Sunday, February 02, 2014

Why is this fine wine making me a bit queasy?

A recurring concern in the workplace is whether or not it's appropriate to accept gifts from vendors or suppliers. Every five or so years, typically around the holidays in December, I receive a note from a reader perplexed about the appropriateness of accepting such a gift.

The concern revolves around whether such gifts will be perceived to influence the recipient to give more business to the gift giver than he/she otherwise might have.

I've always believed that the clearest thing to do is for companies to establish a policy of not allowing employees to accept any gifts from workplace vendors and to make that policy clear to all vendors and employees.

Such policies, however, are not the norm. Many companies permit employees to accept gifts. In these cases, making clear to vendors and employees the restrictions about the types of gifts and their cost acceptable is important.

A reader writes that he recently received a bottle of wine as a gift from the senior partner of a law firm his company hires to do its legal work. The gift fell within the parameters of his company's gift policy. Since he doesn't drink wine, whenever he receives a bottle from a vendor, he usually gives it to others in his office or re-gifts it at some social event he might be attending.

He understands that once he receives a gift, he can do with it whatever he wants. The reader Googled the wine and found that it retails for as much as $60 a bottle, far more expensive than the gifts of wine he usually receives, but still within his company's gift policy.

One of the reader's associates saw this particular bottle of wine and asked about it. "He's a wine guy," the reader writes, so he asked if he wanted to buy it.

"Sure," the associate responded. "I'll give you $30 for it."

At first, the reader thought about selling it. But then he felt a "moral struggle" of taking a business relationship gift and converting it into "cold hard cash," something far different, he figured than giving it to someone who might enjoy it. "There is something about the conversion of the gift into cash so I can buy a new component for my bike, for example, that doesn't sit right with me."

He asks if there are "moral issues" with selling the gift and using the cash for next week's lunch or to pay his electric bill or buying "something fun for my mountain bike"?

As long as the employee did not violate his company's gift policy, the right thing is to do whatever he wants to do with the bottle of wine. After all, if he had re-gifted the wine to someone at a social event, he would have saved any money he would have spent on a different bottle of wine.

His uneasiness might be more reflective of the fact that permitting gifts from vendors can result in awkward situations regardless of their value and the best policy could be a no-gifts one.

But the wine belongs to him and selling it would be no different than selling that beautiful statue of dancing bronze bears he received from his Great Aunt Millie, although he's likely to find more buyers for the bottle of wine. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 



Anonymous said...

Anyone reading my comment here may criticize me for it, but my opinion is, unless it is clearly something that is going to cause trouble in the future, all this worrying over whether or not it is appropriate to make personal use of the gift, in whatever way you see fit, is my method of dealing with such questions. My opinion also is that we all worry about stuff like this way too much. Do you best and hang the consequences!

Charlie Seng

Anonymous said...

Companies need a gift policy so that meals at lunch or advertizing perks are excluded. Little "gifts" happen all the time. Mine, as do most, have a dollar estimate such that a new Mercedes or an all expense paid trip to Aruba or a swimming pool is excluded. One does not need to be termianted for accepting a bottle of soda (or wine) or a cigar. And a dollar amount is just a guess. But the examples are obvious as to the intent.
What one does with a gift is up to the person who gets it. Why that even is an issue is surprising. A gift is just that.
So take the wine, drink it, sell it, trade it, throw it away, or give it again. It is the reciever to decide. The giver is gone.

Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma

William Jacobson said...


This is more a question of etiquette than ethics. Gifts, once received, are the recipients to dispose of as they please by whatever means they see fit. I second Mr. Seng in calling this needless worrying.

William Jacobson

William Jacobson said...


This is more a question of etiquette than ethics. Gifts, once received, are the recipients to dispose of as they please by whatever means they see fit. I second Mr. Seng in calling this needless worrying.

William Jacobson

Joe Read said...

I don't think it's ethical for William Jacobson to send an echo!

Anonymous said...

As I read it, the issue is the recipient's internal struggle with the conversion of the gift to cash. If the gift was from a person with whom he didn't have a good friendship or relationship, perhaps it would be easier to sell the bottle of wine. However, since the giver is a close business relationship, it obviously feels "weird" to the recipient to sell it. Maybe the level of friendship or relationship will ultimately determine the wine recipient's decision to regift it or sell it for greenbacks.