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How to Ace Your Office Secret Santa Exchange With Minimal Effort

Dec 12, 2016

Listen, we get it. With all the present-wrapping, travel-stressing, and dinner-table politicking keeping you busy this holiday season, the office gift exchange ranks dead last on your list of priorities.

Luckily, there's a pretty low bar for being a successful secret Santa. Come Christmas, most of your coworkers will be trading Walmart gift cards for coffee mugs full of candy canes—so rest assured that you can knock this out of the park with minimal effort.

This isn’t the kind of thing you want to phone in, though, lest you come off looking like the office Scrooge (or worse, the office brown-noser). We asked a few experts for some smart tips for doing right by coworkers—whether you’re orchestrating this year’s exchange, or are just a reluctant elf.

Price Limit

$15 to $25. Done. (But check to make sure your team hasn't formalized a different range, in which case you'll want to abide by that.)

Rules of Engagement

If you’re in charge of the gift swap, make sure it’s optional, and that everyone gets a chance to participate, suggest etiquette experts.

The identity of each secret Santa should be kept secret until an agreed-upon date—perhaps a holiday party—but gift givers should get an opportunity to leave their presents on the recipients' desks beforehand.

To make things easier for everyone involved, you can circulate a questionnaire for participants to list favorite hobbies, snacks, etc. Or, since most teams assign Santas by drawing lots, you could also encourage coworkers to jot down a few “wish list” items on the slip they throw into the hat.

The Right Choice

Remember that episode of The Office where Jim gives Pam, his Secret Santa (and—spoiler!—future wife) a teapot full of memories? That’s fiction. In real life, people get their gifts from the pharmacy down the street the day before the exchange. The perfect secret Santa present falls somewhere between the two.

The idea is to buy something that actually speaks to who the recipient is—which shouldn't be that hard if you've worked with them for more than a few weeks. Are they a foodie? Olive oil. Stylish? Vase. Professorial type? Notebook. Coffee fanatic? French press.

“Even if you’re not friends [with the recipient], the gift should go beyond some tchotchke that doesn’t have any meaning,” says organizational psychologist and author William A. Schiemann. “You want them to open it and say, ‘Wow, they really nailed me.’ That’s when it's fun.”

If you’re not chummy with the person you drew, and the organizer failed to include a questionnaire, ask someone close to them for suggestions. Or check their social media profiles—you can probably get a sense of their personality based on the things they’ve “liked” and shared, says etiquette expert Elaine Swann.

There are, of course, a few secret Santa no-nos. Fragrance and lotions are too personal, and can be interpreted as a subtle jab at the recipient’s hygiene, Swann says. Don’t give gag gifts or alcohol unless you’re BFFs with the recipient, and definitely don’t re-gift a present from last year's exchange.

Most important: Stay within any agreed-upon dollar range. “You don’t want to be the person whose spent way too much, and you also don’t want to be the person who’s scraped the bottom of the barrel,” Swann says.

Terrible Gifts/Great Gifts

There are a few common office gifts that—let's be honest—absolutely no one wants:

  • picture frames
  • company swag
  • coffee mugs
  • holiday collectibles (ornaments count)
  • scented candles
  • scented anything

On the other hand, there's one type of gift that pretty much everyone wants:

  • food

To Gift Card or Not to Gift Card?

Gift cards are an acceptable present, experts agree—but only if they can be spent on something the recipient will really enjoy. A coworker who is remodeling her kitchen would probably prefer a Lowe’s gift card to a credit at Banana Republic, and a gamer would certainly appreciate a few extra dollars to spend at GameStop.

If you do go the gift card route, business etiquette expert Diane Gottsman advises putting some extra thought into the presentation. “Make it look pretty—wrap it up with a candy cane, or attach it next to a piece of cake from their favorite deli,” she says.

I Just Drew My Office Nemesis. Now What?

It’s hard to get into the holiday spirit for someone who’s been a jerk to you all year. But as a willing secret Santa participant, you’ll have to suck it up. Put as much effort into selecting a gift for your office enemy as you would your office spouse (OK, almost as much effort)—and be sincere in your intentions.

“This is a chance to send this person some goodwill, and to do something genuinely nice for them,” says business etiquette coach Patricia Rossi. “Tis the season, right?”

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