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Avoiding the pitfalls of an office Secret Santa

It may astound you, but there are employees who need reminding that gifts alluding to genitalia are not appropriate for the office Secret Santa. Workplace relations lawyer Julian Riekert often recalls the post-Christmas surge of complaints involving inappropriate gifts or questionable behaviour.

“When I was working at the Equal Opportunity Commission, one of the most regular things that caused offence with Kris Kringle gifts was the giving of phallic-shaped objects,” says Riekert, now a partner at Lander & Rogers Lawyers. “There was one complaint from a Muslim woman who received this little parcel that, when she opened it, turned out to be a little clockwork penis. The person who had given it wound it up, and it went hopping off the table into the woman’s lap.”

Another horror story springs to mind for human resource management lecturer Dr Robyn Johns. “Following an inside joke within the office, someone gave their colleague lacy underwear,” says the University of Technology Sydney academic. “But it turned out that the recipient’s partner was there on the day of the gift giving and they weren’t aware of the joke. It caused quite a big marital dispute and became fodder for corridor conversations for years to come.”

Marital distress, bullying, religious discrimination – it’s a minefield for HR professionals. So whether you call it a Kris Kringle, Secret Snowflake or White Elephant, is it worth running an office gift exchange at all? Employment lawyer at The Workplace, Hannah Ellis, is on the fence. “It opens up the opportunity for inappropriate gifts, gifts of an offensive or discriminatory nature and demonstrations of favouritism,” Ellis warns.

“The lawyer in me would say Secret Santa is a bad idea, but I acknowledge they can be a fun means of encouraging holiday cheer.” Riekert recommends setting out a gift-giving policy to avoid a lump of coal – aka a costly lawsuit. “If you don’t have the policy and you haven’t done anything to discourage people from giving inappropriate gifts, you very easily end up being jointly and severally liable for a discrimination claim,” he says. It’s also wise for employers to distance themselves from the exchange, says Rikert.

“Make it clear that the Kris Kringle activity is something sponsored by the employees themselves and is not necessarily endorsed or sponsored by the employer. That way, if something does go wrong the employer has a better chance of being able to run a statutory defence,” he says.

Karen Hillen, director of Hillen Staff Solutions, recommends sending a written reminder of company policies on bullying, harassment and discrimination ahead of the festive season. When running a gift exchange, she says it’s important to set clear upper and lower spending limits, and ensure no one feels compelled to participate if they don’t want to. “The main thing is making sure everyone is invited to participate and then people can make up their own mind,” Hillen says. “If for religious, personal or financial reasons people don’t want to participate, those reasons should remain confidential.”

Judeth Wilson, founder of corporate training firm Upfront Communications, urges caution when buying gifts that may offend race or religion, especially where alcohol or food gifts are concerned.

Not everyone will celebrate Christmas, of course, and Johns says it is important to embrace diversity throughout the year. “Look at other dates of cultural importance. Organisations that are forward thinking have various cultural days where people might bring in a plate of food to recognise their heritage or festival.”

This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the December/January 2016 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘Pass the parcel’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here

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