Thursday, December 25, 2008

On Opting Out

Every year my company hosts a minimum of two or three separate Christmas parties. There is the formal affair, which is held a few weeks beforehand, at various fancy off-site establishments, with staff from both offices. It is the one time a year when everyone meets face to face, and after two years, there are still unfamiliar faces. Then on the last day before the holiday, each office has a Secret Santa potluck.

When the sign-up sheet was posted in the kitchen last year, I casually ignored it. I am generally opposed to Secret Santa type gift swaps on environmental grounds. In my experience, people are buying for recipients they don't know very well, with spending guidelines that pretty much guarantee that everyone just trades crap that no one wants. But my boss who organizes the party is really into the fun social aspect of it, and when she came around to my desk with sign-up sheet I succumbed to the pressure.

It turns out the culture of this particular gift exchange leans even more heavily towards useless garbage than most. The gifts are supposed to be stupid, or comical, or humiliating. [An example is a whole line of "Boss Lady" toiletries someone purchased for one of the partners last year, which was all packaged in pink, but had a manly scent. Racy calendars are also a recurring theme.]

Because it was "secret," I wasn't exposed as the guilty party, but the gift I purchased, a Rishi fair trade organic tea gift set with a ceramic diffuser, was roundly dismissed as being "too nice." It must have been a new person. Luckily there were several of us new people, including my recipient, who seemed quite pleased with her gift. She came and thanked me privately later -- she figured out it was me because there aren't many of us tea drinkers there, plus the aforementioned newbie failure to buy a gag gift. The funny thing is, she had drawn my name, and bought me organic lotion and lip gloss, another gift dismissed as unworthy by the old timers.

This year I decided to opt out.

With several successful performance reviews under my belt, I figured I should have enough personal capitol and recognizable value by now to escape the obligatory gift exchange. I still brought a dish to pass and attended the party, socializing and watching co-workers open their embarrassing gifts. It was much more enjoyable for me this year without the stress of the dreaded gift exchange. As the party was wrapping up, the partners passed out merit-based bonus checks, a welcome uncertainty in these times. [My company has not been immune to this economic downturn: our health care rates will skyrocket in January, and several co-workers have been laid off or had their hours dramatically cut back.]

Most staff leave shortly after the party peters out, but I returned to my desk for another hour and a half of work, trying to wrap something up I am scheduled to work on next week. When I was leaving at 5:30 pm, the only other people left were partners. As I was putting on my coat and getting ready to leave, I went around to say goodbye and personally thank each partner.

I was in Party Organizer Boss's office when Boss Lady Recipient Partner came in with her coat to say goodbye, too. We all ended up walking out together. They started lamenting how there seemed to be less participation this year in both the Secret Santa and the potluck. Since they knew I didn't participate in the gift exchange, but the food all gets lost together on one big table, I was quick to point out in my defense that at least I brought a dish to pass. Redemption of sorts? That was my hope. Then Party Organizer Partner joked that perhaps they should tie Secret Santa participation to the bonuses.

While it was just a joke, the comment gave me pause. Obviously I know enough to keep my big mouth shut and not tell my bosses what I really think of these gift exchanges. But is that enough? Are there political consequences to opting out? What do you think? Do I have to suck it up and participate in future Secret Santas for reasons of professional development?

I hope everyone has a terrific holiday season, and if you are celebrating Christmas today, that it is very Merry indeed!


Debbie said...

Hey girl, thanks for visiting! My son just started a new job and when the Department Wreath Contest was announced, he sent out an email asking for ideas. He was pissed at the lack of participation, decorated the Public Safety wreath and proudly displayed it. He privately told his boss that if they won, only the four people that submitted ideas should be allowed to come to the free lunch. He was told no, of course, and I tried to explain the corporate world a little and found what I was saying wasn't making sense, even to me.

I suppose, in answer to your question. Suck it up, re-gift something, smile to yourself and stick out your tongue behind their backs! LOL

Great post hon and I wish you a very Merry Christmas and hope you have a wonderful holiday :)

Abbie said...

Since I don't work in an office-type setting, I can't offer any advice. However, at my school, teachers in my department don't exchange gifts. However, we do something fun that you might suggest as a way to redeem yourself (if in fact you think you've lost brownie points).

