Diwali is a very big festival in India, and it is customary for companies to send gifts/sweets/cards to customers. Typically my company sends the same gifts (with the company logo) to all the customers. However, we were expecting a big order from one the customer, and I had a customer demo coming up. The sales manager asked me to hand over a bottle of scotch to the customer instead of the regular gift. I refused to do so, because I was not comfortable with this.

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About John Hooker

T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility Tepper School of Business Carnegie Mellon University

One response »

  1. John Hooker says:

    You should abide by company policy, of course. If the policy is to provide only small gifts with the company logo, then departing from this policy is a violation of your employment contract and unethical for that reason.

    However, you didn’t say that this is company policy, only that it is typical. Even if it is company policy, there may be an understanding that a superior can override the policy. So far, I don’t see an ethical problem with the gift.

    If the gift is out of line for industry practice, then we could have a problem with generalizability. Let’s suppose the purpose of the gift is to increase the chances of a deal with this customer and consequently boost company profits. A general practice of substantially increasing the value of gifts could undermine the efficiency of the industry as a whole and end up reducing your profits. In general, one should not engage in a practice that, if generalized, would undermine the cultural system on which that practice depends.

    This is not very convincing in your case, because bottles of whiskey don’t seem to be valuable enough to have much of a corrupting influence. If the gift is a 2-week holiday in the Maldives, then we have a problem.

    In fact, small gifts could be customary in the industry or part of social etiquette. They may send a signal that you are serious about retaining the client and/or want to maintain a good relationship. I would classify a bottle of scotch as a small gift.

    Gifts have very different meanings in different cultures, and it is vital to be sensitive to the context. Given your brief description of the situation, there doesn’t seem to be an obvious ethical problem with the gift. But there could be other factors you didn’t mention.

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