Sunday, December 16, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: `THIS IS FOR YOU, NOW WHAT WILL YOU GIVE ME?'

I used to work for a company that had a policy prohibiting employees from receiving from vendors any gift that had a value greater than $25 or that couldn't be consumed in one sitting.

The second half of this edict always particularly irked me, since I knew that some of my colleagues had such voracious appetites that they could consume in one sitting an amount worth quite a bit more than my family's monthly grocery bill. Nevertheless the policy stood.

With the holiday season upon us, the question of when and whether it's appropriate to accept gifts from vendors reaches its apex. Does that basket of gourmet treats from Vendor X involve an implicit agreement to favor him over Vendor Y, whose prices are slightly better but whose gift of a magnetic calendar with her company's logo pales in comparison to Vendor X's?

Such decisions should, of course, be based on the best interest of your company, not on which vendor stuffs your inbox with the finest meats and cheeses. (Full disclosure: I've tackled this topic before in a column that looks at how some companies, large and small, handle gift giving from vendors. See THE RIGHT THING; In Ethics, It's The Thought That Counts. My take on the issue hasn't changed all that much over the past seven years.)

Some companies, such as my former employer, try to stave off such conundrums by setting guidelines on what's acceptable and what's not. These policies are premised on the notion that gifts of such a token value couldn't possibly influence an employee to make a biased decision.

Other companies ban gifts altogether. Wal-Mart, for example, has had such a policy on its books since its founding in 1962.

Doesn't a vendor expect something in return for any gift, no matter how minimal its value? Could a $12.95 bag of high-end coffee beans or a $59.99 box of steaks really result in you giving business to a vendor whose bids aren't otherwise competitive? Really, can any of us be bought that cheaply?

Unfortunately it isn't that simple. Even without an explicit quid-pro-quo, such a gift still might influence you, consciously or subconsciously, to accept that vendor's telephone call before someone else's on a busy day. You may convince yourself that you'll be able to remain impartial, but it's hard to be sure. And no, vendors wouldn't give gifts if they didn't expect something in return.

Some vendors are blatant about their expectations. A reader from Mission Viejo, Calif., writes that he received an unsolicited gift from a vendor, a small tool kit worth about $20. In the accompanying note the vendor offers to give him another gift if he'll meet with him for 30 minutes.

My reader has no intention of conducting any such meeting, but now he wonders if he's ethically obligated to return the tool kit.

Since his company has no policy forbidding such gifts, my reader has absolutely no obligation to return it. Were it me, however, I would return it with a note that politely asked the vendor not to send gifts in the future. If my business makes a meeting necessary or desirable, I'll go without the lure of a $20 gift or, for that matter, a $1,000 gift.

While a no-gifts policy is the cleanest approach to keeping things aboveboard, the practice is unlikely to be adopted universally. The right thing for companies to do, when it comes to gift policies, is to make it absolutely clear to employees what's acceptable and what's not.

A no-gifts approach might strike some as too harsh a response. But I'd like vendors to know that the way to win me over is by selling me on services and products that will help my company, not by sending over some tchotchkes for my personal use.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

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Talking Politics Over Turkey

For those wrestling with how to have a civil discussion over a holiday meal, a discussion with HKS PolicyCast