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Birthdays At The Office - Guaranteed Chaos!

Don't get me wrong, I love birthdays.  At least I used to - before I joined the executive ranks.

In the very old days, when I was just an employee, I looked at birthdays through a completely different filter.  Back then birthdays meant flowers from my sweetie, lunch dates with my friends at work, a sprinkling of cards, maybe a few gifts and of course, the required cake and ice cream, provided by my work associates or management.  Back then my birthday experiences depended heavily upon the company and work setting I was in during my birthdays.

Like everything else, birthdays at work eventually escalated from effortless fun and joy into the dark side of office politics.

How could that be you ask?  After all, how could a joyous event such as a birthday become office politics - the dark side?

Let me tell you, in detail of course.  You know me, not one to mince words.

All of that birthday joy requires things like cake, ice cream, lunch, cards, parties and even gifts.  Who pays for those things?  Does management pay?  Or do the employees?

If the work peers pay, the birthday goody costs have to be shared equally across the board.  If the employees foot the birthday bills, it becomes a free-for-all where you have a variety of challenging options, none of them great.

Option #1 - You have the pass-the-envelope option where it is hoped that all employees in the office birthday pool donate equally.  Do they?  Nope.  It never happens.  Even though people sign their names after they have contributed, the envelope is always short.  Who makes up the difference?  Usually some soft-hearted member of the birthday pool who feels bad that not everyone contributed, or whose birthday is next on the list.  You know who you are.

Option #2 - You also have the set amount option where each employee is required to give a certain fixed birthday fund amount on a constant basis.  As the number of employees added to the birthday pool grows, there will be an inevitable mounting annoyance by some of the pool members.  The mild irritation often morphs into noticeable anger by some of the party pool members who become disgruntled at being required to give a constant contribution to the dreaded "monthly birthday fun".   Some employees begin to openly rebel and refuse to pony up the birthday payments, even though the very same non-paying rebels are first in line for the cake and ice cream.

Of course you also have the employees who refuse to participate in the office birthday pool but are always invited by some other employee who feels bad that they are not included, even though everyone else is footing the bill.

Option #3 - The birthday lunch nightmare.  You can try to go "Dutch" where everyone pays their own bill with each person contributing an additional sum for the birthday boy or girl.  It never works out.  The final bill is always short of money, not to mention the ire of the wait staff at the unfortunate restaurant where you host the birthday lunch.  Some poor sap always has to make up the difference and good luck in getting everyone else back at the office to pony up the missing funds.

Of course there are a variety of additional variables that play into the mix.  Are birthdays celebrated as they occur or limited to monthly events?  The bigger the birthday pool, the more expensive it becomes to do individual birthdays.  Bigger challenges arise.  Are all the employees required to kick in the same amount?  Is it fair for the lowest paid and highest paid employees to contribute equally?

Even more troubling is who is responsible for coordinating the birthday events?  Someone has to collect the money, order the cake, pick up the ice cream and make sure there are candles, napkins, plastic forks and other accessories.  Do you buy a card?  Who makes sure everyone signs it?  The details quickly spiral out of control.

Regardless whether the birthdays are driven by management or by the employees there is always some element of favoritism.  You can't prevent it regardless how much you try. It's a fact of life that some people are liked better than others.  Feelings get hurt, people hold grudges and next thing you know it is effecting the team.

Believe me, I have seen work sabotage over the smallest slights that most people might ignore.  Again, people can become offended over just about everything.

Finally, how much time is lost in the actual employee participation in the birthday events, whether lunches, cake and ice cream fests or other party activities?  Definitely thought provoking.

How do I deal with birthdays at

In the early years when we operated as a small company with limited rules and regulations, we celebrated everyone's birthdays with cake and ice cream in the company kitchen.  Management paid for the celebration but it wasn't a big deal because the company was very small.  The birthday celebrations would occur around 2:00 in the afternoon and everyone would gather to partake of cake, ice cream and offer the appropriate wishes to the birthday person.

As we grew and more people joined, cake and ice cream events grew to include birthday lunches and even Happy Hour parties after work.  Not only did the expense, which covered, rise significantly, but work became progressively more disrupted with each birthday celebration.   Since some team members had to be left behind to answer the phones for customer orders and service issues, hard feelings began to arise amongst the team members.  The bills for the parties also started to mount and rumblings of favoritism were faintly heard.

Eventually I had to take a stand and abolish all "official" birthday celebrations.  That meant no more cake and ice cream, corporate sponsored lunches or Happy Hours.  Yes it may seem harsh but it had become an ongoing Birthday Chaos instead of warm and fuzzy employee events that encouraged team building.

The official policy, along with no obvious tattoos and piercings, became no birthdays during work hours.  If the employees wanted to celebrate on their own lunch hours that was their business even though birthday celebrations were not encouraged.  Cake and ice cream was no longer provided by the company and was not sanctioned as parties in the lunch room.  That minimized the pressure for employees to contribute or participate.

The birthdays went underground and employees did things "unofficially".  Which also caused some hurt feelings since some employees were feted by their peers on their big birthday and others were ignored.  You could see the tension and it was frustrating.

I wish I could tell you the birthday issue had been completely resolved but alas, life is not that easy.  Since I have been told that I should limit my blogging to the drip, drip, drip approach (a little blogging on a more frequent basis), I will cover more on corporate birthday challenges in another edition.

Until then, I will shun all thoughts of cakes with gooey frosting, pouty employees and melting ice cream until another day.  Is there a balanced way to celebrate birthdays at the office?  If you know of a great way to have your cake and eat it to...I am all ears.

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