People First HR Services

Office celebrations aren’t always a piece of cake

Colleen Coates

There is a classic episode of Seinfeld featuring Elaine as the lone voice of dissension against non-stop celebrations in the office.

Fed up with all the sugary cake and forced socializing, she even resorts to faking illness (“I had to take a sick day, I’m so sick of those people!”) But when she returns to work, her co-workers present her with a cake to celebrate her return to work. Yes, when it comes to office celebrations, you can run, but you can’t hide.

Actually, celebrating birthdays and other important milestones is an irrefutable part of corporate culture. It’s an easy and relatively inexpensive way to keep team morale high and to make your people feel cherished.

On the other hand, they use up a considerable amount of time and can create hurt feelings if an employee is forgotten, treated unfairly or wants to opt out of a peer party.

What’s a manager to do? Consider the following pros and cons:

Celebration drawbacks

— Workday disruption — Even when held at the end of the day, office celebrations bring work to a grinding halt. People may argue that the gatherings amount to only a few minutes’ break, but factor in preparation and cleanup, not to mention lingering small talk and other party-related distractions, and they can use up to an hour or more of productive work time.

— The obligation factor — Although no one is really coerced to attend celebratory events, not participating in the festivities makes you look like a grump. The same holds true if you turn down a piece of cake or pass up contributing a few bucks towards a gift. There is just no polite way to say “thanks, but no thanks” at these things without raising a few eyebrows.

— Social awkwardness — Even though we see these people day in and day out, these occasions can be uncomfortable. Maybe it has something to do with singing publicly or making small talk while clumsily eating cake off a floppy paper plate, but the personal element of these social get-togethers can seem peculiar in a work setting.

— Under the spotlight — Whether it’s shyness or preference not to be reminded of getting another year older, some people just don’t go for the cake-and-balloons scene. They don’t want to be the centre of attention. But like it or not, their co-workers show up with a cake that the guest of honour is then expected to slice and serve.

Celebration benefits

— Boosts morale — Bringing employees together for a reason other than to discuss fiscal reports, budget cuts or production stats is always a good idea. It’s an uplifting occasion. It gives people a needed break in their day and boosts the team-building notion that they support one another and function as a “work family.”

— Demonstrates care about work-life balance — Birthdays are not the only things worth celebrating in life or in most workplaces. By taking the time to commemorate weddings, births, retirements and other momentous occasions, a company shows its people that what matters to them outside of work also matters at work itself.

— Shows employees they are valued — Some people may not have a lot of friends to make a big deal out of their special day or families to go home to at night. In some small way, a workplace celebration that honours them conveys that they are very much liked, appreciated and valued by those who spend the most time with them.

— Mix-and-mingle opportunity — Many managers complain they don’t have enough time to get out of their office and spend time talking with their people. This is a chance to take a break from work, catch up with co-workers and chat about things other than business. It’s worth doing as it helps people see you as an accessible and caring co-worker and boss.

If you decide to hold celebrations at work, remember that there is no reason why you must keep it a traditional event. Get creative! Consider doing away with the cake in favour of having a monthly potluck or pizza party. Make a charitable donation in the name of the celebrant. Offer a raffle where that month’s celebrants are entered to win a gift certificate. Or create a unique and memorable tradition such as throwing a re-gifting party or a themed gift swap that allows everyone to get into the spirit.

— With reporting by Barbara Chabai

Colleen Coates, CHRP, CCP, is a practice leader with People First HR Services Ltd. She can be contacted at


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 13, 2011 H1