Sunday, September 18, 2016
If I won't eat a slice, should I offer one to you?
Lil, a reader who prefers I not use her real name, works for an organization that allows its employees to accept small gifts from clients or families of clients, as long as they do not exceed $25 in value. Often these include baked goods or other homemade treats.
Last December, Lil received banana bread that was baked by one of her client's mothers. Lil knew the family well and writes that she was concerned about the "cleanliness" of the kitchen in which the banana bread was baked. Rather than decline the gift because of her concern, Lil decided to accept it and graciously thanked the grandparent.
Lil writes that she hesitated about whether to dispose of the banana bread by throwing it away. It seemed "a waste of food" to her to do so.
Lil decided to leave the banana bread out in her workplace's common area for any of her colleagues who wanted to have a slice.
"None of them knew the family, so they had no reason to be concerned about cleanliness," Lil writes.
Within an hour, the banana bread was consumed.
All these months later, Lil wonders if she did the right thing by accepting a gift she knew she found suspect. She also is nagged by the thought that perhaps it wasn't entirely fair to her colleagues to offer them the banana bread when she had concerns about its origins.
"Should I have handled this differently?" Lil wonders.
Yes. Yes, Lil should have handled this differently.
There was nothing wrong with being gracious about accepting the gift when she knew she would never eat here. Many of us have received gifts over the years, food or other, where we knew on impact there was no way we would use it, display it, or consume it. But there's no need to embarrass a gift giver by refusing their gift or questioning their taste. Expressing thanks for a gift is appropriate and takes little effort.
Where Lil went wrong was to foist the suspect banana bread onto her colleagues without disclosing her concerns about its "cleanliness." If Lil was concerned and refused to eat it because it might have been prepared in an unclean setting, it was not OK to risk her colleagues' health by putting it out for their consumption -- and, given the history of shared food in her workplace, she was confident it would be consumed.
That no one got sick after eating the banana bread is a good thing, but doesn't make right the wrongness of Lil's choice. The right thing would have been for Lil to accept the gift and then, if she believed the banana bread was not fit for consumption to dispose of it when the gift giver was not present to witness its burial.
If Lil was unwilling to tell her colleagues about her concern about the cleanliness of the gift giver's kitchen because it might color their perception of the banana bread and its giver, then she should have taken that as a sign to toss it rather than share it. No one should put the health of colleagues at risk, even if the perception of that risk proves to be ill-founded.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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