Instead of trashing things we don't want, we hold a "Re-gifting Auction" in January after mid-year exams. Teachers bring in presents to donate and write a clue as to what it is on the tag. People bid based on the wrapping and the clue, so often you get something you want, or something that you don't want but can always donate again the following year or trade with someone who wants it. All of the money raised goes to a scholarship fund for our students.

It's a fun, neat way to get rid of things you don't want but that someone else might want. And it's also a great way to raise money. Plus, regifting is green :)

Happy Holidays!

Nadine said...

I always opt out as well, and I can't imagine it affects me negatively. Having said that, now I will be much more paranoid come next year.

Electronic Goose said...

You could suggest another sort of gift exchange for next year, like a white elephant/Yankee swap, and maybe your bosses would find that social enough and not penalize you--maybe even praise you for suggesting another fun activity? It would help a little if all the gifts weren't bought new and instead the "gag" items were ones already laying around unused in someone's basement. Our office does that, and I enjoy not having to spend any money. Of course, someone might throw out my gag gift but it's better than a regular gift exchange: it's not a new item with new resources spent to create it. Still, I don't like gift exchanges in general, for the same reason as you.

lanes123 said...

Thanks for the festive holiday wishes; I hope you and your family-n-friends have a great season too.

Opting out at work is tricky; I think a lot of people feel like it isn't a big deal, so why make it one? (I have many responses to this, but none of them would make me very popular with the party-planning committee ... ) I've tried to balance my beliefs with what is expected of a good team player (e.g., instead of just donating money for the holiday luncheon, I baked; instead of buying more page-a-day calendars for relatives, I baked; instead of paying 40 bucks for the holiday work party, I wished everyone a happy holiday and explained that I had another party that night [granted, my "party" was "watching Dr. Who on my couch," but they didn't know that].)

Sara said...

My workplace has evolved over the years. We used to have a "Secret Snowflake," with a 20-dollar limit. Gifts were supposed to be nice and thoughtful. Then we decided to sponsor needy children through the university "elves program" with most of the money we would ahve spent on that, and had a $5 limit on the Snowflake Exchange. This year, we skipped that entirely, the better to concentrate on the office White Elephant, which is more fun, does not require cash layout, and has little pressure. Ours is a true White Elephant - things around our house we don't have a use for, random picking, and gift stealing. What's great is that often one person's White Elephant is another persons Just What I Needed, so a lot of things wind up with useful homes, and the rest - well, they provide entertainment before hitting landfill or Goodwill.

Stacy said...

Your posts reminds me of the stuff that is said and that happens at my work.

Hope your holidays were merry despite what went on at work!

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

God I HATE that stuff at work. HATE it hate it hate it.

Fir years, I pretty much always participated for fear of various reprisals.

Then I quit participating. Decided I'd rather not have the raises. I was glad though when I left my job and didn't have to be part of the bullshit.

Although in all fairness, there WERE times when for some reason or another, I did enjoy some of the bullshit.

Aliki2006 said...

Ugh, I'm coming late to this but good grief. I hate those types of Secret Santa exchanges when no thought goes into them at all and the givers give gag gifts that border on the offensive. I'm not sure I would opt out thought--I'd counter by giving gifts like you did that year--meaningful, tasteful gifts, like the free trade tea set. Maybe if enough people do that sort of thing the pendulum will swing?

Momma Val said...

I am so on your side. I have mixed emotions about anything that is forced at work as "fun". I would have to agree with Goose Juice on the white elephant exchange. Those have been a favorite in our family for years. They are more entertaining than anything else. Maybe you could otherwise suggest an ornament exchange (I often pluck them from my own ornament box). Or something like a cookie exchange or how about a recipe exchange where everybody brings in print outs of their favorite recipe and then gets to put them in a little notebook or pronged pocket folder, etc.? I agree that the gift idea that they have is completely stupid and wasteful especially in this bad economy. I do feel that participating has eased my life at work/jobs in the past and feel that often it is the best option to keep the peace and stay out of the "hawks eyes" and talons. If they do change the activity to one of your ideas, there will most likely be people that feel the way you do about the current one. If that makes any sense. OR if you are really forced to do the exact same thing again, you could rebel by giving something bizarre, re-gifting from the year prior OR making your gift? Good luck with this next year :)