10 Secret Santa Rules for the Workplace

illustration of Santa beard and hat with a question mark and surrounded by gifts and the words 'Secret Santa'

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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 Roy Wood’s rubbing his hands at the imminent arrival of his annual royalty cheques.

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 honour 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!

1. Make sure everyone actually knows how Secret Santa works

This might sound obvious, but it’s a pretty logical place to start. Therefore, if you’re unfamiliar with the rules, it essentially goes something like this…

You make a list of everyone who wants to participate and put their names in a hat. Everyone then draws out a name, and it is their responsibility to buy a gift for that person. The twist is that the whole thing is anonymous, so you won’t know who bought your gift (but you’ll get the satisfaction of seeing your recipient open theirs). Simple, right?

You can even adapt the game to reflect modern office trends. If your team’s spread across the country (or even overseas), for example, Elfster offers an online Secret Santa Gift Exchange where you can invite people via email and have your gift shipped directly from the vendor.

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 – no more than £10, 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 would be ideal for £12, 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 price guidelines is a good idea. When everyone is on an even footing, it makes things more fun.

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); his Secret Santa gift was a small shaving kit.

Even if it’s something useless and silly, the idea is to show someone that you know them, and the gift should ideally make them laugh or have some sentimental connection. Of course, in bigger companies or offices, this won’t always be the case. If you draw someone that you don’t know, you can always try to make conversation with them in the hope of gleaning a couple of potential gift leads.

While approaching a total stranger in the break room and asking if they like wine or have any pets might make it a bit obvious (or alternatively cause some mild alarm), it’s still a good opportunity to spread your social wings in the workplace – just be slightly more subtle.

If this isn’t possible, or you still can’t come up with a gift idea, 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

Getting a gift for a colleague 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 mildly funny joke 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 interesting information about themselves instead, such as their interests, favourite shows or guilty pleasures! Or you could keep it more abstract and ask others to share things like their favourite colour, smell or season. This will definitely give everyone a better understanding of their recipient’s personality and it will certainly result in more creative gifts and also help everyone get to know one another a bit more!

5. Avoid 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.

Ultimately, while you should be encouraged to buy something unique and interesting, always be aware that you might be causing offence – just use common sense, and if in doubt, again: keep it simple. That said…

6. Have a sense of humour

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 voucher, then it will only suggest that there isn’t much morale or 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 humour!

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 to your other coworkers afterwards. Aside from the fact that you don’t know who actually bought it, it could very well be Jane who chose your new self-stirring mug [paid link] before you tell her how ‘sh*tty’ it is), gossip travels fast in the office, and your pettiness won’t reflect well on you.

Thank your anonymous buyer 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 them 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 set 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 colour.

You 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. Be as creative as you want!

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 organising 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!

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

Stick to the above rules, and you’ll certainly have a successful Secret Santa for all involved!

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


This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 20 November 2017 and was written in collaboration with staff writer Melina Theodorou.