The Party Fund Problem--Collecting Money in the Workplace

Last Updated Jun 22, 2011 6:32 AM EDT

Dear Evil HR Lady,

I often find myself in scenarios where my co-workers ask the team to contribute money for a common cause. It might be the birthday cake fund ("The team has hired 5 new people and we need to buy a bigger cake, so we need an extra five dollars.") When a co-worker gets married, the team wants to purchase them a gift card. And the like.

Now, I often don't mind contributing to these kinds of things - five bucks here, ten dollars here, and it's all good. But I hate the emails I get asking for money. I don't like that someone keeps a mental spreadsheet of who contributes and who doesn't. And harder still is when I am tasked with passing around the hat - is there even a tactful non-obligatory anonymous way to collect money without making people feel pressure?

I suggested that, in one instance, I would just purchase the gift card on behalf of the team. But no, they clamored, the gift is from *all of us*, not from *you*, which means I might not collect enough for a meaningful gift and forces me to beg for money from everyone else.

How might I suggest that our team proceed for the next money-collection? Should I just purchase the gift (which I am willing to do on my own means) and pretend like everybody contributed equally?

These initiatives are not coming from management, so there is no foul play there. How should workplace community pots of money be handled?

Nothing can make people crankier than a discussion of money. In fact, I got cranky just reading your email. Now, I like cake just as much as the next person (and brownies even more than the next person), but I, too, hate the whole gathering of money.

Five or ten dollars doesn't seem like a big deal and for most people it's not. But, when you're celebrating everyone's birthday at $10 per person, in a department with 20 people that's $200. Plus, Jill is getting married this year so there's the obligatory wedding shower and John's wife is pregnant, so of course you have to do a baby shower, and showers without presents are hardly showers, right? Again, for some people these costs are no big deal and they thorough enjoy them.

For others, these little expenses cause real hardship. And you can't assume that because we're all professionals and have similar salaries, if it's not a problem for you it's not for anyone. You don't know that. You have no idea what burdens people are living with. A spouse could be unemployed, a child sick, or there could be a brother with mental illness that requires support. You don't know and further more, you shouldn't ask.

The reality is, if people have to keep lists of who donated and who did not donate and harass the people who didn't, then that should be a clue that people aren't interested in whatever special occasion is being celebrated. This can cause really hurt feelings if everyone is rushing to donate $20 for Jane's birthday, but you can't seem to get $0.50 out of people for Harriet's birthday. Here are some ideas to suggest to the group:

Stop the practice altogether. We're adults, right? If we want a piece of cake we can buy a cake mix, on sale for $1.29 and make one ourselves. If we want to wish our coworkers happy birthday, we can do that on our own as well.

Create a general party fund. Instead of collecting for every birthday, baby and wedding, at the beginning of the year, everyone chips in what they want to. No lists are kept and when the collection time ends, you know how much money you have to spend during the year. But wait! (I can hear this being shouted by the party proponents,) if we do this, there won't be enough money! Exactly. If there's not enough money it's because people do not want to spend their money on this stuff. This is what we call, in technical terms, a clue.

If you must collect money, pass an envelope. Take a big manilla envelope, print up a list of everyone in the department (except the recipient) and stick it on the front of the envelope with the following notice: This is a collection for [event]. Please sign the card and contribute towards group gift (suggested amount $10). After you have signed the card, cross your name off and give it to the next person on the list. When finished, please return it to [unlucky person organizing this]. This way, if someone doesn't wish to contribute, they don't have to and no one knows who didn't contribute. Again, if people aren't contributing enough, then you should see above--stop the practice altogether.

Turn it over to the boss. If the boss wants to buy a cupcake, let the boss buy the birthday boy a cupcake. If the boss wants to buy a cake for the whole department to share, let the boss buy the cake.

Have a once a month/quarter birthday celebration. Depending on the size of your department you may be able to group everything together. No one gets missed, everyone gets cake, and there is fixed dollar amount you can calculate at the beginning of the year.

Limit celebrations to important events. Everyone gets older ever year, and it's not a big deal. (It's really not, people, and the temper tantrum you throw when things don't go your way is so ridiculous I can hardly stand it. You are not turning 7, you are turning 37. Let's act it, shall we?) Getting married=big deal. Having a baby=big deal. Again, use the general party fund or the envelope method and have a party to celebrate the really big thing. (Please note: If you are going to do work baby/bridal showers, dads and grooms get equal treatment.)

Shut your trap, do whatever the party coordinator wants, and don't worry about it. Sometimes we focus too much on these trivial things. Heaven knows, I do. Give it up, hand over the money when asked and show up for your piece of cake.

Of course, there are different consequences to each one of these actions. But the fact that there are discussions amongst the staff over how to handle this tells me that most people don't want to participate, the boss isn't on board, and you've probably got a party fanatic bullying everyone else into participating. And we all know that bullies just need to be stopped.

Have a workplace dilemma? Email your question to EvilHRLady@gmail.com.