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Australian Public Service Employees Warned ‘Secret Santa’ Gifts Could Lead to Trauma

The Australian Public Service Commission is warning its employees to be “mindful” of not buying humorous Secret Santa gifts for coworkers, a year after the story of a man’s gag Secret Santa gift costing him his job went viral in the country.

In its November 2015 newsletter, the last before most offices will throw their Christmas and holiday parties, the commission issues a warning regarding risky party activities that could affect employment. “APS employees are reminded to exercise care and good judgement as some elements of the APS Code of Conduct apply to activities ‘in connection with’ APS employment,” the issue reads, listing a number of common holiday events. The warning includes “party pranks,” uploading embarrassing photos and videos to social media, and “buying ‘Secret Santa’ gifts on the assumption that everyone shares the same sense of humour.”

Secret Santa, or Kris Kringle in Australia, is the practice of randomly assigning gift-giving duties in a large group by making gifters pick the name of their recipient out of a hat. During the gift exchange, the recipient of the gift is often urged to guess at who bought him or her the present. Secret Santa is common is offices and other larger social groups to avoid the potential of everyone feeling compelled to buy everyone else a gift.

The latter warning is something of a victory for a man named Ngoc Luan Ho Trieu who, since having his story make national news in Australia last year, has become the nation’s most vocal anti-Kris Kringle activist. “It’s good that he [the commissioner] took my views into account and warned people about these kind of games,” he said of the new alert, noting that he had written to the commission against the practice. “For people from a different cultural background, jokes like that can really hurt,” he added.

Ngoc became a household name in December 2014 after the story of a 2012 Secret Santa in which he participated spread nationally. Ngoc, who worked in the Finance Department, received a small plastic reindeer as his anonymous gift. The reindeer ejects chocolate chips from his behind to simulate feces, and Ngoc’s specifically was labeled “Luan’s [economic] Modelling Kit,” implying that his work at the department was, as the Canberra Times put it, “poo.”

“I was shocked and very upset,” Ngoc said in 2014. “I had many sleepless nights after that, and always felt heartbroken when going to work the following days,” he adds, noting that he eventually quit the job in June 2013 and has not worked since. He still does not know who gave him the present. His coworkers did tell him that the gift came from a superior, which only added to the terror.

The Canberra Times wrote a follow-up to their original story on Ngoc after being inundated with similar stories of abuse at Kris Kringle parties. “I am the only Asian person in my area… I faced similar upset [to Mr Ngoc’s] — a present from Secret Santa — telling me [that my] English is terrible,” one woman wrote. “I consider this kind of activity to be nothing short of bullying,” wrote another woman who felt powerless upon finding out who her Santa was. Another worker told the harrowing tale of receiving “a three-pack of incense bottles, one of which was half used and another missing entirely.”

The growing distaste among some for such humor in the workplace has alarmed some human resources workers who fear employers may eliminate the practice entirely. “My hope at Christmas would be that employers don’t ever stamp out humour,” said HR Anywhere managing director Martin Nally when asked about the Ngoc story. “Toilet humour has been around and will be around forever. Fart jokes and toilet humour are OK as long as it’s pretty lame. How can you try to regulate what tickles each person’s fancy?”

This year, Australia’s News.com.au is warning workers away from a variety of common gifts, including oversized sunglasses and notepads. Instead, the outlet suggests giving coworkers “alcohol, food, chocolate,” and “alcohol.”

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