No Good Deed: Am I being too cautious?

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No Good Deed is a column devoted to the discussion of ethical challenges we may face in our profession. Each issue we’ll feature a member’s dilemma and ask three PR experts to comment on it.  We’d love to hear from you, too, so please weigh in on the various “what would you do if…” problems your colleagues are confronted with.

Today’s dilemma:

I work for a small non-profit and we operate on a shoestring for everything.  One of our suppliers is always sending gifts like concert tickets and food baskets to the office and not just at the holidays.  It makes me uncomfortable, but when I mentioned it to our CEO she said to relax and enjoy the treats— “It doesn’t mean anything and we work for peanuts, so enjoy any little perk!” We don’t have a formal HR department or written policies about things like this.  I wonder how it influences our decision to work with this supplier or if I’m just being too cautious?

Three cheers for you for raising this ticklish issue with your CEO. Does her response of “relax and enjoy the treats” satisfy you? Or is it going to continue to nag at you? If it’s the latter, why not quietly keep your eyes and ears open for the next three or four months and see if there is any real evidence that the goodies do in fact influence your employer’s decision to work with this supplier. Is the playing field far from level in practice, because of the goodies? Is this supplier indeed getting preferential treatment over their competitors? It’s going to be hard to establish this, but the outcome might enable you to diplomatically raise the issue again with your boss and this time you could offer the CEO a solution. A past employer of mine had a policy on gifts that went like this:

  • “If you can eat or drink it in under five minutes, or its value is under $5 (e.g., a key-ring or a pen) it's yours—but next time you see the person, make a point of you buying the food or drink or giving them one of our pens.

  • “Anything else, decline it or return it with the explanation (and apology) that you are not allowed to accept goodies. If the donor absolutely insists on giving you/us the gift, tell them that our rule is that you’ll have to donate it to charity, so ask which charity would the donor like it to go to.”

On rare occasions, this last point did cause a little temporary embarrassment on both sides, but it quickly became fully accepted as a fact of life and ethical business practice.

~ Don MacLachlan, Clarity Communications Inc., Vancouver

You are not being too cautious. Instead, you are showing concern for the reputation and integrity of your organization. And this is where, in my opinion, the issue of policy rests. Your organization should not be supplementing their wage and benefits package through suppliers. Doing so is a conflict of interest and can damage the relationship between your organization and the services of the supplier. You do not need an HR department to address policies. As someone who promotes (and is responsible for) the good work of your nonprofit, you can address this concern with your CEO.  Identify the potential reputational issues, present best practices of other non-profit organizations and offer a draft policy for review and approval. Suppliers should understand and respect the organization’s position and operate within the policy guidelines. The risk is high unless your organization’s position is clear.

~ Francine L Gaudet, APR, FCPRS, LM, Vancouver senior communications advisor and consultant

This topic is a tricky one, particularly because your organization doesn’t have a formal policy about gifts. Many organizations have clear "gift ban" policies precisely to help preserve their honesty and integrity.  Policies also make it easier for employees to avoid uncomfortable situations. Having spent a lot of my career in health care, it is worth noting that regulated health care professionals in BC are forbidden to accept gifts from patients or clients.  One of the non-profit arts groups that I worked with in the past would graciously accept supplier gifts on the understanding that we would include them as auction items in our annual fundraising gala. If you are comfortable doing so, you could do more research about this topic and take some possible options and solutions to your boss. Creating a policy around gifts would help to reinforce your organization's accountability and credibility.

~ Margot White, Manager of Communications and Membership, Canadian Bar Association BC Branch

About the Author

Deborah Folka is the editor of the ethics column, No Good Deed. She is also a senior accredited public relations professional with over 25 years of experience in strategic communications planning, issues management and crisis communications planning, prevention and management. In addition to working in-house for a variety of public, private and not-for-profit organizations, she has run one of the most successful independent pr consultancies in Western Canada for over 20 years.