How To Play Secret Santa At Work: 5 Tips For Success … And How To Not Get Fired

It’s that jolly time of the year again, folks! Besides the outlook on great family moments and eating way too much in a very short period of time, the Christmas spirit also finds its way into the office.

After again a hard and stressful year, everyone is starting to get into a jolly mood as the decorations are strung up, and the infamous office Christmas party is in sight, with its traditional Secret Santa game.

But do you really know how to play Secret Santa at work?

Secret Santa At Work

Part of the merry Christmas period is the Office Secret Santa game. A fun tradition that leads to a lot of laughter and which is excellent for boosting overall team spirit.

You’re probably thinking “no big deal, I’ve played this game a hundred times before with friends, no big deal.”

Well, not quite…

You see, although there is nothing wrong with some good old merry activities to spread the Christmas spirit, at the end of the day an office is still a place of work, which demands a certain level of professionalism. Or put even more bluntly, you will want to be able to show your face to co-workers & and your boss after the Christmas break.

Wait… what?

No reason to panic, but before looking for affordable Secret Santa gift ideas for co-workers it is good to keep some do’s & don’ts in mind. But if you take just 3 minutes to read the below tips & tricks on how to play Secret Santa at work, you’re fully set to have fun in a workplace-appropriate way.


The Rules of playing Office Secret Santa

Before we dive into the tips and the big no-no’s of how to play Secret Santa in a work environment, perhaps it can be helpful to refresh some of the ground rules of Office Secret Santa.

What is it?

Office Secret Santa is a game in which members of a specific team or larger organization give gifts to each other. However, the identity of the gift giver is not to be revealed, so the recipient needs to guess from which colleague he or she received a gift. If you want to learn more about the background of the game, have a look at this Wikipedia page on the history of office Secret Santa.

How to play Secret Santa At Work?

Step 1: Make a list of every team member or colleague who is participating, and put their names in a hat. You can do this in the traditional paper-and-pen way, or with the help of digital tools. See our third tip below for more details.

Step 2: Each participant draws a name out of the hat. In the unfortunate case where someone picks their own name, he or she needs to put it immediately back and go again. Make sure everyone keeps to themselves who they drew. Otherwise, the fun is gone.

Step 3: Set a specific price target. This game is supposed to be fun, and it’s already hard enough to buy a gift for a colleague, so make sure you give clear instructions. Don’t set the price range too high; somewhere between $10 and $20. Remember that Christmas is a costly period for most people.

Step 4: Ensure that everyone tags their gift with the recipient’s name.

Step 5: Plan when the gifts will be exchanged, preferable before people leave for the holiday break. The annual Christmas office party can be the perfect moment. However, if you are only playing the game within a smaller team, it might be best to choose a separate time and place so as not to incite any jealousy amongst other colleagues.

Step 6: Now the fun begins! During the event, put all the gifts in one place, ideally under the Christmas tree. Each participant, in turn, opens their present and tries to guess who the giver was. Usually, this leads to some hilarious reactions and a lot of laughter.

These are the basic rules of how to play Secret Santa at work in a nutshell, but there are also some more exotic variations and extras that can make the game even more fun. You can discover them in this post.

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The Dos & Don’ts of Office Secret Santa

Although the primary objective of playing the Office Secret Santa game is to have fun and drive team spirit, there are some watch-outs and things you’ll want to avoid.

Don’t force people to play

First of all, employers or team leaders should be aware that some of their employees might not want to play the game for specific reasons. Never force them to participate if they really do not want to.

However, as an employee don’t say no too fast either

Of course, there can be very valid reasons why you cannot take part in the game. For example, you might be already out for the holidays. Yet, if there is no real reason, you might want to think twice, as opting out can give you a bad reputation around the office. Nobody likes a Scrooge during Christmas time!

Get the word out & don’t forget anyone!

Certain colleagues or team members might not be in on the day that the drawing is done, or perhaps they’re even permanently based in another location. Have someone double-check whether all the names went in the hat and that every name has been drawn. You don’t want anybody to be left out in the cold without a gift.

No swapping!

