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All I want for Christmas is a Secret Santa HR policy

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Businesses across the North West are leaving themselves at risk this festive season by failing to issue guidance to employees on standards of behaviour when participating in the company Secret Santa, according to Manchester-based, Citation.

A survey* by the HR and employment law specialists of 650 UK-based businesses revealed that nearly all (95%) of respondents don’t have a policy in place that sets out what is and isn’t appropriate for the gift giving exercise.

The lack of framework means that potential disciplinary consequences for any inappropriate conduct aren’t clearly outlined for staff.

In the most serious of cases, it can lead to employees raising formal grievances following receipt of an offensive or upsetting gift or resigning from the business to bring a constructive unfair dismissal claim.

Of those surveyed by the employment law specialist, 71 per cent of businesses weren’t aware that as an employer, they could be held liable if any employee receives an inappropriate Secret Santa gift.

This was despite some respondents having revealed that they had previously participated in Secret Santa schemes when inappropriate gifts had caused issues in the workplace. These included colleagues being given toothbrushes, underwear, products of a sexual nature, deodorant, phallic themed chocolate and female sanitary products.

Gillian McAteer, Head of Employment Law at Citation said: “The Secret Santa tradition remains extremely popular amongst businesses and when asked if it should be banned 92 per cent said no, so it’s certainly an exercise that people want to see continue. However, employers need to set out some simple guidelines as to what is and is not acceptable to ensure that one employee’s sense of humour does not land them in hot water.

“Businesses are leaving themselves extremely vulnerable to HR issues, even tribunal proceedings, if just one employee gifts another with an inappropriate Secret Santa gift, not to mention the damage it can do to employee relations and the animosity it could cause amongst colleagues. A staff member could take extreme offence or be subject to severe embarrassment or ridicule by a number of gifts which, to some, might be considered as funny or a bit of ‘banter’.

“Through conducting this research, we were immediately alerted to instances of employees receiving gifts that were discriminatory to race, gender, religion and sexual orientation. In many cases, the gift giver was not acting maliciously but did push boundaries, however as many businesses are not adequately advising employees on where the line is drawn, it’s not surprising that issues are arising.”

According to the research, the top five most inappropriate Secret Santa presents would be:

  1. Products of a sexual or rude nature
  2. Underwear
  3. Deodorant or personal hygiene products
  4. Anything personal to someone’s religion or culture
  5. Healthy cook book

Gillian added: “It’s not just inappropriate or offensive gifts that are causing issues for employers either. A common occurrence that was instantly recognised in the research was how often one member of a team or company had been left with no present because the gift giver had either forgotten to purchase something or had simply chosen not to participate. In some cases, some employees had also not been able to afford to participate in the exercise.”

The research also found that 29 per cent of businesses believe that the Secret Santa tradition causes employees to feel worried or pressured.

Secret Santa does however bring a number of benefits to the workplace. It’s a great team building exercise and helps colleagues to communicate more closely with other people in the business that they may not otherwise speak to and it forges friendships.

In order to enjoy the benefits of Secret Santa without the risks, companies should issue clear guidance to the entire business including rules such as:

  • Invite everyone to take part – don’t exclude anyone
  • Set a maximum amount for gifts
  • Be clear that taking part is optional and there is no pressure to participate
  • Gifts should be appropriate for the workplace. If you have to ask yourself if a gift is appropriate it probably isn’t
  • Respect an individual’s religion or beliefs

Gillian added: “Whether you send this guidance as an email, internal memo or policy, the important thing is that you tell them. You should also remind employees of the discrimination, bullying and harassment policies in your Employee Handbook and that failure to follow them will result in disciplinary action. This type of policy isn’t just for Secret Santa either, it can be adapted to cover all gift giving exercises you may have in the workplace, such as birthday and leaving gifts.”