By Chris Mah
Updated December 15, 2014
© Chris Rout / Alamy

Around this time of year, people all over the country find themselves struggling to think of gift ideas for colleagues and co-workers. Buying a gift out of obligation for someone you may not know well or even like can be a frustrating task. That’s almost certainly why some forward-thinking HR director invented the white elephant gift exchange.

If you are unfamiliar with the white elephant, everyone shows up with an inexpensive gift they may or may not actually like, puts it in a pile and then one by one the entire office takes a present. But, if they like what someone has already opened, they are free to steal it from them, forcing the first person to pick another gift from the pile. It’s like a Hobbesian state of nature for items from the Dollar Store. Before you decide to plan a white elephant party at your office this year, consider these drawbacks to this tradition:

1. It reinforces the commercialization of the holidays. We’re all for giving gifts to people you love and care for, but does buying a tape dispenser that looks like a guy on a toilet for an unknown recipient out of professional obligation really fit with the holiday spirit?

2. It’s an excuse for people to offload their junk onto someone else. If you didn’t want that ugly Mickey Mouse alarm clock radio, chances are that nobody else at your office does, either. Instead of passing it off on your marketing intern, donate it to Goodwill or throw it out.

3. People focus more on getting than giving. There are always one or two good gifts that get thrown into the mix, and since most versions of white elephant allow participants a chance to steal gifts from others, you can bet that those Starbucks gift cards will change hands more than a few times.

4. Stealing gifts from others can create awkward tension. Sure, it was just a $17 figurine of Elsa from Frozen, but you wanted it for your daughter, and Bill from sales just stole it from you to resell on eBay. Probably to you so you can give it to your daughter. And now it looks like someone won’t be getting his expense report approved on time this quarter.

5. There are much better ways to boost office bonding. **cough cough** open bar in the conference room *cough cough*.