Secret Santa: the festive menace

It turns out anonymous festive gift exchanges could put the very fabric of your business at risk. Who knew?

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 09 Dec 2010
While most people spend the days leading up to Christmas worrying what shade of socks their dad would like, MT’s thoughts at this time of year inevitably turn to its colleagues – specifically, what strategy it will employ to avoid the annual festive car crash that is office Secret Santa. So thank Jesus, Mary, Joseph and all the associated shepherds and wise men that a press release landed in our inbox just today advising us on just that. According to management consultancy Croner, the practice is so riddled with opportunities to injure, offend and generally wreak office havoc that some organisations are considering abandoning it altogether…

In case you’re (blissfully) unaware of how it works, Secret Santa involves randomly assigning everyone in the office another person in the company to buy a gift for. The idea is that, in the spirit of Christmas giving, the giver is kept secret from the receiver – someone’s even made an app for it. So far, so festive. But Croner warns that people’s good intentions can be misconstrued – and if an employee has a complaint, it’s the business that’s liable.

As usual, it’s the Government ruining all our fun. One thing that the majority of employees probably don’t have on their mind when they’re selecting Secret Santa gifts (or rushing around Tesco in their lunch hour because they’ve forgotten. Not that MT would ever do such a thing…) is new discrimination legislation. Apparently, there are nine ‘protected characteristics’ employees should consider before they buy their gift, including religious and philosophical beliefs, race, sex, age, ‘gender reassignment’, marital status, pregnancy/maternity, disability and sexual orientation. Which, incidentally, also form the basis of a little-known (but very catchy) alternative version of the carol: On the first day of Christmas, my colleague gave to me, a gift that offended my religious beliefs…

The potential for chaos doesn’t stop there, though. Croner says Secret Santa could also threaten company morale. The firm cautions that, to avoid unnecessary distress, ‘organisations might want to consider contingency plans for gift swapping’, just in case someone doesn’t turn up to work on Secret Santa D-Day. Because while most people could probably shrug it off, there’s a chance that they could also harbour feelings of being ‘undervalued or forgotten’ which can ‘cause an awkward atmosphere and low team morale which lasts well beyond the Christmas period’. Egad.

Fair enough, this may all be a bit political-correctness-gone-mad – but it does actually make a fairly valid point: Christmas can be a bit of a political minefield, particularly if you have an employee with a slightly off-beat sense of humour. So while a thorough briefing on the Nine Protected Characteristics of Christmas might be going over the top a bit, perhaps a quick reminder that certain people don’t drink so would rather not receive booze, or that blonde jokes really aren’t funny any more, might not go amiss. And if in doubt, chocolate is always a good alternative. Unless the recipient is a vegan, of course…

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