Illustration: Ashley Siebels
Just how happy is an office birthday?
If your idea of a good time is a store-bought cake and your co-workers wishing you well with a half-hearted and off-key tune, then it’s bound to be a happy birthday indeed.
But if you’re someone who cringes at the thought of being the center of attention or needing to announce your age in front of your colleagues? Well, the undeniable awkwardness of office birthday celebrations might be enough to have you calling in sick on your big day.
Whether you love them or hate them, birthday traditions have been a longstanding fixture in American offices. And, with all of the emphasis on cultivating culture and the numerous stats that highlight the importance of recognition for increasing employee engagement, these mid-afternoon get-togethers likely aren’t going anywhere soon.
So unless you want to foster a reputation as the antisocial grouch who can’t even crack a smile at the sight of free cupcakes, you’re going to need to suck it up and make your best effort to make it through that conference room soiree. Here’s how.
1. Be gracious
As much as you may be tempted to gracefully bow out of your own birthday celebration, it’s really best if you grit your teeth and bear it.
“Realize this is part of the deal in being part of a team,” said Hallie Crawford, a career coach. “Building relationships with others in your office is an important part of your success at work.”
Take a few bites of your cake, paste on a smile, and remind yourself that you only need to be the center of attention for a half hour or so.
“If you are the one being celebrated, it’s your responsibility to behave graciously,” said Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert, author of the newly published book, Modern Etiquette for a Better Life, and founder of The Protocol School of Texas. “Take a deep breath and show up to your party on time. Thank everyone for taking time out of their day to share their time with you.”
2. Don’t feel pressured to talk about your age
Sometimes your co-workers can get to that dreaded “How old are you?” question before you blow out your candles. Whether you’re young or old, many people just aren’t comfortable announcing their age to the people they work with.
If the thought of that question makes you break out into a sweat, what do you do?
“First of all, it’s not polite to ask, Gottsman said. “Secondly, you’re not obligated to answer.”
Fortunately, you can avoid the question without coming off as rude or aggressive. Crawford recommends responding with a smile and a brief, “I’d rather not say.” Or, she said you can even keep things lighthearted and funny by saying something along the lines of, “I’ll never tell.”
3. Be open about dietary restrictions
You might think office birthday parties are uncomfortable enough to begin with. But, you’ll feel even more awkward when Susan from accounting is crying in the bathroom because she didn’t know you had a nut allergy and she made peanut butter cookies as a treat.
As direct as it might feel, it’s more than copacetic to be open with your colleagues about any dietary restrictions you have — ideally, ahead of when your party arrives.
Not only will that save you the embarrassment of needing to decline your own birthday cake, but, it’s also some handy trivia for your co-workers to know for any future potlucks or celebrations.
Refreshing those boring office birthdays
While the free mid-day treats are a nice perk, there are still plenty of people who dread office celebrations — whether they’re the center of attention or not.
“Office birthday parties are equivalent to mandatory fun,” Gottsman said. “When there are several per week or month, it minimizes productivity and people often resent the disruption.”
These events will likely never be retired completely. However, there are a few things employers should consider to increase the chances of employees looking forward to these celebrations — rather than dreading them.
1. Do something spontaneous
Your whole team heads into the conference room at 3 p.m., sings the song, grabs a slice of cake, and then watches the guest of honor open a generic card with a $50 gift card inside. It’s the same party for everybody.
This cookie-cutter approach makes planning celebrations easy, and you assume that the sheer act of recognizing a milestone is enough to keep employees engaged and happy.
But, as it turns out, this could be having the opposite effect.
In his TED Talk, The Puzzle of Motivation, Dan Pink explains that expected rewards are far less effective than those that are unexpected. Basically, when an employee knows exactly what their birthday celebration will look like, it can actually be disheartening — which isn’t the result you’re aiming for.
Even further, doing the exact same thing for everybody makes comparison far too easy. Colleagues can match up everything from the quality of the cake to the number of attendees — which can breed some hostility and hurt feelings.
So, if you have the time and resources, consider doing something spontaneous or personal for people’s birthdays. Keeping people guessing will make the celebrations that much more fun for everybody.
2. Combine celebrations
Especially on larger teams, it can be wise to combine the birthdays for a certain month into one larger scale celebration — which Crawford says takes the pressure off any one person and keeps the time spent on the events to a minimum.
Doing this also gives the opportunity to do something grander and ultimately more enjoyable than a cake in the breakroom — such as planning an outing or happy hour for the whole team.
Getting people out of the office for something fun will increase your chances of transforming birthday celebrations into an event that employees actually look forward to.
3. Consider the timing
Think you can only celebrate employee birthdays with some cupcakes after lunch? Think again. The morning could actually be a more suitable time to light the candles.
“Bring something in for breakfast on the day of the employee’s birthday, so everyone can celebrate quickly and then move onto the workday,” Crawford said.
From bagels to donuts, people are sure to appreciate the morning treat — as well as the opportunity to ease into their days with something more casual and lighthearted.
4. Ask for suggestions
The best (or, at the very least, most tolerable) birthday events will be the ones that employees feel somewhat involved in.
“Be thoughtful of employees and ask for their suggestions at the next staff meeting,” Gottsman said.
So get your coworkers’ opinions on what they want those celebrations to look like, and you’ll significantly decrease the number of eye-rolls you get in response.