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3 Easy Ways to Distinguish Between a Gift and a Bribe

You know the problem with ethics education?  It’s virtually impossible to talk about it without sounding pedantic or preachy.  And since none of us like being lectured to, we usually drown out conversations about ethical behavior because we don’t like feeling like we’re being talked down to. 

However, ethics training is important in order to prevent all of us from taking steroids and bribing judges and fixing elections and basically making the world impossible to live in.  But that doesn’t mean it has to be boring.  So here are three simple questions to help you decide if that gift you just got is really a gift or a bribe.  Happiness, engage!

Is the gift standard for your industry?  

Vendors will often take potential clients out to dinner, companies will often fly prospective employees to on-site interviews, and nobody thinks twice about that.  If the thing you’re being offered is normal for your industry, there’s a good chance it’s OK.  After all, if everybody else jumped off the bridge, you probably would too!

Is the ‘Gift’ absurdly exotic?  

The problem with the above question is that some ‘standard’ gifts are so expensive that it’s virtually impossible to trust the person giving it to you.  Pretty much all of us can be bought, which is why Fear Factor was such a popular show.  So remember, kids – if anyone offers to bioengineer a Tyrannosaurus Rex of your very own, don’t get in the car. 

Is the ‘gift’ attached to an expectation of particular behavior or actions on your part?  

And here’s the real question.  The others are pretty obvious; a free dinner is normal, and a free speedboat is probably suspect – which is unfortunate, by the way, because I could totally use a new speedboat to replace the speedboat I don’t currently own.  But gifts that are attached to an expectation that you perform a certain action are almost certainly unethical.  The question I wanted to put here was, “Does the gift feel like a bribe?”  But then I thought that I wouldn’t feel bribed if I were driving my new speedboat, so I came up with a better one. 

I hope that wasn’t too horribly painful.  And basically all this boils down to is:  if you’re going to accept a bribe, make sure it’s big enough that you can live comfortably on it after you get caught and fired.  So if you’re expecting me to accept a free trip to Vegas for the weekend to streamline the process of getting your latest experimental medication approved, you can just keep on walking.  If, however, you’re bringing me a suitcase filled with $247 million in non-sequential bills, I’ll probably at least hear you out.

And then say no, of course.  Prison is not as much fun as it looks on TV – and a lot harder to break out of, too.

Jeff Havens is a speaker, author, and professional development expert who tackles leadership, generational, and professional development issues with an exceptional blend of content and entertainment. He is a contributing writer to Fast Company, Entrepreneur, BusinessWeek, The Wall Street Journal; and has been featured on CNBC and Fox Business. For more information, visit

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