Klaus vom Hofe


Always look a gift horse in the mouth

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Five months from now it’ll be Christmas Eve. Presents at last. Yet employees and officials need to be sensitive to the issue of gifts all year round. Even a small token of appreciation could be construed as bribery.

Midsummer - and here I am writing something about Christmas. You may be excused for thinking I'm out of my Christmas tree. But I’ll accept that for a topic that tends to affect the world of work only at Advent time. If at all.

The questions are topical all year round: “As an employee can I accept this gift from customers or business partners?” or “Can I give this to someone as a gift?”

I myself am not entirely sure in this respect. A crate full of oranges together with a high-end juice press, tickets for a U2 concert, a book signed by the author? Tempting. If nobody complains, then there can’t be any harm in it? Isn’t it what everybody does? We all know how it works, don’t we?

One example shows just how problematic the issue is. It was reported widely in the press. A teacher was fined a hefty 4,000 euros in 2015. Her mistake was to accept a sculpture worth 200 euros as a farewell gift from her high-school graduation class.

I ask our Compliance colleagues what they think. Yes, very strict rules apply to civil servants and employees in the public sector. In Germany, for example, a present for a teacher must not be worth more than ten euros. So this is something everyone needs to know, whether they’re involved in the world of business or not: students as well as parents, even if their children are still in state Kindergartens.  

Two questions help

And what applies to us as normal employees? Quite frankly I don’t know how often I’ve already had to look it up. I tend to forget it again. Fortunately in the company we also have an information team (“Ask me”), which is on hand to help with these kinds of questions.

Deutsche Telekom, which gears itself to the usual requirements, tends at least not to issue a categorical no. Sounds good. Gifts are deemed to be part of business life and are not prohibited in principle. But they must be reasonable and must not be used to influence business decisions.

What does that mean exactly? Asking questions to double-check should help: “Is this a simple gesture as part of normal courtesy?” “Will I feel under some obligation if I accept the gift?” Anyone answering the first question with a ‘yes’ and the second with a ‘no’ can accept promotional free gifts worth 25 euros per giver and calendar year. With other non-cash gifts, the same applies subject to a maximum figure of 50 euros. Similar guidelines also apply to business meals and invitations to soccer matches or other events. And of course for all those who would themselves like to give gifts to business partners.

Follow your gut feeling

It is still true that small gifts help maintain the friendship. What happens if a subsequent business decision can now not be made quite so objectively? Or if it is clear someone wants something in return? In other words if you get a strange gut feeling? Then you may well find yourself confronted with corruption, i.e. that situation where some people will simply say: “Does not affect me at all.”

Corruption is as damaging as it is criminal. And yet it is on the rise, as the “EMEIA Fraud Survey 2017” from audit and consulting company Ernst & Young demonstrated. Take Germany, for example:   

“More than two out of five surveyed companies … (43 percent) believe that bribery or corrupt methods are widespread in the country. As such, the perception of corruption … compared with 2015, when only 26 percent of those surveyed mentioned the existence of corruption, has increased sharply and is even well above the figure for Western Europe (33 percent), which has fallen for the third time in a row.”

The consequences of corruption are serious.  Meaning the best supplier might not necessarily end up winning the contract. And, as a result, buildings collapse, or the right people do not have access to training or education, to name but two of countless examples. Olajobi Makinwa from the United Nations makes her views clear on  

Anti-Corruption Day set an example

So it’s all the better that institutions such as Transparency International have signed up to combating corruption worldwide. And that the United Nations has set up the Anti-Corruption Day. Worldwide, people, organizations, and businesses are joining in by coming together to make a stand against corruption: in social networks and other media, as well as in the real world.

The Anti-Corruption Day takes place on a fixed date: December 9, in other words just before Christmas. An Anti-Corruption Year would of course be better than an Anti-Corruption Day, as ex-FIFA consultant and anti-corruption expert Mark Pieth states in an interview. I like this statement. And it explains why I’m blogging about presents in the middle of summer.