Cry if you want to: your birthday party is an unwritten job requirement

Most companies have a birthday celebration policy. Sometimes it’s written. Sometimes it isn’t. Internet searches reveal hundreds of blog posts with recommendations on how to recognize employees on their special day. But none describe the reality of it.

Out of all the workplace irritations, some would say it creates the most conflict and disharmony. It isn’t the non-handwashers, the bathroom cell phone users, the fridge lunch stealers. Not the slacker Facebook addicts, nor the microwave popcorn burners. It’s birthdays.

Smaller companies may put them in their blog. Larger companies leave it to each department’s discretion. Some employees may receive a hand-signed card from the boss. (If any company still does this, I’m impressed.)

Whatever the process, it can be regarded as a burden. And many times, employees have no say in it.

You’ll have a birthday party, and you’ll like it, or else

In a former position, one of my monthly duties was to post a birthday list in the break room. The department didn’t experience much turnover, so this wasn’t too laborious. I’d just throw on some month-appropriate clip art and zap it to the color printer.

The challenge involved dealing with the birthday Grinches. Admittedly, I’m one of these.

One employee was adamant that her birthday NOT be publicized. I was warned by numerous coworkers: “Do not, under any circumstances, put Lavinia’s birthday on the poster!” Since I was new, I took this information very seriously.

As the birthday sign creator, you would think I had some control over publicizing my OWN birthday. You would be wrong. I purposefully omitted mine. A mischievous coworker wrote it on the bottom of the sign, much to my consternation. I had to admit defeat.

In February, there were no birthdays. When I was admonished for failing to create a sign and explained why, I asked, “Should we have a ‘NO BIRTHDAYS THIS MONTH’ sign?”

For those who thought they could beat the system by scheduling vacation on their birthday: no dice. Someone would see to it that your birthday was celebrated anyway.

It takes the office village to create a wonderful birthday

For a time, our department purchased managers’ birthday cakes from the in-house cafeteria. This freed the managers’ teams from feeling encumbered to buy anything for them.

After a department merger, incoming managers expressed discomfort at having their cakes purchased by the company. I admired their thriftiness. It was, after all, a finance department! The decision was made: no more company-provided manager cakes, but we’d provide cards.

The “old-school” managers protested. They didn’t want their employees feeling obligated to purchase and organize their birthday celebrations. Nor did they want to feel obligated to do it for their fellow managers.

Though not everyone was pleased with the new policy, we stuck with it. The department director would treat each manager to lunch for their birthday. And if their staff wanted to do something for them, that was their decision.

What about everybody else? They were constantly at odds over what to do.

Some groups tried relentlessly to develop a policy. One floated the idea of starting a monthly birthday kitty. This was promptly shot down. Who wants to contribute to something from which one might never reap the benefits? Our company was constantly downsizing.

Larger groups had it easier, since the tasks and costs could be spread out more thinly. These groups were notorious for assembling elaborate potlucks. Smaller groups had a more difficult task. One or two people, who at some point offered to make a cake, now were the designated bakers.

As the constant birthday Grinch, I repeatedly pointed out that we could save headaches, money and calories by getting rid of birthday celebrations altogether. This fell on deaf ears.

The Birthday Bullies

Birthday bullies can be either the party organizers or the person whose birthday is being celebrated. Either way, they coerce others into their birthday madness and no one is immune.

I had to calm a very angry coworker down who was forced to contribute to a celebration for a “lone wolf” — a person who had no department members. The birthday bullies insisted the lone wolf’s boss should at least get a card, and others should pitch in for goodies.

Sometimes the birthday person is the bully. When asked what kind of cake they would like, some have no qualms asking for an expensive ice cream cake or a special-order gluten-free carrot cake with with lactose-free, sugar-free frosting, and will respond with, “But it’s my birthday and I should have what I want!”

The “surprise” party: you’re needed in Conference Room A

In office birthday parties, there is no surprise. Yet the group is forced to pretend there is one, and the birthday person pretends they are surprised. How many times must someone be called to an emergency meeting or sidelined into a conference room where the group is waiting to humiliate them? The funnier scenario occurs when the person actually IS called into a meeting and the department comes to a standstill, waiting for the birthday honoree to finally appear.

The only real surprise I’ve ever witnessed at an office birthday party occurred when a singing telegram arrived. As we all gathered in a circle to listen, a swarm of police entered our lobby with guns drawn. A bank had just been robbed across the street and it appeared we were being held captive by the crooks-on-the-lam.

The sheer discomfort everyone experiences during these gatherings cannot be overstated. Sometimes, the boss will step forward to publicly acknowledge the birthday honoree. Many do this with genuine kindness. Others use it to make sure the department knows who’s in charge.

Sometimes, employees do attempt to really make celebrations of office birthdays: the one who always starts the singing, or who ends the singing with a cheerleader kick. These people deserve some credit.

Outside of those who find the office birthday party an exercise in humiliation and a waste of time, there are those who welcome the opportunity to get away from work. While most will gulp down their cake and heed a speedy exit from the gathering, the usual suspects linger, asking for a second piece of cake or offering to take the leftovers home if the birthday person doesn’t want them.

The ladies

Some would say, “Don’t even go there,” but it has to be said. When it comes to birthday celebrations, female employees take up the burden. Males will remember the birthday, but in most cases, they will designate the details to a female, even if it’s a manager on their same level.

Younger female executives who weren’t raised to cater to the men often are derided by the older females who are used to handling the domestic chore of office birthdays. I’ve seen disgruntled older women grouse as the younger ladies left the birthday party to get back to work before the cleanup started.

The “Office Space” scene, in which a group awkwardly gathers around to sing and the male manager hands the knife to a female to finish cutting the cake, is exquisitely true-to-life.

The HR dark cloud

Under no circumstances should a birthday honoree’s age ever be revealed, and especially NOT if HR works on the same floor. A group that spends a good amount of time after hours hanging black banners and balloons emblazoned with “Happy 50th!” should not be surprised when they’re asked by HR to remove them, even if the birthday honoree is not offended.

The solution

Birthdays just create too much discontent in the office and few are ever completely happy with the outcome. There is no way to know how much productivity is lost due to office birthday party planning. My favorite birthday celebration compromise: if someone wants their birthday celebrated at work, they should provide the cake.

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