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The Gift Equation – You, the Giver and the Public

One of the critical ways that the public sector differs from the private sector is in the rules regarding the receipt of gifts. In the private sector, it is common practice to send clients, potential clients and those who refer business your way a token of your thanks for doing business with your firm. This common private sector practice, however, can spell trouble in the public sector. Most state laws forbid the receipt of gifts in exchange for an official action (we call that bribery), but the ethical dilemmas extend to the casual gifts that are not in exchange for an official action.

Let us take the example of a company who sends a box of oranges to a state agency head at Christmas with a note that says, “thanks for all your hard work for the people of our state.” Let’s assume that this company has not done business with this agency. Is it unethical for the agency head to accept the oranges? Here are some questions to consider if you were the agency head:

1. Does state law allow the receipt of the gift? In Idaho, state law allows the receipt of incidental gifts up to $50.00 in value. The oranges are unlikely to cost more than $50.00, so you conclude that the state law doesn’t prohibit you accepting them.

2. Does your particular agency have rules about the receipt of gifts? Some agencies go beyond the minimum limitations of the statute and forbid the receipt of any gifts. Let’s assume that in this case there is not agency-specific rule.

If your state law allows it and there are no agency-specific rules to forbid it, you may assume that it is ethical to accept the oranges, and you would be technically correct. Here are some other things, however, to consider, specifically, the “gift equation.”

First, remember that you only control one-third of the “gift equation:” You know what the gift means to you. You are certain that the receipt of this gift is not going to affect your decision-making in your official capacity. After all, who would be “bought” by a box of oranges, right? What you don’t control, however, are the other two-thirds of the “gift equation:” what the giving of the gift meant to the giver, and how it looks to the public. For all you know, the giver of the box of oranges is sitting at a diner counter in your community telling his business associates how, “the next time a contract comes up with your agency he will be ‘in'” because now he is in your good graces. As well, you don’t know how the receipt of the gift will appear to the public in your community. What might be “technically legal” may appear to be inappropriate to the public. The appearance of impropriety is a critical part of ethics in the public sector. It is a constant reminder that public sector officials are held to a higher standard.

The “gift equation” reminds us that we only control one-third of the situation regarding the acceptance of gifts in the public sector: what the gift means to us. What the giver thinks they’re getting and how it looks to the public are out of our control.

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