Q: What is the general practice regarding birthdays in the workplace? As a manager, I choose to not acknowledge them to avoid jealousy if someone's gets overlooked. Other managers are buying cake every week. What's your take?
A: I was thoroughly amused when I read your question. I have seen many practices, some which employees enjoy and some which employees seem to loathe.
Some of my observations:
- Employees being cajoled and even pressured into “donating” for a gift for the birthday honoree. I am not in favor of this as a practice.
- There is a rotation where each employee takes a turn baking cakes for the birthday celebration. In some offices, this works. However, you could always get someone like me baking your cake. Then, because of my culinary skills, I am not in favor of this as a practice.
- Employees avoiding work on their birthdays because of possible embarrassment associated with a birthday. Think crepe paper, balloons and a decorated cubicle. Some employees adore this attention while others seem irritated by it.
- Employees becoming annoyed that their birthday (or age) is known to others and no one asked them in advance if a celebration was acceptable.
- Some employees enjoy whatever celebration their department has planned and this might include a cake or simply receiving a card signed by colleagues.
I think the smartest approach is to celebrate birthdays once per month. So instead of having a cake on May 5, May 12, May 21 and May 31, perhaps having one cake for all of the May birthdays. I think it is a good idea to ask the birthday honorees before the celebration to ensure that the birthday honorees are ok with all others knowing that they have a birthday in the upcoming month. I have found that some employees are very private and prefer not to be the center of attention during a celebratory event, even if it is just a few colleagues in a conference room. Some companies will circulate a card for all to sign instead of a cake. Some offices would prefer that cakes not enter the workplace because of food allergies. And to keep the attorneys happy, please keep the cake, cards and decorations all PG-13 or cleaner.
I have seen a wide range of how birthdays are handled in the workplace. However, you want to ensure that it does not become the focus of the day and hinder productivity. You also want to make sure that the acknowledgement of the birthday is well-received by the recipient(s).
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Patricia Hunt Sinacole is president of First Beacon Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton. She works with clients across many industries including technology, biotech and medical devices, financial services, and healthcare, and has over 20 years of human resources experience.
Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston and serves on the board of Career Partners International.
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