When It Pays to Have a Corporate Gift Policy

Should employers implement a gift policy to curb possible ethical concerns in the workplace around the holiday season?

‘Tis the season of holiday gift giving. Now that Thanksgiving is over, many association offices will be flooded with fruit baskets, chocolates, and various other seasonal novelties, all of which brings up the sometimes nebulous world of corporate gift policies.

The slippery slope exists in the fact that we cannot know with any certainty what a gift giver’s intentions are—or the receiver’s, for that matter.

In a recent Collaborate discussion, one ASAE member asked about other associations’ policies on giving gifts to and accepting gifts from members, and she mentioned that some on her staff are in favor of doing away with their own organization’s gift policy. Their rationale: They aren’t able to promote one member over another, anyway.

Having no corporate gift policy may be asking for trouble, though, especially in associations, where volunteers and staff work closely together throughout the year.

“If you don’t have one, then you open yourself up to a credibility, liability problem,” Julian Friedland, a business ethics professor and writer told “Whatever product you happen to be selling, whether it’s a service or actual object of any kind, can be compromised by the appearance of some conflict of interest.”

Whether or not gifts curry favor among recipients is somewhat arbitrary, but, as Friedland noted, just the appearance of ethical ambiguity can lead to issues in the workplace.

“The slippery slope exists in the fact that we cannot know with any certainty what a gift giver’s intentions are—or the receiver’s, for that matter,” says Greg Wilson, CAE, director of finance and operations at the Sacramento Association of Realtors, who was one of the respondents to the Collaborate discussion. “How can we know that the giver is not thinking that a favor should come back? How can we be certain that the receiver hasn’t manipulated in some manner the relationship to prime the giver into giving the gift?”

You can’t really, which is where things get murky.

“In a perfect world, and if I could gain the buy-in and support of staff and elected leadership, I would ban gifts between staff, vendors, members, etc.,” Wilson says. “However, I also know from personal experience in this arena that there is no such perfect world, and the giving of gifts is not only commonly accepted, but in some cases, part of the normal expected social fabric of organizations.”

So what should employers do?

Capping the dollar amount of gifts is one option. Some respondents to the Collaborate discussion said their organizations allow gifts of a certain dollar amount (say $10 to $20) before requiring manager approval.

It also seems like having a ready policy could help employees in turning down anything too elaborate. If someone receives an expensive gift from a vendor or volunteer, for example, it’s much easier to use company policy as a scapegoat.

Whether or not an organization has an on-the-books policy, another option to help distill any potential ethical dilemmas is to share or donate gifts.

“Instill a culture of community so that gifts, for example of chocolates and cookies (common this time of year), found their way to the staff break room or board room table to be shared and enjoyed by the group,” Wilson says. “The common sharing emphasizes in my mind the fact that the team is striving toward shared goals and the rewards and perks of those goals too should be shared.”

What kinds of gift policies have you seen or implemented? What tips do you have for keeping gift giving and receiving ethical during the holidays?


Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

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