Sunday, May 05, 2024

If gift makes you uncomfortable, should you accept it?

Is it inappropriate to accept a gift for doing what you believe to be your job?

For the past decade or so, a reader we’re calling Valerie has regularly shopped at an independently owned clothing store located on the main street of the town where she lives. Valerie had gotten to know the owner of the store who regularly chatted with her when she visited. The owner knew that Valerie was a mental health counselor who worked at a small practice in a neighboring community.

On a recent visit, the owner asked Valerie if she had a moment to speak about a personal matter. The two of them walked to a quiet corner of the store where other customers and clerks could not overhear. The owner told Valerie that the pressure of trying to keep her store afloat and the employees compensated during the pandemic had taken their toll. A few employees ultimately moved, but the owner indicated that the store and its employees seem to have rebounded well.

Where the owner could use some help, she confided in Valerie, was with her personal relationship to her partner whom she had been living with before the pandemic began. Without providing many details beyond the fact that stress had affected their relationship, the owner asked Valerie if she might be able to recommend a mental health counselor who could work with her and her partner. Valerie told the owner she would be glad to recommend someone and within a few days she recommended some names to the owner.

About two months later, when Valerie was shopping in the store, the owner came over to thank Valerie and to let her know how well both her relationship to her partner and to the counselor Valerie recommended were going.

“Thank you,” the owner said to Valerie. “I owe you.” Valerie acknowledged the thanks, but then the owner made it clear that she wanted to give Valerie an item from the store. Valerie thanked her for the offer but assured her she was only doing her job. The owner persisted, but Valerie held firm.

“It seems like a conflict to me to take something for connecting her to a therapist,” Valerie told me. “Am I wrong to feel uncomfortable taking something? Was I rude to decline the offer?”

I don’t pretend to know what kind of code of ethics Valerie has agreed to in her line of work. It strikes me, however, that while she might not be engaged in any real conflict since she is not the owner’s therapist and it was unlikely she would only suggest a good therapist if the owner gifted her a blouse she had been eyeballing, Valerie was right not to accept something that made her uncomfortable.

There is nothing rude about thanking the owner for the offer and declining. Knowing that the owner and her partner were able to get back on stronger footing thanks to Valerie’s suggestion may be the only gift that Valerie wants or needs. If she makes that clear to the owner then she’s done the right thing.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy, emeritus, at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

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

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin


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