Dear Matt: Is it ethical to celebrate birthdays at work?

Matt: While it seems like a harmless way to recognize employees, balancing the benefits of a boost in morale with a potential productivity loss can be a challenge, says Patrick Foss, CEO of Minnetonka-based ThinkTalent.

Foss once worked with a company where the office manager spent more time planning parties, contests and decorating the office than running an efficient workplace.

"Good judgment and management example should dictate the appropriate amount of time and energy directed toward celebrations - be it holiday or birthday," says Foss.

Many organizations have safely straddled middle ground by having monthly department specific birthday celebrations, recognizing all employees who share a birthday that month, says John Amodeo, manager of Talent Acquisition at Mortenson Construction and education chair for the Minnesota Technical Recruiter Network.

"These celebrations offer the warmth and recognition of getting together with peers without the lengthy time, expense and potential embarrassment of sitting through individual one hour lunches," says Amodeo.

When planning a celebration, leaders need to make sure all employees are treated the same, says human resources consultant Arlene Vernon. Supervisor favoritism, co-worker cliques and patterns of discrimination against protected classes of employees cannot exist in what appears to be an organization-sponsored activity.

Be careful celebrating the age of the employee. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits discriminating against employees 40 years of age or older. Also, what may be considered acceptable in a five-person company may not fit when there are 50 or 500 employees.

"Even if employees say it's OK to make fun of their age, you just never know how something light can be turned around to something expensive in today's litigious society," says Vernon.

If planned correctly, birthday celebrations can be a great team building activity.

"The value of rewarding and acknowledging employees can never be underestimated for the long-term effect it has on employee satisfaction," says Foss.

Amodeo agrees. "Any opportunity for team-building, sharing affirmation with peers, and recognizing individuals in our fast-paced, e-mail and voice mail driven culture is worth it."


Matt Krumrie is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, and has nine years of experience reporting on the employment industry. The first Sunday of each month this column will answer readers' questions. E-mail questions or subject ideas to askmatt@startribune.com.