The Ethics of Gift Giving

It is the middle of the holiday season.  Offices are filling with cards, boxes of candy, and homemade cookies. Employee gift exchanges take place; vendors send fruit baskets; business leaders mail gifts and cards to customers, suppliers, and business associates. All of this takes place in the spirit of the season. In the midst of holiday goodwill, the line between acceptable and unacceptable gift giving may become blurred, leading to associated ethics and compliance risks.

Organizations that do business in foreign countries or with government institutions are aware of the restrictions on gifts or other favors that exceed nominal value.  Their ethics policies typically provide guidance on when it is appropriate to provide or to accept gifts and other business courtesies, particularly if such gifts involve foreign officials (as defined by the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act or the anti-corruption laws of other countries), government officials and employees, or those directly involved in procurement or financial roles. Now is a good time to send a holiday reminder to all employees about those policies.

Government institutions and legislative offices typically have very clear guidance about giving and receiving gifts, regardless of the season.  For example, see the Legislator Gift Restrictions Overview compiled by the Center for Ethics in Government.

Policies or documented expectations specific to holiday gift giving are not as common as other ethics and compliance statements, but they can provide needed guidance.

For example, the U.S. Department of Commerce has created a flyer titled “A Word about Ethics: Holiday Parties and Gifts.”   This one-page flyer offers guidance on accepting invitations to external holiday parties, reminds employees of limits on accepting gifts of any kind, addresses the issue of exchanging gifts with co-workers and supervisors, and provides guidance on office holiday parties.

Some organizations publish seasonal reminders about ethics and gift giving to employees or suppliers or both. An effective message acknowledges the spirit in which a gift might be offered, reminds all parties that company policy prohibits gifts of more than nominal value from suppliers to employees, explains that the policy exists to protect employees and the company, and  lets people know where to turn for further advice and guidance. Clear communications and guidance are essential to ensuring that employees enjoy the season while also avoiding ethics and compliance mistakes.

Ethical Advocate wishes you and your staff a joyous holiday season.