own. – Livingstone Jul 15 '16 at 14:24
73

Don't do it. It's obvious that you can't afford to feed 200 people. If someone is annoyed about that, it's their problem. Endure the "dirty looks". Avoid eating other people's cakes.

If you're sure your boss will care, inform him beforehand and explain your situation. Of course, you have to be very polite, but you don't need his permission, so don't ask for it.

You can, of course, go for some symbolic gesture you can afford. But sometimes "nothing" is better than a bad compromise. If you do bring something, a good trick is to have a cake you can split into very small pieces. People eat cake for the taste or for social reasons, not because they're hungry.

It is very possible that you overestimate your colleagues' expectations of you. As others have written, it would be natural to expect a smaller contribution from Azubis. People may be fond of these workplace traditions, but only if the cost is negligible. Since this is obviously not the case for you, they might disapprove less than you think.

You write you got "dirty looks" for buying cheap cake. Are you sure you didn't get surprised looks for buying (instead of making) cake at all? I have worked in a similar environment. People would expect you to bake a few cakes, but would declare you mad if you bought one, since everybody knows how expensive that is.

  • 6
    Excellent answer Stefan, welcome to the site. You raise some excellent point and "you don't need his permission' is definitely an important one. – Lilienthal Jul 15 '16 at 10:06
  • I'm in a similar situation. Even if I can afford the cake, I simply ignore the "tradition". – user27051 Jul 16 '16 at 7:24
  • Good answer. It's just a job; something you do for the money. If it costs you money to work there, what's the point. You'll be working somewhere else in a few years. Looking back, are you going to regret not having spent more money buying the people who were temporarily your colleagues lots of cakes? – bye Jul 16 '16 at 7:50
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I'm a UK resident, but previously spent a placement year working in Germany -the particularly traditional Franconia no less - as a placement student, so I can offer you my experience and the observations I made from the other placement students around me.

  1. The Select Few: I was fortunate enough to have a relatively small team in my office, and with 10-14 to us in on any day, it was fine to provide cake for them only, despite other offices being close by and who occasionally offered us treats. Consider only having enough cake for your direct colleagues, rather than the whole work force.
  2. Cheaper Premade Options:I also lacked a functional oven. After a failed attempt at making cakes on my birthday (that's when I found out how dysfunctional the oven was!) I went looking for better options. Der Bach was expected €10-30 a cake, which was way too much, so instead I visited Lidl. They have gateus and cheesecakes available for around €2-4, big enough to comfortably provide for at least 10.
  3. The Other Options:Don't limit yourself to cake. Amongst other things, we had fruit baskets, doughnuts, Weißwurst & Pretzels (sadly without beer), and sandwiches provided for us on a birthday or celebration. The tradition as far as I'm aware is that you should be treating others on the day of your birthday, not specifically with cake. The above options may all well work out easier and cheaper to produce than cake.
  4. Listen to the other answers: No point repeating some of the points already made, but teaming up with a colleague celebrating soon as well, talking to your boss, or just accepting that a few of your colleagues might be a tiny bit disgruntled if you provide nothing are all options. Although it may sour some relationships, no manager or business worth working for would ever hold it against you in any reasonable way. You might just be last on the list getting told next time there's some cake left after an executive's meeting!
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You really can't avoid it. I've been in the same boat, but the corporate culture is the corporate culture. It's like those "optional" outside functions that are really mandatory. They can't force compliance but when there's an opportunity to ding you down the road for some minor infraction that they can blow out of proportion they will.

It is not right. It is not just. It is not fair. It is however, fact.

The only thing I can suggest is to find some way to prepare for the expenditure.

Oh, and it doesn't go away as you rise the corporate ladder. I worked for one company where, if a person at a VP level or higher wasn't donating tens of thousands of dollars to charity, their promotion chances were nil. Their chances of having a need to find new employment, however, were rather high.

If it's the corporate culture, your individual needs or hardships mean nothing. I know, this is kind of saying "tough, suck it up", but it is a reality that we all have to deal with.

Edited to add: To survive this period in your life, you need to be creative. Borrow if you need to, ask a coworker, freelance, sell things, do whatever you need to (legally) do to survive and get through this. It's rough, but I think it will harden you for the difficulties later in life that will make this seem trivial.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Jul 15 '16 at 11:12
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So why can't you just get a holiday/day-off that day ? You should be having some holiday days, and it would be bad on their side to ASK you for cakes the day after ... I doubt if it's been someone's birthday on Sunday, you all had cakes on Monday ?

