Commentary: The office Secret Santa gift exchange can be a landmine

SINGAPORE: I would be the first to admit that since I became an adult, I have never really been big on giving or receiving gifts.

If you earn your own money, why do you have to wait for a special occasion like your birthday or Christmas, and for someone to kill their brain cells trying to read your mind, only to get you something you probably don’t want, like or need?

It’s much easier, and way more efficient, to buy yourself anything you want, anytime you wish. Well, that’s the idea in my head anyway. Besides, the things I really want are too expensive as gifts.

Which is why I am one of those people who find the concept of the office Secret Santa — a practice of giving an anonymous gift to a colleague whose name one has picked randomly out of a hat — somewhat pointless.

And I am not alone in this.

READ: Commentary: All these corporate greeting cards and presents are not gifts. They’re spam

Complaints abound in the Twitterverse.

“You know when you do Secret Santa and you give the person a gift card, glove and scarf set in a handmade gift bag you sewed yourself, and you get a stained coffee mug with Halloween candy in it?” went one.

“We’re having five different Secret Santa exchanges at my work. If one of my presents isn’t a raise to pay for this nonsense, I’m quitting,” went another.

READ: Commentary: Before you buy gifts for your kids this festive period, find out if it’s good for them


According to a 2019 survey by UK-based job search portal Jobsite, 35 per cent of employees would like to see Secret Santa banned at their workplace; 26 per cent spend more than they can afford on presents for co-workers; 17 per cent feel that they are judged based on how much they spend on gifts for colleagues.

You can imagine how many more people feel this way in 2020, when COVID-19 has led to so many of us working from home, consuming less — and more consciously — in an attempt to save our planet (and our dwindling bank accounts).

Add to this we are stressing out over our mental health and how our vulnerable loved ones are doing. While desperately Marie Kondo-ing our possessions to spark joy amid a very challenging year.

READ: Commentary: Phase 3 will bring us much-needed closure to a difficult year

(Photo: Unsplash/Jennifer Pallian)

Buying gifts for family and friends we care about would make the trip to town, with the December downpours and the insane crowds, worth the trouble. But for co-workers whom we have not seen for much of the year?

Yet, it is the season of giving after all and we don’t want to sound particularly Gringe-y. In the past, the easiest thing to do used to be, to buy something edible, like chocolates or biscuits.

READ: Commentary: Our muted joy over Phase 3 is the true new normal

But with so many people adopting trendy dietary restrictions nowadays, knowing if your colleague has nut allergies, does keto, suffers from gluten-intolerance, is insulin-resistant, avoiding carbs, or simply doesn’t have a sweet tooth – makes for a tough decision.


This is where beverages could come in handy: Think premium tea in a beautiful canister, a DIY hot chocolate kit, a subscription box of fair-trade coffee beans.

Another previously failsafe office Secret Santa commandment, was to buy something to perk up the recipient’s workspace. Unfortunately, in the past nine months of work-from-home, hasn’t everyone already bought as many succulents, photo frames, aromatherapy diffusers, ring lights, ergonomic wrist rests and mini USB-desk fans as they need for their home offices?

Christmas gifts for difficult people 3 plants

I also once received a cactus as a gift. I’m not sure why. (Photo: Pixabay)

If you want some ideas on what to buy, there are no lack of articles to help you along. Just search for Secret Santa gifts and the first thing that pops up is “31 Secret Santa gifts your co-workers will love”.

Among the many suggestions are evergreen winners: Novelty socks, desktop golf, bowling or Zen Garden kits, office mugs emblazoned with passive-aggressive messages such as “I survived another meeting that should have been an email”.

Or how about a notebook shaped like a block of cheese for all your “Gouda ideas”?

To me though, having gifted and given many a notebook, chances are most of these stocking stuffers are going to end up being re-gifted, or abandoned in the deep dark recesses of the drawer in your home.

Perhaps the best thing to do is just drop the pretense, ask the person you are buying for what would he or she like and get it over with – no one ends up with waste and everyone gets what they want.


