10 Secret Santa Rules for the Workplace (and How to Play)

Make sure it’s a success this year.

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Secret Santa rules for gifts in workplace

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It’s that time of year when Christmas is undeniably on its way. Plans are underway for the office party, heated discussions are taking place about the merits of Home Alone over Miracle on 34th Street, and Mariah Carey’s rubbing his hands at the imminent arrival of her annual royalty checks.

But before you get down to the risky business of making a drunken fool out of yourself in front of your bemused colleagues (and, unfortunately, your boss), it’s important to honor that other sacred workplace tradition: the office Secret Santa.

Don’t panic just yet, though. Stick to the following Secret Santa rules, and you should just about avoid the pitfalls of this potential etiquette minefield!

What is Secret Santa?

You know what a secret is: it’s when you do something without letting anyone know. And you know who Santa is: it’s that jolly fellow with the long beard who gives out gifts once a year. String the two together and you get gift giving done in secrecy. That’s more or less what Secret Santa is!

Basically, it’s a gift exchange game arranged between a group of people (be they lifelong friends, classmates or colleagues) who agree to buy gifts for one another but without revealing who’s buying what and for who. A fun way to spend your last day at work before everyone’s off to eat, drink and be merry!

How to play

The rules in this anonymous gift exchange are straightforward — they’re also largely up to you, too.

Typically, you’ll begin by writing down everyone’s names on a piece of paper, which you’ll then fold and place into some sort of receptacle, such as a box or a Christmas stocking. Then, you’ll pass the box around, and each person will choose a name at random. If you want to make things a little easier for everyone, each person can write a couple of suggestions as to what gift they’d like, like “book” or “candles” underneath their name. Like a tiny Secret Santa gift guide!

Once everyone has picked who they’re Secret-Santa-ing for, plan when and where the gift exchange will take place. You could use the conference room as your treasure trove, and have everyone place the gift they bought (with the name of the recipient written on it!) in a corner. Just make sure no one’s looking at the gift givers going in; otherwise, it will ruin the surprise and your Secret Santa will become Just Santa.

At the end, everyone has to try and guess who bought their gift!

Secret Santa rules to follow

So, now that you know how Secret Santa works, let’s look at 10 steps you need to take when organizing it.

1. Make sure everyone knows how to play

This might sound obvious, but it’s a pretty logical place to start.

Once you or a colleague have suggested organizing a Secret Santa this year, see how many people on the team are willing to join (you’ll be paying for the gifts out of your own pockets, after all!) and then ask if everyone knows how it’s played.

In simple terms, explain that everyone is to draw a name out of a Christmas hat (or whatever you’ve got at hand) and buy a gift for that person. You can even adapt the game to reflect modern office trends.

2. Set a budget

This is probably the most important part of Secret Santa. The game is supposed to be fun, and Christmas is already an expensive time for most people. It’s, therefore, not a wise idea to expect people to spend upwards of $50 on a gift.

Tune the budget to something small —$20 or $30, for example — which is enough to cover a bottle of wine or a box of chocolates, or to encourage you to get really creative. Of course, if you see something that’s a little over budget, then nobody’s going to hold that against you.

In most cases, though (unless it’s something that is absolutely perfect and everyone would get a kick out of it), going way overbudget will make everyone else feel uncomfortable and isn’t in the spirit of the game, so keeping to the spending limits is a good idea.

3. Know your recipient — and if you don’t, keep it simple

If you know the person you’re buying for, then you should try to get something that reflects their personality and interests — or is relevant to a particular joke that you share. For example, a former colleague of mine attempted to grow a beard that was regularly ridiculed by the rest of the office (in good nature, of course), and so his Secret Santa gift was a small shaving kit.

Even if it’s something silly, the idea is to show someone that you know them. Of course, in bigger companies, this won’t always be the case. If you get matched to someone you don’t know, you can always try to make conversation with them (inconspicuously!) in the hope of gleaning a couple of potential gift leads.

If this isn’t possible, then it’s a good idea to keep it simple. A box of chocolates or a funny clock might not set anyone’s world alight, but it won’t offend anyone, either. Which brings us to the next point…

4. Ask everyone to create a wish list

Buying gifts for colleagues can be daunting, especially if you barely know anything about them. So, if you want to avoid everyone ending up with a coffee mug featuring a bad one-liner as a gift, why not have people write a few gift suggestions for their Secret Santas?

Better yet, you could make matters more interesting by encouraging people to share information about themselves instead, such as their interests, favorite shows or guilty pleasures! Or you could keep it more abstract and ask them to share things like their favorite color, smell or season. This will definitely help everyone get to know one and result in more creative gifts.

5. Avoid overly personal gifts

Picture the scene: you’ve drawn Katie, that hot girl from accounts who you’ve had a crush on for months. Should you buy her A, an ironically funny advent calendar that contains tasty chocolate treats; B, a moderately priced bottle of rosé wine, or C, an exotic two-piece of lacy lingerie and a bottle of Dior perfume? If you chose C, you’re playing the game wrong.

