We've all been there. One month, there are three birthdays in your department. Then in the summer, your heart and purse strings get tugged by co-workers looking to be sponsored for this or that charity walk. Come fall, it's Girl Scout cookie time. And let's not forget the retirements and that guy a couple of cubicles over whose wife is pregnant ... again. You smile, but you want to scream, "Leave me alone! Do you know how much I get paid?"
It's a classic office-etiquette dilemma: To chip in or not to chip in. On the one hand, you don't want to seem like a grouch or a Grinch. On the other hand, you really don't want giving at the office to make you go broke.
"What I find from companies I work with is employees are becoming very frustrated," says Jacqueline Whitmore, author of "Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work." "No one should feel like they have to give in every single situation."
So how do you deal with the delicacies of office donations? If you're going to organize a collection for a gift or a party, Whitmore recommends being clear that it's optional. And make sure the process is anonymous. She recommends making a list on the outside of the collection envelope with everyone's name. As colleagues receive the envelope, have them check their names off to ensure everyone knows it's going around. That way, nobody knows what amount you've donated, or whether you've decided not to donate.
It's also important to specify in an attached note exactly what the money will be used for. If a colleague approaches you in person and you're not contributing, Whitmore recommends saying, "Thanks for including me. I'll congratulate him or her on my own."
For those who are feeling financially strapped but want to give, Whitmore recommends saying that you're going to pass on contributing money, but you'll make your famous brownies for the party.
It's important to remember that while a gift certificate to a restaurant is nice, words go a long way. A card with a personal note in it will be around a lot longer than cash.
If you're a manager, the best thing to do is take control of celebrations and make them equal for all employees. No one wants to feel like a colleague was celebrated more than they were.
One example of such a system comes from WorldatWork, a global human resources association based in Arizona. The higher-ups took the stress out of celebrating by using the company's intranet to post items about employee milestones. Those announcements — births, deaths, anniversaries and birthdays — are placed under the personals section.
Another way they keep celebrations equal is by gathering monthly for a pot luck lunch to celebrate all the milestones that occurred in the last several weeks.
O.C. Tanner, which makes plaques and other employee recognition products, recently commissioned a survey that examined the relationship between employee recognition and a company's profitability. The results were dramatic and go a long way toward explaining their policy on professional anniversaries.
Between companies that make employee recognition a priority and those that don't, "we thought maybe there would be a 10 percent difference in profitability," says Adrian Gostick, O.C. Tanner's marketing director and author of "The Invisible Employee." Instead, the survey indicated that companies with employee recognition programs have three times the return on equity. "It was quite startling," Gostick says.
Perhaps that's why O.C. Tanner gives employees a check for $100 on their birthdays. The best part: Cash is a lot less fattening than donuts and bagels.