piece of work

Nobody Likes Doing Secret Santa at Work

Photo: Angela Cappetta/Getty Images

Piece of Work is a weekly column about workplace behavior and feelings: everything that happens at the office, except your actual job.

Cindy Lou (not her real name) used to work at a library, and one year, she and her co-workers — a small, relatively close-knit group of people — decided to do a Secret Santa book exchange for Christmas. Cindy Lou had previously complained (in “SFW terms,” she clarifies) about her “hopeless” love life, which is perhaps what made her boss, who drew her name for the exchange, feel that buying her a copy of Sex Tips for Straight Women From Gay Men was a good idea.

(It was not.) (This should be obvious.)

“I loved my boss, and we’re still friendly, but it was pretty mortifying and weird to open that and be like, here this is a gift from your DIRECT SUPERVISOR,” Cindy Lou tells me. “Our overall manager was immediately like ‘Put that away, that’s an HR violation.’”

Cindy Lou’s story is (one hopes) atypically awkward, but the general employee consensus surrounding workplace Secret Santa is: Why are we doing this? Who is this benefitting? Why would we take an already bad tradition (Secret Santa) and make it bloodthirsty (White Elephant)? What useless crap can I really buy Suzie in accounting with the $10 limit, and couldn’t this $10 be better spent on my lunch? What if I don’t even celebrate Christmas? How can we make this stop?

Philip Hancock is a professor of work and organization at the University of Essex who has studied the surprisingly historic relationship between work and Christmas, and he has thoughts about workplace Secret Santa. Firstly, let us be abundantly clear: Secret Santa is done not for the employees, but the employers. “Gift-giving at work is a continuation of themes that go right back to medieval times, and actually before Medieval Times,” says Hancock. “Gifts are very rarely truly altruistic, but they’re about establishing status.” In the British royal court, Hancock says, gift-giving was all about sucking up to an often-ruthless monarch. “If you got [a gift] wrong, you could find yourself locked up,” he says. “If you got it right, you could find yourself in a position of power.”

Today, there is only slightly less pressure placed on workplace gift-giving — it is still, first and foremost, an opportunity to judge the tastes of our colleagues. Britney, who once participated in a $20 White Elephant exchange in her department at work, recounted the time a co-worker threw a pair of 2014 novelty New Year’s glasses in a bag and called it a day. (It was not 2014.) “If there were any festive feelings in the room before that moment, they immediately went out the window,” says Britney. “The gift-giver tried to rationalize that when her family does white elephant, someone will usually throw in a crappy gift to make the game more competitive. But let’s call it for what it is: cheap.” There wasn’t even tissue paper in the bag, she tells me, still traumatized several years later.

While many employees take the Secret Santa directive seriously, and use their hard-earned $20 on a decent bottle of wine, or a gift card, there will always be someone who thinks of this Secret Santa as his comedic debut. Usually, this person is not funny. Kris tells me about a co-worker who took their company’s White Elephant exchange as an opportunity to present as a “gift” an assortment of office-found, unwanted free stuff, including: “two books about Boo the internet famous Pomeranian, a tube of tennis balls and some random snacks.” To add insult to injury, this guy then stole the beloved, just-opened present of a co-worker, described to me as “one of those toys where you place a coin and a cat pops out of a box to take it.”

Nightmare scenarios like these are why it’s essential for management to set clear Secret Santa guidelines, says Jessica Methot, associate professor of human resource management at Rutgers University. “You don’t want to get caught up buying a gag gift when everyone else bought something nice. People do much better with clarity,” she says. “They don’t do well with uncertainty, especially in these kinds of situations, so just setting clear ground rules is really important.” This also, of course, means setting a dollar limit to spending. (And, perhaps, a dollar minimum.)

“From a managerial perspective, if you don’t want this purportedly jolly, altruistic experience to go very badly wrong, and you want it to be something that builds morale rather than undermines it, then I think setting budgets is very, very important,” adds Hancock.

Another reason for the Great Santa Secret Divide has to do with the differing goals of management and employees. “The reason generally that managers would think Secret Santa is a good idea is because they see it as relationship building,” says Methot. “The hope would be that those informal relationships would translate into better working relationships. It’ll keep people happier, it’ll prevent people from quitting, so it’s better for our retention rates, it just creates a more positive work environment.” So goes the theory, but one minor complication is that many people don’t actually want informal relationships with their co-workers, whom they may feel they see plenty of already. With Secret Santa, says Methot, “you’re forcing this integration of the formal, public role of a co-worker with the informal and private role of friend, and that just really isn’t interesting to a lot of people. A lot of people want to keep work at work and keep their friends at home, and not really have to force the integration of the two.”

So if almost nobody likes workplace Secret Santa, wouldn’t we just be happier if we just stopped doing it, and all other enforced office holiday merriment, altogether? Unfortunately, no, says Hancock. In his research, he’s found that while most people dislike participating in compulsory office fun, they also feel wronged when office fun is revoked. In fact, he is currently witnessing this very phenomenon in his own workplace. “This year, for the first time, the university is not providing Christmas lunch for the academics, for a whole range of reasons that may be legitimate,” he says. “But even though we all hated the Christmas events, everybody’s now saying the university is just too tight, and they don’t care. Nobody wanted them, but now they’re not there, and everybody’s quite upset about it.”

Perhaps, in that sense, Secret Santa (and especially White Elephant) is a Christmas tradition suited nowhere better than the workplace, where nobody is happy, no matter what, but at least we feel a bit better when we can complain about something dumb, together. God bless us, every one.

Nobody Likes Doing Secret Santa at Work