Friday, December 7, 2007

Ethical Decisions and Business Gifts

I remember my first job in a small newsroom. About a week before Christmas, the managing editor handed me a sealed envelope, and with a smile said, "Happy holidays!"

My hands actually trembled with excitement as I tore open the envelope,envisioning a nice holiday bonus, something with at least a couple of zeros.

Imagine my stunned surprise to find not a nice chunk of change, but a gift certificate for a turkey from the local Piggly-Wiggly. The turkey price limit, according to the gift certificate, was $20.

Being that I was a 22-year-old single woman with a geriatric cat, a car that refused to start when it was too cold or too hot or too windy, I was a bit deflated.

That's why I'm always amazed to hear about holiday bonuses on Wall Street with six zeros (!) attached, and not even a hint about a turkey. Other people have told me that they've gotten everything from a trip to Hawaii to a week at Disney World for the entire family.

While many of us won't be seeing those kinds of holiday goodies, there are times when a client or customer or other business contact will hand us a gift that sort of takes us aback, and we do an internal "Whoa."

It's at those times you really need to do a gut check, says Dov Seidman, CEO of LRN, a Los-Angeles based company that advises employers and employees on ethics.

Seidman says that if you're offered a gift that is more than you could ever begin to buy for yourself, or if it somehow makes you obligated in some way to that business contact, the best response is to be gracious but say "no thanks."

The reason? Once you start to fudge on your ethics, once you put your personal integrity up for sale for season tickets to the Knicks or some other gift, then some day you're going to realize that you've gone down an ethical abyss that may be hard to climb out of.

"This isn't about what you can do, it's about what you should do," he says. "And making the right decision is often an inconvenience."

So, this holiday season, look at how and why you accept gifts all year long. Set some standards about when and how you'll accept a gift and remember that it's not just about the gift -- but how it looks to others.



Anonymous said...

I was a little confused at first when I read your post as I thought you were essentially saying it was unethical to accept bonuses from your employer, which it is not.

Then I saw you were actually saying accepting bonuses/gifts from clients, customers, business contacts is the questionable practice.

Many companies have "conflict of interest" policies that contain information on what to do with or who to report gifts to in the company. For example, a private employer may have a policy that, if a customer, vendor or other business partner gives an employee a gift worth $100 or less the employee may keep it (unless it is actual cash or from a foreign government) AND report they received it to the Controller of the company. However if it is worth more than $100 they must decline the gift.

Anita said...

Yes, you're right. That is probably confusing the way I wrote it. My apologies. I know that many companies have these policies, but just as many do not. Seidman also pointed out to me how important it is throughout the year to have ethical discussions with employees so that everyone is clear on what is acceptable and not acceptable. I think that's an important part that many do miss.