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Birthday Blunders

Advice on all things HR from Shari Lau, SHRM-SCP, SHRM's knowledge manager. E-mail your questions to Shari at

April 2016 HR Magazine cover 4Solutions.jpg 

Is it a good idea to celebrate employee birthdays?

It seems innocent enough: Who doesn’t like a birthday cake or lunch to celebrate the fact that they’re another year older?

Lots of people, actually. Many employees feel uncomfortable mixing their personal and professional lives, or just don’t like to be in the spotlight.

Such celebrations also could invite discrimination claims. Co-workers might not understand that teasing Joe about being “over the hill” could lead to a lawsuit under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act. And since Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate birthdays for religious reasons, throwing a party for someone of that faith could lead to a religious discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

What’s your goal? Are you seeking to do something nice for employees? Or is your objective to benefit the employer by promoting teamwork and camaraderie? Hopefully, you’re not just checking off a box on your employee engagement to-do list.

If you seek to show employees that you appreciate them, consider giving them each an individual reward, such as a gift card, a day off or a donation to the charity of their choice. You could send workers a menu of options—confidentially, of course—and let them choose. This sends the message that you want to treat each person to something special that doesn’t need to be shared.

Of course, you should allow employees to opt out of the gift program entirely, ensuring that this, too, is handled with discretion.

If your goal is to promote team building or employee engagement, there are more effective ways to accomplish this. However, if birthday parties are an indelible part of your workplace culture, consider a reward that benefits the entire team and not the individual. For example, you could hold a monthly or quarterly celebration that would allow employees to relax, have a little fun and enjoy a treat. You could recognize all those born during that month (not mentioning years, of course) and let employees decide whether to participate.

Instead of birthdays, you could acknowledge workers’ anniversaries with the company or specific goals or milestones achieved—anything employees would like to share with their co-workers. You also could host a general day of celebration for all employees at once.

Office parties can be a great way to bring people together. People who want to enjoy the group gathering can do so without anyone being singled out.


Can we ask employees to share hotel rooms at conferences?

Some organizations do this to save money, and advocates claim that fewer employees would have a chance to receive training or attend conferences if organizations had to pay for separate rooms. But this rationale is shortsighted.

While implementing a room-sharing policy might free up some funds at the outset, those savings will be quickly forgotten if the policy results in a lawsuit.

While requiring employees to split a room is not illegal, such a policy invites problems. In addition to the obvious risk you run of getting hit with a sexual harassment claim, you also make yourself vulnerable to a lawsuit under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Shared rooms may not offer enough privacy for people to receive certain medical treatments. For example, an employee could not use a continuous positive airway pressure machine to manage sleep apnea without the knowledge of his or her co-worker.

If one roommate splashes on cologne and the other’s asthma flares, trouble may be in the air (along with a strong and perhaps unpleasant scent). Since the employer is requiring the shared room, these situations are considered employment-related, which could present ADA issues during and after the trip.

There are other problems to consider. Does such a policy show respect to your employees? If not, how might that affect your reputation or workers’ engagement levels?

Failing to honor your employees’ personal time and space could drive good employees out the door and stop great candidates from applying. Moreover, after working all day at a conference or attending a rigorous training session, many employees need downtime. Their hotel room is a sanctuary, and it is likely the only place they can relax and have some privacy. Imagine if you are sharing a room with someone who watches TV all the time, when you prefer to read quietly. Or if you snore loudly and your roomie can’t sleep. Or if you want the air conditioning on and your co-worker claims to be freezing. The list goes on and on. The bottom line is that forcing cohabitation adds a layer of stress for employees that doesn’t need to be there.


How do I get passive job seekers to respond when I reach out?

Surveys consistently show that sourcing highly skilled, quality candidates is recruiters’ top concern. Those types of individuals, however, are usually already employed, reasonably happy and not looking for a new position. These passive job seekers, who aren’t searching for work but might be open to a strategic career move, could be great additions to your talent pool—if only they’d talk to you, right?

I’ve received a few of those awkward calls myself. Some headhunter starts talking quickly about some “amazing opportunity” with a pushiness that turns me off. I can’t hang up the phone fast enough. The recruiter might even have had a position that I’d consider under different circumstances, but I have no motivation to listen.

A softer and longer-term approach might work better. For example, if you call and ask about a person’s career plans without mentioning a particular job, the individual may be more willing to engage. Or if you explain that you’re looking ahead to positions that will likely be open next year, he or she might take the time to hear you out.

Passive candidates might find the idea of a job change in the near future too overwhelming, depending on what is going on in their lives at that moment. However, a conversation about opportunities that could be available further down the line, especially if you can name someone who referred the individual, may be more inviting. Discussing their overall career objectives, what they’re doing now to meet those objectives and how you might be able to alert them to appropriate openings can help you build a relationship. You’ll get a better reception putting potential job candidates’ needs first than by shoving a job at them simply because you need to fill it. If you establish a relationship early on, when you call later with a specific job opening, you stand a greater chance that they’ll hear you out.


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