In every workplace, there are certain groups and cliques. Avoid that people are allowed to swap names so they can buy a gift for their buddy. One of the points of this game is to boost team spirit and collaboration.

Choosing the right Secret Santa gift for a colleague at work can be a bit tricky.

You might have played this game many times among friends, but please remember that at the end of the day, you are still buying for a colleague and the event that takes place in the workplace environment. Here are some key points to remember.

Firstly, stick to the agreed price range. Going overboard and buying a much more expensive gift will make your colleagues look cheap, which will not buy you a lot of smiles. On the other hand, you also don’t want to be tagged as the cheapskate who went for the $5 box of cookies.

Secondly, a gift can be fun, but watch out that it doesn’t offend. Big no-nos are items that joke about physical appearance, race, religion, or faith.

Also, make sure you don’t give a gift that could be interpreted as inappropriate. It is better to stay clear of more romantic gifts like heart-shaped chocolates or perfume, and by no means give any sex toys. Or I can promise you HR will be at your desk first thing in the morning…

Buying a gift for a colleague is hard, but don’t get creepy and stalk their Facebook page trying to find clues on what they like. This might be an acceptable strategy with friends, but not with colleagues. Sandra from accounting might not like the idea that you were browsing her personal pictures.

In case your team is not too familiar with each other, it can be a good idea to have people write down a few things about themselves, or perhaps even add a Wishlist.

Never give cash. You would feel weird yourself if you received an envelope with money in it. Also, refrain from giving gift cards. They signal that you didn’t bother to put any effort into the game or the person.

And finally, never use Secret Santa gifts at work for ulterior motives. If you drew your boss’ name, don’t try to go overboard with the intent to land that promotion. It will only earn you a bad reputation among your colleagues.

Receive your gift graciously

Even if you really don’t like your Secret Santa gift, you should still show your appreciation for the gesture and thank your Secret Santa. In the end, that person did go out of his or her way to find and purchase something for you, hoping that you would like it.

And don’t voice your disappointment to others. Remember that office gossip spreads like wildfire. And you don’t want word to get back to your gift giver that you hated your gift.

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How to Organize the Office Secret Santa at Work

At this point, you’re probably thinking: “This game seems like a lot of fun! But everyone is so busy. Who will organize all of this?”

Well, luckily there are some great tools out there that can help you and your colleagues efficiently set up an Office Secret Santa game.

The traditional way

First off, you can just go old school, take some pieces of paper and write all the names down and have everyone draw one from a hat. In the end, it will only take 5 minutes.

The digital way

Sometimes the group is too big, everyone is busy, or not even based in the same location. Yet, this doesn’t have to be a show stopper. Some handy digital tools can facilitate the organization and the follow-up of all the small details for you.

There are many online Secret Santa generators and apps out there. Basically, all participants will be asked to confirm their participation via mail or the app, the system will divide the names and inform & remind everyone about the rules.


Secret Santa theme ideas for work

At the end of the day, your workplace still demands a certain level of professionalism. Hence, although some themes like “sexy gifts” or “prank gifts” might be fun to play with friends, they’re not appropriate for a place of work.

But no worries, we’ve got you covered and have already done the work for you. Here are some HR-approved theme ideas that can give an extra fun dimension to your Office Secret Santa game:

  • Superhero
  • Musical gifts
  • Funny mugs
  • Books
  • The 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, etc
  • Dollar store
  • Board Games
  • Favorite cookies
  • Useful for work.
  • White elephants
  • Charity donations in the recipient’s name
  • Small plants or seeds that can be planted


Best Office Secret Santa Gift Ideas

We already talked about how to play Secret Santa at work and some dos and don’ts, but perhaps you still don’t have a clue what to buy Marc from purchasing?

Then perhaps you will want to have a look at our list of bests gifts for Secret Santa at workIt contains the hottest, most popular office Secret Santa gifts of the moment. And every single one of them is appropriate to give to any colleague.

So there you have it!

We hope you found these tips and tricks on how to play Secret Santa at work somewhat useful, and we wish you a lot of fun with your very own office Secret Santa game!

Last Updated on September 6, 2023 by Emily Scott