Q: Dear Workplace Wonda, as an office we celebrate staff birthdays. It used to be that everyone chipped in for a card and cake. Then, it became a card, cake, and pizza. Then, it was taking the person out for lunch as a group. Now, it has grown to some staff members giving personal gifts during the birthday celebration. I feel that personal gifts should be saved for after work gatherings instead of during the office celebration. It becomes very awkward when some employees can’t afford, or don’t want to buy, a birthday gift for the individual. What do you do?
Signed, All Partied Out
A: Dear All Partied Out, I love birthdays! As a matter of fact, Workplace Wonda just recently celebrated a birthday of her own. Thank you for asking. I don’t want to brag, but I was spoiled rotten by my co-workers. You would have thought that Princess Diana had risen from the dead and was dropping by my office on her way across the pond. Happy Birthday signs were everywhere, including my computer monitor! Do you know how difficult it is to work when you have a Happy Birthday sign covering your entire monitor? I didn’t care. I felt like Queen for a Day! Lunch, gifts, it was a never-ending day of celebration and it was all about ME! But, what was wonderful and great in my small, close-knit office, might not be the same for others who work in larger offices that seem to be celebrating someone’s birthday every other day.
So, what is proper etiquette for gift-giving and birthday celebrations in the workplace? It can be tricky. We typically spend more time with our co-workers than our own family members, so why wouldn’t they deserve a inflatable jump house and a piñata? Well, for one thing, amount of time spent doesn’t always equate to deep, meaningful friendships that warrant gift-giving. Second, unless you are a member of the Duggar family from the reality show, "19 kids and Counting," you could potentially have more people celebrating birthdays at work than at home. Buying gifts for everyone could deplete your bank account faster than Father Time is stealing my youth.
To Gift Give or Not to Gift Give, That is the Question
The answer is... it's up to you. If you have a friendly relationship with your co-worker, a gift is a nice gesture that would probably be appreciated.. If you do not know the employee well, or let's be honest...don't like him or her, then NOT giving a gift is appropriate too. If you choose to bestow a lovely gift upon the celebrating birthday boy or girl, I agree with you, sharing it after work would alleviate a lot of awkwardness from employees who did not purchase gifts.
It is clear from reading your question that your office has fallen into the Pandora Box of gift-giving. Once you open that box and elevate the level of celebration, you are setting a precedent for the office on how to celebrate for years to come. Don't do it!!! Hey, I'm not trying to be a "party pooper", but riddle me this. What happens when Jane gets lunch, a card, cake, balloons, a group gift, a birthday sign on her monitor and Tom only gets a crappy 99 cent card on sale from Dollar World? Hmmm, think feelings might get hurt? Say, yes. Say, yes. Of course his feelings will be hurt! And, how do you think Bob will feel during lunch when Gail announces to everyone that staff "all chipped in for a special gift for the birthday girl.... I mean, everyone, but Bob!" Think Bob is going to feel like a Shmuck? You betcha!
My Sensei and Spiritual Leader, Costa, once told me, "Lower your expectations, and you will not be disappointed!" Ah, Sensei, I cherish your words of wisdom. In other words, don't open Pandora's Box! Keep it simple and manageable so that everyone can enjoy and be a part of the office celebration, and no one will end up disappointed or embarrassed.
I suggest coming together as an office and/or department and agreeing on how to celebrate office birthdays and stick with the plan. Gift-giving or additional activities outside of what you agreed upon should be offered to everyone, but not expected of anyone.
For those of you that forgot Workplace Wonda had a birthday this month, it's not too late. Technically, I allow celebrating to occur through October 31. I love anything with the Denver Broncos on it and I rarely get insulted when given a gift that includes chocolate!
Signed, Workplace Wonda (Birthday Girl!)
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