Birthdays in the Workplace - What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

  • Posted by: J. Kent Gervasini |
  • 5/7/15 |
  • 3:34 PM
Birthdays in the Workplace - What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Regardless of company size, every organization is faced with the question, how to manage “Birthdays in the Workplace". With more than 36 years' experience providing temporary staffing and conducting direct hire search engagements for our Denver employers, we have had many opportunities to hear, and learn, how clients manage and are challenged with “Birthdays in the Workplace”.

Birthdays in the Workplace – Manage With Care, Thoughtfulness and Consistency
Celebrating “Birthdays in the Workplace” is unique to each organization. If done with respect and professionalism, it may be a great way to recognize your employees and boost morale. On the other hand, it can also upset employees or lead to allegations of unlawful discrimination if not managed with care, thoughtfulness and consistency. Keep in mind, when a company celebrates or announces an employee’s birthday, your company is dealing with Personal Employee Information (PEI), and it should not be used without the employee’s permission.

Does Your Firm Have a “Birthday in the Workplace" Policy?
The answer to the question, “Should birthday celebrations occur in the workplace?" is frequently deliberated by Human Resource Managers of Fortune 100 organizations, CEO's of small to mid-sized companies, and owners of small businesses. In order to ensure consistency, some organizations have developed:

  • Birthday Best Practices
  • A written ”Birthday in the Workplace Policy” or
  • Added 10 more pages to the company’s Employee Handbook to cover the broad topic called, “Etiquette of Office Occasions”, covering events for co-workers to include: birthdays, weddings, baby showers, illnesses, work anniversaries, children’s graduations, retirement, and general co-worker gift giving for occasions not even invented.

Do you really have to go that far? Only you and your organization know the answer to this question.

Who Drives and Administers Your Company’s Birthday Celebrations?
Through the years, in working with our Denver employers we have learned that "Birthdays in the Workplace" events are planned and executed at many levels: staff, supervisory, individual departments, and many times just delegated to the Executive Assistant or Receptionist . Although, the birthday recognition event may be orchestrated with exuberance and good intentions, generally no written policy has been followed that will protect you and your organization.  It may appear that everyone is happy about about the birthday celebration, and also happy to be there. Is that really true? To make sure that your company is not left open to allegations of unlawful discrimination, Denver employers should consider the following:

Don’t - Have an Inconsistent Policy 

  • Celebrating some birthdays while forgetting others hurts morale.
  • Celebrating one staff member’s birthday more than another’s might lead to hurt feelings, awkward situations, and even discrimination suits…this is the workplace of today. 

Don’t - Breach Employee’s Privacy (Misuse of HR Files & PEI)

  • Don’t announce that someone is having a birthday on your company’s intranet or social media sites without first asking the person for permission.
  • If an employee chooses NOT to acknowledge their birthday in the workplace, respect their decision.
  • Some employees are uncomfortable with the attention; others are very private, and some are just embarrassed.
  • Although you may believe that a birthday celebration is a must, some people may have religious reasons for non-participation, or simply do not wish to have their birthdays publicly celebrated.
  • Don’t publicize the year of someone’s birth. It is not illegal, but it is impolite

Don’t – Breach Employee’s Religious or Personal Beliefs – Keep it PG13 or Cleaner

  • You do not want to inadvertently violate an employee’s beliefs. Some religions prohibit the celebration of holidays and other events such as birthdays.
  • Without an employee’s permission, your organization could be open to possible religious discrimination issues.
  • Birthday cards should not have religious, sexual, or other themes that may be offensive to the person receiving the card.
  • What may be humorous or well-intentioned to you, may not be so well-received by the birthday boy or girl.

Don’t - Joke About Age, Write it on a Cake, or Give Out Birthdates

  • Age-related jokes of any kind should not be used in the workplace of today.
  • Language like “Over the Hill” or other age-related jokes could open an employer up for future discrimination charges.
  • HR staff or managers and supervisors should not reveal an employee’s age or birth date; this is a misuse of HR files and PEI.
  • Teasing from co-workers or supervisors about employee’s age before, during, or after a birthday celebration is also off limits.
  • Don’t have the employee's actual age iced onto cakes; or present birthday cards printed with somone's current age.  
  • A date of birth is a key component of identity theft.  Its 2015, anything can happen!
  • Bottom line: Highlighting age in the workplace generally is not in the employer’s best interest.

Don’t - Pressure Employees to Contribute Money

  • Asking employees to contribute money to pitch in for cakes and gifts places many people in an uncomfortable or embarrassing situation.
  • Simply birthday recognition programs should be funded by the employer.
  • Avoid asking employees to contribute money for someone's cake or gift; keep in mind that their budget may be a lot tighter than yours.
  • Once again, regardless of company size, what is your policy or best practice that might protect your organization?

Don’t – Arrange a Birthday Cake (or Any Food) or Birthday Song Without Permission

  • Some offices would prefer that cakes or other food not enter the workplace because of food allergies and their associated problems.
  • Most employers have become aware of food allegies and the problems they present, for example anaphylaxis.
  • Anaphylaxis (pronounced "a-na-fi-LAX-is") is a potentially severe or life-threatening allergic reaction that can occur very quickly—as fast as within a couple of minutes if triggered by an allergy to a particular food (peanuts, bees or shellfish, for example).

Birthdays in the Workplace - Start the Critical Thinking Process
“Is it appropriate to celebrate birthdays in the workplace?”, is a very big question for the 2015 workplace. What could possibly go wrong? As discussed, there are many things to consider, most importantly, protecting your organization. A good place to start for any employer during the onboarding process is to incorporate the question: "May we recognize your birthday?" Although this does not cover a list of best practices, it is a basic and simple way to start the critical thinking process.

The information above does not constitute legal advice.
Employers and corporate entities should consult a Colorado labor or employment attorney with additional questions, or for guidance and more information.

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