Are Workplace Celebrations Important?

There are celebrations for job-related milestones, such as a sales division exceeding its quarterly goals or a magazine staff celebrating achieving its readership goal. And then there are the more personal celebrations such as a colleague’s engagement, retirement, or birthday.

As a birthday girl myself this week—and one with a ravenous sweet tooth (I just polished off a bowl of Smorz cereal laden with dried miniature marshmallows)—an article posted online to The Week caught my eye: “Workplace Cake Culture ‘a danger to health.’”

Obesity is an epidemic, as we all know, but though fatty waistlines are not in short supply, recognition is. Celebrating personal milestones gives companies another way of thanking employees. It’s a way of saying that your bosses care enough to take note of your birthday, and that you mean enough to them to warrant a short break from work, and the expense of cake and eating utensils. If you’re lucky, you may even get soft drinks. And if it’s after hours, who knows? Maybe even wine or beer. However grand or modest the celebration, it’s good to be reminded that you’re cared about, and that the people you work for appreciate you.

To make personal celebrations more meaningful, you could turn birthday cards into recognition cards. You get a large card from the drugstore, or a specialty card shop such as Papyrus, and then you give the card first to the boss and the other higher-level people the birthday celebrant works with. Each of those people writes a few lines, or more, about the work contributions they want to thank the birthday person for. Then, the card is circulated to co-workers, with the instructions given to note something work-related to thank the person for. Just the act of celebrating a birthday in the office is recognition of an employee’s value, but taking it one step further, and having managers and colleagues note the celebrant’s contributions over the last year, makes it more meaningful. If you don’t want to take the time away from work, and shudder at the $20, or so, needed for a cake, think of it this way: It’s cheaper than giving your employees end-of-year bonuses or salary increases.

On the slightly humorous side, throwing an in-office birthday party also is a good way to see how well you know your colleagues. Who knows what kind of cake Suzy likes? Or how it might be fun to decorate Bill’s? In the course of talking, or e-mailing with co-workers, about an upcoming birthday party, you may be surprised at how much you learn about the celebrant. In the planning process, you might learn that Bill is an avid soccer fan, so the cake could have a soccer ball incorporated, or you may find out Suzy is a health and exercise fanatic, and only eats low-fat fruit desserts. The sad part is you also may learn that you don’t know anything at all about some of the people you work with every day.

The social aspect of a birthday celebration in the office is another valuable aspect of it. At my first full-time job years ago, there were a lot of tensions stemming from the managing editor, who people (myself included) found difficult and cold. During birthday gatherings, however, her icy stone face often would relax, and you could have a more leisurely conversation with her. It could have been a sugar high, but I think the act of celebrating a birthday may have loosened something up. One year, when things between us were particularly strained, she was the one who ended up getting me a cake. I don’t know whether she did this because she wanted to or because our boss asked her to do it, but it turned out to be a nice gesture. Shockingly, she picked out a cake trimmed with my favorite colors. I still think about it sometimes—how this venomous supervisor did a good job picking out my birthday cake one year.

Do you encourage work groups to celebrate birthdays, and other personal milestones? How can managers make these celebrations as meaningful as possible?

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