The Do's and Don'ts of the Office Secret Santa

Reader Resource

Position yourself for growth in 2017—join us live at the Entrepreneur 360 Conference in Long Beach, Calif. on Nov. 16. Secure Your Seat »

It’s a popular Christmastime tradition played in offices across the country, but while “Secret Santa” can be a fun way to engage your team and boost morale around the holidays, it can create more anxiety if not done right.

Modern etiquette coach Maggie Oldham gives some do’s and don’ts to ensure your Secret Santa exchange brings your office holiday cheers rather than tears:

Do: Participate.

Even if you’re feeling more like the Grinch than Santa this holiday season, not participating can make you stand out as someone who isn’t a real team player. Remember, the point of Secret Santa is to help foster teamwork and boost employee morale. “If it’s within your budget, I would recommend doing it because it shows your willingness to participate in a team building activity,” says Oldham.

Don’t: Force participation.

Secret Santa should be voluntary. Be mindful that some people may not have extra gifts in their holiday budget or may not want to participate for religious reasons.

Related: The 13 'Must-Dos' to Include on Your Holiday Checklist

Do: Set a price limit.

Keep in mind people have holiday budgets and might not have counted in office gifts. Oldham recommends a price limit of $25. “It’s not too small where you’re just getting someone a junk gift and it’s not too large where it might put someone out of their budget,” says Oldham. 

Don’t: Go above and beyond.

No one likes a show-off, especially when it comes to Secret Santa. While you may think the price limit is too low, buying something that’s clearly over the limit will just serve to make everyone else feel lousy. If your recipient is a close friend of yours and you want to buy them something more extravagant, you can always get them something else, but stick to the price limit for the purpose of the Secret Santa. That said, you shouldn’t cheap out either. Buying a $5 gift when the price limit is $25 will just have you looking like the office Scrooge.

Do: Attempt to find out about your recipient.

For large offices where gift givers and receivers may not know each other, Oldham recommends organizers put together a small questionnaire that fits on an index card to help gift givers get to know their receivers. Questions such as your favorite hobbies, favorite cuisine or favorite holiday treat can help gift givers get something they know their receiver will enjoy. 

Don’t: Get gifts that are personal.

Avoid personal items such as perfume that can be considered romantic, especially if given from a male to female colleague. “Anything you would buy for your significant other should be avoided,” says Oldham. Although it’s Christmas, Oldham says to stay away from religious items. “Unless you’re working for a Christian non-profit, you wouldn’t give someone a Nativity set or a cross,” she says. 

Related: The Secret to the Perfect Holiday Email Campaign

Do: Stick to generic gifts.

“These gifts are probably going to be opened in an office setting and you don’t want to raise eyebrows or make the person feel uncomfortable,” says Oldham. Avoid gifting clothing as people may be sensitive about others in the office knowing their size, or worse, if the gift giver guesses the inaccurate size. One-size-fits-all clothing, on the other hand, such as mittens or a scarf are great gift ideas. Other generic gifts such as a candle or picture frame are also appropriate office Secret Santa gifts.

Do: Thank your gift-giver.

Even if you don’t like your Secret Santa gift, you should still show your appreciation for the gesture and thank your Santa. “That person went out of their way to purchase something for you that they thought you would like,” says Oldham. Remember, the Secret Santa exchange is between colleagues who may not know your taste, so there shouldn’t be an expectation that the gift will be exactly what you wanted. “It’s not your best friend or your husband, so they don’t know you nearly as well,” says Oldham. 

Don’t: Whisper to your co-worker how much you hate your gift.

Remember office gossip can spread like wildfire. You’d hate for word to get back to your gift giver that you dislike your gift. Remember, the Secret Santa is supposed to be a light-hearted, fun activity. “It’s not about the gift and whether you like it, it’s about the activity itself,” says Oldham.

Related: What I Learned in Making My Employees Build a Christmas Tree Out of Business Books