It’s probably no surprise that “Happy Birthday to You” is the most frequently sung song in the English language, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. But it might be surprising to learn how few workplaces have clear policies on celebrating birthdays, probably because employees often have differing opinions about birthday celebrations at work.
While 9 out of 10 Americans say they enjoy celebrating their birthdays with family and friends, 67 percent say they would prefer that birthdays at work be celebrated quietly and privately, according to research by Snappy, an online gifting service. On the other hand, 81 percent said that a public birthday acknowledgement in the workplace does help boost employee morale.
Given these somewhat mixed messages, what’s an HR manager to do? After all, every employee has a birthday every year. Are birthday celebrations an opportunity to help lift morale, or are they destined to cause friction and maybe unintentional employee embarrassment?
One thing is certain: Birthdays can be a great opportunity to let employees know that they’re valued—if handled correctly. Employee job-searching activities typically jump by 12 percent just before birthdays, according to a Harvard Business Review survey, so a birthday flub at work could prompt a valued employee to jump ship.
HR leaders and advisers gave the following tips on what managers should consider when acknowledging employee birthdays:
Be thoughtful and consistent. It’s critical that managers have clear guidance—in advance—from each employee about whether they want their birthday to be recognized, since any birthday celebration at work needs to be an “opt-in” event, said Kim Jones, vice president of human resources at Toshiba America Business Solutions in Louisville, Ky.
For example, there are some employees who don’t celebrate birthdays for religious reasons, while others choose not to celebrate for personal reasons, including to avoid potential embarrassment. “Forcing these individuals to participate would quickly cause issues and could lead to disengagement,” she said.
It’s also important to be consistent. Managers should be sure to offer the same sort of celebration for all employees on their team and make certain that those who want their birthdays celebrated are not accidentally left out of the rotations. “Taking one employee to a happy hour while sending another a birthday email will lead to hurt feelings and resentment,” Jones said.
Be creative. A one-size-fits-all approach that includes listing birthdays in a monthly email or hosting a pizza party for all who have a birthday that month certainly checks a box, but it falls short of making employees feel genuinely seen and celebrated, said Maureen Cawley, chief people officer at Saatva, a luxury sleep retailer based in Whitestone, N.Y.
Instead, Saatva offers a floating birthday holiday so employees can take their birthdays off without dipping into vacation time. “It's the little gestures that make a big difference,” Cawley said.
Personalize. One nice way to celebrate an employee’s birthday is to send a personalized message along with a gift card, said Laura Summer, human resources specialist at Vignette Express, an online transportation services company in Katowice, Poland. Ask the employee’s team and close colleagues for help in making the message unique, Summer suggested.
Another idea is for HR to find out the employee’s favorite candy and then leave it in the kitchen along with a note advising co-workers to treat themselves in celebration of the employee’s birthday. Summer said this is an extremely effective way to elicit many happy birthday wishes from co-workers.
Acknowledge. Spreading the word about important employee milestones, including birthdays and work anniversaries, is a wise move, said Annie Rosencrans, people and culture director at New York City-based HR tech firm HiBob, which includes these dates in the firm’s digital employee directory. For birthdays, be sure to note the month and day, but not the year.
“Leveraging a people-first [approach] that automatically flags employee birthdays is a nice way to create a culture where everyone feels a sense of belonging,” Rosencrans said.
Find a balance. A sort of middle-ground approach might be the smartest way to celebrate employee birthdays, advised Kristen Fowler, SHRM-SCP, practice lead at Chicago-based Clarke Caniff Strategic Search, a global search firm.
“It’s best to find a balance for celebrating birthdays,” Fowler said. “You shouldn’t ignore someone’s milestone, but you don’t need to go all out as that can get time-consuming and costly for the company.”
Depending on your organization’s size, she said, you might organize each celebration in a small group or team of co-workers so that it isn’t necessary to recognize the birthday to everyone in the company.
Staff recognition. Instead of calling out each employee on their birthday—which some workers don’t want—monthly staff recognition meetings (which include birthdays) is the approach taken at Ingenovis Health, a Cincinnati-based workforce solution company for the health care industry. Additional employee birthday celebrations are left up to individual department managers who have unique insights into each employee.
“You really have to know your employee base,” said Denise Triba, chief human resources officer at Ingenovis. “Good leaders know what works for each person on their team.”
Know your employees. “If you’re a manager and you don’t know the answer to who does—or doesn’t—like to have their birthday acknowledged, then you have a management problem,” said Joshua Freedman, CEO of Six Seconds, a global nonprofit for emotional intelligence in Freedom, Calif. The firm has 80 employees, and Freedman tracks on his personal calendar the birthdays of those who report to him, as well as a note on which ones prefer to have their birthdays acknowledged publicly, privately or not at all.
One way he’s learned about what his employees prefer is by asking them, and he asks his managers to do the same for their direct reports.
At the very least, send a card. Birthday cards can have an impact and help employees feel valued, explained George Yang, founder of OxygenArk, a hyperbaric chamber manufacturer based in Shanghai. He said that’s why the company gives each employee a birthday card signed by the employee’s team and emails a digital card to each remote employee.
Bruce Horovitz is a freelance writer based in Falls Church, Va.