Around the world, Covid has changed the way we live and work – in small ways in some organisations and in big ways in other companies – but some things have bounced right back to the way they used to be. Like the electric atmosphere that’s synonymous with Christmas and the enthusiasm around office traditions like ‘Secret Santa’, where employees exchange gifts anonymously. Everyone’s in the mood to celebrate around this time of year, and kindness is the order of the season. To a talented human resources professional, this Christmas spirit or bonhomie can be a dream come true, because harnessed correctly, it can result in loyalty, improved productivity, and greater team spirit, not to mention happier employees.
This is especially important given the uncertain economic environment we’re living through, as many employees are grappling with anxiety while many others are still figuring out how to balance their new priorities against a return to the old order – after all, many organisations are now mandating longer, pre-Covid like office hours. With so much on employees’ minds, it becomes very important for HR professionals to plan office events carefully.
But done right, as Lina Das, Director, Catallyst Executive Education Institute (CEEI), says, ‘Secret Santa is a great way to end the year. It gives everyone in the workplace an opportunity to show colleagues how much they care and to appreciate old friends and co-workers. New recruits can also use the occasion to get to know teams better and they get a taste of company culture.’ Das, who lives in Mumbai and has worked in learning and organisation development for some 20-odd years draws on her own experiences of participating in Secret Santa to add, ‘I have such fun memories of the celebration at every organisation I’ve ever worked at.’
“Every now and again, you’ll come across employees who only want to participate if they can gift the boss or a department head. Occasionally, an employee may not want to get a gift for someone in the office that she or he has had a disagreement in the past. To get around these things, it’s very important for HR leaders to lay down the law.” -Mukul Chopra, CHRO, ConveGenius
Secret Santa: Behind every great idea is a brilliant story
There’s a theory that the idea is rooted in the Swedish Julklapp tradition. The phrase, ‘en julklapp,’ literally translates as ‘Christmas gift’; ‘en klapp’ means ‘a clap or a tap’ and the centuries-old tradition involved leaving a Christmas gift at someone’s door, tapping or knocking on the door and then rushing off without being seen. This was usually something small, a token really, but something meaningful. A riddle, poem or joke attached to the present would explain the significance of the gift.
In the 20th Century, the idea came to be credited to American telecom tycoon Larry Stewart. Stewart, who had been at the receiving end of a restaurant owner’s generosity when he was down on his luck around Christmas in 1971, started engaging in small, random acts of generosity in 1979, a tradition he stuck to until he passed away in 2007.
In the workplace
What these stories have in common, aside from the festive time of year they are associated with, are the themes of generosity, kindness and fun. Mukul Chopra, CHRO, ConveGenius believes it’s these things that HR professionals must keep at the heart of their Secret Santa ideas.
“It’s important to remember that for some, in India, the concept is still an alien one. So, it becomes important for HR leaders to recognise that the objective of the game is to make everyone feel good and feel admired and, with that in mind, they should make efforts to see that no one feels left out. Whatever activity they design should be something that has a wider appeal, after all, the idea is not to just tick a box’. Here are some more points to bear in mind:
Set ground rules
Sharing his experience of an awkward Secret Santa event, Ranveer Beri, 28, an independent sound engineer based in Bangalore, says a harmless prank he once tried to pull at a media firm he worked at went horribly wrong. ‘It was my first job, back in 2017, and I wanted to pull the leg of the person I was to gift. So, I left the gift at his desk early in the morning with a note saying it was from a certain celebrity. This was such a big star that I didn’t imagine that he might actually send the celebrity a message to thank her – I had no idea he actually knew her. When he realised it was a Secret Santa prank, he did not take it very well at all. He was extremely embarrassed”.
Chopra says it’s for reasons like this that the ground rules need to be established very clearly. ‘HR teams need to have a very clear set of Dos and Don’ts’. Every now and again, you’ll come across employees who only want to participate if they can gift the boss or a department head. Occasionally, an employee may not want to get a gift for someone in the office that she or he has had a disagreement in the past. To get around these things, it’s very important for HR leaders to lay down the law. The random way in which names are picked, anonymity in the gift exchange process, and a clearly defined budget for presents are some basics they must stick to,’ says Chopra.
Have extra presents at hand
The trick to staving off friction, Das says – based on her experience of designing training programmes – is for organisers to plan things well and right down to the last detail. ‘With experience, there are some things HR heads know they may come up against: a handful of reluctant employees, for example, or some people who aren’t happy with the gifts they’ve received; or, there may be times when some participants forget to bring presents in on the designated day. HR leaders can plan for all this, and disappointments can simply be avoided by placing a few extra presents under the tree.’
“Secret Santa is a great way to end the year. It gives everyone in the workplace an opportunity to show colleagues how much they care and to appreciate old friends and co-workers. New recruits can also use the occasion to get to know teams better and they get a taste of company culture.” – Lina Das, Director, Catallyst Executive Education Institute (CEEI)
Keep it simple
One big problem that HR teams have to deal with is the dissatisfaction of people after gifts have been exchanged. Some feel shortchanged – some may feel like they spent more on a gift and that what they received was too cheap; or they may feel they received gifts that have been passed around for ages, while the one they gifted was a thoughtful present; some may feel the price band set by the organisation was too wide or too limiting.
One way to get around this is to keep it simple, as Chopra says. It may be wise to stick to the Swedish tradition and allow for an exchange of meaningful tokens with fun notes or riddles, rather than gifts that fit into a price band. That way, the gift becomes less central to the tradition, and the event can be used to foster deeper connections between employees.
Secret Santa is a great opportunity for recruitment professionals, but to do it right, as Chopra says, ‘Aim to bring humour back to the workplace,’ rather than making it about the gift exchange. Don’t take it too seriously, don’t leave anyone out, focus on the ‘fun’ element and encourage warmth between co-workers – and you’re bound to have a perfect event. Christmas is, after all, the season of giving – but there are few gifts that are as memorable as the gifts of joy, love and the feeling of being valued.