No matter how good Katie would have looked in that negligee, the idea is that the game is supposed to be fun — not put somebody on the spot and make them feel incredibly uncomfortable. Anything that can be considered romantic should usually be avoided for this reason, with the general consensus being that you shouldn’t buy anything that you would get for your partner.

This can apply to other sensitive gifts that could put someone on the spot, such as a religious or cultural gift, while something as innocuous as clothes can also cause friction. The person receiving that nice jumper that you bought them might be wary of others knowing their size or, even worse, you might have guessed it wrong. If you’re going to buy someone any clothes, at least stick to one-size items such as scarves or mittens.

6. Have a sense of humor

The game is supposed to be fun, and you want the unwrapping ceremony to be funny. If everybody’s receiving the same box of chocolates or gift card, then it will only suggest that there isn’t much team bonding going on in your office.

When choosing a funny gift, keep the joke simple, and ideally one that makes sense to everyone — especially the recipient. The last thing you want to do is offend or confuse someone, so if you’re going for a more risqué approach, judge your work environment and be sure that people will find it funny. If you’re going to get your boss a copy of Management for Dummies [paid link], for example, then you’d better be sure that they have a sense of humor!

7. Receive your gift graciously

While you may be preoccupied with buying, don’t forget that you’ll be receiving a gift as well, and that someone may be putting the same thought and effort as you are into choosing something. Therefore, make sure you’re polite and dignified when you open your gift, even if you hate it. In fact, especially if you hate it.

Don’t whine or moan about the shoddiness or ill judgement of the gift; gossip travels fast in the office, and your pettiness won’t reflect well on you.

Thank your anonymous buyer instead and, if needs be, take it home and put it straight in the attic. If someone has well-meaningly bought you a case of beers and you don’t drink, smile about it and get rid of it later. Unless it’s something downright provocative, you don’t need to make a scene about it.

8. Don’t be afraid to mix it up

If you’re looking for ways to make things a bit more interesting, don’t be afraid to change it up. You can all come up with a theme that everyone should adhere to, such as Disney films, jigsaw puzzles or Christmas onesies [paid link], or you can make it more ambiguous by saying all the gifts have to be a certain color. That should force everyone to get creative with their Secret Santa gift ideas!

You also don’t have to spend money, either. For example, you could hold a bake-off Secret Santa where you all make delicious festive treats for each other. Or, as Christmas is the time of giving, you can give donations to charity in each other’s names.

If that’s not enough, you can even change the rules of the game. Try the White Elephant version, where rather than buying for a specific person, everybody buys a generic present. Each participant then draws an order number, and the first person opens a gift. Then the second person goes, and so on, with the caveat that they can choose to either keep their own gift or “steal” the one before.

9. Set a date for the gift exchange

Once everyone has the name of their recipient, make sure to set a date for when the gift exchange will take place. Whether you’re planning to do this at the annual office Christmas party or during the workday, make sure that everyone taking part can attend so they can receive (and give) their gift!

Between work and personal obligations, finding the time to go Christmas shopping can be tricky. So, make sure everyone has at least two weeks before the big gift exchange takes place.

Meanwhile, if you’re organizing a virtual Secret Santa, it might be wise to start early and allow more time before the virtual celebration so everyone can receive their gifts on time!

10. Leave clues throughout the game

If everyone’s going to take a guess at who their Secret Santa is after the gift exchange, you could introduce an additional element to the game. Essentially, Secret Santas should leave little clues for their recipients, along with some token gifts like chocolates.

For example, maybe you and your recipient share a love for Starbucks’ holiday blend [paid link] — you could leave a tall gingerbread latte at their desk when they’re not there. However, make sure your tokens aren’t too obvious—  you don’t want them guessing who you are before the gift exchange!

How to play online

So, what happens when a team is entirely remote with no physical office space? Do they miss out on the fun?

Although distance makes holiday gifting a little more complex, Secret Santa can be organized even for remote teams. The steps are (more or less) the same, except you must begin with an online Secret Santa name picker. Websites like DrawNames and Giftster allow you to pair everyone up within your group. Again, you should decide on a budget together and select a date by which everyone will have bought and mailed their gifts. If you buy your gift off a website like Etsy or Redbubble, you can add a special message to your order.

Assuming that you start the process early, everyone should receive their gifts by Christmastime. The final step would be to arrange a videocall with everyone at a time that’s convenient, and take turns opening your gifts. Alternatively, if most people live around the same area, you could meet at a café or restaurant and exchange the gifts there. Just remember to take a large bag with you, so that everyone can slip in their gifts and preserve their anonymity.

Final thoughts

The important thing to remember is that Secret Santa isn’t about the gift you receive, but the activity itself. Just like the entire holiday season, it’s meant to bring people closer together and help to foster a team spirit.

So, stick to the above rules, and you’ll certainly have a successful Secret Santa for everyone involved!

What’s the best Secret Santa gift you’ve ever given or received at work? Let us know in the comments section below!

Originally published on November 20, 2017. Updated by Electra Michaelidou.