How Do I Avoid Workplace Birthday Celebrations?

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about office birthday celebrations:

I work in an office of about 150 coworkers. My birthday was this past year. I did not want a big deal made of it and I told people that. I walk into work the next morning having my desk decorated, a huge food spread in the empty cube next to mine, gifts, cake, etc. My problem is I feel I can’t possibly participate in every birthday celebration at work for financial reasons and stuff. I cannot begin to tell you how many times birthday cards go around at work asking for money for birthdays and food day celebrations.

My question is how do you say “no” to giving money for EVERY birthday at work etc.? I have seen parties at work burn so many people, and I am so turned off by them anymore. How do you avoid these “obligations?”

Signed, Turned Off By Birthday Celebrations

Dear Turned Off By Birthday Celebrations:

I feel your pain! I resist office celebrations for other reasons. But, do you recall The Borg, of Star Trek fame, who assimilated everyone into his or her collective? They would say, in a very reasonable tone of voice, “Resistance is futile.” The Borg must have invented office birthday events! My biggest irritation was that work came to a halt for hours on birthdays! We tried having a once a month thing for people with birthdays that month…then people would STILL want to do something special for their friends! I felt like the biggest old grump in the world when I talked about halting all of that. On the other hand, an executive in an office related to ours forbade all parties, decorations or anything else that might smack of holidays or special occasions, saying it was disruptive. So even I thought HE was an old grump!

A friend of mine took the day of his birthday off to avoid the hassle of it all. When he returned, his cubicle was decorated and the cake was waiting! After a lifetime of dealing with this in various capacities–and being at all points in the spectrum about it–I offer the following thoughts:

1. Consider writing a letter to your manager or supervisor and say that you would like to have everyone consider another method of celebrating birthdays, for a variety of reasons. You can choose to go into the reasons or not, but be prepared to have each of them rebutted. Among the reasons: Some people truly do not want to be reminded of the passing years. Others have personal birthday plans and don’t want to eat cake and other food the day they know they’ll be eating cake and plenty of other food, someplace else. Others–and increasingly more–are on low carbohydrate regimens that are ruined in that one-day. Some might like to go to lunch with a special person or group, but the office event makes that almost impossible. It’s disruptive to work and ends up taking up the entire day, either in the food and festivities, the decorating and taking down and the standing around talking about it. It’s expensive, even if only a few dollars are spent each time. Some people inspire more warmth than others, so there is often a feeling of hypocrisy and coercion about it.
2. Here’s the major problem with doing it another way: As mentioned in the last line, some people really do NOT inspire warmth and they would likely not have much made over their birthday. Most of us have enough sensitivity to worry about that on their behalf. They may say they don’t care, but we still have this picture of them going home to an empty house at the end of their birthday and walking in dejectedly, feeling that they might as well have never been born. (I’m a cynic, but thinking about that gives me a twinge!)And, for most people their birthday really IS their special day. When we love someone that is a day in which we rejoice: I’m so GLAD you were born! So, by not celebrating, we tend to diminish some aspects of that awareness of one’s presence in the universe. Really!Also, for many office workers, this is a way to have some fun once in awhile. For many it’s the only time they have really sweet cake with that neat butter-cream frosting!Thus, asking to not celebrate at all is likely going to be a failure. It’s been tried before and inevitably a number of employees want to bring the tradition back!
3. Suggest an alternative that doesn’t involve food and festivities:Consider word processing a generic birthday page of colored paper–maybe with a poem, or even just a Happy Birthday and the year. Then, on the week before–allow that much time–pass it around and have everyone write a personal message on the paper, adding addendum sheets if required. This gives the birthday person something truly personal to save. You can volunteer to do this if you’d like!Suggest a no food celebration. I have found that it’s the food that attracts people to the concept. And it’s the food and paper products that cost so much! And also that takes up so much time and makes such a big mess!Suggest a limited time frame for celebrating–preferably early in the morning, so the workday can get started. Suggest that no one have their cubicle decorated without their express permission. Mention issues of privacy, work effectiveness and so forth.4. As for you personally, stop contributing to the envelope that goes around. Just say you can’t do it this time. THEN, write a warm note to the birthday person. No one can fault you if you remember the day and write a note. What seems like a curmudgeon is not contributing AND acting as though you don’t care about your co-workers. So, when the envelope comes by, pass it on. Or say to the waiting person, “I can’t do that this time, but I’ll be doing something personal for her on her birthday.” Then don’t forget to write the personal birthday note, no matter how brief. Give him or her a pack of sugarless gum, as a little token. It’s hard to criticize someone who goes that far to acknowledge a birthday! 5.

Keep this in mind as a final thought: You want to be a good organizational citizen and someone who is considered a resource. You can’t do that if you are disliked and distrusted. Don’t make this something that becomes a major cause or a line in the dirt. If you can’t get organizational support for changing the current situation, just opt out in the most courteous way possible. When asked about it, don’t refer to negative feelings about it; just refer to your preference to do things more personally and without expense. Maybe others will follow your lead! I hope these thoughts help. If they don’t, you’ll have to contact the leader of The Borg and you KNOW what he’ll say! Best wishes and good luck!Celebration is a bridge that crosses to WEGO land.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.