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Commentary: The office Secret Santa gift exchange can be a landmine

The Scrooges and Grinches among us are wondering how this workplace obligation managed to survive the pandemic, says Tracy Lee.

SINGAPORE: I would be the first to admit that since I became an adult, I have never really been big on giving or receiving gifts.

If you earn your own money, why do you have to wait for a special occasion like your birthday or Christmas, and for someone to kill their brain cells trying to read your mind, only to get you something you probably don’t want, like or need?

It’s much easier, and way more efficient, to buy yourself anything you want, anytime you wish. Well, that’s the idea in my head anyway. Besides, the things I really want are too expensive as gifts.

Which is why I am one of those people who find the concept of the office Secret Santa — a practice of giving an anonymous gift to a colleague whose name one has picked randomly out of a hat — somewhat pointless.

And I am not alone in this.

READ: Commentary: All these corporate greeting cards and presents are not gifts. They're spam

Complaints abound in the Twitterverse.

“You know when you do Secret Santa and you give the person a gift card, glove and scarf set in a handmade gift bag you sewed yourself, and you get a stained coffee mug with Halloween candy in it?” went one.

“We’re having five different Secret Santa exchanges at my work. If one of my presents isn’t a raise to pay for this nonsense, I’m quitting,” went another.

READ: Commentary: Before you buy gifts for your kids this festive period, find out if it’s good for them


According to a 2019 survey by UK-based job search portal Jobsite, 35 per cent of employees would like to see Secret Santa banned at their workplace; 26 per cent spend more than they can afford on presents for co-workers; 17 per cent feel that they are judged based on how much they spend on gifts for colleagues.

You can imagine how many more people feel this way in 2020, when COVID-19 has led to so many of us working from home, consuming less — and more consciously — in an attempt to save our planet (and our dwindling bank accounts).

Add to this we are stressing out over our mental health and how our vulnerable loved ones are doing. While desperately Marie Kondo-ing our possessions to spark joy amid a very challenging year.

READ: Commentary: Phase 3 will bring us much-needed closure to a difficult year

(Photo: Unsplash/Jennifer Pallian)

Buying gifts for family and friends we care about would make the trip to town, with the December downpours and the insane crowds, worth the trouble. But for co-workers whom we have not seen for much of the year?

Yet, it is the season of giving after all and we don’t want to sound particularly Gringe-y. In the past, the easiest thing to do used to be, to buy something edible, like chocolates or biscuits.

READ: Commentary: Our muted joy over Phase 3 is the true new normal

But with so many people adopting trendy dietary restrictions nowadays, knowing if your colleague has nut allergies, does keto, suffers from gluten-intolerance, is insulin-resistant, avoiding carbs, or simply doesn’t have a sweet tooth – makes for a tough decision.


This is where beverages could come in handy: Think premium tea in a beautiful canister, a DIY hot chocolate kit, a subscription box of fair-trade coffee beans.

Another previously failsafe office Secret Santa commandment, was to buy something to perk up the recipient’s workspace. Unfortunately, in the past nine months of work-from-home, hasn’t everyone already bought as many succulents, photo frames, aromatherapy diffusers, ring lights, ergonomic wrist rests and mini USB-desk fans as they need for their home offices?

I also once received a cactus as a gift. I'm not sure why. (Photo: Pixabay)

If you want some ideas on what to buy, there are no lack of articles to help you along. Just search for Secret Santa gifts and the first thing that pops up is “31 Secret Santa gifts your co-workers will love”.

Among the many suggestions are evergreen winners: Novelty socks, desktop golf, bowling or Zen Garden kits, office mugs emblazoned with passive-aggressive messages such as “I survived another meeting that should have been an email”.

Or how about a notebook shaped like a block of cheese for all your “Gouda ideas”?

To me though, having gifted and given many a notebook, chances are most of these stocking stuffers are going to end up being re-gifted, or abandoned in the deep dark recesses of the drawer in your home.

Perhaps the best thing to do is just drop the pretense, ask the person you are buying for what would he or she like and get it over with – no one ends up with waste and everyone gets what they want.


Then there are the potential dangers associated with gifting colleagues — ill-intentioned folks using anonymous workplace gift giving as an opportunity to bully, harass or sabotage; of sensitive souls taking offence when none was intended; of privacy being invaded, especially since your Secret Santa needs your address in order to be able to send you your gift.

You’ll have to be careful too about the gift you get – a bottle of wine for someone who is trying to cut drinking or a bath set for someone with body odour – these can be interpreted poorly.

Watching too much Black Mirror has also made me illogically paranoid. Is the fact that the office babe getting a cute bear from the office nerd suspicious? Does it have a hidden camera?

(Photo: Unsplash/Brooke Lark)

Or if your nefarious nemesis gifted you with a USB stick, could it be infected with a malicious virus that could wipe out all your Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations?

Then there’s the biggest headache of all – what if you draw your boss? Suddenly, there’s all this unnecessary pressure to make sure your gift is classy yet not too expensive or worse, doesn’t send the wrong signal (it may not be a good idea to gift a book on how to be a better manager for instance).

READ: Commentary: Spas and other indulgent treats a needed comfort in a bad year

To put an end to all this Secret Santa-related stress and anxiety, companies should let employees opt out if they so wish, or abolish the practice altogether, and make a donation to charity instead.

We do have colleagues who are friends so people should just decide who, what and how they want to share gifts.

But if you really, really can’t bear to see Secret Santa die or just don’t want to be the wet blanket that opts out of the mandated office fun, then do the most sensible thing – re-gift what you get to your mother-in-law. Socks are always useful.

Tracy Lee is a freelance writer who writes about food, travel, fashion and beauty.

Source: CNA/cr


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