“It’s hard to know the true motivations of others.
It’s even harder to understand your own.”
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ACTUAL CASE HISTORIES: Stephanie, a Marketing Manager for a retail chain, was about to go on vacation touring Western Canada. She mentioned to her manager that she expected it would be the most exciting vacation she had ever taken. When her manager asked her about the cost, she said, “And you’re not going to believe it, but it was a present from (a certain company),” which was her employer’s largest IT vendor. When all was said and done, her vacation plans were, indeed, very “expensive”: she lost her job as a result, because accepting gifts of any kind from company vendors was strictly – very strictly – forbidden by company policy, clearly set forth in her employer’s Employee Handbook.
Over many years of advising clients about workplace issues, at least once or twice each year I am consulted about a gift-related problem and, more often than not, it is a matter of good intentions ending in bad results. That’s why each year I send out a fresh “warning” of sorts to our Blog Family Members. Here’s this year’s “red flag.”
LESSON TO LEARN: It wasn’t that long ago that giving and receiving holiday gifts and presents to and from clients, vendors, colleagues, managers, subordinates and others was a near-universal, annual ritual. Candy, scarves, nuts, bottles of wine, sometimes items of considerable value. Perhaps it was some 20 years ago that regulators, tax authorities, employers and others first began to regulate, then restrict, and finally prohibit the practice of holiday gift-giving.
Why? Simply put, the practice often gave rise to problems of several kinds: allegations of “purchased favoritism;” investigations into possible “bribes” for large business orders; potential tax reporting violations; complaints of favoritism arising from gifts given or gifts accepted to some, but not to others; perceptions by some of it being a prelude to sexual harassment; seemingly “special gifts” given with hope or expectation of personal or business favors bought; even lawsuits raising allegations of conflicts of interest.
Violations of company policies on gift giving or receiving are now deemed misconduct sufficient to be terminated “for cause.” No matter the gift, or the reasons for giving it, the potential consequences to career and reputation are such that it just does not pay to engage in the practice, whether by being a giver or recipient.
Now that so many policies, laws, regulations, Compliance edicts and other “rules” either tightly restrict or prohibit workplace gift-giving, it’s just plain poor judgment to do what’s risky to reputation, career and future.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Consider these six thoughts about workplace gifts, and keep them in mind:
1. In workplace gift-giving, others’ possible perceptions matter far more than your own intentions, however honorable they may be. What you know to be an innocent gesture of appreciation is capable of many different perceptions in the minds of others. Evidence of favoritism? Or a “return favor?” Potentially, a “bribe?” Disguised enticement to intimacy? Attempt to pressure? Private payoff? The real problem with gift-giving and gift-accepting at work is the many different possible perceptions of others. And some of those “perceivers” may not be objective, that is, they may not like you, or might hold a grudge or jealousy against you. Why subject yourself to such risk?
2. If you give to some and not to others, or receive from some and not from others, might that lead to an inference or suspicion of discriminatory treatment? Some years ago our firm handled a case of a senior executive who gave all support staff in his office substantial gift certificates to a large retailer as holiday gifts. The problem was that he did not do the same for supervisors and managers of support staff, most of whom were older and female, some of whom were quite resentful. Was he guilty of illegal discrimination, insufficient sensitivity, or poor executive judgment? “Guilty” or not, it was a very sensitive situation.
3. In gift giving, might you accidentally exceed appropriate boundaries based upon culture, age, experience, or personal comfort? What do you think: Can you “safely” give a female colleague a silk handkerchief? A silk scarf? A silk bathrobe? Can you safely give a male colleague a bottle of cologne? A bottle of wine? A bottle of Viagra? No one has perfect judgment; not even you. What may be a funny gift to you may be an insulting gift to someone else. The same thing goes for a very expensive gift: might it be viewed as “over the line that separates proper and improper?”
Whether it’s a question of workplace gift-giving or gift-receiving, you might want to make certain you know your employer’s relevant policies. For this, we offer our Model Memo to Seek Guidance from HR, Legal or Compliance on Gift Giving or Receiving. We offer a Model Memo for each one. Each shows you “What to Say and How to Say It.”™ Just [click here.] Delivered by email in minutes.
4. Uncomfortable with turning down a gift? Don’t know how to say, “No thank you” to the gift’s giver? No question about it, it’s often not easy to say “No, Thank You,” to a senior manager, a key customer or a true friend who is also a vendor. It can be clumsy, uncomfortable or misunderstood. The best answer may be found in poet Robert Frost’s reminder that “The best way out . . . is always through.” An updated version might be Nike’s advertising slogan: “Just Do It.”
To help, we offer a Model Memo With 8 Ways to Express “Thanks, but . . . I can’t accept” with Sensitivity, Kindness and Grace. It shows you “What to Say and How to Say It.”™ in an appropriate, professional and sensitive, way. Just [click here.] Delivered to you by email in minutes.
5. You might also suggest alternative “gifts” of likely lesser risk, expense or concern. Appropriate and generally acceptable “gifts” that you may consider suggesting or giving include (a) donations to a charitable organization in your honor, (b) a simple written Note of Appreciation to you, or your manager, giving thanks for “A job well done,” (c) submission of a positive review to an online rating company, such as Yelp, or (d) a referral of potential clients or customers.
6. “Forewarned is forearmed.” It would be wise in the extreme to find out what are your employer’s present gift-giving and gift-accepting rules and guidelines. And don’t presume that last year’s rules or guidelines are this year’s, as these are among the most frequently updated changes to Employee Handbooks and Policy Manuals of recent years.
In Summary . . .
Gifts to and from family members, and among friends and neighbors are a wonderful part of family and social life. Gifts to and from workplace clients, colleagues, managers, subordinates, vendors and others at work used to be equally acceptable, but they are not so any more, as they give rise to significant reputational and career risk. Sure, you may have given and received gifts in the workplace for many years without a single issue, problem or penalty arising . . . but must you tempt fate and wait to change your ways until a “sticky” situation arises? We hope not.
“Whether times are good or bad, happy or sad, let’s stay together.”
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SkloverWorkingWisdom™ emphasizes smart navigating and negotiating for yourself at work. Negotiation and navigation of work and career issues requires that you think “out of the box,” and build value and avoid risks at every point in your career. We strive to help you understand what is commonly before you – traps and pitfalls, included – and to avoid all likely roadblocks along the way. Ceasing the practice of giving or accepting workplace gifts is one of those ways.
Always be proactive. Always be creative. Always be persistent. Always be vigilant. Always be resilient. And always do what you can to achieve for yourself, your family, and your career. Take all available steps to increase and secure employment “rewards” and eliminate or reduce employment “risks.” That’s what SkloverWorkingWisdom™ is all about.
*A note about our Actual Case Histories: In order to preserve client confidences, and protect client identities, we alter certain facts, including the name, age, gender, position, date, geographical location, and industry of our clients. The essential facts, the point illustrated and the lesson to be learned, remain actual.
Please Note: This Email Newsletter is not legal advice, but only an effort to provide generalized information about important topics related to employment and the law. Legal advice can only be rendered after formal retention of counsel and must take into account the facts and circumstances of a particular case. Those in need of legal advice, counsel or representation should retain competent legal counsel licensed to practice law in their locale.
Sklover Working Wisdom™ is a trademarked newsletter publication of Alan L. Sklover, of Sklover & Company, LLC, a law firm dedicated to the counsel and representation of employees in matters of their employment, compensation and severance. Nothing expressed in this material constitutes legal advice. Please note that Mr. Sklover is admitted to practice in the State of New York, only. When assisting clients in other jurisdictions, he retains the assistance of local counsel and/or obtains permission of local Courts to appear. Results obtained by some clients have no bearing on results obtained by other clients. Copying, use and/or reproduction of this material in any form or media without prior written permission is strictly prohibited. All rights reserved. For further information, contact Sklover & Company, LLC, 45 Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 2000, New York, New York 10111 (212) 757-5000.
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