What Does Unethical Gifting Look Like In A Corporate Setting?

Jan 4, 2024

Unethical gifting in a corporate setting refers to the practice of giving or receiving gifts that could potentially influence business decisions or gain unfair advantage. This concept is significant because it challenges the ethical framework within which businesses operate. The impact of unethical gifting can range from damaging a company’s reputation to legal repercussions. 

This phenomenon can manifest in various forms, such as excessive value gifts, conflicts of interest, inappropriate gifts, frequent gifting, and cultural misinterpretations. Understanding what constitutes unethical gifting and the various forms it can take is crucial in maintaining integrity and transparency in business relationships.

Types of Unethical Gift

Unethical gifts in a corporate context can vary widely, but they generally fall into a few categories:

  • Excessive Value: Gifts that are of substantial monetary value can be considered unethical. These are often perceived as bribes rather than simple gestures of appreciation. A notable example involves Unaoil, an oil industry firm, which was investigated for bribery. The firm allegedly facilitated the payment of millions of dollars to corrupt officials to win contracts. This example shows how gifts of substantial monetary value, especially in the form of bribes, are considered unethical in corporate settings​.
  • Conflicts of Interest: Gifts given with the intent to sway business decisions or to influence a business relationship unduly fall into this category. The case of a B2B company sending an expensive designer watch to a contact who agreed to a sale illustrates conflicts of interest in corporate gifting. Such gifts are given with the intent to unduly influence business decisions, blurring the line between a token of appreciation and an unethical bribe​​.
  • Inappropriate Gifts: These include gifts that are not aligned with the company’s values or are in poor taste. Such gifts might offend, embarrass, or put undue pressure on the recipient. An example of inappropriate gifting comes from the scenario where a manager gives a subordinate a significant bonus following a sexual harassment complaint to HR. This gift could be seen as an attempt to influence or silence the subordinate, making it inappropriate and unethical​​.
  • Frequent Gifting: Even if individual gifts are of low value, frequent gifting to the same person or entity can be perceived as an attempt to curry favor. Microsoft’s case with bloggers, where they provided high-end laptops, is an instance of frequent gifting that could be perceived as an attempt to curry favor. The gifts were intended to encourage bloggers to write favorably about Microsoft’s product, raising questions about the ethics of such frequent and targeted gifting​.

Identifying Unethical Gifting

Identifying unethical gifting can be challenging, especially in cultures where gift-giving is a norm. Key indicators include:

  • Timing of the Gift: Gifts given at a time of decision-making, such as during contract negotiations or procurement processes, are suspect. An example highlighting the importance of timing in corporate gifting can be seen in cases where gifts are offered during sensitive periods such as contract negotiations or tendering processes. For instance, a gift offered to a project manager shortly before their company awards a large project to the gift-giver’s company can be seen as unethical. This is because such timing could imply an attempt to unduly influence the decision-making process or appear as a quid pro quo​.
  • Transparency and Disclosure: A lack of transparency or failure to disclose gifts in accordance with company policy can be a red flag. A robust corporate gifting policy should clearly define what constitutes a gift or hospitality, the acceptable value of gifts, and how they should be recorded, such as on a gifts and hospitality register. Failure to disclose gifts, especially those of significant value or given in sensitive situations, can be a major ethical concern.
  • Recipient’s Reaction: If the recipient feels uncomfortable, coerced, or obliged to reciprocate, this can indicate the gift is unethical. For example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s decision to stop accepting donations from the Sackler family, linked to the opioid crisis, was influenced by public backlash and protests. This situation illustrates how recipient reaction, especially when it involves public interest and the organization’s stakeholders, can signal whether a gift is ethical. The Met’s decision was a response to align with public interest and maintain the institution’s integrity​.

Consequences of Unethical Gifting

The consequences of engaging in unethical gifting are severe. They can include:

  • Legal Action: Anti-bribery and corruption laws in many countries can lead to legal action against both the giver and the receiver of unethical gifts. The case of Unaoil, an oil industry firm, serves as a significant example of legal action resulting from unethical gifting. Authorities in the U.S., Britain, and Australia launched a joint investigation into Unaoil for bribery to win contracts, revealing a scheme where the firm paid millions to corrupt officials. This led to legal scrutiny not only for Unaoil but also for the numerous corporations worldwide that used Unaoil’s services for securing contracts​.
  • Reputation Damage: Both individuals and companies can suffer significant reputational damage, leading to a loss of trust among clients, partners, and the public. The impact on reputation due to unethical gifting can be profound. While specific examples of individual companies are not provided in the sources, the general principle is well-understood in the corporate world. For instance, giving gifts that appear to improperly influence the recipient can seriously harm the reputation of both the giver and the receiver. Companies often have policies to avoid such situations, recognizing that the appearance of impropriety can lead to a loss of trust among clients, partners, and the public.
  • Internal Disciplinary Action: Companies may have internal policies against unethical gifting, resulting in disciplinary actions against employees involved. Companies typically have internal policies against unethical gifting, which can lead to disciplinary actions against employees involved. For example, policies may dictate that gifts should be modest and not lavish in cost, and expenditures should be open and transparent, accurately recorded for corporate accounting. Violations of these policies can result in disciplinary action within the company, as it is crucial for businesses to maintain ethical standards in their operations​

Best Practices to Avoid Unethical Gifting

To mitigate the risks associated with unethical gifting, companies can adopt several best practices:

  • Clear Corporate Policies: Establishing and enforcing clear guidelines on gifting helps employees understand what is acceptable. Companies typically include policies around who employees can give gifts to, under what circumstances, and the maximum monetary value of these gifts to maintain clarity and compliance​
  • Training and Awareness: Regular training sessions can help employees recognize and avoid unethical gifting practices. This includes understanding what types of gifts are acceptable or unacceptable, and the implications of giving and receiving gifts in a business context. For instance, some companies offer training that covers various aspects of corporate gifting, such as the appropriate value of gifts and understanding the fine line between a token of appreciation and a bribe
  • Transparency and Reporting: Encouraging openness and providing channels for reporting suspicious gifting practices can foster an ethical corporate culture. Transparency in corporate gifting is essential. For example, the Sunshine Act in the US pharmaceutical industry requires companies to report gifts to physicians, ensuring that all transactions are open and transparent. This kind of transparency helps in maintaining ethical standards and avoiding any perception of impropriety in corporate relationships​
  • Cultural Sensitivity: Understanding the cultural context of gifting in different regions and adapting policies accordingly is crucial. For instance, in Japan, gifts are expected in business dealings, whereas in the U.S., the approach to corporate gifting has more formalities. Companies need to be aware of these cultural differences and adapt their gifting policies accordingly to respect and align with different cultural norms and practices​

Tax Deduction in the Nordics and Germany

  • Sweden: In Sweden, Christmas gifts for employees are considered tax-free if their value does not exceed SEK 500, including VAT. However, if more expensive gifts are given, they are taxable as salary from the first krona. Also, Christmas gifts for customers are not deductible, but deductions are allowed for simpler advertising gifts of insignificant value. Christmas dinners and parties are considered internal representation and are tax-free for the employees, with certain limits on deductions for food, drink, and incidental costs​​.
  • Finland: Finland differentiates between promotional and representation gifts. Promotional gifts, such as sample shipments of products or gifts sent on special days, are entirely deductible in value-added taxation and industrial and commercial activity taxation. However, representation gifts, which are more custom and individual, like alcohol gifts, are not deductible in value-added taxation and only 50% deductible in industrial and commercial activity taxation​​.
  • Denmark: In Denmark, some employee benefits are taxed if the total amount exceeds DK 6,600 per year and are in direct context with work, such as free food and drink during overtime, free news for work, or credit card schemes. Benefits not in direct context with work are taxed if they exceed DK 1,200​​.
  • Norway: In Norway, certain gifts to employees, such as for long service or marriage, are tax-free up to specific amounts. The rule that all gifts must not involve any discrimination was removed in 2021, allowing employers to give gifts tax-free without needing to provide for all employees on the same occasion​​.
  • Germany: Corporate gifts in Germany are tax-deductible up to €35 per person per year if given for operational reasons, with appropriate documentation. Unlimited tax deductibility applies to gifts to employees as long as they do not exceed the general non-cash exemption limit of €44 per month. Additional gifts of up to €60 are tax-free for personal occasions like birthdays or weddings​


Unethical gifting in a corporate setting is a complex issue that demands vigilance, awareness, and proactive measures. By understanding its various forms and implementing robust policies and practices, companies can navigate the ethical challenges of corporate gifting and maintain the trust and integrity vital to successful business operations.

Leadership plays a critical role in setting the tone for ethical practices in a company. Leaders should lead by example, demonstrating adherence to ethical standards and encouraging a culture of integrity.