How to Keep Your Office Secret Santa Party From Turning Into a Disaster

Keep your employees' holiday gift exchange on point by following these 7 tips.
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Provide guidelines and keep things optional in order to host a successful Secret Santa party at your workplace. (Photo: Cookie Studio/Shutterstock)

The holiday season is a great time for building camaraderie, strengthening relationships with employees and spreading goodwill throughout the workplace.

Many business owners host an annual “Secret Santa” exchange, where you and your employees draw names and give anonymous gifts to one another to celebrate the giving season. While an excellent idea in theory, team-wide gift giving festivities can easily turn into disaster if you don’t plan it out correctly.

Instead of winging it this year, take the following advice from a few experts on the dos and don’ts of throwing a successful Secret Santa party for your employees.

Related: 5 Creative Ways to Thank Your Employees During the Holidays

Provide guidelines

When it comes to picking out presents for colleagues, your workers may not use their best judgment or come in with vastly different expectations. That’s why business owners should give guidelines for what kinds of gifts are acceptable, said Sharon Schweitzer, an international business etiquette expert, author and founder of Access to Culture.

“Avoid competitiveness and insecurity among colleagues” by giving clear price guidelines and examples of what’s appropriate, she said. “Include options such as charitable donations, restaurant gift cards, [and] tickets to sports [games] or music concerts.”

bIt is also critical to avoid gag gifts, especially ones that could have crude, violent, sexual or intimate overtones, Schweitzer said. “Explain that even if the employee is offering the gag to a co-worker they know well, inappropriate gifts risk sending them to HR, and they may be reported for harassment or creating a hostile work environment.”

Make participation optional

It’s unlikely that everyone will want to take part in your small business gift exchange, and that’s OK. Instead, make participation voluntary, said RaShea Drake, content management and party committee member with Verizon.

“When people are forced to participate, you’ll see a lot more forgotten gifts [and] hear a lot more grumbling,” she said.

Related: How to Keep Your Employees Motivated Through the Holiday Season

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Dory Wilson, founder of Your Office Mom, suggests calling your Secret Santa party a ‘gift grab’ or a ‘white elephant exchange’ to make sure that no one in your office feels alienated. (Photo: Dory Wilson)

Consider Secret Santa connotations

Keep in mind that Christmas isn’t celebrated by everyone. No matter how neutral and politically correct you’re trying to be, “Santa” implies that your office is commemorating the Christian holiday.

Dory Wilson, a people development expert and the founder of Your Office Mom, said to consider the diversity of your office before holding a Secret Santa program.

“If the person or committee managing the gift exchange is hell-bent on ‘Merry Christmas’ and never ‘Happy Holidays,’ chances are you’re going to alienate people,” she said.

Instead, consider calling your event a “gift grab,” a “white elephant exchange” or a “holiday cheer swap.”

Bring extra gifts

Family emergencies happen, and people forget things because they have busy schedules. Someone may have signed up for the Secret Santa exchange and forgot to bring in a gift on the day of your party.

To ensure nobody is left out, buy a few extra gifts and wrap them just in case, said Drake. Also, make sure these extra gifts are gender neutral and something anyone would appreciate or enjoy.

Related: 5 Effective Customer Appreciation Gifts for Your Small Business

Keep the sign-up sheet private

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To please the largest number of people, keep your Secret Santa sign-up optional and private. (Photo: justsolove/Shutterstock)

Since it’s unlikely everyone will want to take part, keep the list of participants private, so you don’t risk embarrassing those who decline to participate.

Wilson advised against putting up a public sign-up sheet for the gift exchange. “Be somewhat low key. Those that didn’t want to participate did so for a reason,” she said.

Related: Nipping Employee Negativity in the Bud: How to Do It and Why It’s Crucial

Set a dollar limit

Not every employee can afford extravagant gifts. If you want to avoid offending employees, set a dollar limit for the presents, said Drake. “Make it reasonable so everyone can afford to pay.”

Provide refreshments

Secret Santa isn’t the only way to celebrate the season and make your employees feel appreciated. Instead of just trading gifts, Drake suggested holding an event along with the exchange “to keep the fun going,” such as providing light refreshments or a couple of fun holiday-themed games.

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