I Just Work Here

How to navigate annual Girl Scout office invasion

How we handle cookie sales at work speaks to culture, honesty

Girl Scout sales at work

Girl Scout sales at work (Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune)

I begin this column with a controversial declaration: I, Rex Huppke, America's most-beloved workplace advice columnist, am unabashedly pro-cookie.

Yes, after years of speculation in the conservative workplace blogosphere, I am formally acknowledging that I love cookies, particularly when they are in my mouth.

That admission frees me to speak lovingly of this time of year, when Girl Scout cookie sign-up sheets appear in offices across the country.

I appreciate all cookies, but Girl Scout cookies are my one true love. I can down a sleeve of Thin Mints in the time it takes the average person to Google "how to save someone who is choking on Thin Mints."

And I don't mind my co-workers selling cookies on behalf of their kids. In fact, if every person I work with wanted to sell me Girl Scout cookies, there's a reasonable chance I would cash in my 401(k) and die happy under a mountain of caramel-licious Samoas.

But not everyone is as tolerant of this annual practice. Some feel put upon when a colleague asks them to sign up for a box or two. Some have a difficult time saying "no."

And then there are those who bring in sign-up sheets and get downright territorial when other Do-si-dos dealers muscle in on their turf.

It seems Girl Scout cookie season is a window into how we interact at work and the struggles we have being honest and direct with co-workers.

Brenda Ellington Booth, a clinical professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, said workplace relationships often come with baggage and a "notion of reciprocity or exchange."

"That's where some of the angst comes from," she said. "In a sense, you're using some of your bargaining chips to get someone to buy Girl Scout cookies from your kid. People feel it's OK to ask because of that relationship of exchanges. And then people feel guilty, you get that knot in your stomach where you don't really want to do what the person is asking but you feel like you should because you might need that person later or you might owe them one."

This dynamic, whether it involves cookie sales or rounding up money for a colleague's birthday cake, can rub people the wrong way. They have a reason to not get involved, but guilt or concern over their public reputation pushes them toward involvement.

Technically, it shouldn't have to be this way. I'd like to believe we can be straight shooters with our co-workers, politely accept or decline an offer and then move on with our day.

Booth said the ease with which people can interact honestly with each other is a good measure of a company's culture.

"It really depends on the environment," she said. "Some companies are highly political; other companies are more open and honest. Some are overly nice, where you can't say 'no' to anything. It does point to how good communication is within the organization. If people don't feel free to say 'no' without retribution, that says something about the underlying culture."

Remember, we're talking about more than just cookie sales here. (Though to be honest, I'd rather just be talking about cookies.)

Erina MacGeorge, associate professor of communication at Purdue University, said it's important that people don't let themselves get constantly forced into doing things they don't want to do.

"You have to stand firm in what you regard as the right behavior," she said. "I don't want to sound too much like a self-help book, but in a sense, you have to think through what you are willing to do and not willing to do, draw your own line in the sand and then don't let people drag you across it. Be comfortable with your self and your own choices."

On the flip side, people who ask things of others — whether it's to help out with a work task or to buy candy for a fundraiser — must be able to accept "no" for an answer. And you communicate that by directly telling people that a "no" is acceptable.

Booth said one of her co-workers was selling Girl Scout cookies and sent out a note about the sign-up form that came with a caveat: "If you want to, great. If not, no big deal."

"I knew that he really meant that," Booth said. "If you give me permission to say 'no,' and I know that you're being honest, it's not so hard. Having a deeper relationship with a co-worker makes this much easier."

Honest interactions are the building blocks of deeper, healthier workplace relationships.

"Honesty to others about what you are and aren't willing to do can at least set the stage for honesty in future interactions," MacGeorge said. "Sometimes you really need to say 'no,' so people are not having to constantly read between the lines."

Consider this as you navigate the office Girl Scout cookie pitches. Instead of feeling put off, try a polite and straightforward "No, thanks, not this year." And if you're selling them, don't take a rejection personally.

There's actually more at stake here than just Thin Mints.

And speaking of Thin Mints, I'll take 500 boxes and a funnel.

TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at ijustworkhere@tribune.com, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.

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