The list of Terrible Workplace Ideas is long and storied and includes a wide array of soul-devouring activities, from team-building exercises and lunch-and-learns to Hawaiian shirt Friday and Bring Your Ferret to Work Day. (I may have made that last one up.)
Ranking high on this list is the office secret Santa gift exchange, an annual event in which co-workers uncomfortably receive gifts they don't like from people they don't know for reasons they can't imagine.
Now I'm no Scrooge. I love the holidays and tend to think my halls are as decked as the next person's. But the workplace gift exchange, rather than being festive, often serves only to plunk an extra dollop of stress on people's decorative holiday plates.
Some companies have done away with secret Santa events, but the practice persists in many places. Business Insider's website recently ran a list of "25 Awesome Gifts Under $25 For Your Office Secret Santa."
Here are a few of the suggestions:
–A travel-size collection of "yoga, cardio, or strength training" exercise instructions.
–A dog-treat maker.
–A survival kit that includes "a multipurpose tool, poncho, flashlight, hand warmers, matches, a compass, a candle, batteries, and a survival blanket."
For the record, I would consider a collection of exercise instructions to be a hostile workplace gesture, and I'm fairly sure email – and adulthood – has eradicated the need for cubicle-to-cubicle walkie-talkies.
This is one of the problems with secret Santa gifts. They're well-intentioned, but the odds of a recipient actually liking, needing or not being mildly offended by the gift are slim. It's a high-risk, low-reward endeavor.
More importantly, it's an attempt to create interoffice goodwill via material goods. Or, to be more specific, via material goods that cost $25 or less. (Buy me a Mercedes and I might change my tune a bit.)
Instead of goodwill in the form of a travel mug you'll throw out or some potpourri that will make you sneeze, what if we spread goodwill via actual goodwill? I know, crazy idea, right?
Workplaces have a tendency to take the simplest of good-hearted ideas and make them awkwardly complex. You want to do something positive – in the case of secret Santas, I assume it's to build morale and bring workers closer together – so you create the most ham-handed and uncomfortable situation imaginable and then sit back and watch as it fails spectacularly.
If the goal is to make people feel good and get to know each other better, I have a few ideas.
For starters, don't make any of the Santas secret. Just pair people up. Maybe call it a sincere Santa.
Next, bar any store-bought gifts. Instead, encourage written gestures like these:
–An invitation to grab coffee together, your treat. That's how you get to know people.
–A list of the things your co-worker does that you appreciate. If you're paired up with someone you don't know well, this forces you to talk to others and learn more about the person. That's a good thing.
–An offer to be the first person your co-worker should turn to next time he or she is overwhelmed and needs some backup. Encouraging co-workers to ask for help when they need it is a true gift.
–A note about yourself, something that goes a little deeper than a passing break room conversation. (If you have committed unspeakable crimes, you might want to leave those out.)
If you're a boss or manager, consider these "gifts" for your employees:
–A list of reasons why you value the employee.
– written promise that you'll be a straight-shooter, and an explanation of why you think direct and honest communication is crucial.
–A Get-Out-of-a-Meeting Free card. Trust that your workers will use it only if they're in a meeting that's wasting their time. Don't add a bunch of annoying caveats. It's the holiday, for Pete's sake.
You get the idea. I love getting, giving and receiving gifts, but I do that with family.
At work, we don't need trinkets or ear muffs or gag gifts. We need to talk. To be kind to one another. To have each other's backs.
As I'm always fond of saying, we need to be decent human beings.
That's not something you pick up at Target and toss in a gift bag. It's just something you do. And I think Santa, secret or otherwise, would approve.
I'll be off next week. I wish all of you the happiest of workplaces and the happiest of holidays. Thanks so much for reading.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.
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