'Tis the Season for Secret Santa Stress

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08 Dec 2010

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London, 8 December 2010 – The festive season is the perfect time to let your hair down at work and an office Secret Santa can be a great way of getting everyone involved in a spot of seasonal fun. However, Croner has found that the wrong choice of present can lead to more than a few awkward smiles and red faces. Everyone knows that the key to the perfect Secret Santa is to match the personality of the recipient with the right gift. However, both employers and employees should be aware that the wrong choice of present, causing offence rather than amusement, can lead to accusations of discrimination and harassment. Croner has been in contact with professionals who have reported a number of issues relating to Secret Santa gifts. Common complaints include employees whose religious beliefs prevent alcohol consumption receiving wines and spirits and sensitive employees receiving presents with sexual undertones. These kinds of gifts can lead to complaints that may be considered gross misconduct by an employer, which could lead to dismissal. If the recipient of a gift perceives an inappropriate present to create an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment, or to be part of ongoing unacceptable behaviour, an allegation of harassment can be made. New legislation on discrimination means that employees selecting gifts for co-workers need to consider the possibility of discrimination by association and perceived discrimination. Employers will find it useful to make sure their workforce is familiar with those characteristics considered protected, since disciplinary procedures resulting from inappropriate gift giving could be both costly and inconvenient. There are nine protected characteristics listed within the Equality Act 2010 which should be considered before selecting a Christmas gift. Gift givers should be wary of selecting items that could be interpreted as discriminating against religious or philosophical beliefs, race, sex, age, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, disability and sexual orientation. It is also worth while avoiding anything that could be seen to play to a stereotype; or gifts that could be read as mocking sensitive personal characteristics such as height or hair colour. Organisations might also want to consider contingency plans for gift swapping. One disgruntled worker reported that they failed to receive a gift even though they had bought one as their Secret Santa was away from the office on the day presents were exchanged. Although this can seem like a minor issue, causing offence by making a team member feel undervalued or forgotten can cause an awkward atmosphere and low team morale which lasts well beyond the Christmas period. If the Secret Santa was organised by a member of staff outside of work the onus is somewhat taken off the business for any embarrassment or offence resulting from the gifts. However, the company is implicated when gifts are given on the organisation's premises or when the Secret Santa has been endorsed by the company. Clearly then, it is almost impossible for a company to deny responsibility for any hiccups that may occur. This is not to say that Secret Santa should be avoided. Exchanging gifts at work can build team morale and make employees feel valued. The advice is simple – go ahead with your Secret Santa but think carefully before selecting the gifts.

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