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.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin