I often receive questions regarding the protocol for handling birthday celebrations in an office setting. Depending on the size of your team, you could easily find yourself being offered a slice of birthday cake nearly every afternoon if your company doesn't have a policy in place. Keep reading for my birthday etiquette recommendations.
Q: I work in an office that puts a high priority on birthdays. Many of my coworkers go overboard while I would personally prefer to stay at my desk and work. What's the etiquette on properly approaching the dilemma?
A: A birthday is one of the most obvious and festive of occasions. It is also a way to take a break and share a few minutes of "fun" with your coworkers. This only becomes a challenge when the expectations get out of hand, or the party plans are forced.
Here are my suggestions:
Keep the celebration brief. A once a month gathering at the end of a staff meeting, or right after lunch is manageable. Numerous parties throughout the month become redundant and can cause frustration among peers who are expected to give their time, effort and sometimes money.
Make the contribution(s) anonymous. If you are asking for money towards a gift for your boss, send out an office email and set up a box where people can place a non-obligatory donation.
Buy one card from the entire department. Keep the messages professional and upbeat. I recently heard a story about a note inscribed on a birthday card that referenced a recent divorce and the devastation she must feel, having to get through the birthday "alone" this year. This was an unfortunate choice of words for the happy occasion.
Don't pressure employees who are out of the office to return specifically for the celebration. If someone is on the other side of the city conducting business, it can pose an issue if they must return through rush hour traffic and sing Happy Birthday before circling back out again. Attendance should be optional. However, if you are sitting at your desk, clear your calendar for a few minutes to show your support. Your presence (or absence) will be noted and leave a lasting impression.
Limit the celebration to your specific area. If you work at a large company and don't know or interact with other employees, keep the festivities within your group of associates. While you don't want to omit anyone that would have an interest in participating, if they aren't part of the day-to-day routine, most often they won't miss the invitation to attend.
Combine events. If your office also celebrates significant milestones and professional accomplishments, planning a monthly "special occasion" party may be a reasonable alternative to a singular birthday bash.
Be aware of hurt feelings. If you are planning an out of office birthday get together, be discreet when discussing details in the office. It's not polite to talk about what you will be doing for someone's birthday while excluding one or two people from the event. Organize the private party on your personal time.