Some people see an office birthday celebration as a morale boost amid a dreary workday. Others view the cake in the conference room as a borderline depressing ritual of forced cheer that they want no part of. But however you view the office birthday party, it’s important to find out how the honoree feels about it before throwing one, and to respect their wishes if they’re not interested.
Otherwise, it can result in disaster for your company, as a Kentucky employer recently found out.
In that case, Kevin Berling, a lab worker at a diagnostics company, asked his office manager not to throw a birthday celebration for him as it did for other employees. Apparently Berling suffered from anxiety and panic attacks and told the manager a birthday celebration would trigger traumatic childhood memories of his parents’ divorce.
The office manager was not at work on Berling’s birthday and did not tell the rest of the staff not to throw a party. Berling’s co-workers decided to plan a surprise celebration at lunch. He caught wind of it, suffered a panic attack and spent the lunch period taking refuge in his car.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it. Berling’s managers subsequently called him into a meeting where they criticized his reaction and accused him of “stealing his co-workers’ joy” and “being a little girl.”
This apparently led to another panic attack, which Berling tried to de-escalate by clenching his fists. His managers became alarmed and claimed they feared a violent response. They told him to leave the property and fired him several days later.
Berling responded with a lawsuit alleging disability discrimination. He also alleged that he was retaliated against for asking for a reasonable accommodation for his disability. A jury ruled in his favor, awarding him a substantial sum for emotional distress and lost wages.
Although the case presents an unusual set of facts, employers who want to avoid a similar fate need to listen to their employees, watch for indications of potential disabilities and be alert for when an employee is requesting a reasonable accommodation, even if he or she doesn’t use those exact terms. Employers also need to be aware that as more companies return to work in person, employees may be very cautious about interactions like office birthday celebrations.