The safe way to recognise a workplace birthday

Office birthday Image copyright Thinkstock

Manchester City footballer Yaya Toure has caused a furore by saying the club failed to mark his 31st birthday in a satisfactory manner. What's the etiquette of workplace birthdays, asks Vanessa Barford.

Imagine it's your birthday. You've gone to work. No-one acknowledges it.

That's the scenario Toure felt he faced last week. He says club owners ignored him and nobody shook his hand on his birthday. Man City responded by releasing a video of the footballer being presented with a cake on the team's flight to Abu Dhabi.

"Of course Yaya is upset about this. If this happened to you as a journalist in the BBC and nobody shakes your hand, you will say bye-bye and go to work for somebody else. It is normal," his agent Dimitri Seluk said.

But do people expect a handshake, a "happy birthday"? A slap on the back? Cake or cards? The etiquette of office birthdays has prompted modern manners experts to bring out an array of guides on how to celebrate and giving at the office without going broke.

So what's the right way to deal with a colleague's birthday at work?

Celebrations take their lead from the celebrator. The onus is on the person whose birthday it is to let others know, according to agony aunt Virginia Ironside.

"You can't expect people to remember. Facebook can help. But by saying it's my birthday next week, people are saying, 'I want you to send me a card'."

The person celebrating their birthday should be the provider of the cake, she says. Nobody should expect presents.

In practice things aren't that simple. Workplace birthdays are a "complete and utter minefield" because every workplace, department and team does things differently, says behaviour expert Judi James.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Happy birthday, Yaya

"People will notice what happens to their colleagues and expect the same. If that doesn't happen, people can get upset or resentful."

Some people are trickier than others. The boss, for example: "You don't want to look like you're brown-nosing, but at the same time if you don't celebrate appropriately, they might take revenge for the rest of year."

For James, part of the problem is that in most offices, there isn't a company responsibility, or a designated person who deals with birthdays. The best solution would be for someone to keep a log on what was bought for every individual. "Birthdays bring out people's infantile side," she says. "Never underestimate how divisive they can be."

What happens in your workplace when it's somebody's birthday? Let us know, using the form on the right, by email at or tweet @BBCNewsMagazine