Jennette Ballas and Aliza Elbert

Dilemma: During my internship at a company I had an opportunity to go out on a client visit with one of the salespeople. When the salesperson met with the client, he handed an envelope to the client. I later asked what was in the envelope and he told me that the client had a few friends in town and they were interested in going to Disneyland and so the salesperson “provided” some tickets. Is this ethical?

In this situation, the salesperson’s true intention seems to be quid pro quo, which is Latin for “a favor for a favor” or “tit for tat.” In other words, the intention is bribery; something of value that is given or promised in a corrupt manner to another person in order to influence behavior inconsistent with their duties. In our society, bribery has a strong way of corrupting the free-markets, selling out to the rich, causing cynicism, a general distrust of institutions and treating people as commodities whose honor can be bought and sold.

If you give a gift to someone and it leads to a business deal, is it necessarily a bribe or a gift? It can be difficult to determine the difference between the two in a given situation. Understand that in some cultures, gift-giving is an entrenched part of doing business. Thus, we cannot say that all bribes are bad. There may be circumstances where there is a greater good accomplished by giving a gift. If a client is also a long-time friend it is often acceptable to give a gift, particularly one that is of a personal nature and meaningful to the person. Here are some things to think about before accepting that “gift”:

For this specific situation, the gift was not of a personal nature and was not openly discussed during the sales call. Thus, it had the appearance of being underhanded. It was also presented during a business meeting that increased the likelihood that it was being used to possibly gain favor with the client. This type of practice has become so common that companies such as Wal-Mart expressly prohibit their buyers from accepting gifts from sales people. Taking a bribe can undermine an organization, making everyone look bad. It’s easier to simply explain that you cannot, nor can anyone else in your organization, accept a “gift” or bribe.

Therefore, anytime you are faced with an ethical decision ask yourself these two questions: Is accepting this offer OK with the company I work for? And is accepting this offer OK with me? If you can’t answer yes to both of those, then you shouldn’t move forward.

Many people think that every once in awhile you are hit with one BIG ethical decision, but in reality, it’s an accumulation of several smaller choices before you get to that point. Deciding not to take or offer a bribe may be one of those smaller choices that will pay off in the long run. For that reason, next time you are pulled over for speeding on Hwy 101, think twice before attempting to pay off the police officer to avoid a ticket.

The Bottom Line: According to Professor Armstrong, “Integrity is a habit.” Like any habit, you have to practice it.

Aliza Elbert and Jennette Ballas are both marketing concentrations with a knack for changing the world – one ethical dilemma at a time. This article is written on behalf of SIFE (Students in Free Enterprise) with a goal of teaching others about business ethics.

The SIFE team will be selling Cal Poly ice cream from our creamery project at Open House on Saturday, April 22. Come see what our team is all about.

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