What’s the Boundary of Appropriateness for Secret Santa, and What Do I Do If I Hate the Person I Got?

An HR expert takes us through the do's and don'ts.

What’s the Boundary of Appropriateness for Secret Santa, and What Do I Do If I Hate the Person I Got?

Most of us work more than we live, which is to say we spend considerably more time at the office and with our coworkers than we do with the human beings we actually want in our lives. It also means that the stressors and anxieties of work become a significant part of who we are — and can be a real drag even when we’re not at the office. We don’t want all that stress to get to you , though— or worse, kill you. That’s why we’ve enlisted Terry Petracca, the hippest HR expert we know, to help solve all your work-related woes.

My department does Secret Santa every year, and there’s normally someone who manages to screw it up and make everyone feel awkward. One year someone bought deodorant for the guy everyone knows has B.O.; another year, someone got a sex guide for one of the two people we all knew were having an office affair. Both resulted in a seriously long, tense silence. Do you have any advice on appropriateness for workplace Secret Santa? And bonus question: What do I do if I wind up having to buy a gift for the one person on staff that I really hate? —Ignacio G., San Jose, CA

Sometimes you have to give ignorance a pass — you’re assuming that participants in Secret Santa know the rules, but that’s not necessarily the case. If you don’t have these rules written down and handed out, anecdotes and storytelling tends to inform how Secret Santa proceeds in your office. Similarly, some people conflate Secret Santa with White Elephant exchanges, where uber tackiness is the zenith of gift giving.

So for those of you who need clarity on these gift exchange differences, here you go:

  • Secret Santa: Draw a name and buy a gift for that person without revealing your name until you’re told to do so.
  • Yankee Swap: Bring a nice gift, draw a number and pick and/or steal a gift. You may or may not reveal what you brought to the party.
  • White Elephant: Bring a totally tasteless gift, draw a number and pick and/or steal a gift. You may be too embarrassed to reveal what you brought to the party.

Next, set the ground rules — voluntary participation; spending limits; absolutely verboten gifts such as undergarments, sex toys and other patently offensive items that have the potential to trigger a #metoo response. There are websites that can manage the entire process (e.g., Elfster, Secret Santa, Sneaky Santa). Also, remember that not everyone celebrates Christmas, so the whole Secret Santa theme can offend. As such, consider renaming the holiday event to a more generic title a la December Delight.

As to your last question, when you pull the name of your least favorite person for the holiday gift exchange, don’t get mad. While there’s advice online for passive-aggressive gift giving, I say just go to the nearest coffee shop and get a $5 gift card. Nothing screams, “I didn’t want to spend any time thinking of you” like a generic gift card.

Don’t just complain to your coworkers about everyone else you work with — let Terry help. Email her all your office-related anxieties at askterry@melindustries.com. Or, if total anonymity isn’t required, leave a question in the comments below.