The possibility of offending, ridiculing, disappointing or embarrassing your colleagues with an inappropriate Secret Santa gift this Christmas far outweighs the chances of impressing or landing a promotion. Here is some gifting guidance.

Unless you have been living in a cupboard for the entirety of your working career then at some stage or another you will be asked to join in on the festive tradition known as Secret Santa, also referred to as the White Elephant Gift Exchange. The rules are two way – you pick out a colleague’s name by random from a hat (the secret) then you gift it publicly at your Christmas gathering (the Santa). That’s it. Follow the rules below and you’ll be on your way to Secret Santa success:

  1. Choose the present with the recipient in mind: If you work for a large organisation and have landed someone you don’t know anything about, take some time to Google them, check out their LinkedIn profile or get some insight into what they like doing by snooping on Facebook or ideally by quizzing a colleague that knows more about them then their online profile lets on. You’ll make a great first impression if you show some thought was put into the process.
  2. Stick to the budget: If a budget has been agreed then stick to it, if not then ask what the guideline is. Between £5 – £10 means just that, don’t be tempted to go over that, you may feel as though you are being generous but in essence you are just going to look foolish when the recipient unwraps a cashmere shawl worth £40 and looks ashamed as they give you a £5 notebook. That is not in the spirit of it, this is a team effort so keep to the rules.
  3. Ingratiate rather than ridicule: In any Secret Santa round I have been involved in the recipient usually gets to find out the identity of the buyer, especially after a few Christmas tipples have been consumed and tongues are loosened. If you are not prepared to put your name by your present then think again, it might be time to re-consider your gift.
  4. Be silly, sensibly: Assuming the budget in your office isn’t sky high then you do have the opportunity to show your humorous side with a present that will cause some giggles. Bringing a table together for some mutual enjoyment of a stick-on moustache or a whoopee cushion that can be passed around to the sound of consensual chuckles can be a winner. Wrapping up genital-shaped candy might seem like a great idea, but may just cause offence and embarrassment as the Chief Executive bites into one.
  5. Consider re-gifting: If you pocketed a gift that has sat in your draw for a year gathering dust then don’t be embarrassed to re-gift it as long as it isn’t something edible that has passed its sell-by-date. Don’t be tempted either to re-gift an item from the same circle of friends, the chances are that it will be recognised and the flash back to your public gratitude for it will wear thin if 12 months later you are seen to pass it on. Keep your Secret Santa circles separate and if you can’t remember who gave it to you then keep it in that drawer.
  6. Be creative: There’s no skill involved in buying from Amazon and, if you really want to snag a great present then get creative. Consider making something and spending your budget on craft items or ingredients. Of course, this can take time, which you might already be in short supply of so think ahead, if the annual Secret Santa comes around year after year and the format stays the same then plan ahead.
  7. Keep your emotions out of it: If you have drawn your office enemy, the colleague you have a crush on or your team member that is failing their KPIs then don’t be tempted to buy a gift that spells that out. Compiling a list of love songs on a personalised CD might be appropriate for a one-to-one exchange if you are feeling brave enough with the object of your affection but a personal display of affection may wind you up in the dog house both with the HR department and for the person to whom it was intended.
  8. Be cautious but not boring: I’ll never forget a secret Santa round I was once involved in when the giver, presented what they believed to be an extremely useful and practical gift – it was a phone charger for a car. To this day, she has never lived that moment down, we do laugh about it but practical doesn’t really cut it in Secret Santa. Remember you are getting something that is fun, a treat, a gift that will bring a smile to someone’s face, not an everyday item that you may believe to be the perfect present but in essence is something you would like and not them.
  9. Wrap it up: So, you’ve got the perfect gift. Now whatever you do, don’t let yourself down at the last moment by bringing it to the gift exchange wrapped in a plastic bag. Wrap it up before you get to the office, it doesn’t give off the right impression if you are seen to be cutting out festive paper and stealing cellotape from the office supplies whilst hiding under your desk to wrestle with paper and scissors when everyone can see what you are doing. All this says is, ‘I don’t care enough about this to prepare it in advance.’
  10. Don’t bring religion into it: If Christmas holds particular religious meaning for you then this time of year will mean all the more to you but be aware that not all of your colleagues may feel the same way; to stay on the safe side it’s best to keep your beliefs out of it so don’t be tempted to gift a Bible which you might feel is the perfect gift but may not be received as such.
  11. If you are the boss, buy the gift yourself: It may be tempting to get your PA to take on this task for you but it will speak volumes to your team if you do this one little thing yourself. Delegating your Secret Santa does not give off the right signals that you too are a team player, that you care about your workplace traditions or you are looking forward to the gift exchange and, if you are the boss then stick to rules 1-10, you really, really don’t want to be the one that buys the gift that is over budget or is inappropriate.

We’d love to hear your ideas on the best and worst Secret Santa gifts you have had. Place your comments below.

By Annie Hayes, HR freelance writer and expert.

Global Lingo supports Human Resource departments during grievance and disciplinary meetings and business restructurings. Working with Financial Institutions, Intergovernmental organisations and global Companies we provide specialist Minute-Takers for on-site or remote attendance delivering a detailed and accurate account of confidential and sensitive meetings.