Gift exchanges are very common around this time of year, I mean, ‘tis the season of giving after all. Just as there are unwritten ethical codes behind giving, a parallel does apply in gift acceptance. Consider this case, for example. An employee working at the passport office comes to you, the director of this organization, for guidance on a moral dilemma she currently faces. A short while ago, she processed an express application for a customer. The customer, who turns out to be a government official, returns after his recent trip with a bottle of Opus One Napa Valley 2013 to show his appreciation for this act. He offers the gift to her during regular business hours at the department to the onlook of other employees and applicants. At the time, she felt flattered and accepted the gift; now, she is having second thoughts and pleads for some guidance on what to do. Although this case isn’t one to make headlines, it’s not an entirely straightforward one at that—let’s work with it.
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BUILD A SPEC SHEET
Do the details matter? This was a rhetorical question in the sense that the details always matter. Each and every situation is unique and should be thus considered as such—ethics and gift acceptance surely does not stand alone here. Here’s a list of the details that are most relevant to this case.
This particular employee has a professional obligation to work toward Canada’s well-being and contribute to the strength of Canadian democracy as outlined in the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector, for others, this may be your own organization’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, which is attuned to the company’s objectives and value system.
Assigned or elected, a government official occupies a paid public servant role. When taxpayers’ dollars get involved, things get sticky real quick. This echoes the recent news surrounding U.S. campaign finance laws. Although Canada and the U.S. enforce a different rulebook here, the more general issue in question here is political influence.
It’s hard to ignore the fact that both customers and employees were involved in this confrontation. This brings concerns regarding both the functioning and the credibility of the department to the forefront. When the ship goes down, the cargo sinks with it.
I’m quite confident that this situation would have been a lot different if the gift that was advanced was a hand written-poem, or a travel mug, or bacon bandages, or a duct tape wallet—anyways, you get the point here. This specific bottle of wine retails for $400-500 where available. As gifts rise in value, the ethical implications follow.
It’s the holiday season and many are in the spirit of giving, this much is true. The execution of this gift exchange, viz., during business hours and in front of this crowd, however, would nullify any sort of ethical suppression this may have had on the situation. Grandma’s Birthday party, yes. This case, no.
MAP A BLUEPRINT
Conflicts of interests occur when two or more competing loyalties are incompatible. The degree of intensity in this clash occurs on a continuum, of course, making this sort of ethical analysis all the more interesting. Traditionally, conflicts of interest regarded financial gain. Recently, however, they are being interpreted in a broader context wherein they extend to any interest that may detract an individual’s judgement (in contrast to what it would normally be).
Accordingly, you must look to decide whether the case at hand is a potential, apparent, or real conflict of interest. A practical approach in differentiating between these classifications is to do so temporally. A potential conflict can thus be understood as occurring at Stage 1 with expressed apprehensiveness that it may evolve in the future. Moving forward, Stage 2, or, an apparent conflict of interest, occurs when there is a concern, in which a reasonably well-informed individual could have, that a conflict of interest exists. Finally, Stage 3 occurs in the present time when private interests dampen the ability for one to carry out their duties or responsibilities in a pure form. The case here looks like a real conflict of interest.
CONSTRUCT YOUR DECISION
Taking all of the above into consideration, your next move is to act. Do you advise the employee to demand the public official to pick the gift up immediately? Request an apology? Allow her to consume the gift with no regret? Pretend as nothing happened? Rewrite your company’s Code of Conduct? Although no foolproof guide exists for ‘correct’ behaviour, having a systematic approach in place for these penumbra cases acts as a useful device for guiding the actions of ethical behaviour within your organization. Ethics are very complex, there’s no doubt in that, and the moral decisions that must be made in the scenario above certainly apply to the construction industry at large. The improper handling of ethical dilemmas, as evidenced by corruption, bribery, or collusion, ultimately has a negative impact on project quality, safety protocol and, depending on the type of project, the value of public goods, e.g., road building, waste management. Great leaders will use the inevitability of cases such as this one as an opportunity to strengthen the cohesion within the organization through a reiteration of core values.