I don't want to eat cake at work on my birthday!
In a famous Seinfeld episode, Elaine loathes forced work birthday celebrations so much she calls in sick after two cakes in one day. Her attempt to avoid work parties is foiled, however, when a celebration is organised for her on her return to work.
Times have changed since the episode aired in the 1990s. Cost cutting and economic rationalism have changed the face of the office birthday cake. But many firms still see it as an important way to bring the team together and some even give staff a day off on their birthday.
How are birthdays celebrated at your work? Do you love or loathe cakes? Post a comment and let us know.
Marnie Ashe is the human resources representative and head of consulting for Brisbane digital marketing agency Reload Media. The firm has more than 60 staff at various locations around the world and sees celebrations such as birthdays as a way of cementing its culture and making staff happy.
But Ashe says instead of celebrating birthdays as they happen, the business has a cake at the end of each month.
“We dedicate about an hour mid-morning to the celebration, and have a cake to celebrate everyone who had a birthday in that month. Those who have had a birthday pick the cake that they want and the cake is supplied by the company."
According to Ashe, the opportunity to stop work, get together and celebrate helps build morale in the office.
“It allows people to unwind a little from what can sometimes be a stressful job and talk with one another on a personal level. It is another step towards our staff feeling valued, not just for the work they do, but for who they are as people and their greater contributions to the organisation. You can sense the positivity in the office for the rest of the day.”
Reload also gives every staff member a bonus day off on their birthday, or a long weekend if their birthday falls on a weekend.
Says Ashe: “Overall, we see celebrating birthdays as an important part of our corporate culture that also has positive business impacts on productivity and staff retention.”
Stephanie Vilner is launching a social enterprise start-up called partyforacause, which combines parties with fund-raising initiatives.
Like Reload Media, Vilner's current employer celebrates birthdays once a month. “We might have cupcakes, then pizza or Lebanese takeaway. It is held in an outdoor courtyard, so it's seasonal; it might be fish, and ice-cream sorbet, in high summer.”
But her husband personally bakes brownies for his team members on their birthday. “He loves baking and staff enjoy eating the brownies, and the care and attention to each person is evident in the baking.”
When it comes to organising celebrations at work, Vilner says it's all about understanding the individual.
“The group thing once a week or month can work well, but for some people there's nothing worse than having to stand in the office and be the centre of attention and then say something witty.”
She agrees it's a great idea to give people the day off for their birthday. “It can make a huge difference to not do hum-drum stuff on your birthday, when frankly most people would rather be having a leisurely breakfast, shopping with their birthday voucher, or taking a stroll instead.”
But not everyone sees birthday celebrations at work in the same way.
Beth, who would prefer to use her first name only, says individual birthday cakes were only a done thing at one of her workplaces.
"It also had the lowest morale and poorest culture I have ever seen anywhere. They were purchased by the company's founder, who was also a tyrannical manager who had severe mood swings.”
Beth says once the boss had a captive audience, she'd use the time to talk about her personal life, while the staff had to sit there and pretend to be interested.
“She would talk up the company's culture but in reality, she was a bullying micro-manager who only treated her staff well about 1 per cent of the time.”
Ultimately, office celebrations do have a role in giving people a chance to have a break from their work. But there will always be a portion of the workforce who see forced jollity as a waste of their time. It's up to managers to strike a balance between giving people a break and making sure the work gets done.
Tips for office celebrations
• Ask staff their preference when it comes to marking their birthday. Some may not wish to celebrate at work at all.
• Consider offering a healthier option to cake.
• Think about having a celebration once a month rather than for each birthday.
• Define the period of time the celebration will be held in to reduce time staff are not working.
• If there's general agreement staff don't want to acknowledge birthdays, ditch the parties altogether.