Avoid Secret Santa and Gift Exchange Pitfalls at Work

As the days inch closer to Christmas, some workplaces may be getting ready to launch a Secret Santa gift exchange. But don’t buy your presents just yet. In this episode of The Workplace podcast, CalChamber Executive Vice President and General Counsel Erika Frank and employment law expert Jennifer Shaw get help from clips of “The Office” to discuss what types of gifts to avoid if your workplace decides to exchange gifts for the holidays.

Potential Snares

Although a Secret Santa gift exchange may sound like a great idea to show gratitude for your workers, Shaw says, the reality is that there can be many areas of potential conflict.

The problem is that “Secret Santa is all about stereotypes. It’s all about what you think somebody will want,” she tells Frank.

Moreover, employers and employees often forget that rules at work are different than in the home, Shaw explains. Not only is there the potential that someone may gift something that is offensive or indecent, but giving different presents to different employees may bring up perceptions of favoritism.

Gift exchanges also can stir up competition and pressure among employees.

In one of “The Office” clips that are played in the podcast, the workplace supervisor, Michael Scott, states that the monetary value of a present is tied to how much the recipient is loved and appreciated.

Shaw recounts a past holiday present she gave a secretary—a Coach-brand purse the secretary requested. The purse, however, was not as nice as one which was gifted to someone else in the office, and the secretary became upset. Now, Shaw says, the firm buys all the presents.

Gift Tips

If an employer would like to hold an office gift exchange, Shaw recommends that employers:

  • Make participation voluntary. Not everyone wants to participate or has the means to do so.
  • Set boundaries, so that all gifts are “G-rated,” and inappropriate and offensive gifts are not allowed. Employers and employees should mind the culture of the workplace and give something safe and appropriate, such as nice soaps, a bottle of wine (depending on the workplace) or food items, such as a cookie exchange.
  • Create very specific rules, including a spending cap, so that employees are not outspending each other or feel like the game is a competition to see who can buy the best present.

For employers or supervisors who want to buy their employees presents, Frank recommends getting the same gift for all employees.

“Even if the intent is not to show favoritism, your employees are going to talk about it. They’re going to compare…There are going to be assumptions that are made whether they’re true or not,” Frank says.

Ultimately, employers should think about what the purpose is behind the gift.

“It’s really not about the gift. It’s about showing your gratitude, showing that you appreciate the work that [employees] have done,” Frank explains.

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Erika Frank, longtime general counsel and executive vice president of legal affairs for the CalChamber, accepted an of counsel position in September 2021 at the Shaw Law Group, a leading employment law firm in Sacramento. She leveraged more than two decades of legal, governmental and legislative experience in advising the CalChamber and its members on the impact that labor laws, court decisions and regulations will have on employers. She has been the most frequent host of The Workplace podcast; oversaw and contributed to CalChamber labor law and human resources compliance publications; co-produced and presented webinars and seminars; and headed the Labor Law Helpline. She holds a B.A. in political science from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and earned her J.D. from the McGeorge School of Law, University of the Pacific.