Imagine walking in to work on your Birthday and… nothing extraordinary happens. People chitchat in between pretending to work and on an off chance – they actually do what they were hired to do. Your head is on a swivel. “Is anyone looking my way?” “Is Bob coming towards me to wish me Happy Birthday or is he just walking to the water cooler. For the fifth time this hour?” You have a secret (it is your Birthday) and you are split between not wanting anyone to know (fly under the radar) and wanting to announce it through the overhead speaker (be celebrated like the king that you are). It would be nice to take a break and eat some cake (and have a drink, but you cannot drink at work), but it would be the worst if that required you to talk to multiple people for a prolonged period of time. “Did you do anything special this weekend?” “Do you have any special plans for tonight?” “Yes, I scrubbed the shower tiles on Saturday and today I am going to order a pizza and get drunk,” you want to say but for some reason, you feel that is embarrassing and inappropriate.
Whenever I start work in a new place, I wonder what their policy is on Birthdays and gifts in general. One year, at my last job, I received nothing for my Birthday but was surprised with an abundance of Christmas gifts. Somehow, people who hated each other’s guts got each other presents for Christmas. As I was new there, I had no idea about their tradition. So, I received gifts but gave none in return. It did not feel the best. What was even worse was when – at another workplace – everyone told me how they did not want to exchange gifts that year because of financial and mental health stressors and then showed up with gifts anyway. That is NOT OK.
Because of experiences like that, I like to prepare myself and always have something small for everyone during Christmas time. But does this inevitably put pressure on others to reciprocate? That definitely is not something I would like. Ah, the beauty of the vicious cycle of workplace dynamics… I wish everyone was just open about what they do and do not want/like.
During my earliest years of employment, my mom decided to throw me an office Birthday party. I know – it sounds a bit cringy and I was worried, but it was a success and is a memory I hold very dear to my heart. While some of my co-workers brought cake and some appetizers of their own volition, she cooked and baked ALL sorts of things. It was a feast! While the party was initially planned for the group I worked with the closest, it quickly turned into people I knew from the entire organization coming in for a bite. We just had so much delicious food. (Yes, I practically spent half of that day eating and socializing. My boss was cool.) My mom – being the social butterfly that she was – did not feel like my mom at that moment. She was just one of us and everyone loved her (and her food). It was a party many remembered for years to come.
When I first read about a man (Kevin) who won a lawsuit and received hundreds of thousands of dollars because his employer threw him a birthday party he did not want, I wanted to know more. “Can I cash in on that, too?” I wondered. It turns out that maybe one day but not yet. (Office parties do not seem to be a thing at my current workplace, which I am very much OK with. Maybe they will resume as we come back to the office more…) Birthday parties must have been the norm at that particular workplace because Kevin had to ask his office manager NOT to have a party. He spoke about his social anxiety and a panic attack that could be triggered by such a party. One day, as Kevin was leaving for lunch, his co-workers surprised him with a birthday party. (The manager claims to have forgotten about Kevin’s request.) The poor guy had a panic attack and spent his lunch break calming down in his car. Some party that was…
Why my social anxiety is definitely far from that level, I can empathize. While I probably would have plastered a smile onto my face and just ‘dealt with it,’ there is a slight chance that if someone did that to me privately, I would either walk out or be visibly irritated by the whole ordeal. If I explicitly tell you not to do something, you should not do it. (To people who like to play coy and say they do not want something but they really do – Please stop. You are making this more difficult for everyone.)
I even more so feel for the guy because the following day he did what was right and went to talk to his manager. (Another source states he was ‘called into a meeting.’ Either way…) If he is anything like me, he probably expected an apology and a promise that no such party would happen in the future. Instead, the supervisor told him that he was stealing people’s joy. That would have made me angry, but Kevin hugged himself and asked the manager to stop, which lead to his firing. They escorted him out and terminated him because they feared he might get violent and become a threat. (Violence is not the answer here but it boggles my mind how people push other people’s buttons and are then surprised that someone reacts.)
Kevin won $450,000 (for emotional distress and lost wages) because the court decided that he was fired unfairly (due to disability discrimination and retaliation). The employer plans to appeal the verdict.
This case made me ponder workplace Birthdays. Those really often feel like they are more for other employees than the person whose birthday is celebrated. It is just another excuse to take time off work and to indulge in cake. If that is the case – then just host office socials on a regular basis (once a month). That way everyone is happy.
Some people like surprises. Some do not.
Some people like parties. Some do not.
Learn what THEY want on THEIR day.
If you are throwing a party for someone but really it is for you – stop and think. Maybe you should throw two parties – one for yourself and one for the other person.
- What do you think about office parties?
- Do your co-workers know when your Birthday is? (And do you know theirs?)
- What is your go-to gift for your co-workers?
- How do you find out what people’s Birthdays are?
- What would you do if someone threw you a party even if you explicitly told them not to?
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