Then there are the potential dangers associated with gifting colleagues — ill-intentioned folks using anonymous workplace gift giving as an opportunity to bully, harass or sabotage; of sensitive souls taking offence when none was intended; of privacy being invaded, especially since your Secret Santa needs your address in order to be able to send you your gift.

You’ll have to be careful too about the gift you get – a bottle of wine for someone who is trying to cut drinking or a bath set for someone with body odour – these can be interpreted poorly.

Watching too much Black Mirror has also made me illogically paranoid. Is the fact that the office babe getting a cute bear from the office nerd suspicious? Does it have a hidden camera?

Person wearing a sweater with the word "Girl Boss"

(Photo: Unsplash/Brooke Lark)

Or if your nefarious nemesis gifted you with a USB stick, could it be infected with a malicious virus that could wipe out all your Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations?

Then there’s the biggest headache of all – what if you draw your boss? Suddenly, there’s all this unnecessary pressure to make sure your gift is classy yet not too expensive or worse, doesn’t send the wrong signal (it may not be a good idea to gift a book on how to be a better manager for instance).

READ: Commentary: Spas and other indulgent treats a needed comfort in a bad year

To put an end to all this Secret Santa-related stress and anxiety, companies should let employees opt out if they so wish, or abolish the practice altogether, and make a donation to charity instead.

We do have colleagues who are friends so people should just decide who, what and how they want to share gifts.

But if you really, really can’t bear to see Secret Santa die or just don’t want to be the wet blanket that opts out of the mandated office fun, then do the most sensible thing – re-gift what you get to your mother-in-law. Socks are always useful.

Tracy Lee is a freelance writer who writes about food, travel, fashion and beauty.

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Trump leaves Biden with a political landmine on human rights

The dilemma is one example of the dangerous policy terrain Trump is leaving behind for Biden. From heaping sanctions on countries with which Biden hopes to negotiate, such as China and Iran, to cutting hasty diplomatic deals that break with long-held U.S. positions, as with Morocco, Trump is leaving behind a legacy that could be hard for Biden to undo.

In the case of religious freedom, the Trump administration has done everything from host international gatherings on the topic to direct more funds toward specific religious groups overseas. Such efforts have been embraced emphatically by evangelical groups, which often work to protect vulnerable Christian minority sects in places like Iraq. Trump aides also have used the cause of religious liberty to whack adversaries such as China, with administration officials even pondering whether to label Beijing’s mass detention of Uighur Muslims a genocide.

Many people in Biden’s orbit have watched the emphasis on religious liberty with unease. That’s not because they disagree with the cause. Rather, they question whether the Trump team’s intense emphasis on it is more about politics or about using religious freedom as a way to undermine other rights, such as those of gays and lesbians.

For now, Biden transition aides have made no promises to activists asking them to scale back or repudiate some aspects of Trump’s religious freedom agenda. But the Biden team seems to grasp the sensitivities involved, some advocates told POLITICO.

“My guess is they’ll think carefully,” said Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director for Human Rights Watch. “If there are changes, it’ll probably be part of a package — you would try to embed it in a broader project.”

Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), who served as assistant secretary of State for human rights during the Obama administration, said Biden needs to articulate a “strong and principled global human rights policy.”

“Our advocacy for religious freedom in the world would be more effective if it’s seen as grounded in such a policy, rather than as a political pet project and not as something that seems to take precedence over other core values that the United States has always championed,” Malinowski said.

Some prominent conservatives, meanwhile, say Biden should build on the religious liberty infrastructure the Trump team is leaving behind.

“This is something that would lessen evangelicals’ opposition to him, make them feel more supportive of him, if he were to embrace this policy,” said Richard Land, president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary.

A Biden transition spokesperson declined to comment for this story but referred a reporter to Biden’s pledges to devote more resources to protecting America’s faith-based communities against extremist violence.

