Don't let birthday blues ruin your employee experience

To those who sent me a birthday greeting recently on Linked In – thank you very much. To those of you who – like me – have a birthday over the Christmas/New Year period – my commiserations. It’s the worst possible time to have a birthday. Most people will have reached celebration saturation by 2 January. Having to celebrate a birthday in early January is tiresome, not joyful – particularly as we tend to go back to work in the first week of January. With everyone depressed, and the outside world dark and damp, it’s not just forced celebration that’s problematic: friends might need to catch up on work and can’t afford the time for a ritual birthday celebration. The worst thing about this time of year is friends telling you they ran out of cash so they didn’t buy you a present; informing you retrospectively you were given a joint Christmas-birthday present; or that they bought your present cheap in the January sale. (Note: I appreciate parsimony but I don’t want to have my nose rubbed in it.)
This got me thinking about how birthday etiquette is a huge challenge for businesses that want to enhance their employee experience. How companies mark an employee’s special days has a significant effect on how that employee thinks about the company. Research from CEB shows that birthdays – particularly big birthdays – are one of the three most common times when employees start job hunting (the others being after school/university reunions and on work anniversaries).
For people born at the start of the year, this effect is amplified, as it’s not just a New Year chronologically, it’s also a new life year, which makes people reflect on what they want from all of this.
Done right, acknowledging an employee’s birthday not only makes them less likely to quit, it improves their engagement. But wait a minute, we’ve possibly all experienced those mortifying work presentations. They’re not good – right?

  • Do you give employees the day off?
  • Do you organise a round of drinks after work?
  • Do you buy them a present from the company or organise a whip round?

What’s important is that recognition of an employee’s birthday is done in the right way for that individual (there is no single ‘right way’). That might be a quiet drink over lunch, a card, a small/large present, or an all-out meal with their team along with balloons and a ‘birthday boy’ badge. Or it might be a day off work, or the ability to come in late.
If their co-workers and manager has spent any time getting to know them, an employee’s celebration is easily personalised. But beyond their immediate manager, it’s also a nice gesture if senior management sends a card, email or some other small gesture to wish them well. This is simply a proxy way of thanking them for their contribution, and needs to go beyond an automatic, expected and uninspired gesture. A handwritten note or a specially composed email is going to have a far more positive impact than an automated birthday response that goes to all employees once a year.
HR can help with this process by sending an email to managers each week or month to remind them of upcoming birthdays. These reminders should include remote workers, as well as office-based staff, as remote workers often feel ignored and excluded from company events and celebrations, which clearly isn’t good for their morale.
In the early days of homeworking, I used to make a point to go and visit my one member of staff that homeworked around the time of their birthday, and take them out locally (to them) for a meal. This was an important point of contact to ensure they felt engaged and valued. Such an approach might not be suitable for everyone, but companies should think about whether it’s best to save such a gesture for the next time the person is in the office, or to take them out locally to them, or even simply pay for them and a partner or friend to go out for a meal.
It’s also important to remember that not everyone wants their birthday broadcasting or their age displaying. No one should be birthday outed. Legal action has actually been taken in the US for revealing an employee’s age and joking about it.
Locations also play a part here: there’s often nothing more tiresome than a continual parade of ‘Hurrah it’s your birthday’ in a huge open plan office. But even the most birthday-averse staff may still appreciate a discreet gesture. By knowing an employee doesn’t want their birthday status broadcasting, the company has displayed its understanding of the person, which is the core value of what they’re doing.
It’s also important not to pressurise staff to contribute financially to presents or to attend birthday events. This should always be voluntary. Not all employees can afford continual contributions to whip rounds, and many have commitments that makes attending out of hours events difficult.
And finally, companies should have a policy on family birthdays. I was once in the uncomfortable position of my partner’s company refusing to let him take the day off for his daughter’s first birthday (not seventh or ninth or fifteenth) because they suddenly decided to have a three-day company launch in another country which all staff were compelled to attend. Those people who had holidays already diarised were allowed to continue with their plans, but anyone who hadn’t already had a holiday approved (two months in advance) could not take one. Needless to say, this is a ‘breach event’. When a manager refuses to allow an employee to take a day off for a significant life event – such as their child’s first birthday, their parents’ golden wedding or a grandparent’s funeral – that employee is unlikely to stick around.
While it’s beholden on staff to be fair with employers and give them sufficient notice if they possibly can (they may not always be able to do this), it’s also important that companies treat their staff fairly and with consideration and dignity. Managing holiday entitlements continues to be a thorny issue within many companies. A first-come-first-served approach doesn’t work. Allowing one member of staff to go on holiday simply because they booked all the time they wanted a year in advance, while another is forced to miss an important life event as a result, is not fair, equitable or likely to build a happy work environment. Teams that are given fair and equitable treatment and communicate well can usually iron out any conflicts internally. A one-size-fits-all policy is unlikely to work, given how complex human beings are.
The message to B2B service providers is that employee experience – the thing that drives employee engagement – is made up of many elements. A critical one is cultural experience but for a long time this has been focused only upon certain elements of the relationship between employer and employee such as pay and benefits. In fact other elements are equally important, and how an employee is treated around important life events such as birthdays, bereavement, marriage, children, sickness etc are extremely important if you want to create an engaged workforce and reduce employee churn.