Proper Secret Santa Etiquette

Ho, ho, ho…NO! How did that office gift exchange go so wrong? Well, follow Modern Manners Guy’s 3 tips for proper workplace Secret Santa etiquette and find out.

Richie Frieman
6-minute read
Episode #228

Proper Secret Santa Etiquette

by Richie Frieman  

Let me begin by making one thing clear: This is not a Christmas episode. For starters, I'm Jewish, so commenting on what is right or wrong about gift giving for Christmas specifically, is not my expertise. What is my expertise, however, is holiday gift giving as whole. And despite the fact that everyone celebrates a different holiday this time of year, in offices across this great country, nine times out of ten, the mystery gift exchange system is still known as "Secret Santa." 

Sponsor: With lynda.com, you can learn software, business, and creative skills to achieve personal and professional goals.  Try lynda.com free for 7 days by visiting lynda.com/manners.

In case you aren’t familiar with this popular holiday tradition, it’s when people pick a random name out of a hat (hence the secret) and surprise them with a gift (hence the Santa). But no matter if you call it a "White Elephant Gift Exchange," or a "Secret Santa," it all means the same thing. I, for one, just love it! Ironically, with all the good cheer the holiday brings, the Secret Santa tradition can lead to some rather un-merry gift exchanges.

From the inappropriate gift you meant to be funny, to the over-the-top gift that makes everyone else look bad (but then really made you look bad anyway), sometimes the Secret Santa gift exchange can go horribly wrong.

So before you spend days trying to find the perfect gift for the coworker you've never even talked to, check out my top 3 Quick and Dirty Tips for proper office Secret Santa etiquette:

Tip #1: Follow the Rules

There is a classic episode of The Office where Michael Scott (played by Steve Carell) got someone an iPod as a Secret Santa gift, even though the limit for gifts was set at $20. Then, when he was given an oven mitt by his Secret Santa, he flipped out that no one cared as much as he did, even though the other office members all followed the $20 rule.

Here is a perfect example of how not following directions can make you look like a fool. Ironically, in just about every workplace, there is one person like Steve Carell's character who decides to derail the office holiday gift train, to make themselves feel good about their own generosity. But this never works.

If the rules dictate that all Secret Santas must make cupcakes as their gift and instead you bring a five-tier wedding cake, it will look like you are blatantly trying to outshine everyone else. Trust me, no one will appreciate that. Plus, you will make the person who receives your overblown gift feel incredibly guilty for playing by the rules and not returning the favor.

See also: How to Deal with Annoying Coworkers

When participating in a holiday gift exchange, it's proper to stick to the set guidelines. Sure, you may be at the store and think that $200 crystal vase will make a great gift, but if the rules are to keep it under $20, then that gift has to wait. However, let's say you really like the person – maybe they're your best friend in the office or maybe you even have a crush on them – well, guess what, you still have to follow the rules.

"Come on, MMG! This is my chance to prove myself!"

Nope, it's not. The office Secret Santa gift exchange is for fun and is not a contest that will go on your progress report. If you still have the desire to give someone a gift in addition to the office-sanctioned one, then by all means, please do. However, do that off hours and away from the workplace. You don't want to draw any additional attention and get tongues wagging.

Tip #2: Show Some Creativity

As I said in Tip #1, depending on whose name you pull out of the hat, you may feel compelled to give a better Secret Santa gift than the rules allow. But, as I also said in Tip #1, this is a game for holiday spirit, where the monetary factor keeps everyone on the same playing field, and that's why you should follow the rules.

However, this does not mean you can't be creative. For example, at last year’s Secret Santa selection, my friend picked a colleague at his office on whom he had a major crush. He spent two weeks searching how best to spend his $25 limit at several malls, but sadly, couldn't find anything that excited him. Then, while at a flea market one afternoon, he happened to come across a gorgeous, elegantly decorated, picture frame handmade by a French artisan. How romantic, right? The picture frame looked and was more than $25, but after telling his story to the saleswoman, she agreed to drop the price by $15 in order to meet his $25 limit. In exchange for this gesture, he agreed to carry a box too heavy for her to lift, three blocks back to her car. It worked out for everyone.

Here’s a perfect example of a creative solution. My friend followed the office Secret Santa rules by stepping outside the box. In the end, his crush was overwhelmed with the gesture and everyone else in the office pretty much figured there was something romantic cooking.

Here my friend did something extraordinary that anyone else could have easily done, if they just used some creativity. Sure, some people may be too shy to bargain with the salesperson, but you can do that at a flea market. It’s even expected. Obviously, it won’t fly in your local mall.

I'm not saying that every present has to be so over-the-top creative that the person is blown away, declaring you the "World's Best Secret Santa." However, being creative is an option to make a price limit go a long way. Plus, this time of year there are so many options and sales that going the "normal" route just seems too easy. Where's the holiday spirit in that? Have fun with it! In addition, if you just grab the first thing you see with no thought or reason to it (like a lame gift card), your Secret Santa will see right through that. Giving a gift is about making someone feel good, not nod their head saying, "Ohhhhhkay…a snow shovel…umm…Just. What. I. Wanted…in my apartment."

Tip #3: Do Your Research

Here's what happens in most office Secret Santa parties: You go to draw a name, hoping you get someone fun, but then end up getting someone you rarely speak to, let alone see on a daily basis. Maybe you are the new person in the office, or they are, regardless, you are clueless about what to buy this mystery guy or gal.

Now, you are tasked with trying to pick out a present for a complete stranger. Awkward, right? I mean, it's hard enough finding a present for a person that you do like, let alone trying to figure out a gift for someone you hardly even interact with. So what do you do? Well, like all of us, you go back to your desk and stare blankly at your computer screen's Google search page, thinking, "Where do I even start?"

When this happens, the key is don't guess and buy some random gift. Guessing will surely go wrong. There are ways to figure out something to get a person whom you don't know, and they require a little recon and research.

Chances are at least one person at your job knows a little about them and can give you some advice. And if not, ask someone who sits nearby or has lunch with them. "I know Steve is a big coffee lover, so maybe something coffee related would be a good gift?" Done and done.

See also: Is Caffeine Bad for You?

But what if they are the new person on the team and no one has had a chance to get to know them yet? I recommend asking your boss who hired that employee. I'm pretty sure they found out some things about their personality during the interview process.

However, the best way is to actually talk to the person. Shocking, right? Not really. Use the holidays as an opportunity to actually chat with them and build a better relationship. So you not only become better coworkers (or even friends), but also research what they like. Believe me, they'll be flattered when they open a gift from their Secret Santa and find that you bought them something that is linked to a conversation you had in the past. That shows you were listening and paying attention.

Do you have a great story about a Secret Santa gift exchange gone wrong (or right)? Post all the details in the comment section below or on the Modern Manners Guy Facebook page.

As always, if you have another manners question, I look forward to hearing from you at manners@quickanddirtytips.com. Follow me on Twitter @MannersQDT, and of course, check back next week for new Modern Manners Guy tips for a more polite life.

Man Holding Gift and Frame images from Shutterstock