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

An HR expert guides us through the annual gift swap (and suggests one of the most passive-aggressive gifts ever).


Few workplace activities open up the office to awkwardness and outrage quite like Secret Santa. No matter how many guidelines are put into place, at least one person is bound to bring something that would send even the most relaxed HR department into a panic, and somehow, like a sick joke, the people who hate each other the most almost always end up being paired up together (screw you and your poorly decorated coffee mug, Richard).

To help your office put the cheer back into this holiday celebration, we asked HR expert Terry Petracca how to ensure your office Secret Santa goes off without a hitch, and of course, what to do when you get paired with a, er, Richard. “Sometimes you have to give ignorance a pass ,” Petracca suggests. “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.”

Speaking of which, since there are several variations of these holiday gift exchanges, Petracca recommends understanding the ins and outs of each one and ensuring everyone in your office is crystal clear as to which is happening. Here are the three big ones, per Petracca:

  • Secret Santa: “Draw a name and buy a gift for that person without revealing your name until you’re told to do so,” Petracca explains.
  • Yankee Swap: “Bring a nice gift,” Petracca says, “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,” says Petracca. “You may be too embarrassed to reveal what you brought to the party.”

Once everyone knows exactly which gift exchange your office is hosting, confirm the rules, communicate with each other and consider using technology to keep things running smoothly. “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,” says Petracca. “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 for what to do about your version of my Richard, Petracca says, “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.”

Damn, that’s cold.