Although the Notorious B.I.G. wasn’t necessarily referring to office culture when he penned the immortal lines “Birthdays was the worst days,” he very well could have been.
Think about it – the grocery store sheet cake, the lifeless rendition of “Happy Birthday to You,” the elastic party hat string slicing into your windpipe like piano wire – few things in life are as depressing as a poorly executed office birthday party.
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On top of that, birthdays can be a lot of pressure. These days it seems like every individual team member feels entitled to a personalized celebration. As an office manager, culture leader, or HR pro, you may feel obligated to deliver.
But as your company grows, this becomes harder and harder. Beyond twenty or so employees, it really isn’t feasible.
For these reasons, it might be tempting to throw your hands up and say “forget it,” letting birthday celebrations fall by the wayside. But it doesn’t have to be this way. When it comes to office birthdays, a little goes a long way. With a little planning, office birthdays can be both a breeze and an opportunity to add value to your company.
Whether you are looking for some birthday surprise ideas for the boss or some coworker birthday ideas that everyone will enjoy – you’ll be sure to find here!
Before we dive into our best office birthday ideas, let’s quickly explore why all this birthday stuff matters in the first place.
Culture of Recognition
A more traditional approach to workplace culture might question the need for birthday celebration in office at all. This is usually the point of view of team members who say things like, “We’re all adults here,” or “This isn’t Kindergarten” when they put up a stink about having to watch someone blow out candles.
Fair enough. But there’s a strong why behind celebrating birthdays, and it’s all about creating a culture of recognition.
Multiple studies have shown a strong link between recognition and performance. A 2012 report by HR firm Bersin & Associates suggests that companies that integrate strong employee recognition practices are on average 12 times more likely than their peers to generate strong business results. This means higher profitability and better market positions.
Recognition doesn’t just mean acknowledging a job well done (although that’s certainly important), but recognizing and appreciating your employees as people.
Today’s employees (especially Millennial employees) expect to be able to be their true selves at work. Because of this, more and more companies are ditching the old work-life balance paradigm for the more accurate work-life integration model, which acknowledges that work and life are inseparable. Celebrating staff birthdays helps tell your employees that you get that they are living life everyday inside of your office – we recommend checking out Bonusly which offers automated welcome, anniversary, and birthday bonuses.
Finally, birthday celebrations are simply a chance to show you’ve been paying attention. A personalized note or gift that speaks to your employees hobby or passion demonstrates that you’ve taken the time to get to know them on a personal level. This goes a long way towards creating an emotional bond between company and team.
And really, it doesn’t take a lot to make your teammates feel special, cared for, and appreciated. SnackNation Vibe Manager extraordinaire Liza Goldberg elaborates:
“From my experience, what I’ve found is that really all team members want for their birthday is just to see that their company remembers their birthday and cares enough to acknowledge them on it. Even the smallest things planned for them will go a long way.”
Here are our easy-as-pie (or cake) tips to make office birthdays a part of a winning company culture.
1. Create a Custom Video
This one is a little more involved, and you’ll need basic video editing skills to pull it off, so you might want to reserve it for team members with some seniority. But trust us, the results are well worth it.
The idea is to create a video that celebrates your team member’s personality and unique contributions to the office.
Here’s an easy formula to get a great video:
- Come up with a list of funny questions to ask a group of 5-10 people who know the birthday boy or girl well.
- Ask each person your questions and record their answers with your phone or video camera. Important – make sure you conduct the interviews separately so that people don’t have a chance to hear the questions or other answers beforehand. You’re going for off-the-cuff responses.
- Edit the responses together using video editing software. (iMovie works well for this – and it’s free on every Mac!)
- Debut the video during a team or department meeting.
Here are few sample questions to get you started:
- What is _____ most known for around the office?
- What was _____’s first thought when he woke up this morning?
- If _____ didn’t work at this company, where would she work?
- What’s the weirdest part of your first interview with _____?
- If _____ was on a deserted island, what three things would he want with him?
2. Make it Personal
One of the most impactful things you can do is to personalize the gift or celebration for your team mate.
Why? Because it shows you’re paying attention, and that you don’t just care about the work your teammates do, but who they are as people.
Liza weighs in again:
“If you can, make it personal for each team member. If you know the person loves Ryan Gosling, print pictures of him and post them around her desk. Know that they love bananas? Get a ton of bananas and deliver them… dressed in a banana suit.”
We recently tried this approach on SnackNation CEO Sean Kelly. Sean is a native Michigander and die hard Michigan football fan, so for his birthday this year we surprised Sean with a re-creation of Michigan’s iconic on the field entry. We even had a Jim Harbaugh lookalike (co-founder Andy Mackensen sporting the coach’s famous Khakis and horn-rimmed spectacle look) and a banner made.
