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Ethics at Work

Accepting token gifts – A better way

By 7th December 2022February 2nd, 2023No Comments

So your employer allows you to accept gifts of a ‘token’ nature. Does this give you an ‘ethics pass’ when that supplier arrives bearing gifts? You may think it does, but you would be wrong.

What?” you may ask, “Surely we are talking about gifts that are intended as courtesies rather than bribes?” The truth is there are ways of accepting and using these so-called courtesies that tick more ethics boxes than others.

When a policy, or a law for that matter, allows you to do something, the responsibility sits with you to decide on your ethical response to the freedom you’ve been granted. That’s because there’s a difference between allowed to do and ought to do.

However small in value that token gift, an ethical response starts with asking yourself a few questions. Such as:

Would you be receiving this gift if you did not hold your current position? Are you personally more deserving of that gift than others in your organisation, or the organisation itself? Is it possible that a gift that is of low value to you could be of high value to another?  

Chances are that your answers will lead you to:

Recognise that you have received the gift because of your position

Would this supplier/customer/agent be giving you this gift if you were not in your position in the organisation? Chances are that it’s only by virtue of the position you hold that the gift has been given to you. Sorry about that. But this does mean that the gift should be handled in a manner that is in the best interests of your organisation as a whole.

Acknowledge that there may be others more deserving of the gift

If you’re being presented with a gift, it’s likely that you are the giver’s key contact in the business, or because you are in a position they perceive to be influential. Being the chosen recipient by the giver does not mean that in every instance you are more deserving of the gift than a colleague – or a team of contributors for that matter. Is it fair that particular positions attract gifts while others do not?

Understand that for others, that gift you see as of insignificant value could be worth a lot more

I’m not sure how else to say this. Some people who work for you, or with you, may have never had a calendar in their kitchen.  Sure, even the entry-level employee in your business may be paid a fair rate of pay. That does not mean that their wage extends to discretionary purchases. Especially if they shoulder a large burden of responsibility for many unemployed extended family members. Like most workers in sub-Saharan Africa where I live.  

There is some good news! Your policy allows you the freedom to deploy the gift as you see fit, and we’ve got a few suggestions to spark your thinking.

Gifts that keep on giving…giving value to your employer

If you decide to accept a gift at work, put the gift to work – at work.

Naomi loves notebooks, even those that are branded with the logo of the auditors or employee benefits administrators she routinely deals with. She explains her approach:

“I’m more comfortable accepting a notebook from a major, long-term supplier than I am from an occasional or small supplier. I know that the cost of the gift is not going to have a material impact on what the supplier charges for their service. What’s more, in this case both parties understand that a branded stationery item is not going to influence the contract renewal process. I use the notebooks for meeting note-taking and writing action lists at work, and they help me save on the office stationery budget. But if I need a notebook for personal use, I buy it myself.” 

Sounds good to me. Clearly her approach is above reproach. But should Naomi be the one who keeps and uses the notebook, even it is at work, for work?

What if, in truth, you are not the only or most significant contributor to that great service that customer is wanting to recognise?

Rather than allow perceived unfairness to fester in the minds of those who are not in the front line when it comes to gifting, pass the gift on to them as an acknowledgement of their contribution.

Imagine the impact on that backroom team when you arrive with the box of chocolates and announce:

“I received this, but I know that it was your work that was pivotal to the service we gave the client, and so I want you to have it”.

At no cost to you or the organisation, you are contributing to fairness in its reward and recognition practices. 

But there is yet another consideration: could the gift be deployed to reduce your employer’s costs?

As Prashan, a procurement manager told me,

“There’s a level of absurdity to the fact that, each December, some teams are placing purchase orders for diaries while some individuals are allowing multiple diaries they have received as gifts to pile up on their desks.”

You get the idea.

Either put that calendar up in a meeting room to benefit everyone in the team, or if not needed, give it to someone in the team who deserves and needs it more than you. Share the chocolates over a quick tea, for a morale-boosting effect. Get creative. The more value you can deliver via that free gift, the better.

