Nan DeMars
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Trick or Treat

Accepting Gifts From Vendors Can Compromise Your Integrity

Dear Nan,
Part of my job is serving as meeting planner for our company. Consequently, I am continually being wooed by vendors. Their inducements are not trivial and many times my family is included. For example, I am often sent a fruit basket, candy, nuts, gifts (not cheap), tickets for concerts/events (even to the New York Knicks) and offered excursions and weekend packages to “experience” the surroundings, food, etc. part of my job is to tour facilities (thereby, I must accept their hospitality), because heaven forbid I schedule a meeting at some dump I haven’t previewed and have no confidence in. My company has a policy on what “perks” are acceptable and unacceptable. However, it’s pretty loose and I have noticed my boss doesn't’t even adhere to it (and doesn't’t seem to care what I do). But, I'm feeling uncomfortable about the entire process. When, where, and how do I draw the line?

Serving as your organization's meeting planner brings you up front and personal with ethical dilemmas almost on a daily basis. Just like purchasing agents, meeting planners are constantly being wooed by suppliers for their business; and, the competition is even more accelerated in today's tight economy.

The hospitality industry is known for its freebies, and the questionable practices you describe persist for the simple reason that they are effective. These practices are just beneath the surface in other functions of every business, however; and, a tough economic climate for either the buyer or seller is often just enough to degrade an otherwise professional relationship into a nerve-wracking conspiracy of secrets, embarrassment, innuendo and stress.

First and foremost, you are correct in being concerned. It is your integrity and accountability that are on the line here; and, both define you as a professional.

Let's first examine why vendors' gift-giving practices are so troublesome. Rather than using a gift to say "thank you", some vendors use gifts to say "choose me, choose me!" It may not always be that explicit but, any way you slice it, that's what they want. How do you know? Because, unlike all other thank-you gifts, this one comes before you have even done anything!

Trying to win influence over the people who make purchasing decisions works often enough to perpetuate the practice. A bottle of wine, a trip, a box of steaks, gift certificates, etc. are obvious inducements (some would call them bribes). Less obvious, however, are the promises to make an introduction that will help your spouse, write a letter for your son's college application or a lead on a new house or new job. These are highly personal in nature and out-of-sight of your boss. No matter what the nature of the enticements, these are all intended to facilitate a shortcut to getting your company's business.

So, when exactly can you ever accept gifts without stepping over the ethical boundaries? Well, as I often say, it depends. It depends upon the value of the gift, the true motivation behind it, the "strings" and expectations that are attached to it and your existing relationship with the vendor. For example, it may be appropriate for a hotel to offer a free or reduced rate as an inducement to have you sample a venue - but, it would be inappropriate for that same hotel to try to buy your favoritism with a "promotional" TV or digital camera. Likewise, gifts offered by new vendors are different from those from vendors with whom you have had a long relationship.

When trying to decide whether or not to accept a vendor's gift, here is my personal advice utilizing that old "pit in the stomach" rule….

Consider the word, "uncomfortable". If you feel in the least bit personally uncomfortable by such an acceptance ....don't do it.
Consider the word, "compromised." If you feel in the least bit personally compromised by such an acceptance….don't do it.
Jo Anne Warren CPS/CAP, Bellevue, KY writes: "It is clear (when) gifts are inducements, not samples….. And, the strongest argument against accepting inducement gifts is that one's freedom to choose a vendor is henceforth compromised." I agree - because, at the very least, you may be perceived by others to be compromised.

Simple rules are hard to come by, especially when companies (like yours) are reluctant to offer anything more than vague guidelines. This dilemma will inevitably challenge your professionalism. At the end of the day, you will have to decide on a case by case basis whether or not to accept a particular gift.