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    It's indeed a tradition to bring cake some time after if not on your birthday. After the weekend, after the public holiday, after your holidays... – nvoigt Jul 14 '16 at 15:25
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    While it's a nice idea, in cultures where people bring in stuff for birthdays you will absolutely be expected to bring stuff in on Monday. Even a two-week holiday won't generally save you from this, though it's more likely to go unnoticed then. – Lilienthal Jul 14 '16 at 15:25
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Buy a couple of large rectangular sponge cakes with icing. These can easily yield 30 (small) slices each. Put them in the kitchen, provide some paper plates and plastic knives, and start cutting off some small slices as examples. Send an email to everyone: "It's my birthday so cakes are in the kitchen .." When it runs out it's not clear how much you provided.

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Since not participating could spoil you the time you have left of your training I can understand that you don't just want to sit it out or refuse it.

As a trainee you are dependend of the goodwill of your colleagues - or else they teach you only the bare minimum. So while I agree with the already given advice for fully educated employees, I would be cautious with skipping the cake or taking holyday and then 'forgetting' it - as a trainee.

As a trainee in Germany you have to have a assigned trainer. If they are the sort of person you can talk to - I would ask for an alternative way: like only bringing cake for your team, making coffee for all on that day or bring (garden) flowers for the kitchen table.

If thats not feasible, reduce the portion size:

  • if you get your hands on an oven - you could bake cookies instead
  • bring sweets instead of cakes - caramels are quite easy to make and cheap
  • if it doesn't have to be something sweet, peanuts or other snacks like roasted bread are yummy too :)
  • Talking to the Ausbilder is a very good idea. Unfortunately that's an assigned HR person way more often than an actual IT person in the same department. – simbabque Jul 16 '16 at 20:30
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What your colleagues don't know can't harm them.

You don't need to tell anyone it's your birthday, hence there is no pressure to provide cake. In a company of 200 people, there should be plenty of distractions (cake and otherwise) so that nobody will notice that you skipped the cake tradition.

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    We have a general registry reference (list of people that work there) that includes birthdays. Last year, they all knew without me telling them. – mag Jul 14 '16 at 14:19
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    @Magisch: I understand that my employer has my date of birth, address etc. but I would find it strange if someone looked that detail up to say 'Ha! It's WorkerWithoutACause's birthday! He should bring in cake!' – WorkerWithoutACause Jul 14 '16 at 14:21
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    @Magisch: Our company has a policy of emailing out birthday congratulations (so similar to yours). I don't celebrate my birthday through a personal choice, so I politely told them not to do so. There are several religions, such as Jehovahs Witnesses, where birthdays are not celebrated. – PeteCon Jul 14 '16 at 15:20
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    @Pete That sounds like it could almost be a solution. – Joe Jul 14 '16 at 19:29
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    @Magisch Is that list public? Isn't that a privacy violation in Germany? The German company I work for goes into fits if I put "I'm on holiday" or "on sick-leave" in my Out-of-Office email message. This is even worse than that. – Tonny Jul 14 '16 at 19:30
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The key point here is:

If you take something, you also got to give something back.

However, since you wrote in one of your comments, that you never eat whatever is brought by your coworkers, I do not see any obligation for you to join the club and bring cake yourself.

For me, this principle applies to various stuff in the workplace:

  • For instance I do not make office coffee, as I do not drink office coffee.
  • For instance I do not put anyones dishes into the dishwasher (or clear it out) as I never use office dishes -- well, I sometimes use a sharp knife to cut an apple into pieces, but this I clean immediately, so it is available again to others.

For the specific case of birthday cake: I rarely ever eat sweets or cakes, so I am almost out of this one, too. However, some people bring more savoury, healthy stuff instead of cake. I occasionally eat some of this, so I for sure also bring something for when it is my birthday. Where something means that it probably is not enough for everyone but way more than I took during a year. I just bring whatever I think would fit, such as two baking sheets worth of food.

As a side note: I also did this as intern, but I did not really have money issues.

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Take the week off around your birthday! Just taking that day might be a bit conspicuous, but if 200 people are bringing in cake every year, they are hardly going to notice one missing cake...

  • 1
    Wasting one fourth of you yearly Holidays around a stupid tradition seem a bit over the top. – Daniel Jul 13 '17 at 11:06

protected by Jane S Jul 15 '16 at 12:53

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