Secret Santa has been paying visits to workplaces across the UK for a number of years now. While the activity of in-work Secret Santa serves as a great opportunity to foster team bonding, it’s important to note that there is a possibility of the gifts for Secret Santa at work causing offence. In some cases, the gift giver may be unaware of the potential to offend with a bad Secret Santa gift, while at other times, the intention may be deliberate.
To find out how to ensure he brings a sleigh-full of festive fun rather than a one-way ticket to an employment tribunal, read on.
What is Secret Santa?
Secret Santa has become a popular Christmas tradition amongst groups of friends and families, but it’s also become very popular in workplaces. There are even websites and apps dedicated to it, including those that specialise in ‘bad’ Secret Santa ideas for colleagues (more on that later).
Secret Santa involves:
- A group of people, each agreeing to buy a gift for one member of the group. The person they have to buy a gift for is known only to them, and there is usually a price limit set on the cost of the gift.
- The group then agrees on the date on which their gifts will be exchanged, and the idea is that no one knows who has bought which gift—hence, Secret Santa.
Of course, anyone who has even taken part in Secret Santa knows that the secret doesn’t remain secret for long, with people revealing who they bought gifts for after several mulled wines at the Christmas party. Occasionally, Santa’s secret is rumbled for more sinister reasons when someone either fails to buy a gift (leaving someone out of pocket) or, worse yet, the Secret Santa gifts are completely inappropriate for work.
Cue a potentially serious HR nightmare.
What constitutes a ‘bad’ Secret Santa gift?
A recent survey by UK Money Bloggers and Smart Money People found that 18% of the workforce consider in-work Secret Santa to be stressful. In 2019, online print company Instaprint conducted a survey with British workers, revealing some of their worst Secret Santa gifts, including:
- A reindeer thong
- A plastic ‘jumping’ wind-up body part.
- Cliff Richard shower gel (??)
- Pink furry handcuffs
- Inflatable sheep
- Grow your own boyfriend.
- Extra-small condoms
- A cold kebab
- Woolworth’s voucher (the stores closed over a decade ago)
- A voodoo doll
Would the employer be held responsible for Secret Santa mishaps even if they didn’t know it was taking place?
Ignorance is rarely bliss, and it won’t wash here either. Employers can’t watch their staff every hour of the day, nor do they want to, but employers do have a responsibility to ensure that their workplace is a safe space and an environment that is free from hostility.
Therefore, when it comes to disputes and incidents arising out of Secret Santa gifts, if it’s happening at work, you’re responsible.
Could an employee be dismissed due to an inappropriate Secret Santa gift?
Potentially yes. If you look at the list above, many of these gifts have sexual undertones, which could result in complaints or even sexual harassment claims. Harassment on the grounds of any protected characteristic, e.g., sex, sexual orientation, race, disability, and so on, could result in a dismissal for gross misconduct.
Employees may allow their usual standards of behaviour to slip when purchasing Secret Santa gifts; they may think they know the recipient pretty well, and therefore, the gift will be seen as a bit of ‘workplace banter’. Alternatively, someone may use Secret Santa and “workplace banter” to have a ‘dig’ at someone they don’t like. Whatever the circumstances, it is the employer’s responsibility to set the standard of behaviour at work. Here are our top tips!
Top Tips to Avoid Mishaps:
Tips to avoid Secret Santa mishaps and factors to bear in mind if you are going to keep the tradition alive in your workplace this year:
1) Don’t be dismissive if any complaints arise
Often, it is the way a complaint is handled (or not, as the case may be) that turns a minor dispute into a major one. If someone does express concern about the appropriateness of their in-work Secret Santa gift or is offended or upset in any way, projecting the blame on them for having no sense of humour is not the way to handle it. Depending on the circumstances, it may be resolved informally, but if it is a serious matter, then the grievance or personal harassment policy will need to be adhered to, and disciplinary action will be taken.
2) Make your company rules and procedures clear
Direct staff to the disciplinary rules; ensure training is up-to-date in equality and diversity; and make it clear that any gifts deemed in breach of these rules will result in disciplinary action being taken against the perpetrator.
3) Give examples of the kinds of gifts that are inappropriate
Spell it out! Steer people away from sourcing gifts from sites that ‘specialise’ in bad Secret Santa gifts.
4) Set the rules
Make sure everyone taking part understands the rules of the game; be explicit on the minimum spend; suggest Secret Santa theme ideas for work or ‘wish lists’ where people can put together a list of what they would like; and that way, there shouldn’t be any issues with gift purchases.
5) Forced fun
As we know, not everyone likes Secret Santa (or Christmas, for that matter), so staff mustn’t feel pressured into taking part.
Christmas places a lot of pressure on people to spend money they don’t have, and this is only compounded by the cost of living crisis. It’s advisable to have a spending limit on gifts for Secret Santa at work so that people are not embarrassed by being gifted something that is much more expensive than they could afford or that people feel ‘shamed’ by the value of the gift they have purchased. Set a limit, and make sure that the limit is reasonable.
Secret Santa isn’t a Christian tradition, but Christmas is. A workplace will have a staff of different faiths and those who are not religious at all. Employers should be mindful of this and, again, make sure people don’t feel pressured into taking part.
8) Ask staff what they want!
If you are in two minds as to whether to have in-work Secret Santa this year, ask the staff to vote on what they want to do or ask them for their suggestions on any alternatives.
Nobody is trying to pour scorn on a bit of festive merriment. Secret Santa can be good fun and can be a good way to bring people together. It’s also important to point out that most workplace Secret Santas pass without any problems at all, but it’s always a good idea not to leave these things to chance and instead get ahead and nip any potential issues in the bud.
💡TIP: Is A Christmas Party on The Horizon?
Be sure to communicate your disciplinary rules and procedures to your staff ahead of time and remind them that these rules apply to work functions.
This will make clear the standards of behaviour the employer expects and how any acts of misconduct will be dealt with.
Next week…we will explore the new 2024 national minimum wage increases and what they mean for you!
As the holiday season approaches, managing people’s problems can be overwhelming. A designated HR advisor can assist you in handling HR matters.
Avensure can help you prevent legal issues and ensure your workforce remains stable into the New Year, taking the stress off you and/or your internal HR team. Contact us to discuss your specific challenges and learn how Avensure can support you.
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