Friday, May 26, 2006


Several years ago I wrote about "Adopt an ATM," a program that Bank of America had launched for its employees. Each employee was asked to look after one of the bank's automated-teller machines and to keep the area surrounding it tidy. Employees were to do this on their own time and without pay.

The program was terminated after California's state labor commissioner wrote the bank to say that she thought the program violated wage and hour laws. If the program was to continue, she said, the volunteers would have to be paid. (The "Adopt an ATM" column is posted at

When a person in a position to help your career asks you to "volunteer" to do something, it places the requester in a position of undue influence. Some employees may simply feel unable to say "no," regardless of how much the "voluntary" aspect is stressed.

Such situations run the gamut from a pitch by a boss selling Girl Scout cookies on behalf of his daughter to a companywide drive to get all employees to contribute to a specific charity. The lingering question is: If I don't do as requested, will it harm my fortunes in the workplace?

The same holds true when dealing with customers. Last Christmas D.C., a reader who runs a messenger service in southern California, received a letter from one of his most important customers that read: "The holiday season is rapidly approaching and our company Christmas party is being organized. I would like to offer your company the opportunity to make a donation for this year's holiday party. Your acceptance of this offer is appreciated and admired by the entire family here at our company."

D.C. didn't like the pitch, but nonetheless felt that he had to offer something.

"When we found out that another messenger service also used by our customer was sending a check for double the amount of our intended offering," he writes, "we felt compelled to match their $500 check."

He was perplexed by the "audacity" of the customer, he writes, and by the clearly implied "We expect you to contribute."

"In the more than 30 years that I have been in business," D.C. writes,"this is the first time that a customer ever asked me to donate to their company party. Were we correct in questioning our customer's ethics?"

D.C., and anyone else in a similar position, certainly has a right to resent the situation on ethical grounds. A "request" of this nature putsthe recipient in the position of having to decide whether to contribute to something he or she would rather not, or to not contribute and risk losing a customer's future business to competitors who play along. Deliberately or not, the company is taking advantage of its relationship to your business,and that's unethical -- one small step short of soliciting a kickback.

What's more, it's just plain gauche. You're being asked to help pay for a party you're not even invited to!

The challenge, of course, is to decide whether you're willing to risk future business with the company by letting it know how uncomfortable you are with the solicitation. Though vexed, D.C. was unwilling to take such a gamble.

If the situation nags at D.C., the right thing would be for him to follow the lead of many other companies which have policies that prohibit giving or receiving gifts from vendors or customers. If his company makes that policy clear from the outset to all people and companies with whom he does business, such thorny situations will be simpler to smooth out.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting stuff.

No one has yet been able to satisfactorily untwist the logic behind extorting vendors and employees to create donations to a Charity, or worse, to a holiday party! This smells of another abuse, cloaked by a righteous cause, by little people with a little authority. If a firm looks to wield its influence on a vendor, I suggest looking for a better client, and/or to find a way to charge them for their annual "donation" (in advance). For the staffer, find a new employer or division that believes in the merit of business performance over monkey business.