The Ethical Dilemma of Holiday Gifts

Nov 29, 2012
5 Min Read
Moral obligation

Let’s say you’re sitting at work and a messenger arrives with a box that appears to be a holiday gift from a client.

Moral obligation“It’s probably a box of fruit,” you think.  “That’s good. I need more fruit in my diet.”

But when you open the box, you discover a vintage baseball jacket, something you once mentioned to the client that you would love to have. The last time you checked on eBay, however, such a jacket cost well over several hundred dollars.

Your first reaction may be surprise, quickly followed by elation.

Hopefully, though, your next reaction will be to return the gift with a note of appreciation for such thoughtfulness, but a clear message that you can’t accept such an extravagant gift.

You may initially scoff at such a suggestion. Why return a great gift from a nice client who obviously appreciates your work?

The question is not the gift, but what it may cost you.

Will this gift somehow cause you to treat the client differently in the future? Will the client expect to get preferential treatment because you were given such a nice gift? Will colleagues feel you are being unfairly compensated for doing your job?

Those are all ethical questions you need to ask if you want to ensure that you don’t start down a slippery slope that could eventually land you in some serious ethical, or even legal, hot water. Just look at the front page of any newspaper these days, and you’ll see executives and employees who are being charged for illegally accepting lavish gifts or being fired for ethical lapses against company standards.

Still think that jacket is worth the potential problems?

As the holidays grow closer, it’s natural for clients or business associates to start sending you holiday gifts. Fruit that can be shared with others in the office doesn’t present a problem, but what about Super Bowl tickets? In that case, it’s better to return the tickets with a note of appreciation, or raffle them off in the office with the proceeds donated to charity.

While you want to accept every gift in good faith and not automatically assume a client or associate is trying to pull a fast one, it’s also important that you ask yourself if it’s something your company would think was OK. If you’re not clear if it is, consult your boss or human resources department. Even then, it’s a good idea to look inward and decide whether the gift might change the nature of your professional relationship with someone.

Don’t let a holiday gift sway you from your own set of personal morals and standards. Once you move an inch, it will be only a short distance to move another inch. Before you know it, you’ve moved miles away from who you really are as a person.  And that’s a gift you never want to lose.

Have you faced an ethical dilemma like this?  How did you handle it?

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