British Etiquette for the Work Birthday Party

Sumena Owen / © Culture Trip
Sumena Owen / © Culture Trip
Photo of Aimee Sics
16 April 2018

Ah, the dreaded work birthday. To celebrate, or not to celebrate? Most of can agree that the only thing more embarrassing than feebly singing Happy Birthday to a colleague while they awkwardly take apart a supermarket tray cake is being the birthday person yourself. Ignoring birthdays in the workplace altogether might be the merciful thing for everyone involved. But it would also go against British conventions of politeness and gold old fashioned celebration. So, if you do choose to mark the occasion, here are some British etiquette tips to get you through it all.

The card

Who buys it? Who signs it? Will there be feelings of neglect because Nancy got more signatures than Tim? And do you give it to them with the cake? Wait, what cake? (See below). To summarise, the etiquette rule of thumb here is: buy one card from the entire department; keep the messages optimistic, brief and professional. Only sign Steve’s card if you know who Steve is.

The cake

Consistency is key here. Most companies follow either a bring-your-own cake decree or a general policy along the lines of “Surprise! We got you a cake for your birthday! Although you’ve probably seen it in the communal fridge!”, both of which are completely accepted and satisfactory practices. The latter often requires a delegate to remember birthdays and to ensure equal treatment and spend across all workers. So, while it’s not ideal, the BYO cake option is a fail-safe in case your colleagues fail to register that it’s your big day. If everyone’s responsible for their own baked treats, everyone knows where they stand.

Sumena Owen / | © Culture Trip


By this stage, you’ve already spent enough money on the card and possibly on a cake purchase. Is a present necessary? Office birthdays need not involve any financial compulsion from fellow employees, and (so as not to constantly irk the office Scrooge) gifts are usually reserved for when a worker is leaving the company. If your workplace has always had a birthday-present-giving culture, best to make it clear that there is a modest budget. The fun doesn’t stop there: deciding what to buy is another minefield to tackle. Top tip: keep it simple.

Attendance at celebration

Let’s be clear: attendance is not obligatory. Nobody with a 5pm school pickup should feel they need to stick around for a slice of cake and some muttered words of thanks. However, if you choose to remain seated at your desk, catching up on your Facebook feed while the celebration (however muted) takes place around you, this will not endear you to the rest of your office. If you’ve nowhere else to be, set aside a few minutes to swivel your chair around, crack a smile and show your colleagues you care.

Sumena Owen / | © Culture Trip

When it’s the boss!

Choppy waters here, and it’s best to strike a balance. While you don’t want to go overboard and be the brown-nosed fawn of the workplace, you also don’t want to be too formal or stuffy and cause your boss to stand out like a porcupine at a nudist colony. Best bet? Follow the usual protocol and be sure to make your attendance noted.

After hours fun

Two options here: invite everyone along to the bar down the road and deal with any awkwardness this entails (you should be good at that by now), or keep it under wraps if you’d prefer to mark the occasion with just a small group of close colleagues. Top tip: try to avoid posting on social media. Nobody wants to feel left out. Moreover, if everyone knows a few drinks descended into a midnight karaoke fest with Mitch singing Whitney Houston, there’ll be a few red faces in the next morning’s conference call.

Sumena Owen / | © Culture Trip

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