Pay Chex

What does your contribution to the office potluck say about you?

In every office, there are those upbeat team players who love getting into the holiday spirit. They wear theme sweaters, festoon their offices with garland and candy canes and play Christmas music on portable CD players. It's usually one of these do-gooders who spearheads the annual office holiday potluck.

After a blitzkrieg of e-mails and interoffice "Hey, gang!" memos promoting the event, I figured I might as well accept the fact that, like death and taxes, our annual office holiday potluck was going to happen. Looked upon with fear and loathing by many, others count down the days to the event as a venue for showcasing their signature dishes.

Originally intending to bring a homemade espresso cheesecake, I was forced into an alternate plan after a series of kitchen mishaps too tedious to go into. I had to settle on the ubiquitous tin of Danish butter cookies (someone always shows up with them), and I readily admit that Walgreen's is not the best place to pick up something that will impress your boss and co-workers. But, pressed for time, it was my only option.

Having attended more than my fair share of office wingdings, I know that you can tell what kind of an employee someone is by what he brings to the event. I believe that human resources people actually monitor holiday parties to gauge the worth of employees. For the most part, we are what we bring to eat.

Aware that my professional reputation was at stake, I sneaked in a few minutes early to unload my tin of cookies without being noticed. I was ready to deny that they were mine ("These? Oh, I think the intern brought them") and lay claim to something fancy should any accusations arise. Mission accomplished, I returned to my office, making a mental note to steer clear of what looked to be a big bowl of foam-rubber pieces coated with mayonnaise and sprinkled with raisins.

Promptly at noon, there was a wild stampede to the lunchroom. The perky woman responsible for putting the whole thing together was wearing a Santa hat.

It's easy to tell the slackers in the office; they showed up with plates, cups and plastic cutlery. Those who volunteered soda and ice are right down there with them. Fear of commitment, inattention to detail, perhaps even a touch of melancholy. Equally suspect but granted a few points for scant creativity are those who brought the popcorn, fudge or premade pies. Any store-bought dessert or sweet is a no-brainer and shows a lack of energy and questionable team-playing. I knew that, professionally speaking, I was a dead man if word got out that I was responsible for the cookies everyone was ignoring.

There is a woman in our office who, without fail, can be counted on to bring deviled eggs. She solemnly entered the room, as though she were cradling the baby Jesus instead of an egg-shaped dish filled with the vile things. People will eat them to be polite, but does anyone ever rush into the room, pushing people out of the way to get at the deviled eggs? No. Still, year after year, as constant as the tide, she brings them. A sign of progressive dementia.

Headed nowhere fast are the employees who show up with Ambrosia salad, green bean casserole, cream-cheese-stuffed celery, crudités or cold-cut platters. None of these people is ever going to set the world on fire with productivity or out-of-the-box creativity.

Naked ambition is easily identifiable in the form of the nine-layer dip, which no one likes but will consume out of respect for the time invested in all those layers. This dip knocks the bipolars and those with ADD out of the ballpark. It will be brought by social climbers and those with obsessive-compulsive disorders. The Eve Harringtons of this world are big on nine-layer dip.

How do you spot someone who is truly driven? Those who bring something that actually needs to be plugged in are headed straight to the top. Your Type-A personalities will monopolize every available electrical outlet with their Crockpots and chafing dishes. These foods are all for show. Exotic things no one can identify, anything with lemongrass or a bed of arugula. Second-tier management often go all-out, imagining their Lobster Thermidor will serve them well come review time.

It is also interesting to contemplate who eats what at a potluck. Some sample selectively, others pile it on. Personally, I will take what is risk-free and go for volume with items I know I like. But you need to watch out for the pushers. I was almost home free until I was spotted by one of our production people: "Hey, you didn't take any of my Prune 'n' Cheez Whiz Christmas Clumps! I insist that I see you eat one and tell me what you think!" These people have low self-esteem and seek validation through freak dishes no one in his right mind would eat. Compensating for a childhood of being picked last for the team in gym class, the underendowed and scrawny of spirit will bring scary dishes, perpetuating the cycle of rejection when no one touches what they brought.

Ever see a co-worker load up entirely on desserts? Closet paranoid schizophrenia or anxiety disorders.

Potlucks have been around for thousands of years, and the psychological strata never changes. When they were passing around the sign-up sheet for the Last Supper, who do you think said, "Yeah, put me down for the plates and goblets"? You guessed it -- Judas. It was John and Peter who brought the good stuff, the stuff that got eaten first.

Think carefully when you make your commitment next year. A bag of tortilla chips and a jar of salsa could be your one-way ticket to the mail room with a red flag on your personnel folder. Make an investment in your future and wow them with something fancy. In the corporate world, you always need to watch your back. When you walk into that holiday potluck next year, be the one whose dish elicits oohs and aahs. Let them pounce on it, fighting over who gets the last serving. You will triumph, your reputation will be made, and you could be on your way to that corner office with the window.

John Roark is a freelance writer and marketing manager who recently forfeited his office with a window to an intern whose specialty is nine-layer dip.

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