Biden also issued a statement Thursday in honor of Human Rights Day, in which he promised to “put universal rights and strengthening democracy at the center of our efforts to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”

Every presidential administration, Republican or Democrat, has faced accusations of inconsistency on human rights. But the Trump administration is unusual in the degree to which it has prioritized one right, religious freedom, above others.

Among other things, Trump aides have: launched an annual ministerial gathering to promote religious freedom; created an alliance of countries devoted to the topic; and elevated the offices of the special envoys for international religious freedom and combating anti-Semitism in the State Department’s command structure. The president, meanwhile, issued an executive order calling for more emphasis on religious freedom in diplomatic decision-making. Many of the administration’s political appointees at the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development have experience in the religious freedom field.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also created the Commission on Unalienable Rights, a panel devoted to rethinking human rights policy. Pompeo used the panel’s report to declare that religious freedom, as well as property rights, are the “foremost” human rights. He’s given several speeches about the importance of Christianity in his life and calls religious freedom America’s “first freedom.”

On one hand, human rights advocates are happy the administration pays attention to the oppression of faith groups, many of whom face dire conditions.

While Trump himself usually shows indifference or hostility to human rights — he calls journalists the “enemy of the people,” has banned citizens of several Muslim-majority countries from U.S. soil and even reportedly supported China’s mistreatment of the Uighurs (he denies this) — many of Trump’s aides have lined up behind the religious freedom agenda.

But rights activists suspect Trump aides’ motivations are not entirely pure.

Emphasizing religious liberty is, after all, a way to make even more inroads in the evangelical community, whose members are especially concerned about the plight of Christian minorities overseas.

Pompeo, who is eyeing a White House run, has already seen his profile rise in evangelical Christian circles partly because of his loud advocacy for religious freedom. Reports that Vice President Mike Pence has sought to prioritize sending aid to Christian minorities also have alarmed rights activists who insist religious freedom policies must be faith-neutral.

Some rights activists also believe that Trump aides are prioritizing religious freedom in a long-term effort to impose policies that degrade the rights of LGBTQ people, as well as women’s rights.

“They essentially have tried to weaponize it, use it as a license to discriminate against certain communities,” said Mark Bromley, chair of the Council for Global Equality, which advocates for LGBTQ rights.

The council and other rights organizations are asking the Biden team to repudiate Pompeo’s Commission on Unalienable Rights, making it clear that the U.S. doesn’t agree with the notion that there’s a hierarchy of rights with religious freedom at the top.

“We haven’t received any assurances or anything like that, but in talking to folks on the transition, we get the sense they understand the equities,” said Bromley, whose organization has sued Pompeo over the commission.

Sam Brownback, Trump’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, agreed to an interview, but his aides later claimed he was unavailable. Asked for comment, the State Department said in a statement attributed to an unnamed official that “the right to freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental right out of which others’ rights flow.”

“More religious freedom leads to other freedoms, including freedoms of assembly and expression,” the statement said. “We think that promoting and protecting religious freedom makes life better for every citizen.”

Human rights activists have mixed views on which elements of Trump’s religious freedom agenda should be kept or jettisoned.
For instance, some predicted that the Biden administration will keep the annual ministerial gathering on religious freedom, though perhaps other countries can host it on a regular basis.

Some activists say that instead of cutting back on religious-liberty-related activities, the Biden team could find ways to emphasize other human rights issues that have gotten short shrift under Trump, such as freedom of the press or women’s rights. Biden already has promised to hold a “Summit for Democracy,” a forum in which some of these issues could be highlighted.

Brownback’s office, as well as that of the envoy focused on anti-Semitism, should be placed back under the auspices of the State Department’s human rights bureau, some of the activists argue. That, as well as whom Biden names to lead those offices, could send strong signals that one right won’t be prized above others.

Conservatives, too, say they will watch Biden’s envoy picks closely.

While it’s unlikely the religious freedom issue will drive an electorally meaningful number of evangelicals to support Biden, they said, treating the subject with sensitivity and caring could save him some unnecessary headaches.

‘This is a very, very important issue to the vast majority of evangelicals in the country,” Land said. “They won’t be silent about it.”

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