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Beware the office Christmas gift

Laura Johnson

Laura Johnson on why you should be careful about accepting Christmas gifts from third parties or clients - however, lavish and lovely they may seem

One of your suppliers sends your team a case of Bollinger champagne and invites you all to an exclusive event as a Christmas treat. How generous. But before you pop the corks and start contemplating the intricacies of what the ‘dress to impress’ dress code actually means, consider this: is this somewhat extravagant gift a heartfelt thank you for the previous year’s work or a way they’re seeking to influence your buying behaviour in the year ahead? Does it really matter, you may be asking? Well yes, if you don’t want to fall foul of the Bribery Act 2010.

Corporate gift giving is a tradition that up until recently was just accepted as a way of doing business. Receiving an annual delivery of tickets to the Ryder Cup and sparkling crystal glassware from sycophantic third parties were customary perks of the job, especially for those in the more senior ranks. Whether a ‘treat’ was a mark of appreciation or laden with expectation of a discount or partiality in the future, was really no concern. That all changed when the Bribery Act 2010 came into force in July 2011. Suddenly businesses were forced to scrutinise every favour for unscrupulous intent (or even the mere appearance of it). With a maximum sentence set at 10 years and unlimited fines for senior staff perceived to be dabbling in immoral conduct, the penalties of breaching the terms of the act sent shivers down the spine of many top executives. Especially due to the ambiguity surrounding what actually constitutes bribery.
 
Once a term confined to shady deals and money passing hands in dubious brown envelopes in back alleys, under the Act, the label of a ‘bribe’ suddenly could feasibly extend to seemingly innocent perks of the job. In the eyes of the law, a bribery ‘payment’ could be any ‘financial or other advantage’ shedding a whole new light on the tickets to Twickenham you received from a business associate just before they landed a massive contract from you.

The reaction to the Act across the corporate world has been varied. Some organisations see it merely as an extra mandatory box-ticking module to sandwich into their e-learning schedule between money laundering and data protection. Yawn. Others have taken a more extreme approach, putting harsh restrictions in place to mitigate the risk of legal action under the terms of the Act. For example, ahead of Christmas 2011, Royal Mail advised its workers not to accept gifts of a value more than £30, compelling postie’s across the country to reluctantly refuse tips from overly generous customers.

But before you start confiscating champagne, setting up gift registers and quizzing team members on the value of the crystal paperweight they’ve just unwrapped, many experts are arguing that the prescriptive policies imploring employees to return gifts over a certain value are evidence of the general misunderstanding of the Act and what it sets out to achieve in the UK business community. The advice seems to be not to get bogged down with value and to focus more on intent. It’s inconsequential whether it’s a £1 mouse mat or a rare Rolex watch; the important factors are the reasons behind the gift and the reaction of the receiver. Concern is raised when anything points to the purpose of the gift being to incentivise or reward improper behaviour, regardless of what the ‘treat’ is. 

But this is a subjective matter making monitoring and evaluating potential misconduct troublesome for the panicky company legal and finance departments that are commonly charged with protecting their companies against bribery claims. Dictating a gift policy stamping maximum values on what can be received and limiting the number of invitations to corporate jollies employees can accept annually is an obvious precautionary reaction. But whether it’s an effective approach is questionable. Taking bribes is at its core about employee behaviour (or misbehaviour), which arguably makes it a hands on management issue rather than something that can be handled by a policy document. It’s not something that can be delegated to finance or legal and forgotten. Leaders today need to be alert to and take responsibility for monitoring potential cases of bribery in their teams, especially as the festive gift-giving period approaches. 

That’s not to say you have to insist your colleagues send back every free calendar, mug or mouse mat or a one-off thank you gift. It’s about being sensible. So if an invitation to a corporate hospitality event seems particularly lavish, excessive or embarrassingly frequent, you should probably consider the implications before emailing over your acceptance. However, tempting it may be.

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