Here’s another option. Contribute the gift for use in lucky draws designed to encourage employee participation in organisational initiatives – think wellness events, suggestion schemes, completing that dreaded online anti-corruption learning programme. 

You , your colleagues and the company leading a life of plenty? How about passing the gift on to a non-profit stakeholder that serves the community in which your business operates? Ronald, who spends much of his free time doing community work, describes his annual ‘mission’ like this:

Each year, in late December / early January, I ask my colleagues and friends to pass on any gifts suitable for office use that are surplus to their needs. I then distribute these to those who don’t have the advantage of working in a business with an adequate stationery budget. Consider the many community-based organisations whose employees have to buy their own workplace requisites. It’s in all our interests that the people serving society in these organisations are supported.”


There are many variations on these options which you can use as a springboard for your own creative, ethical thinking. And once you have decided what to do with your gift, remember to express your thanks to the giver in a way that elevates the ethical tone of your business relationship.

How? Always convey your ethical position when you thank the gift giver. Done thoughtfully, your acknowledgement can strengthen the ethical tone of your business relationship with the giving party.

It may go without saying, but your acknowledgement should never inadvertently give the impression that the gift will increase the likelihood of your doing business with the giver in future. On the contrary, you should find a way to convey the fact that it is the performance and value delivered by that supplier that will impact the longevity of the relationship.

Whether you do it in person or via a note, your ‘thank you’ is an opportunity to give the giver insight into your ethical business philosophy, especially if you let them know how you have handled the gift. It’s easily done. How about this?

“Thank you so much for the kind gift of the (branded notebook / desk calendar/ wall calendar /diary).

  • I will find it useful in the course of my work at (insert name of your organisation), or
  • Our practice is to share such gifts for business use fairly within our team. The calendar has been put up in our meeting room / been put to use as a lucky draw prize for those participating in a suggestion scheme aimed at reducing our carbon footprint, or
  • The gifts we receive are auctioned internally and the money raised is donated to charity…” etc.

Please be assured that we have no expectation of such gifts going forward and our continued association will always be based on the best interests of our business”.

Finally, even if your policy does not require it, make a practice of advising your reporting manager that you have accepted a gift/s (regardless of their token value) and detail your method of deployment. Send them a simple email for noting, and keep it as your own record.

Even if your boss and your colleagues have not applied their mind to the many ethical questions that arise when they accept token gifts, and even if a few of them brand you as spoilsport, you could just spark an impactful, ethical movement in your workplace. You never know, one of them may pass a gift they receive on to you!

Whatever you do, remember to put that token gift to work – at work. What you can be sure of is that the value you will deliver, both for your own reputation and for the benefit of the organisation, will far exceed the value of the token gift. It may even be priceless.

A note from the author: I write this article from a position of realism, at a time when large numbers of organisations allow the acceptance of token gifts. From my perspective as both an anti-corruption and organisation behaviour specialist, I have concerns about the potential for even token gifts to have a corrupting influence on individual decision-making and am consequently in favour of policies that recommend against the acceptance of any gifts, regardless of their value. Penny.

This is an updated version of an article by the author, originally published on LinkedIn in December 2015. 

About the author: Penny Milner-Smyth is a workplace ethics and organisation behaviour specialist. She is also the director of Ethicalways, a South African-based consultancy supporting organisations wishing to instil and maintain high levels of integrity in their workplaces. During International Fraud Awareness Week in November 2022, Ethicalways delivered training and learning content to delegates from over 60 different countries.

Penny weaves the three distinct strands of her career into Ethicalways’ advisory and training services: over 25 years as a senior in-house human resources leader, a decades-long specialisation in the creation of ethical workplace environments, and an academic background in neuropsychology. The result: evidence-based inputs and outputs proven through past application.

She is the principal author of the International Compliance Association’s (ICA) Specialist Certificate in Anti Corruption, and a member of the ICA Expert Panel. For more information about the Ethicalways services including advice, training and learning products relating to ethics, fraud awareness, anti-corruption, the management of whistleblowing and creating a speak up culture, contact the Ethicalways Project Manager Leanne Logan via


Penny Milner-Smyth

Author Penny Milner-Smyth

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