Secret Santa? Scary!

December 6, 2011

I was in the office kitchen the other morning and overheard a couple of colleagues from sister publication Business Insurance talking about past company holiday parties.

One mentioned last year's potluck and how enjoyable it was, since people from all the publications in Crain's Chicago office could get together and mingle. Another recalled years past when the parties were held off-site.

Then someone brought up a previous job they'd worked at and how the company would hold a Secret Santa event. I immediately felt this chill, like a nor'easter howling off Lake Michigan through an open window.

Secret Santa? Oh man. Call in our EAP. I've harbored a Secret Santa humbug for years.

Don't get me wrong; I dig the holidays. I love mistletoe and eggnog and vacuuming up the pine needles after the tree is set up. My kids still roll their eyes when I sing along with Burl Ives crooning "Silver and Gold" on the cheesy but totally classic cartoon Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Yep, I'm a sucker for the season. And believe me, I am fine with gift-giving at work. Anonymous white elephant gift exchange, cool. Pick a present or steal someone's you really like. It's easy, simple and fun.

But when it comes to the Secret Santa, that's where I draw the line. For the uninitiated, the Secret Santa exchange goes like this: Put all the participants' names in a bowl, pull a name and it's up to you to figure out what to get that person.

In other words, it gets personal. And that's where it becomes complicated.

With a white elephant gift exchange, all you need to do is run to Walgreen's the night before and snag a Sammy the Singing Salmon or a trendy, citrus-flavored bottle of vodka.

But with Secret Santa, you gotta find out stuff about your co-worker. My dilemma: How do I find out what they like without them thinking I'm some weird stalker?

And what if in my quest to find the perfect gift I discover my gift-ee is a convicted felon? Or worse, played the triangle in high school marching band? Do you really want your co-workers to know you're a diehard minor league indoor soccer fan?

And that's where you, the Secret Santa gift-giver, set yourself up for failure. Finding the perfect gift has a snowball's chance, but the margin for failure is as wide as Santa's waist.

This isn't just a hypothetical holiday horror story for me. At a previous employer in the Golden State, the employee morale committee opted one year to do a Secret Santa exchange.

I decided to go all-in as Christmas Elf Guy. Through a little research and asking all the right questions of that department's co-workers, I found out my select-ee enjoyed spending weekends in Mexico. Perfect.

I got a map of the Baja Peninsula. I also burned a copy of Lyle Lovett's song "The Road to Ensenada" and bought some tequila and a six-pack of Corona.

I wanted to be really clever and build the suspense as to who the Secret Santa was. So, Day One, I put a lime on my gift-ee's desk. Day Two, a bottle of Corona, and so on for five more days until the last day: I left the tequila bottle.

As you can imagine, this turned out to be a big hit among our co-workers. No one knew who was leaving these daily gifts until the day when the Secret Santas were revealed.

It was all good until I found out a few months later that my co-worker was an alcoholic. Sure, co-workers knew my gift-ee liked to drink. But no one knew the depths of the problem, and ultimately the person was let go.

Nice job, CSI Rick.

Secret Santa foibles like mine drop a big clue that during the holidays a little privacy in the workplace can be an unspoken gift. Not everyone wants to Facebook all of his or her personal issues.

I wish you luck and good tidings as the holiday party season rolls in.

If by chance you get an anonymous singing salmon, you'll know where it came from. It's that clueless but well-meaning guy across the room who wants to play it safe this time around.

Workforce Management, December 2011, p. 34 -- Subscribe Now!