Who else finds office birthday celebrations awkward?

Chloe Hava


written on October 6, 2017

Everyone likes cake right? Maybe not. HRM talks to birthday guru Jo Power about ‘awkward cake culture’ and alternative ways to mark the occasion.

I don’t know about you, but I get pretty awkward around birthday time. There are different personality types in every workplace, so it shouldn’t be assumed that everyone enjoys having  their birthday loudly celebrated in front of the whole office. Nor should we assume that employees want to be eating several slices of cake per week in honour of the day they entered this world kicking and screaming.

According to Jo Power, birthday podcaster and founder of Things by Bean, these are the two main complaints about office birthday celebrations. Power says 68 per cent of Australians are eating cakes and biscuits daily, and this gorging is primarily taking place within a work context. What’s more, says Power, if you don’t participate in the ritual cake devouring, it appears as though you’re not a team player, or a bit of a killjoy.

Although some people love nothing more than basking in the attention and momentary adoration of their colleagues, for others, myself included, it is the stuff of nightmares. Power recounts a horrifying tale where an introverted employee who returned to the office from lunch was surprised by the entire office singing him happy birthday and presenting him with a cake. The employee was so taken aback and uncomfortable that he turned on his heel and walked back out. He was mortified, and staying put was simply too much for him to handle.

Foolproof ways to celebrate

Power recommends checking with employees during their onboarding what they are comfortable with and how they prefer to mark the occasion. That way, no one need feel awkward and embarrassed, or the hosts dejected.

For those who prefer to fly under the radar, Power suggests going with a low key alternative to boisterous cake parades, one that is focussed on the birthday person. “You can’t go wrong with a personalised treat on the birthday person’s desk plus a card. It also alleviates the pressure for everyone in the office to constantly eat cake.”

Birthday protocol

The approach to birthday celebrations varies per organisation. The most common, says Power, is when a few colleagues organise a cake or a lunch for the birthday person independently and encourage others to participate.

Others allocate one day per month to cover everyone’s birthday who falls into that period. Power thinks this is the optimum. The glory and embarrassment is shared, the cake eating kept to a minimum and it’s much easier for management to organise.

Powers’ favourite example of celebrating workplace birthdays is marking a day off per year where there’s tonnes of treats, fun and activities for the whole office.

When it comes to gift giving, Power says it should be up to management to fork out for the present if they want to go down that route, otherwise employees can end up shelling out a fair amount of money and become resentful, which is the last thing you want on someone’s birthday.

Most importantly, you want people to have an enjoyable day, so think twice before you crack out the cake and off-key tunes.

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4 thoughts on “Who else finds office birthday celebrations awkward?

  1. Some people simply do no want to celebrate birthdays. In such cases it’s not true to say, “You can’t go wrong with a personalised treat on the birthday person’s desk plus a card.”

    A few Christians identify the celebration as pagan rooted, connected to magic and superstition.

    Ancient Romans zealously celebrated birthdays with hedonistic parties and generous gifts. John the Baptist was  beheaded during one such birthday celebration. Although birthdays were a common Roman ritual, the Bible does not say that Jesus celebrated his.

    Modern workplaces can think of better things to celebrate, like teamwork.

  2. It’s a pretty sad day when you can’t do something innocuous as celebrating a birthday.

    If someone can’t handle having happy birthday sung to them, you have to wonder how they handle other similar “high pressure” situations at work and perhaps even coming to work in the first place!

    1. Ralph,

      I’m more inclined to suggest that people who can’t handle other people not wanting their birthday acknowledged should themselves think about whether a work place is for them…

  3. Consider that birthdays may be upsetting for some – I know of several people who were adopted and their birthday signifies abandonment. Whilst you can’t capture all sensitivities, it’s a great opportunity to get creative – ask staff how they want to celebrate. Having an open discussion is a way of bringing awareness that not everyone likes the same thing.

    There’s also the issue of conflicting messages: you may have weekly birthday cake and at the same time, pride yourself on a robust Health & Wellness program… hmm. For example, spending $300 per month on cake (yes, $300!) and not subsidising flu shots sends the wrong message.

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