[November 13, 2017] Recently I wrote about ethical traps that leaders are caught-up in and gave some advice on how to avoid them; mostly through knowing the rules and being focused on what you are doing. One of those traps involved receiving gifts and is a common way for a professional to end a good career because of a simple mistake. Personally, as a leader, I simply refuse gifts.
My own method of refusing gifts, however, is not absolute but some experiences of others may be enlightening, humorous, or sad. A retiring Command Sergeant Major was presented with a gift of a $500 gift certificate to a major sporting goods store; a going-away gift. Everyone knew he was an avid hunter and sportsman but the gift exceeded the $300 gift limit. Unknowingly, he accepted the gift (he should have known better) and later, after a military investigation, he had to return it by writing a check for the full amount.
A U.S. Marine Lieutenant was given a Jersey Cow (a small breed of dairy cattle). Yep, a cow for a gift and, known to everyone, he had been a farmer before he joined the military, so his fellow Marines thought it funny and witty to present him with such a “practical gift.” The cow it turns out was worth about $1,500 and far exceeded the gift value. What to do? He couldn’t donate the cow (he still would have been the recipient of a large gift) so he had to return it to his troops. They were stuck with the cow and couldn’t return her so they made the cow their mascot.
On a more serious note, gifts are problematic in the military. At higher ranks, a leader is more closely scrutinized and thus the ignorance of gift rules and regulations are less likely to go unnoticed. This is why I was always polite but made it clear that I wanted no gifts whenever I left a unit. Soldiers being who they are usually managed to get me a simple, small, personalized gift that had a monetary value of around $20. Those I accepted because it was obvious that such gifts were well within the military rules for a going-away gift but not for anything else.
While deployed to Iraq on two occasions I was offered daughters to marry by Iraqi contractors who had themselves worked for me during the build-up in the early part of the war. I politely refused saying the U.S. military prohibited me from receiving a wife as a gift. This excuse was important because refusing this very honorable gift would normally have been considered a great insult. By the way, the monetary limit did not apply in this case.
Leaders get themselves into unnecessary trouble all the time when they willingly received gifts. Even when the gift is within the rules, the very appearance of impropriety can get you into trouble. The best practical advice I can give is simply let folks know, upfront and politely, not to give a gift.
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