Secret Santa Shockers: How to Have a Work-Safe Kris Kringle

Harriet Witchell - Monday, December 07, 2015
Perils of the Office Secret Santa

Secret Santa, also known as Kris Kringle, is a gift-giving tradition celebrated by workplaces all over Australia. Although popular, it also has the potential to go wrong. Following on from our article on hosting incident-free work Christmas parties, we take a look at the potential risks of the office Secret Santa, and what preventative action organisations can take.
What is Secret Santa?
Secret Santa is started by putting staff members’ names into a hat. Each staff member must draw a colleague’s name and that is the person for whom they must buy a present. They must not tell anyone who they have drawn. 

While intended to be a good-natured way to spread some Christmas cheer, the problem is that jokes can often fall flat, and because the gifts are anonymous, the Secret Santa can be used to give a message to the recipient that the gift-giver would not ordinarily share face-to-face. 

 What is intended to be good-natured fun can easily lead to distress. There can also be legal consequences.
Secret Santa gone wrong
In 2012, public servant Ngoc Luan Ho Trieu, who worked as an economic modeller for the Commonwealth Government, was distressed by a Secret Santa gift. It was a plastic reindeer that produced chocolate droppings from its rear end. It was labelled “Luan’s Modelling Kit.” 

Mr Ngoc believed that the implication was that his work resembled animal poo. The identity of the gift-giver was never determined, and some weeks later he quit his job, unable to shake the feelings of distress. 

In response to the incident, the Australian Public Service (APS) issued a warning to staff in its November 2015 newsletter: 
“In keeping with the spirit of happiness and goodwill, APS employees are reminded to exercise care and good judgement as some elements of the APS Code of Conduct apply to activities ‘in connection with’ APS employment.” 

Employees were warned against engaging in pranks and were asked to be mindful that not all employees shared the same sense of humour.
The legal implications
The big question for organisations is how to manage Secret Santa. While the APS did the right thing in issuing the warning to employees, perhaps more should have been done. 

The Canberra Times also reported that after publishing Mr Ngoc’s story, it received many other reports of employees being left upset by Secret Santa gifts. 

There is great potential for legal implications to flow from a Secret Santa present. It may be seen as a form of bullying, for example the employee who was given a dog-chew toy. Employees may also feel discriminated against, for example the worker, being the only Asian in her section, who received a gift implying that her English was poor. 

Gifts that have sexual connotations may also be viewed as sexually harassing and other gifts may offend workplace health and safety laws.
How to manage Secret Santa
When it comes to Secret Santa, written reminders need to be given to all staff about appropriate conduct. For example, organisations should remind staff that: 

  • As Secret Santa is work-related, all work policies apply, including anti-bullying, discrimination and harassment, and discipline and termination of employment.
  • Their gifts must reflect the organisation’s requirement that all employees are treated in a respectful and courteous manner. 
  • Not everyone shares the same sense of humour so gifts should be carefully chosen.
  • Anyone who feels upset or distressed by a gift should inform management immediately so that the matter can be appropriately handled. 
A “master” sheet may also be useful, on which the name of the gift giver is recorded next to each recipient. This can be kept confidential unless a problem arises and needs to be sorted out.  Employees should be advised that a master sheet will be kept as it will help to regulate gift-giving behaviour. 

And finally, if your organisation has had problems with Secret Santa in the past, consider whether it is appropriate to run it again. Secret Santa is a nice idea but increasingly fraught with difficulties. Although workplace laws have not developed to specifically deal with the scheme, many other laws come into play which should be taken seriously by organisations.
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