Palo Alto Weekly

- December 10, 2010

The (white) elephant in the room

Office gift-giving can be fraught with hazards, but local employers have found ways to foster holiday cheer

by Jocelyn Dong

For the holidays one year, Diana Turner got a box of cat litter-box liners from a co-worker.

And she loved it.

Turner, group wellness director for the Palo Alto Family YMCA, explained that the Y's leadership team used to engage in a little gift-giving tradition: After a holiday lunch at Pizz'a Chicago, everyone would choose a fellow team member's name out of a hat, receive $5, and go across the street to shop at the Palo Alto Goodwill. There, they'd have to stealthily find and purchase just the right item, hiding it from the intended recipient, who was also trying to sneakily buy a gift for someone.

"It was a fun and endearing tradition," Turner said of the practice that also benefited another nonprofit. (For the record, Turner does own two cats.)

Turner was one of the lucky ones. As many company employees have experienced, gift exchanges among co-workers don't necessarily turn out merry and bright. Whether one is on the receiving or giving end, office gift-giving can be fraught with hazards. It's especially so when participating in a "Secret Santa" exchange, in which the gift giver is randomly assigned a recipient — whose tastes may not be obvious.

An attempt at humor might be taken as an insult. A present that is a mite too personal can lead to misunderstandings.

Trepidation over office etiquette during the holidays has spurred more than a million articles online offering advice, including Forbes.com's "Office gift giving: Proceed with caution."

Some workplaces seek to find a happy medium — fostering camaraderie but avoiding awkwardness — by hosting a "white elephant" gift exchange. In that tradition, co-workers bring wrapped "white elephant" gifts, a term used to describe an unwanted and often outrageous item that isn't supposed to please. The gifts are chosen one at a time, and the recipient is allowed to trade the gift for one already opened by someone else.

Bob Cable, public relations manager for Stanford Lively Arts, calls his department's annual white-elephant gift exchange "a nice morale builder for the staff. It's fun. It gets people in the mood for the holidays."

"One of the (gifts) I remember is the Blooming Onion Maker — 'As Seen On TV,'" Cable said. "They bring it back every year. It recirculates."

Another popular gift that made the rounds: the "High School Musical" alarm clock.

By far the most unusual gift — though one might argue the most appropriate, given the "white elephant" name — was given last year: a journal made from elephant dung.

"I wouldn't be surprised if it came back this year," Cable said.

Cable himself brings what he calls "silly" gifts — a cute pen or something with a bit of originality.

When it comes to non-white-elephant gifts, Cable has advice on what not to give a co-worker: "Nothing that veers toward sexuality or politics; there's awkwardness that lingers on. No lingerie."

Still, the luckiest employees may be those who pick the name of an easy-going recipient like Turner, who has appreciated more than one item someone's bought her. On her desk at the Y, she has a picture of a little boy in shorts with his chubby tummy sticking out. Where did it come from? Goodwill, of course.

Managing Editor Jocelyn Dong can be e-mailed at jdong@paweekly.com.

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