SOURCE: Kansas State University

December 12, 2008 11:48 ET

K-State Business Ethics Expert Discusses How to Give Holiday Gifts Ethically, Fairly at the Office

MANHATTAN, KS--(Marketwire - December 12, 2008) - 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."

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.

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.

Swanson offers a 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."