Sunday, June 16, 2019

Is alum entitled to take credit for gift that cost him nothing?


A reader we're calling Alan regularly donates money to various nonprofit enterprises including the undergraduate college he attended. A former employer used to match donations Alan made up to a certain amount each calendar year, but his current employer has no such matching program.

Nevertheless, Alan has some discretionary money to spend in his new position. If he decides, for example, to buy lunch for a group of students from his alma mater, his company will reimburse him from his discretionary account. It's not entirely an altruistic move since Alan believes his company sees such gestures as a way of recruiting future potential employees to his organization.

Months after Alan hosted about a half-dozen students from his undergraduate college for an informal lunch and tour of his organization, an official from the college contacted Alan and asked him if he could submit his receipts so the college could acknowledge a gift in kind and supply him with "gift credit and a tax letter."

Alan responded by letting the official know he hadn't hosted the students to get any kind of credit.

"Of course not," the official responded, "but it helps our alumni participation number."

Colleges keep track of the percentage of alumni who donate as a way, among other things, of indicating to larger potential donors how engaged alumni remain with the institution.

Now Alan is torn. He'd like his college to include his effort among those of other alumni if it would help, but because he was reimbursed for the cost from the discretionary spending account his company gives him, he doesn't believe he is entitled to a tax credit. What, he wonders, is the right thing to do?

I am not a tax specialist nor am I up to date on all the ramifications of charitable giving deductions under the most recent tax legislation. Alan is right to pause, however, before considering claiming an expense on his tax forms for which he is ultimately repaid by his employer. If Alan were using his own salary to pay for that lunch with students, he shouldn't hesitate to consider the deduction possibility. But that does not appear to be the case here. Instead, it's his company that appears to be footing the bill.

The right thing is for Alan to let the college official know that the expense he incurred in feeding the students was reimbursed by his organization. The official can let Alan know if this still qualifies as alumni participation. If it does, he can also let Alan know what kind of documentation the college needs to verify the expense.

Even if the expense hadn't been reimbursed by his company, Alan would not be obliged to claim it on his taxes as a charitable contribution nor does he have to seek credit for the alumni participation. Alan has every right to give to a cause he cares about whether he receives credit for that giving.

Of course, if Alan chooses not to have this incident recorded by the college, he can expect further calls from the official or someone else reminding him he hasn't made his annual contribution and encouraging him to do so. Whether or not he does is also entirely up to Alan. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

(c) 2019 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Should reader point out perceived slight?


A reader we're calling Steve arrived for the retirement dinner of a colleague. The colleague had been high up in the organization's management and worked there for many years. Steve was relatively new to the organization, but he had been part of a team of employees who worked with the retiring colleague to resolve a particularly thorny employment contract. While they were on opposite sides of the bargaining table, each grew to appreciate the other's forthrightness and humor during the protracted negotiations.

Steve was a bit surprised he was invited to the somewhat swank retirement dinner held at a four-star hotel in town. Nevertheless, he felt honored to receive the invite and upon arrival went to register and find his table reservation.

When he got to his assigned table, however, Steve discovered that all of the seats had been taken. He went back and checked with the people at the reservation table to make sure he had received the right information. Indeed, he had, but so too had all the other people seated at the table. Apparently, the planning committee had over-assigned Steve's table by one person.

"It was awkward to be standing around the table asking others if there was an extra seat there," Steve wrote. He also noted that they all looked uncomfortable having to tell Steve there was no room for him.

"The people at the reservation table told me to just find an empty seat and take it," Steve writes.

That too felt odd to Steve, making him feel like a kind of afterthought and neglected. He also worried that if someone showed up who was assigned to the table he grabbed a seat at he'd be embarrassed all over again. "I thought about simply going home," he writes.

But Steve didn't want to be disrespectful to the honoree so he found an empty seat, introduced himself to the others at the table, and joined them. It was a group from the company he didn't know well, but they graciously invited him into their discussion and the rest of the evening designed to honor their retiring senior colleague went off without a hitch.

Still, Steve feels a bit burned by the experience and wonders if he should say something to the honoree or write a note to the retirement party planners.

There was nothing unethical in the behavior of the party planners. No malice seemed intended in Steve finding himself short his assigned seat. They might be unfortunate, but mistakes happen. While he can write a note if he wants to, my advice would be to refrain from doing so. The people at the reservation table already know about the screw-up.

The right thing is for Steve to remember that the evening was about his colleague, not him. Granted, writing a note to point out the seating error might help the organizers avoid such a faux pas in the future, but since it was a simple mistake and not a deliberate slight and Steve ended up welcomed at another table, it hardly seems worth taking the organizers to task.

Steve had a nice meal, saw a colleague honored for his contributions to the company over the years, and met some new people. All in all, a good evening. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@comcast.net. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

(c) 2019 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.