The Ethical Dilemma of Holiday Gifts

Let’s say you’re sitting at work and a messenger arrives with a box that appears to be a holiday gift from a client.

Moral obligation“It’s probably a box of fruit,” you think.  “That’s good. I need more fruit in my diet.”

But when you open the box, you discover a vintage baseball jacket, something you once mentioned to the client that you would love to have. The last time you checked on eBay, however, such a jacket cost well over several hundred dollars.

Your first reaction may be surprise, quickly followed by elation.

Hopefully, though, your next reaction will be to return the gift with a note of appreciation for such thoughtfulness, but a clear message that you can’t accept such an extravagant gift.

You may initially scoff at such a suggestion. Why return a great gift from a nice client who obviously appreciates your work?

The question is not the gift, but what it may cost you.

Will this gift somehow cause you to treat the client differently in the future? Will the client expect to get preferential treatment because you were given such a nice gift? Will colleagues feel you are being unfairly compensated for doing your job?

Those are all ethical questions you need to ask if you want to ensure that you don’t start down a slippery slope that could eventually land you in some serious ethical, or even legal, hot water. Just look at the front page of any newspaper these days, and you’ll see executives and employees who are being charged for illegally accepting lavish gifts or being fired for ethical lapses against company standards.

Still think that jacket is worth the potential problems?

As the holidays grow closer, it’s natural for clients or business associates to start sending you holiday gifts. Fruit that can be shared with others in the office doesn’t present a problem, but what about Super Bowl tickets? In that case, it’s better to return the tickets with a note of appreciation, or raffle them off in the office with the proceeds donated to charity.

While you want to accept every gift in good faith and not automatically assume a client or associate is trying to pull a fast one, it’s also important that you ask yourself if it’s something your company would think was OK. If you’re not clear if it is, consult your boss or human resources department. Even then, it’s a good idea to look inward and decide whether the gift might change the nature of your professional relationship with someone.

Don’t let a holiday gift sway you from your own set of personal morals and standards. Once you move an inch, it will be only a short distance to move another inch. Before you know it, you’ve moved miles away from who you really are as a person.  And that’s a gift you never want to lose.

Have you faced an ethical dilemma like this?  How did you handle it?

Anita Bruzzese

Anita Bruzzese is a syndicated columnist for Gannett/USA Today on workplace issues and the author of “45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy.” She has been on the Today show, and quoted in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, Self.com and BusinessWeek.com. Her website, 45things.com, is listed on the Forbes top 100 websites for women.

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  • Melanie Hofmann

    The ethical dilemma f holiday gift happens in everyday life.
    For example, this holiday season, my neighbors had purchased my mom a flat
    screen television and she felt that she needed to buy them something equally
    expensive. So instead of spending her Christmas money on her she bought them an
    expensive blender and a glass set of cups. She felt that since they bought her something
    big and expensive that they would want something equal back. Even though she
    wouldn’t land in hot water with the legal system, she didn’t want to land into
    hot water with her neighbors. Your
    Article is very true dilemma and I enjoyed reading it.

    [Reply]