Secret Santa | 3 ways to keep gift-giving fun, without unwrapping HR issues

Love it or hate it, Secret Santa is something many workplaces participate in in the lead up to Christmas, as an opportunity for team bonding and a little lighthearted relief.

But for employers and HR professionals, the thought of trusting employees to strike the right balance between fun and thoughtful and just straight-up inappropriate can be quite unnerving. After all, the last thing employers want to be gifted at Christmas is claims of bullying or harassment.

While the premise is simple enough, there’s plenty of scope for things to snowball into dangerous territory. After all, a person’s choice of Secret Santa gift fundamentally reflects their perception of their colleague, and a misjudged gift can feel like a character assassination. It’s a delicate balancing act – one which not only relies on good judgment of what kind of person the recipient is but on their personal boundaries. The unpredictability of it all is enough to create great anxiety not only for those involved but for employers too, and in many cases put them off the whole thing altogether.

That said, nobody wants to be the employer who cancelled Christmas, and with careful planning and direction, Secret Santa can be a great way to keep staff in good spirits during the festive period.

Here are our top HR tips for keeping workplace Secret Santa fun, without inviting HR issues.

1. Don't force participation

Those who have been playing Christmas songs on full blast since Halloween are likely to embrace Secret Santa with open arms – but for others, it can feel like a chore. The thought of having to buy a present for a colleague they have spoken to once in passing can be daunting, while others may worry about the cost.

Invite all employees to join in from the outset, but make it clear that participation is voluntary. If they don’t wish to take part, for whatever reason, don’t put pressure on employees or make them feel like a Scrooge. While you may be keen to promote good working relationships between colleagues, forced bonding can backfire. Instead, respecting people’s boundaries and allowing them to participate on their own terms is likely to be a more effective way of creating a positive and comfortable working atmosphere. This is also likely to positively impact retention and engagement, which is key to the stability of your team and ability to achieve key objectives.

Remember, not everyone celebrates Christmas, or celebrates it the same way.

2. Clearly state the budget and deadline

It’s useful to state a budget for gift-giving, as this will eliminate the anxiety of having to judge what’s an appropriate amount to spend and help to keep everyone on the same page. This could be whatever you feel is appropriate, but £5, £10 or £20 are typical amounts. Make sure that whatever budget you set is reasonable for all your employees and encourage them to stick to it, as spending £50 when the limit is £5 can swiftly turn a cheery atmosphere decidedly awkward.

The more direction you provide, the narrower the scope for things to go off-piste. This includes providing clear instructions on the deadline and how gifts will be exchanged.

3. Offer some inspiration

To steer employees in the right direction, consider providing a list of ideas and some examples or what would and wouldn’t be appropriate. Some websites even allow employees to create wish lists, which eliminates the risk of nasty surprises. 

Importantly, when deciding on a gift, encourage employees to ask the question: is this appropriate?

Remind staff to exercise good judgement and to keep in mind that what’s funny to them might be offensive to others. Even the most well-intentioned gifts have the potential to upset someone or be taken in the wrong way. Advise employees to steer clear from gifts that poke fun at, or can be perceived to poke fun at, people’s vulnerabilities. Hair dye, diet pills or deodorant should be strictly off the list, and it’s safest to avoid risque, vulgar or tongue-in-cheek items, such as lingerie, phallic-shaped items or nude calendars, as this could easily result in a sexual harassment claim.

It’s particularly important that employees remain respectful to the individual’s religion or beliefs, sex, age, race, disability, etc., as these characteristics are protected under the Equality Act 2010 and may land you with a complicated grievance to deal with, or even leave you exposed to an Employment Tribunal claim for harassment. Legal ramifications aside, gifts of this nature can potentially jeopardise workplace relationships, which can destabilise your team, hamper productivity and create an overall hostile working environment.

HR hurdles got you feeling less than festive?

If you’re battling an influx of people problems as Christmas approaches, we can help you to get things back on track.

With our personalised fixed-fee support, you can make light work of HR matters through access to a dedicated, legally-qualified Employment Law Adviser, whom you can call upon at any time for practical advice, guidance and clarification. This is particularly valuable over the busy Christmas period, as it will help to take the pressure off you and/or your internal HR team, avoid costly legal missteps, and ensure the stability of your workforce into the New Year.

To discuss your specific challenges and the range of support available through Ellis Whittam, call 0345 226 8393.

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