Of course, this is a bit of an extreme example, but it illustrates the point – personalize your celebration to let your team know that you care.
3. Surprise Desk Decoration
If you have a stash of streamers, confetti and balloons (and if you plan events, I’m guessing you do) this should be an easy one.
Timing is key, and you have a few options here: stay later and decorate the evening before, get into the office early or ask a colleague who comes in early or stays late.
I know, it’s tough asking for help, but don’t you find that most of your colleagues do offer their help. Take them up on it this time!
4. Go with an Alternative Cake
Let’s face it, the traditional, frosting coated sheet cake isn’t ideal for the office. Not only has it been done to death, but all that refined sugar leads to a productivity-killing energy crash shortly thereafter.
Here are a few birthday cake alternatives for you to try:
Vegetable Cake – This works well for those teammates who are on a health kick. It’s basically a vegetable tray disguised as a cake. The novelty factor makes it hilarious, and it’s actually quite satisfying!
Here’s a veggie cake our team made for SnackNation CEO Sean Kelly:
Pie – There are two types of people in this world – cake people and pie people. Knowing who’s who in your office will win you some major points.
Healthier Indulgences – There are so many amazing, healthier snacks out there that will satisfy your sweet cravings without sabotaging your health goals OR setting you up for a major crash later in the day. We’re talking products like Honey Stingers, Caveman bars, Ginnybakes Organic Cookies, Little Secrets, Skinny Dipped Almonds, or Surf Sweets chews. Gift one of our Healthier Indulgence boxes from SnackNation Market, which contains an assortment of lower-glycemic treats. There’ll be enough to go around (although the birthday boy or girl might not want to share).
Watermelon Cake – This original spin on birthday cake looks great, tastes amazing, and is totally healthy. Here’s a link to the recipe.
5. Monthly Celebrations
Is your team too big to really get personal on their special day? Don’t sweat it, there’s an easy fix.
At SnackNation, we used to celebrate everyone’s birthday individually, with balloons, treats, videos – the works. But when our company went from around 20 people to 100+ in less than a year, we quickly realized this wasn’t feasible.
The solution was monthly celebrations. Every month we pick a day to celebrate ALL the people born in that month. It doesn’t matter if it’s the beginning middle or end of the month, the key is to make it a consistent celebration.
Keep in mind, it doesn’t have to be some impersonal announcement at your monthly all-hands. You can still make it a real celebration – try catering a special lunch or throwing a happy hour. Your teammates will appreciate the gesture, and you won’t kill yourself trying to throw a show-stopping party every other day.
6. Change Up The Song
Did you know that that “Happy Birthday to You” is intellectual property?
That’s right. The song was penned by school teachers Patty and Mildred Hill in 1893 and until June of last year, publishing company Warner/Chappell had been collecting licensing royalties for the song to the tune of $2 million a year.
Which seems crazy since, let’s be honest…pretty much everyone hates that song.
Ditch the tired old standard and try something a little more contemporary. Here are a few songs you might want to serenade your coworkers with instead:
Stevie Wonder – “Happy Birthday”
This track is great because while it has the same sentiment as the more ubiquitous “Happy Birthday to You,” it’s much catchier.
The Beatles – “Birthday”
This uptempo number from the White Album will have your team partying like it’s 1969.
50 Cent – “In Da Club”
Did 50 know he was writing a modern day birthday classic when he came out with his breakout hit “In Da Club?” Probably not, but the line “Go shorty, it’s your birthday” made it exactly that.
NOFX – “New Birthday Song”
With lyrics like, “Happy birthday, you’re not special,” only play this song for co-workers with a sense of humor. (Also, be forewarned, there’s an F-bomb in this hilarious song.)
7. Get Leaders Involved
Remember that creating a culture of recognition is really at the heart of birthday celebrations. There’s no better way to emphasize the importance of recognition than to get senior leadership involved.
Your team will respond more to actions than words. When you get buy-in from the top you send a strong signal that recognition is part of your team’s identity and culture.
If you have a boss that drags her feet when it comes to getting involved, there are ways to make this incredibly easy – both for her and you.
As we’ve written elsewhere, a handwritten note from your boss goes a long way. It’s that personal touch that really sets it off.
It might seem a little daunting to get the CEO to write birthday notes for every team member, but a little work upfront makes this totally doable.
Here’s what you can do:
- During your onboarding process, make sure to keep track of every team member’s birthday.
- Enter the dates in a spreadsheet.
- Create calendar invites for your boss for everyone’s birthday. Be sure to add any relevant info in the calendar – i.e., if it’s a particularly important birthday, or if they have a special interest or hobby.
- Buy a stack of notecards and keep them at your desk.
