April 26, 2022

Is throwing a surprise birthday party at work still a good idea?

An employee from Kentucky was dismissed after suffering panic attacks at work due to a surprise birthday party against his wishes. As a result, he was awarded a £345,314 pay out. This case prompts us to question – is throwing birthday parties at work still a good idea?

The case

The employee, who suffers from anxiety disorders due to childhood trauma, had asked his manager not to throw any parties for him due to his disability. However, the manager went ahead against the employee’s wishes, and threw him a surprise birthday party at work, causing the employee to suffer panic attacks.  These were so severe that the employee was sent home from work.

The following day in a heated meeting, the employee was “confronted and criticised”. He was accused of “stealing his co-workers joy” and “being a little girl”. This meeting also triggered further panic attacks and the following day the employee was dismissed over concerns about workplace safety.

What went wrong

The chief operating officer at the company said ultimately the employee was dismissed due to him violating the “workplace violence policy”. The attorney in the case advised that there was no evidence of this, and that the employee had only suffered an anxiety attack. If management had listened to the employee, and not ignored his request, then none of this would have happened. Instead, management went ahead regardless, ultimately creating an environment where the employee felt intimidated and bullied.

Anxiety disorders and stress in the workplace

Anxiety disorders cover a wide range of mental illnesses, that are often invisible to detect. In instances of stress, they may become more visible, such as the person may suffer from panic attacks and physical and cognitive symptoms, including sweating, irritability, chest pain, and restlessness. Usually these effects these are triggered by situations where the employee can feel out of their depth, under pressure to get a task completed, and/or generally feeling stressed.

In their employee health and wellbeing survey 2022, The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) highlighted some key factors that help managers and co-workers protect people’s resilience to stress. These include:

  • Workloads/volume of work
  • Non-work factors – such as relationships and family issues
  • Management style
  • Illness and health issues
  • Work demands and new work challenges
  • Poor work life balance

In the UK an estimated 14% of all workers will suffer from some form of mental illness at some time during their employment. As a result of this, an estimated 12% of employees are absent from work due to sickness. This case reveals just how far HR has to come in understanding hidden disabilities such as anxiety, as well as how to to sensitively handle stress in the workplace.

If you’d like some advice on how to manage stress in your workplace, you can download our guide for employers here.

So, should we stop hosting surprise birthday parties in the workplace?

When an employee makes their manager aware of a disability, there is a duty for the employer to make reasonable adjustments where they can to accommodate it. These should be guided by the employee and may include changing the physical work environment. Although social anxiety may or may not amount to a disability for an individual, there’s no reason for the employer to take such a narrow view of their responsibilities. If the employee tells you that they do not wish to participate in social events, especially surprise ones, it’s wise to respect their choice.

But an easy way for employers to avoid landing in a similar situation to the one above is to remove surprise social events altogether. This would make for a calmer environment that all employees would enjoy, whilst also benefitting those who feel stressed in such events. A more organised social calendar would give employees the opportunity to choose which events they want to take part in, plan for them, and look forward to them.

The office birthday celebration has also come under scrutiny from HR professionals as perhaps exposing employees to potential age discrimination, another protected characteristic. For example, having the person’s age printed on a balloon or birthday cake may reveal more than the employee would like to their colleagues.

At the end of the day, managers need to listen to their employees’ individual preferences and be sensitive to their needs. If you’re unsure, you should always ask.

Moorepay offers support in creating non-harassment and bullying, equally opportunity, diversity, and inclusion workplace policies – please contact us directly for details.

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About the author

Stephen Johnson

About the author

Stephen Johnson

Stephen has over 25 years experience in private sector HR and management roles, working as a Manager for over 10 years and eventually moving into the financial services industry. In his current role as an HR Policy Review Consultant he develops, reviews and maintains our clients’ employment documentation. With extensive knowledge of management initiatives and HR disciplines Stephen is commercially focused and supports clients in delivering their business objectives whilst minimising the risk of litigation.

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