Career Center Blog

December 7, 2011

How to rock your office's white elephant gift exchange


rubber chicken.jpgA friend recently emailed me distressed about the Secret Santa gift she had to buy an officemate.

[Flickr photo by gruntzooki]

"I don't know the person at all and have no idea what they like. Do I get a stupid coffee mug that's just going to go into the landfill or what?"

We tossed around some innocuous, inexpensive gift ideas (gloves, potted plant, cookies -- provided her coworker doesn't have any dietary restrictions), and my friend went away happy.

Not as happy as she could have been, though, had her department nixed the Secret Santa exchange and planned a white elephant gift swap instead.

If you ask me, workplace gift exchanges could use all the help they can get. Most workers don't want another Starbucks gift card, tree ornament bearing the company logo, or equally staid token item. What they want is a chance to forget about work for an hour and share a good laugh -- something that goes much farther toward boosting morale than a free latte or a shamelessly self-promotional tree ornament ever can. White elephant gift swaps offer all those plusses and more, including unassigned gift recipients, quirky and gag gifts, and -- everyone's favorite -- gift pilfering.

"It's meant to be a party game," says Donna Farrugia, executive director of The Creative Group, a staffing agency that recently polled 750 marketing and ad agencies about the strangest items they've seen at an office white elephant gift exchange (among the winners: a World War II gas mask, a wilted carrot, a dirty ashtray, a framed picture of a coworker, a figurine of an actual white elephant, and last year's fruitcake).

"It's designed to get a few laughs in the office," Farrugia says. And when it comes to bringing in the best or funniest gift, she says, "there's often a little friendly competition."

If you're one of the lucky employees participating in a white elephant gift swap this year, how do you make sure the gift you bring isn't a dud?

Keep it light, humorous, and sanitary, Farrugia says. (Sorry, dirty ashtray givers, that turkey won't fly.)

Stay away from gifts with a political, religious, or sexual, theme, Farrugia says. "If you're really asking yourself, 'Is this gift inappropriate?' it probably is," she warns. (In other words, that vintage issue of Playboy you picked up at the Fremont Market is a no-go.)

As for giving a bottle of booze, depending on the company culture, it's often acceptable, Farrugia says. "I've seen a bottle of wine be the one that everybody wants," she adds. (Heck, I've seen the bottle of Jack be the one that everyone wants. And the neon Schlitz sign.)

If you're not sure what gift to get for your office's white elephant, a trip to Archie McPhee might offer some inspiration. Likewise for a visit to your friendly neighborhood thrift shop (that World War II gas mask does sound cool). Also, NWjobs' Bree Coven Brown offers some fun, affordable ideas here. And maybe your fellow NWjobs readers will be kind enough to weigh in with their most successful white elephant scores. 

Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide." E-mail Michelle at

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White Elephant Gift exchanges are AWFUL...some people think that unearthing gifts (re-gifting) they have received and discarded in the past but did not get around to actually getting them out of their houses (donations to Goodwill or Salvation Army for such gifts would be the best thing to do, IMHO) are good enough for the White Elephant Exchange. Since our department started that "ritual" at holiday time, I have not participated. Contrary to what this piece alleges, recipients of Starbucks gift cards (and other gift cards) are most grateful and happy to receive them. It is far better than unwrapping a plastic wallet that is mildewed and covered in nicotine stains!


I disagree with FizzyTea -- the point of White Elephant exchanges is the party game element. You steal better gifts, you hope for the best, someone gets something awful and it is all about the fun process. It is an improvement over the Secret Santa theme.

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Karen Burns Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl, a career guide based on her 59 jobs over 40 years in 22 cities.

Kristen Fife Kristen Fife is a senior recruiter, career mentor, blogger and resume consultant based in the Seattle area.

Lisa Quast Lisa Quast is a certified career coach, mentor, business consultant, former corporate executive and author based in the Seattle area.

Randy Woods Randy Woods writes about job-search tools, networking techniques and other tips to help you land your dream job.

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Matt Youngquist is the president of Career Horizons, a career counseling firm.

Natalie Singer is a Seattle writer, editor and small-business owner.

Michelle Goodman is the author of "My So-Called Freelance Life" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide."


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