What Secret Santa reveals about office politics

As the year draws to a close, and office workers spend their last few work days at work, the prospect of Secret Santa gift-giving looms large in many workplaces.

It’s just a bit of fun, you may think, but actually, the Secret Santa tradition reveals a good deal about the dynamic of your office and its office politics.

At its worst, the tradition is a real highlighter of passive aggression. The fact that Secret Santa is supposedly secret means people can get away with some pretty dire gifts. And some can be downright mean. In New Zealand, one young woman shared her gift of a ‘jokey’ book called ‘How to be interesting’. Another employee took a picture for Twitter of the weight loss book and measuring tape they received from an anonymous co-worker.

There are also a lot of just plain lazy gifts, some disguised as jokes, some not. This Daily Mail thread shows one person who received a box of coal, and another who received a used sock with a broken CD inside. Other terrible gifts shown on the internet include a scribbled IOU note, and an apple plus Happy Christmas scrawled on office stationery.

And then there are the do-good messages. One woman received a bible from a co-worker. The recipient, although not religious, chose to see the good in the gift, thinking the giver meant well. But when she opened the bible, she found passages had been highlighted to pass judgement on her life, including anything to do with sex, women’s clothing, and nonbelievers. It’s unlikely any good will come of that blunt message.

On TV, in that great parody of bad office culture, the American Office, the boss, Michael (played by Steve Carell) decides to show his generosity by flouting the $20 limit, buying a $400 iPod as his gift. But when he receives a home-made oven glove in return, he fails to hide his fury and disappointment and invents a game called ‘Yankee Swap’ allowing people to reject the gifts they’ve been given, all in the name of ‘fun’. It ends in tears, inevitably, as the clip below shows.

And if you’re a disgruntled worker, remember giving the gift of your resignation via the Secret Santa may not be the best way to get a good reference, however tempting.

If you’re lucky enough to work in an office with a healthy, supportive atmosphere with colleagues who truly value each other, you’ll find that everyone takes a bit of effort to get genuinely good gifts within the set budget. It doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Great gifts include chocolates, a good bottle of wine, or a thoughtful bit of homeware. This is when Secret Santa can actually be a lovely idea. A good manager can always help set the tone for this.

The 5 simple Secret Santa rules to stick to are:

  1. Stay within budget
    No-one likes a show off.
  2. Don’t make it too rude
    Those plastic handcuffs may have made you giggle in the shop, but try and imagine your boss opening them in front of you. Still funny?
  3. Don’t go too jokey
    Most Christmas joke gifts wear thin after a minute. Is that ‘grow your own boyfriend’ really worth the £8.99 price tag, when it’s likely to be in the bin by the end of the day. Better to buy a nice bottle of wine or box of chocolates.
  4. Don’t try and pass on a hidden message
    Passive aggression is never a good idea, subtle or otherwise. Avoid making enemies on Secret Santa day, as you won’t win any respect. If you have a genuine problem with a fellow worker, be a grown up and speak to a manager about it in the new year. Or learn to accept people’s foibles and move on.
  5. Be kind!
    It never hurts, and may actually contribute to spreading some genuine Christmas happiness.

Good luck! And have a great Christmas from all the team here at Progressive Travel Recruitment.

Tell us the worst gift you’ve ever received in the Secret Santa over on Twitter