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Kansas State University
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Manhattan, KS 66506
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Source: Diane Swanson, 785-532-4352, swanson@k-state.edu
http://www.k-state.edu/media/mediaguide/bios/swansonbio.html
News release prepared by: Erinn Barcomb-Peterson, 785-532-6415, ebarcomb@k-state.edu

Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2008

K-STATE BUSINESS ETHICS EXPERT DISCUSSES HOW TO GIVE HOLIDAY GIFTS ETHICALLY, FAIRLY AT THE OFFICE

MANHATTAN -- Trying to cut down on spending this holiday season? It may be best not to worry about expensive gifts for the co-workers and the boss.

A batch of homemade treats or a handmade craft is not only less expensive, but it also may raise fewer ethical dilemmas, said Kansas State University business ethics expert Diane Swanson.

"Especially in an economic downturn, a personal touch might be better anyway," said Swanson, professor of management and von Waaden business administration professor at K-State. "If the gift is food, it might smack less of bribery than something like a gold paperweight."

Swanson is the author or co-author of several books on business ethics, including "Toward Integrative Corporate Citizenship," co-authored with Marc Orlitzky and published this fall.

Exchanging gifts in the business environment is a way of gluing the social bonds among colleagues and clients, Swanson said. But it's important to keep in mind that gifts by their very nature imply that they need to be reciprocated. That's why Swanson said she would like to see businesses have a written policy on gift-giving. She said that professional organizations could help businesses determine industry standards.

Having a policy that addresses gift-giving might let cash-strapped workers feel more comfortable going cheap or not exchanging gifts at all, Swanson said. Ideally, the policies would include a spending cap, she said.

"A lot of people do not have the same amount of discretionary income this year," Swanson said. "A policy can take people off the hook and not feel expected to spend discretionary money at a time when there are bread-and-butter needs to attend to."

Swanson said she thinks it would be best if managers would reward employees not with gifts but rather with financial bonuses that are fair and equal. She wouldn't want to see a cap put on these bonuses, especially given the whopping bonuses and "golden parachute" severance pay that people at the top get.

"Those of us who study executive compensation are hard-pressed to find the correlation between executive performance and that exorbitant kind of pay," Swanson said. "Employees may feel appreciated when they get a bonus, and when it's applied equally across the board, it won't seem like management is singling people out based on favoritism."

When organizations and their clients exchange gifts, Swanson said it may raise legal questions, and laws may vary from place to place. When businesses want to thank clients with a gift, she said it would be helpful to have professional organizations weigh in on industry standards in terms of price and other considerations.

Given the economic climate, Swanson said that a donation to a food bank or other charity stretched thin by economic woes might be more appropriate and meaningful than a gift that will just sit on a desk or hang on the wall. She said this is especially true if the charity relates to the client's type of business, such as giving to a breast cancer charity in the name of a client whose customer base is women. It's called "cause branding."

"It's a sophisticated touch, and it says we're all in this together," Swanson said. "Legal issues aside, I still think that some policy based on industry norms should prevail in this area, too, as huge gifts might still raise conflicts of interest and expectations of reciprocity in purchases. But unless the vendor advertises the gift or uses it in a public relations campaign, the effects are less direct, perhaps, as the main beneficiary is the public."

When clients want to thank a business with a gift, Swanson said it's up to the receiving business to make sure all clients are treated fairly, regardless of who sent the gourmet cheese basket last year.

"It's very human to think, 'I heard from Suzy last Christmas, so I'll give her first dibs on a scarce product,'" Swanson said.

Swanson offers another note of caution. The problem with raising these types of questions about gift-giving in the office, she said, is that it places lots of responsibility on low- and mid-level employees while ignoring the root of many ethical problems, which she says can be traced to the top in many instances.

"If executives are exchanging lavish gifts and engaging in blatant conflicts of interest, then it become hypocrisy for them to say they want employees to regulate their gift-giving habits," Swanson said. "People are very comfortable talking about employee responsibility -- but the responsibility for setting the right example is at the top."