KRIS POOL CAP, EXECUTIVE ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT, PENTAIR WATER TREATMENT, SHEBOYGAN, WI IS CREATIVE IN SOLVING HER VENDOR PERK PROBLEMS. HER COMPANY DOES NOT HAVE ANY ESTABLISHED GUIDELINES, SO SHE "PUTS ALL GIFT BASKETS (NOTES ATTACHED) IN THE OFFICE LUNCHROOM FOR ALL TO SHARE AND LARGER GIFTS (TICKETS, WEEKEND HOTEL STAYS, ETC.) ARE USED FOR EMPLOYEE RAFFLE PRIZES AND DRAWINGS. THIS NOT ONLY BENEFITS ALL EMPLOYEES BUT, ALSO, SAVES ON THE COMPANY'S BUDGET FOR BUYING PRIZES FOR EMPLOYEE EVENTS."

STACIA Y. STOKES, SECRETARY, ALL SAINTS HEALTHCARE, RACINE, WI SUGGESTS YOU BECOME PROACTIVE AND REMIND YOUR BOSS THAT, IN TODAY'S SOCIETY, ETHICS IN THE WORKPLACE IS HIGH ON THE LIST OF ALL EMPLOYEES' CONCERNS. SHE ADDS: "YOU CAN SUGGEST TIGHTENING UP YOUR COMPANY'S "LOOSE POLICY" ON ACCEPTING PERKS. BE SURE THE POLICY OUTLINES WHAT CAN AND CAN'T BE ACCEPTED FROM VENDORS BY ALL EMPLOYEES IN YOUR COMPANY FROM THE CEO TO THE MAINTENANCE CREW - AND BE AS SPECIFIC AS POSSIBLE."

The simple fact that your boss does not seem particularly interested or concerned about adhering to your company's established policy should not be interpreted as indifference to the issue, but recognition that this is an area that is difficult to micro-manage.

Advice for your Company -

Just as companies today are increasingly establishing Codes of Ethics and Mission Statements, so are they expanding their Employee Handbooks. Employees need and deserve specific guidelines, a "blueprint for action" so-to-speak, for such ethical dilemmas. And, this groundwork on acceptable practices should be specific so there is no mystery as to how employees should conduct themselves.

For meeting planners, this is essential because there can be a lot of gray areas. A few examples of specifics that need to be addressed:
Hotel/Airline Points - Establish who gets these points (the employee or company) and when.
Familiarization Trips/Site Inspections - Qualify who can go and the purpose.
Trade Shows - Provide instructions on the booths to visit along with how to handle freebies. And, if you visit a booth where you aren't able to book, let them know up front.
Social Invites - Determine where and when one can accept or decline.
Gifts - Establish a clear policy on the giving or acceptance of gifts. (Some governmental units and companies with government contracts have a zero acceptance policy). If your company policy provides acceptance of gifts, establish a dollar maximum value. Some companies require all gifts to be reported to a compliance officer. Also, with our world-wide diversity today, a statement such as: "The giving and acceptance of gifts is acceptable as long as it is in accordance with local customs and traditions" should be included.
With all of above situations, the best guidelines in an Employee Handbook is the Q&A (Question and Answer) format. The question would be a specific one germane to your particular industry followed by a clearly stated answer on how to handle it.

Finally, when struggling with these issues - as all ethical issues - a quick Ethics Audit might be in order. Ask yourself…..
Would I feel uncomfortable explaining my actions to my boss, my clergy person, my grandmother/ the press?
Could there be any perception by others of a conflict of interest?
Could my behavior (obvious or subtle) appear unfair and/or seem to undermine the effectiveness of my work?
Has my ability to make an impartial and objective decision been compromised or forced to be biased?
And….the real zinger….
Would I feel uncomfortable accepting this gift and not giving the giver my business?
If you answered "yes" to any of above questions, raise your warning flag - and don't do it!

Should the temptations from vendors influence your purchasing decisions? Personally, I say no. Your integrity is not for sale. You ought not compromise your professional commitment to your company for any price.

Best-selling sales author, Harvey Mackay, states:

"If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don't have integrity, nothing else matters."

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A past international president of IAAP, Nan DeMars CPS is an internationally recognized authority and seminar leader on office ethics. She is president of Executary Services in Minneapolis, MN, and author of You Want Me to do What? When, Where, and How to Draw the Line at Work (Simon & Schuster).

Contact Nan for more information about executary consulting services or seminars