The do's and don'ts of work Secret Santa: HR experts on gifts that could get you sacked

Co-workers in their office exchange wrapped presents
Secret Santa is a fun game, but can be stressful in the workplace. (Getty Images)

Whether you love it or hate it, the office Secret Santa is a time-honoured tradition amongst many workplaces. It can be lots of fun looking for a gift for your fellow colleagues, but it can get tricky if you don’t know them too well.

There’s plenty of room for error, and if you make the wrong judgement call on a Secret Santa gift, you could end up in serious trouble with your company. David Rice, HR expert at People Managing People, warned that Secret Santa could turn from nice to naughty if employees “aren’t careful”.

“Whilst it would be a worst-case scenario, there are gifts that could result in employees receiving a warning, a disciplinary, or even losing their job if they aren’t extra careful,” he said.

The stress of getting the right Secret Santa gift for a colleague affects two in five employees more than playing the same game with family (20%) or friends (15%), according to research by LinkedIn. The biggest source of stress (28%) came from not knowing the person enough to know what they'd like, followed by getting someone the wrong present (23%) and having to pretend to like a gift they've received (16%).

Here are the dos and don'ts of Secret Santa, so you don’t land in hot water with HR.

What not to give for Secret Santa

Anything with sexual connotations

Even if it’s meant to be funny, any gift that carries sexual connotations are deeply inappropriate in the workplace. Rice advised: “As a rule of thumb, ask yourself if it’s something you’d feel comfortable giving to your grandma for Christmas. If the answer is no, then it’s probably best to avoid gifting it.

“These days with social media, business owners are likely to be much more cautious of images and videos being released of any inappropriate gifts that could position the business in a negative light.”

Personal joke presents

Office staff enjoying a Christmas party together, unwrapping gifts as part of secret Santa
Choosing the right Secret Santa present can be a wonderful thing, but the wrong one might land you in trouble. (Getty Images)

Rice said: “Even if the present references a personal joke between you and another colleague who is unlikely to be offended by it, it could still result in you losing your job if it breaches company policy.

“Business owners are responsible for their employee’s actions, so anything that could be deemed as harassment or bullying, could end up being taken far more seriously than it was first intended.”

Anything offensive about religious beliefs

Be aware and mindful of your Secret Santa recipient’s religious beliefs, as you run the risk of getting them a gift that might go against their practices.

For example, if you were planning to give someone alcohol as a gift, first consider if it could cause offence if it goes against their faith, Rice said.

Anything with a political slogan

“It’s best to avoid anything that references a political stance in any way,” Rice warned. “For example any merchandise such as t-shirts or mugs that reference the name of a political party or their slogan is a no-go. Even if it’s part of an inside joke, as soon as any image is shared on social media that can then be linked back to the company, anyone can assume the company also favours this political stance.

“Mocking someone’s political stance is never a good idea in the workplace, as it can severely tarnish relationships between colleagues. If the matter gets out of hand, it can result in a disciplinary or even dismissal in some cases.”


Asian woman have a problem with work and worried about project, sitting at home office on Christmas day.
"Tere are gifts that could result in employees receiving a warning, a disciplinary, or even losing their job if they aren’t extra careful," says HR expert David Rice. (Getty Images)

It’s best to avoid giving your Secret Santa any form of clothing as it could easily cause offence if you get their size wrong or choose something they deeply dislike.

“Whilst you can of course share a gift receipt, you can’t foresee how some people may react if you get it drastically wrong,” Rice said. “If they do feel offended, it can mean having to have some awkward conversations afterwards which could really affect how you work together in future.”

How to choose the right Secret Santa gift

It's not all doom and gloom though, and you can still have plenty of fun with Secret Santa. To help you nail the game this year, LinkedIn career expert Charlotte Davies advised:

Have fun with it

Davies said: "The season is about joy, so feel free to keep it nice and light-hearted if you know your coworker can appreciate a joke…otherwise it's better to play it safe. As long as it conforms to 'elf and safety'!"

Pay closer attention

Office staff enjoying a Christmas party together, unwrapping gifts as part of secret Santa. A man is unwrapping a gift while laughing. They are in the North east of England.
The Secret Santa game can be fun for everyone and helps strengthen relationships between colleagues. (Getty Images)

"Don’t be elf-ish when buying your Secret Santa gift! Take some time to understand your colleagues’ interests and use that for inspiration: what does their desk look like? What are their weekend plans? What do they usually have for lunch?" she recommended.

Stick to the budget

"Secret Santa is designed for you to have a bit of fun in the countdown to Christmas and there’s a price limit for a reason. Underspend and, oh, deer, it might look like you haven’t made an effort, but overspend and yule be sorry. Best just to stick to the budget."

Build a relationship

"Secret Santa can be a great opportunity to get to know the people you work with better and build evergreen relationships. At the start of this year, LinkedIn research revealed 30% of professionals said they wanted to make more of an effort this year with colleagues, so now is one of the last chances to make good on that promise before the Christmas break! There’s snow time like the present!"

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