Secret Santa: the gift that may keep on giving

An exploration of how Secret Santa can result in employment law issues in the workplace.

8 December 2023

Secret Santa is a much-loved festive tradition in the workplace, but should employers monitor organised gift-exchanging? The answer is yes, it’s a good idea for employers to ensure workers are aware of what will be considered appropriate when it comes to the type of gifts exchanged. What may be considered a funny gift to one person, may be considered offensive by another.

So, what are the issues that can arise from a Secret Santa gone wrong?

The most likely employment tribunal claim that may arise because of an ill-informed gift is unlawful harassment under the Equality Act 2010. Harassment is defined as unwanted conduct related to a protected characteristic which has the purpose and effect of violating a person’s dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. As a reminder, the nine protected characteristics are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. It is not difficult to envisage a situation where a gift that is offensive, and particularly sexual in nature, could fall foul of the law.

How do employers reduce the risk of claims arising from Secret Santa?

Most HR teams, and employers generally, are aware of the dangers of “banter” in the workplace and Secret Santa is no exception. Employers should consider a communication to workers around the beginning of the festive period which serves as a friendly reminder to employees to be careful when selecting a gift for a colleague and to ensure it is not offensive or insensitive to that colleague or others.

How should employers handle complaints about Secret Santa gifts?

Employers should follow their grievance procedures in respect of complaints. If it is necessary for disciplinary action to be taken, the disciplinary procedure should be followed.

More generally, employers should keep any harassment and in particular sexual harassment policies under continual review to ensure they are fit for purpose. It is also important that workers are provided with appropriate and regular equalities and diversity training.

If you have queries relating to harassment or disciplinary procedures, please get in touch with a member of our employment team.