Make It Work: The Best & Worst Presents To Give At Your Office White Elephant Gift Exchange

The holiday season brings a wide swath of work-related traumas to endure: waiting for your holiday bonus, drinking too much weird tequila at your holiday party and making out with that dude from accounting, figuring out what to do when your boss gets you a present, but you’re empty-handed. But there is none as time-honored as the office White Elephant gift exchange, a fun activity in which you get a clear-cut vision of the actual largesse and cunning of the people you spend most of your waking days with. For the uninitiated, here’s how these things work. You pick from a pile of wrapped gifts. Once everyone has selected theirs, you have up to three opportunities to trade for something that could be “better.” When you’ve hit the limit, you’re stuck with whatever you got. Then, open the presents, revel in the joy of the season, and grumble over the fact that you’re walking away with three lottery tickets and a six-pack of Orbit gum. Everyone, go home.

There’s a strategy to the White Elephant gift exchange, and it’s perhaps the most clear-cut example of the importance of first impressions. While you could be vying for that big box with the huge bow, I bet you dollars to donuts that when you finally open your spoils, you’ll be greeted with a pair of stretchy gloves and a travel deodorant, nestled in a pile of the finest tissue paper. Like all things in life, a white elephant is a risky endeavor. You really never know what you’re going to get. You’re only going to get back what you put into this event, so pick your gift wisely. Here are some of the best and worst things to get for your office white elephant exchange.

BEST: Beyonce 2015 Calendar

This is a power move because of the shape and size of the present when wrapped. A big, flat rectangle probably reads boring to someone who’s looking for the flash and the excitement of tiny box-shaped item that could contain a $50 Trader Joe’s gift card or a lovely pair of earrings. Everyone will be expecting a dud gift until they open it, resigned to their fate, and are greeted with 12 flawless months of Beyonce. Know that you did well.

WORST: Any item of clothing you’d wear to bed.

There is one exception in this category and that is the oversized novelty sleep shirt. Everyone loves a novelty sleep shirt. But, anything else that suggests that you understand what it is your coworkers do behind closed doors with people they are interested in seeing naked is a no-go. Think about it this way — would you want to be the recipient of some weird not-quite-lingerie camisole purchased by god knows who in your office of like, 12 bros, eight women and your boss? No. You wouldn’t. So, even if you think it’s funny to buy like, edible panties or something for your gift exchange, exercise restraint.

BEST: Some small, fancy leather good purchased on discount at an outlet mall.

If you enjoy a good deal and the exquisite torture of hearing the same five Christmas songs on infinite loop, then take yourself down to the nearest outlet mall and grab something that looks like you put a lot of effort into it, but really didn’t, at all. My sister won big time at her white elephant exchange this year and walked away with a Kate Spade Saturday wallet in cherry red. This is the kind of gift that suggests high-end taste and effort, when really it was snatched from the bottom of the 50 percent off bin at Loemmann’s.

WORST: Anything from Bath and Body Works.

I don’t think that anyone should still go into this store, because the olfactory assault upon entering is severe. But they often have killer holiday deals so the temptation to duck in here when you’re on your lunch break the day of your white elephant gift swap is high — but resist! Yeah, a lot of people would accept hand sanitizer if foisted upon them, but if it smells like a high school hallway circa 1998, they probably don’t actually want it.

BEST: Stuff purchased in line at Duane Reade/Walgreens/Rite-Aid

So, the checkout line at Duane Reade is lined with the kinds of things you pick up, look at, and put back down again before you actually purchase the tampons, toilet paper and scotch tape you came in to get in the first place. What you’re really missing is that the crap they put in the line on the way to the register is stuff people actually do kind of want. If I ended up with a spare phone charger in bright yellow, an Us Weekly, a Kit-Kat and one of those Russell Stover chocolate Christmas trees, I’d be pretty, pretty pleased.


I participated in a white elephant amongst friends and walked away with a sizeable amount of weed and a $10 bill. That was the best gift-giving exchange I have had to date. The office might not be the best place to share your love of marijuana or illicit Xanax or whatever, but know your audience. If you’re friends with everyone you work with, and they’re all cool, man, then I say sky’s the limit. It’s a risk, but I don’t think you’ll get arrested. I mean, you probably won’t. It’s fine, I’m sure.

WORST: ShakeWeight

There is a specific subset of people that think receiving an object that, when used, makes it look like the user is jerking off a giant penis is the height of comedy. These are the same kind of people who watched “Too Many Cooks” a little more than everyone else you know, and are also really into ugly sweater parties. If you work with a lot of these people, then, yes, a  Shake Weight seems like the perfect gift, but do yourself a favor and don’t perpetuate their awfulness. Get literally anything else. No one wants that shit. Trust.