Do you organize office birthday parties, plan after-work events, keep a candy dish at your desk, or take notes at every meeting?
If you answered yes to some or all of these, you might be the office mom. And while having an office mom is great for employees who want to feel appreciated or at least get a free sugar rush during the afternoon slump, taking on that role can be fraught with peril.
“The office mom is shorthand for a figure in many offices: the colleague who remembers everyone’s birthdays and brings in cupcakes,” writes Katherine Rosman at The Wall Street Journal. “She has Advil and tissues in her desk drawer. She knows your significant other is all wrong for you—and will say so.”
Rosman continues: “She is often an office manager but can be a senior executive, too. Just as people talk about their “office spouse,” a colleague they spend time with and confide in, the office mom is asserting herself as the matriarch of the office family.”
Sounds nice, right? The trouble is that this role, whether it’s self-assumed or assigned, comes with a lot of potential negative impact on your career. And while “office moms” aren’t necessarily mothers — or even female — women who take on this job may find that it hampers their progress at work.
Why You Should Resist Becoming the Office Mom
1. There’s No Pay for This Position — and Often No Respect
Think back to when you were a teenager. Did you spend much time thinking about how nice it was to have clean clothes, your favorite snacks, or the latest gadgets? Probably not — and if your folks reminded you, they were probably rewarded with a great big eye roll.
The office mom is in the same situation as your dear old mom or dad back in the day. Much of what these folks provide is invisible. People aren’t thinking about who organizes birthday parties and happy hours and makes sure there’s a card or a collection for coworkers’ milestones. They’re focused on their work — understandable, but not helpful to the person who provides those services.
Beyond that, it’s important to recognize that these deliverables aren’t exactly something you can list as achievements on an annual review or a resume. In fact, doing so might actually work against you, especially if you’re female.
2. You Might Be Less Likely to Be Promoted
When’s the last time you heard of someone getting a big promotion because they organized the office Halloween party? The fact is that the types of tasks that usually fall to the office mom are not the ones that help workers climb the corporate ladder. Why? Because while these activities may inspire plenty of good feelings, they don’t generate revenue. They’re “non-promotable” tasks.
What do “non-promotable tasks” look like? At Harvard Business Review, Linda Babcock, Maria P. Recalde and Lise Vesterlund explain:
Although what makes something non-promotable varies across occupations, there is typically agreement within an occupation about what tasks are non-promotable versus promotable. For example, in a survey of 48 Carnegie Mellon faculty, we found that 90% agreed that an assistant professor has a higher chance of promotion if they allocate spare time to research rather than to committee work (like being on the faculty senate). Separately, looking at data from a large public U.S. university, we found that when all 3,271 faculty were asked to volunteer for a faculty senate committee, only 3.7% chose to do so — but 7% of women volunteered, compared with 2.6% of men.
Over the long term, taking on non-revenue generating tasks instead of work that leads to promotion can add up. Currently, women earn 79 cents to every dollar earned by men, in part because they’re less likely to be promoted to leadership roles.
3. It Could Actually Cost You Money
Even before office momming affects your long-term earnings, taking on the role can cost a pretty penny out of pocket.
“It’s one of those things that people don’t realize not only takes up a lot of time outside of work, but also it takes a lot of money,” says Jose Rios Lua, the director of communications in New York City’s special education office, in an interview with InStyle. “You get gifts — and sometimes folks pitch in and sometimes folks don’t — but when you do these kinds of things, cupcakes, snacks, cards, a small gift, that’s another thing that factors into it.”
And then there’s the value of your time. Patti Senese, who holds the work mom role at a corporate pension company in New Jersey, tells InStyle:
Some nights, you get home from work and you’re just exhausted, but I feel like I have committed to doing this, and it’s somebody’s birthday, so I stay up and I do it…. I’ve stayed up until two o’clock in the morning sometimes baking a cake because I don’t want to disappoint everybody.
OK, You’ve Convinced Me, But I’m Already the Cupcake Queen Around Here. What Now?
1. Don’t Volunteer — and Say No When Asked
If you’re already in the habit of organizing office birthdays and providing a shoulder to cry on for stressed-out coworkers, changing your ways will take some practice. Start by reminding yourself that your job description does not include providing event planning and counseling services. (Unless, of course, it does — but then presumably you’re getting paid for that.)
Your first challenge is get comfortable with the silence that ensues when someone asks for volunteers for this or that office-mom task. Then, you’ll likely have to do something even harder: say no when asked directly.
Again, this will feel unnatural at first. Come prepared with a brief reason — “My schedule’s pretty tight this time of year. It might be a better fit for someone who has more time right now.” — and then resist the urge to go on at length.
2. Find Allies
Personal story time: years ago, I had a manager who used to ask female junior staffers — and only female staffers — to call in his lunch order. This escalated to the point where he suggested that a few women in the office give him their personal cell phone so that he could have them stop and get him breakfast on the way to work. (Important note, here: none of these women were his assistant or in support role that typically runs errands of that kind).
Eventually, I enlisted a male coworker to help me change the script. When it was my “turn” in the food rotation, I simply said, “Oh, I think it’s actually Brian’s turn to call in the lunch order, isn’t it?”
“It definitely is,” Brian agreed. “Thanks for the reminder! Where do you want to order from?”
Our manager was flummoxed, but seemed to understand that he couldn’t say he’d prefer a woman to do the food runs. And from then on, we used a rotation system. Never underestimate the value of a good ally.
3. Teach a Man to Fish (or Schedule His Own Appointments)
“If you keep being asked to schedule meetings for the team, offer to show that individual how to do it for themselves,” suggests Alex Wilson at Fairygodboss. “Make sure to phrase it professionally: ‘How about we do this together, so you can do this on your own?’ It’s okay to hold your ground here. If the person says no, you can wait to do this task until they’re willing to do this task with you.”
As infuriating as it is, you will still have to be diplomatic. You want to fix the problem, but it’s also important that you don’t suffer professional consequences while sorting it out. It may be helpful to remind yourself that you’re in the right here — and that the work you’re doing will make your workplace a better, fairer place for everyone.
What to Do When You’re the Manager
Finally, you won’t always be in the position you’re in now. Whether you find a new job or get promoted at your old one, you may accumulate power as you move forward in your career. If and when you do, don’t forget the folks behind you on the ladder. Use your position to change the situation.
“…it shouldn’t, and can’t, be all on women to change office dynamics on their own,” writes Alicia Adamczyk at Lifehacker. “If you’re a manager, pay attention to whom you’re asking to do what, and who volunteers to do what, at the office. And if you’re a dude who cares, offer to take the notes during the next meeting or talk to your boss yourself if you notice there’s a problem.”
Tell Us What You Think
Have you found yourself in the role of the office mom? We want to hear from you. Share your story in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.