Just a Friendly Shakedown
Shelling Out for Every Co-Worker's Birthday Can Sting

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 2, 2005

You know the drill. It's Joe's birthday. Yeah, he's the guy in the cubicle around the corner. Everyone's kicking in $5 so they can get him the inflatable flamingo for his desk. Hand it over.

Next week, it's Ginger's baby shower. Everyone is being asked to give $10 to buy her something from her registry. Who is she? Oh, she works downstairs in accounting. Someone will come by to get the money later.

It's the scenario heard 'round the cube-world. So many of us are bombarded with requests for money constantly: wedding gifts, going-away presents, birthday cakes, a new home. But how much is too much?

The sentiment is a good one. Most of us spend more time with co-workers than we do with our own family members or friends. It's nice to acknowledge a big event in everyone's life. But, wrote one reader, "this is getting annoying. Is there any discreet, classy way to say no to these kinds of things?"

My first reaction is to say that it's just good practice to join in the happy occasions. But for everyone? Even if we don't really know them? It can get out of hand.

Some can't afford to fork over the additional bucks each month. Some are paid less than others yet are expected to give the same. But they are sort of trapped. Once one person's birthday is celebrated, it snowballs. You can't just get Joe that flamingo and ignore Henry's big day the next week.

Chris McManus used to work for a publishing company in New York. At first, his co-workers informally organized little get-togethers when it was someone's birthday. But then they were afraid one person might feel left out because everyone did something for their cube-mate, but not for them.

So the employees started to acknowledge everyone's birthday.

Someone would find an appropriate present and divide the cost by the number of co-workers. "It wasn't a lot of money, but it became a problem because it started to happen a lot," said McManus, who now runs his own company, Centerstage Communications, based in Brooklyn. "We had a fairly sizable staff. And there were just spells during which time everyone had birthdays."

The publisher finally noticed and jumped in, McManus said, and started to just get cakes -- on his dime -- for everyone's birthday. Problem solved there. Who, after all, really needs an inflatable flamingo?

That solution is similar to one found by Nella G. Barkley, founder and president of the Crystal-Barkley Corp., a career counseling firm based in Charleston, S.C. She has one party a year to celebrate the groups' birthdays. There is cake and everyone gets a small gift, she said. It has become easier to do in recent years, as the company has gone virtual. It becomes a day that employees look forward to and plan to join from all over the country.

Barkley started doing the one party a year when she noticed her staff was starting to collect money for gifts around the office. "I thought, some people really can't afford this," she said.

In instances where employees feel put-upon with the moolah requests, Barkley said it would be difficult to ask the boss to foot the bill, the way she does. So instead of that, she thinks co-workers can speak up and suggest everyone just sign a card on such an occasion. It would be easy to make that sort of counterproposal, she said.

But she acknowledged that there are exceptional situations. "Maybe the office wants to get together for an employee who has extraordinary circumstances. Maybe somebody's been through a particularly hard time," she said. "Everyone, once in a while, might just want to respond spontaneously to something."

McManus clearly remembers one of those occasions. After the publishing company, he worked for a large public affairs company, also in New York. It was a little less personal than the other firm, and the company certainly didn't notice or acknowledge employee birthdays, weddings and such. But when the office's administrative assistant was due to have a baby, the co-workers got together and planned a surprise shower.

"She wasn't making the same amount of money as us and she just worked so hard for us that everyone brought their own gifts," he said.

They called her in to a board room, exclaiming there was a big problem and they needed her help. She arrived frazzled to find all her co-workers, baby gifts in hand.

An office money pool well worth it.

You can e-mail Amy Joyce atlifeatwork@washpost.comwith your column ideas. Her usual Tuesday chats athttp://washingtonpost.comwill resume Oct. 18.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company