[March 10, 2015] Senior leaders rarely need a warning about people giving them gifts. They know that actual or perceived favoritism, bias, or corruption can result. Yet, regardless of how well we understand this and agree there could be problems, invariably senior leaders still get into trouble accepting gifts.
During my time as a military flag officer, several of my friends were asked to resign from the military after an investigation found them to have violated regulatory standards for receiving gifts. It was acknowledged that those gifts were small in value and were a genuine expression of gratitude for service to the nation. However, gift-giving rules for the military are clear. Flag officers, as senior leaders, should therefore be especially familiar with basic ethical guidelines.1 I won’t go through them here for reasons of space but rules serve an important purpose.
What is important for leaders to understand is that receiving gifts and giving them is fraught with ethical landmines. As a senior leader, often it is best to avoid receiving gifts altogether unless it unwise or improper to refuse them. Often, some of the best gifts cost nothing and conform to both regulations and ethical standards. Upon my departure from one position, I received a letter of appreciation from the president of the university where I received my bachelor’s degree. The giver, also an alumnus of the same university had taken the time to make a special request and arrange for it to be delivered to me. I continue to treasure the letter.
Having people donate to an organization of which you are closely affiliated is one area where senior leaders are also at risk. Donations could be – and will be – interpreted a quid quo pro.2 The risk of favoritism, bias, or corruption remains. Thus, the problem of Ms Hillary Clinton with foreign nations donating to her foundation.3 Sadly, she has of this writing, failed to address the controversy – another problem for a leader not to get out in front of a problem.
Leaders accepting gifts will forever be an area where even the most senior and most experienced will err. Take the wiser approach to let everyone know that gifts to you must be openly given, adhere to appropriate rules, and that sometimes the best gift is simply a verbal “thank-you”.
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 Under federal ethics regulations, a “gift” includes any gratuity, favor, discount, entertainment, hospitality, loan, forbearance, or other item having monetary value. It includes services as well as gifts of training, transportation, local travel, lodgings, and meals, whether provided in-king by purchase of a ticket, payment in advance, or reimbursement after the expense has been incurred. http://www.army.mil/article/34509/gifts-ethical-rules-for-dod-employees/