- The day before each birthday, remind your boss to pen a quick note.
- Be sure to track whether or not the note reached the person on the spreadsheet so nothing slips through the cracks.
Bonus Idea: Go-to Gifting
Giving employees a small gift with a nice card will often do the trick with your employees.
Easier said than done, we know.
In this situation, think of the boy scout motto – always be prepared.
Liza describes how she makes it work:
“Having a small but consistent gift on hand makes it a lot easier for you. Buy a ton of candles or a ton of bottles of wine and have them on hand. The card is the key ingredient in the gift. Use your company’s stationary or buy a stack of fun cards to have on hand.”
Finally, keep in mind that consistency is one of the keys to making this all work.
You don’t want to give your employees a reason to cry favoritism because you followed up an over the top, personalized celebration with one that was a little underwhelming. Consider factors like the size of your workforce and the number of senior level employees to come up with a system you can replicate again and again.
Also keep in mind that you don’t have to kill yourself to create something your employees will appreciate and that achieves your goals. It doesn’t have to be overly elaborate – you just need to do something that cuts through the noise and lifts everyone’s spirits for a few minutes out of the day.
Bonus Idea: Quality Time
Here’s an idea that requires no planning, no cakes, no wrapping paper, and no crazy coordination! If you’re not sure what to get or do to celebrate, then simply surprise your co-worker with some quality time.
Ideally, this quality time involves some other members of your team and an out-of-office location, but really, the only true rule is that you dedicate your complete attention to your co-worker.
Coordinate a little bit with your group ahead of time. Find out who’s available on the birthday for about 1-2 hours to go grab lunch, coffee, dessert, or drinks.
Consider where the birthday boy or girl may want to go. While an offer to take someone “wherever they want to go” may seem nice, such an open-ended request could be overwhelming to some. Who wants to make decisions on their birthday?
Simply pick a place, have everyone hold their schedules, and then approach the person on the big day. Tell them where you’d like to take them, and make sure they know you won’t do any singing if they hate that kind of thing.)
Birthday celebrations become overwhelming because of all the planning and shopping they require. This idea allows anyone in any office to have a meaningful, yet “fuss-free” birthday celebration on a moment’s notice.
Bonus Idea: Birthday Grab-bag/Grab-box
Inspired by White Elephant holiday parties, this idea ensures everyone on the team gets a birthday present and also that no one can take birthdays too seriously. (Because where’s the fun in that?)
Choose a date at the beginning of the year when everyone has to bring in a strange/interesting/funny/cute gift that costs $15 or less. (Up to you if you want everyone to wrap their gifts before bringing them in. This would add to the mystery…)
Move the gifts to a storage closet or any other spare space you can find that will accommodate the size of your gift loot. Tag each gift with a number, and then make a bowl full of corresponding number slips. (I’m sure you can see where this is going.)
When it’s someone’s birthday, you can ring a bell and sing a song, and then have the person draw from the bowl. Have a “host” retrieve the gift corresponding to the drawn number.
Poof! Your co-worker has a birthday gift. When someone gets an especially weird gift, you might see if whoever brought it in wants to reveal their identity and the reason they brought in this particular gift.
Bonus Idea: A Good-Natured Prank
What birthday gift could be better than the gift of humor?
Some personalities grow easily embarrassed by the topic of birthdays. The cheesy cards make them feel a little nauseated. The songs and eyeballs make them blush. Having everyone ask them about their plans or their age makes them want to hide in a hole. However, these same personalities often love a well-played joke.
A prank isn’t mean. Consider it a way for bashful birthday celebrators to acknowledge their birthdays with a huge dose of self-deprecating flare. It also makes for amazing co-worker bonding. This idea allows you to give laughter and an absolutely unforgettable workplace memory.
Tip! Do take care to make sure this birthday idea meshes with your co-workers personality. Obviously, a prank is not for everyone!
If your prank bank is running low on ideas, then these sparks should help you out:
- The classic stapler in Jello schtick.
- Stage a seemingly sinister meeting, such as “Course Correction Action Plan” or “Disciplinary Action.” Start the meeting as usual, and then have everyone stand up and toss confetti on the birthday boy or girl.
- Wrap their cubicle or office door in festive paper. Bonus points if you fill the inside with balloons.
- Create a string maze.
- Have an adorable dog? Dress it up as a spider and bring it in to help your co-worker celebrate in fear and in style.
- The list goes on and on.
We hope you found some great employee birthday celebration ideas. And we hope you learned how to celebrate birthdays at work. What are some creative employee birthday ideas you use at your office? Let us know in the comments below.
Free Download: Download this entire list as a PDF. Easily save it on your computer for quick reference or print it for future birthdays.