In Whose Best Interest? Gifts That Keep Giving

Finally you feel appreciated! On Monday morning you unexpectedly receive a gold, gift-wrapped box from a regular supplier. Inside are gourmet chocolates and a pair of pro basketball tickets. The note reads, “We just want to say thank you. We appreciate you!” Then your warm, fuzzy moment is shattered when the colleague next to you says, “We can’t take gifts from them. It’s a conflict of interest.”

Conflict of interest! When was the last time anyone sent you a box of chocolates and some tickets in appreciation for your work? Feeling guilty, you share the candy with your colleague to smooth things over…but those tickets but sit on your desk for the rest of the afternoon calling your name.

Conflicts of interest come in all shapes and sizes. Whether itís a gift, a family connection, a second job, an investment, or a position on a board or committee, conflicts of interest dilemmas eventually touch everyone. They can be as big as bribery and criminal corruption or as small as receiving a little “something extra” in the course of your job.

A conflict of interest occurs when your personal interests influence (or appear to influence) your ability to act in the best interests of the company. Receiving gifts and “extras” that benefit you can create conflict of interest and you need to know how to act appropriately.

It’s important to remember whose interests have priority. By accepting a job, you strike a deal with your employer. The deal says that the company agrees to pay you a certain amount of money for your valuable time. In return you agree to do certain things and to put the company’s interests ahead of yours. It’s true you have value and are worthy of respect, but make no mistake, the company’s interests come first. That’s the deal. By taking that paycheck, you are agreeing that the company will be your first responsibility.

In the course of your work, some “stuff” above and beyond the paycheck comes your way. Vendors give you gifts, friends ask you to work on the side, customers give you thank you gifts, suppliers wine and dine you, and your knowledge as an insider can profit you greatly. Is this “stuff” just a perk or is it a conflict of interest?

Go back to the original deal with your employer. It says that the company’s interests come first and any peripheral benefit that comes as result of your position is potentially a conflict of interest. The best way to approach this is to be conservative with the rule and cautious with everything else.

As an employee you should avoid all potential conflicts of interest. “All” means ALL. “Potential” means that even those things that may be perfectly OK but might look bad. Remember that appearance is paramount and that is why even the appearance of impropriety must be avoided.

So how do you accept gifts and stay honest without taking the fun out of everything? A little common sense, good judgment, and communication may help you. Consider the following factors:

Intent: There should always be a legitimate business reason for a gift. Timing is also critical. You might accept a gift from your supplier during the holiday season but not during negotiations. Ask yourself if the gift is an attempt to influence you in any way?

Size: As a rule, gifts with nominal value such as pens, calendars, and logo items aren’t a problem. Anything above “nominal value” such sports team tickets or dinners are suspect. If you tend to get t-shirts and promotional materials from vendors then there should be an equitable way to distribute the items to everyone in the office. Cash and intercity travel is never appropriate.

Reaction: Keeping secrets or hiding things looks bad every time, no matter how small a gift. Your very first reaction should be to ask someone. It’s always better to ask first than have to explain later. Remember that people usually assume the worst if you get caught.

So, when those chocolates and tickets arrive, open the box with caution and take a few moments to think about conflicts of interest. As you seal the envelope to mail the tickets back, you can smile with satisfaction knowing that someone appreciates you! You’ve done well and that recognition means a lot. Be sure to share the chocolates with those around you. But…you can keep the caramels for yourself.