Gifts, entertainment and “soft-core” corruption

I once asked students in an executive MBA ethics class if they thought that their employer organizations should have restrictive policies on gift receiving.  Nearly all said that such policies were unnecessary – as the students were sure that they wouldn’t be corrupted by gifts from suppliers or customers.  I then asked if the school should allow teachers to receive gifts and entertainment from students. As you can imagine, the response was very different.

The ethical challenges of dealing with gifts have been with us since at least around 1500 B.C. when, according to this piece on the Knowledge at Wharton web site, “Gimil-Ninurta — a poor citizen of the city of Nippur in Mesopotamia — tried to enlist the assistance of the mayor of Nippur by offering him a goat. The mayor accepted the goat, but rather than providing assistance ordered that Gimil-Ninurta be beaten.” However, the extraordinary focus in present times on preventing bribery has drawn unprecedented attention to more “soft-core” versions of the problem, including traditional gift giving.  (For instance, in the past week, several large companies in Malaysia adopted a “no festive gift” policy.)

Global companies addressing issues of gift giving and receiving in the current environment indeed have a lot to deal with.

First, there is a growing body of laws and rules from around the world governing gift giving that must be complied with.  (The co-publisher of this blog –  ethiXbase – maintains an extensive data base of these standards for its members.)  For many companies and individuals, what previously had been in the realm of ethics/good-to-do has moved squarely into the province of law/need-to-do.

Second, one needs to be mindful of different cultural standards relating to gift giving and other COI-related issues, as discussed in this guest post  by Lori Tansey Martens of the International Business Ethics Institute.  A gifts-and-entertainment policy that is culturally narrow-minded can be ineffective.

Third, the operational aspects of compliance/ethics in this area can be daunting. Among other things, not only global companies but also organizations in highly regulated businesses may need to use technology to promote and track compliance to a sufficient degree, as described in this guest post by Bill Sacks of HCCS.

Moreover, all companies – regardless of where they operate or what they do – should have well thought out compliance standards for gift giving and receiving. This post  describes some of the considerations that might go into such a policy and this survey conducted by the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics in 2012 (available to members on the organization’s web site) could be useful for policy drafting, as well. For global companies, this recent piece by Tom Fox on FCPA cases involving gifts, entertainment and travel should be a helpful resource.

Finally, one should consider the role of behavioral ethics in developing/implementing gift-related compliance measures, and particularly the fact that we tend to underestimate how much COIs can impact our judgment. For instance, last year, the Wall Street Journal  reported on a study in which different groups of professionals were asked to assess the necessity of conflict of interest standards of conduct both for other professions and their own: “Doctors participating in [in a study] tended to think [certain COI-related] strictures sounded pretty reasonable [when applied to financial planners]. However, when ‘financial planners’ was replaced by ‘doctors,’ and ‘investment companies’ by ‘pharmaceutical companies,’ the doctors started to raise objections — that the supposed conflicts were hypothetical, for example, and that no one’s views about which drugs to prescribe could ever be swayed by a coffee mug. And investment managers surveyed by the researchers reacted similarly: The rules for doctors sounded fine to them, but the ones for investment professionals seemed petty and unnecessary.”

Is there a behaviorist-based cure for this aspect of “soft-core” corruption? Dan Ariely’s column in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal – although not specifically about COIs/gifts – may be instructive on that score.  He was asked the broad question, “What is the best way to inject some rationality into our decision-making?” and responded, “I am not certain of the best way, but here is one approach that might help: When we face decisions, we are trapped within our own perspective—our own special motivations and emotions, our egocentric view of the world at that moment. To make decisions that are more rational, we want to eliminate those barriers and look at the situation more objectively. One way to do this is to think not of making a decision for yourself but of recommending a decision for somebody else you like. This lets you view the situation in a colder, more detached way and make better decisions.” His piece also describes the results of a fascinating experiment that helps demonstrate this.

One can readily see how this framework could be useful for promoting ethical and law abiding behavior relating to gift giving and receiving, where our instincts might not be a reliable guide for identifying appropriate behavior.  Indeed, Ariely’s recommendation could help business people address many other areas of ethical challenge too.

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