The workplace birthday dilemma

Birthday celebrations can help foster a positive corporate culture. As long as they’re more personal than a monthly cake-in-the-kitchen day
Birthday celebrations can help foster a positive corporate culture. As long as they’re more personal than a monthly cake-in-the-kitchen day

In January, Ari Krajden co-founded a three-lawyer litigation boutique in Toronto. The first-time business leader had to confront an often-overlooked question of workplace culture. How would his firm celebrate birthdays?

His previous workplace, a mid-size insurance-defence firm, marked birthdays with a familiar ritual. Once a month, the entire 100-person team would assemble in the kitchen to enjoy a piece of cake. These gatherings were supposed to recognize every employee whose birthday fell within that month. At least, that was the idea. “Often, though, people would simply pick up their slice of cake and go back to their desks,” says Krajden. “It was hard to tell if people truly felt appreciated.”

Over the course of a year, the cost of cake-in-the-kitchen days would reach several thousand dollars. To Krajden, that felt like a lot of money to spend on an event that didn’t even boost office morale. He wanted to come up with an alternative.

Developing a solid birthday strategy might sound like a frivolous and pointless pursuit. But it’s a worthwhile corporate objective. “Birthdays add a personal touch,” says John Trougakos, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “We can make someone feel recognized and valued, regardless of seniority or achievements.”

At Affleck Greene McMurtry, a 25-person litigation boutique, birthdays are serious business. The firm typically makes a fuss on 10-year milestones (30, 40, 50 and so on), but this allows it to tailor each party to the personalities and preferences of the individual. When named partner Don Affleck (who died a few years ago) turned 70, the firm served cocktails and cake. But in honour of his tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, the team also presented him with a matching mug and T-shirt that read: “I’m not aging. I’m increasing in value.”

On the 50th birthday of Laura McKinstray, a legal assistant, the firm skipped cake altogether. Knowing how much she enjoys a good night out, her colleagues took McKinstray out for dinner and drinks. “Our parties don’t happen that often,” says Annie Tayyab, one of the firm’s associates. “But they’ve become real bonding moments. People remember them.”

Trougakos takes no issue with long gaps between parties. “An office isn’t obliged to acknowledge someone’s birthday every year,” he says. “The important thing is to have a policy that’s equal for everyone.” He also thinks it’s a good idea to modify each event according to the preferences of each person. “For example, it would be terrible to give ice cream cake to someone with a dairy issue.”

Krajden, for his part, has come up with his own birthday solution: to host a small party for each team member on their birthday. “Everyone, including the support staff, works very hard,” says Krajden. “They deserve a break on their actual birthday to feel acknowledged.”

This story is from our Winter 2019 Issue.

Illustration by Adrian Forrow