The prospect of cake and candles can cut both ways

Should you get the day off on your birthday? Alexandra Cain looks at an age-old question.

Should you get the day off on your birthday? Alexandra Cain looks at an age-old question.

In a famous Seinfeld episode, the character Elaine loathes work birthday celebrations so much that she responds to two cakes in one day by calling in sick. Her attempt to avoid work parties is foiled, however, when a celebration is organised for her on her return to work.

Cost cutting and economic rationalism have changed the face of the office birthday cake. But many firms still see it as an important way to bring the team together and even give staff a day off on their birthdays.

Marnie Ashe is the HR representative and head of consulting at the Brisbane digital marketing agency Reload Media, which has 60 staff around the world. Instead of celebrating birthdays as they happen, Reload has a cake at the end of each month.

"We dedicate about an hour mid-morning to the celebration, and have a cake to celebrate everyone who had a birthday in that month," she says. "Those who have had a birthday pick the cake that they want, and the cake is supplied by the company.

"It allows people to unwind a little from what can sometimes be a stressful job and talk with one another on a personal level. It is another step towards our staff feeling valued, not just for the work they do, but for who they are as people and their greater contributions to the organisation.

"You can sense the positivity in the office for the rest of the day."

Reload also gives every staff member a bonus day off on their birthday, or a long weekend if their birthday falls on a weekend.

Stephanie Vilner is launching a social enterprise start-up called partyforacause, which combines parties with fund-raising initiatives.

At Vilner's current job birthdays are celebrated once a month. "We might have cupcakes, then pizza or Lebanese takeaway. It is held in an outdoor courtyard, so it's seasonal; it might be ice-cream sorbet in high summer."

But her husband personally bakes brownies for his team members on their birthdays. "He loves baking and staff enjoy eating the brownies, and the care and attention to each person is evident in the baking."

When it comes to organising celebrations at work, Vilner says it's all about understanding the individual. "The group thing once a week or month can work well, but for some people there's nothing worse than having to stand in the office and be the centre of attention and then say something witty."

She agrees it's a great idea to give people the day off for their birthday. "It can make a huge difference to not do humdrum stuff on your birthday, when frankly most people would rather be having a leisurely breakfast, shopping with their birthday voucher, or taking a stroll."

But not everyone sees birthday celebrations at work in the same way.

"I'm a journalist and previously worked at a marketing agency," says Eliza, who would prefer to use her first name only. "Individual birthday cakes were only a done thing at one of my workplaces - it also had the lowest morale and poorest culture I have ever seen anywhere. They were purchased by the company's founder, who was also a tyrannical manager who had severe mood swings."

Eliza says once the boss had a captive audience, she'd use the time to talk about her personal life, while the staff had to sit there and pretend to be interested.

Ultimately, office celebrations give people a chance to take a break from work. But there will always be a percentage who see forced jollity as a waste of time. It's up to managers to strike a balance between giving people a break and ensuring the work gets done.

Tips for celebrations

Ask staff their preference when it comes to birthdays. Some may not wish to celebrate at work at all.

Consider offering a healthier option to cake.

Think about celebrating once a

month rather than each birthday.

Define the period of time for the celebration to reduce the time that staff are not working.

If staff generally agree they don't want to mark birthdays, ditch the parties.

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