Another reader has brought up an ethical quandary that most of us who meet with vendors face on a regular basis: the question of whether it's proper to take gifts or event tickets from vendors even if the amount involved is small. And the related question is whether that changes when the amount of the item is much larger.
The reader had read about individuals at private firms and in public jobs who were taking expensive golf outings and other inducements from vendors. He writes:
"This has caused me to consider whether or not it is ethical if I were to be offered a pair of tickets to a baseball game, or be invited to a golf game. Now I don't have vendors lined up outside my door with these types of offers, but in the past 14 years, I have probably been to a half dozen ball games, and probably a half dozen golf games. But in ethics, the volume or quantity isn't always what decides between right and wrong.
"Also, should there be different ethics in how the Public Sector and Private Sector operate?
"What about other 'prizes' one can be offered as part of [one's] job? While at a conference/trade show in San Francisco a few years ago, I dropped off my business card for more product information from a vendor, and this allowed me to qualify for a draw of several prizes. I happened to win a $100.00 travelers check in U.S. funds, which was nice as it worked out to almost $160.00 Canadian.
"The reason for golfing and prizes at a conference is that both actions may have the effect of causing a person to have 'favorable feelings' toward a company that they might not have otherwise had. If the 'favorable feelings' caused one to consider one product over another, then I think that is wrong. But should we in IT completely avoid the appearance of influence by not accepting invitations to outings, or to accept prizes in a draw, or, by even picking up a neat looking pen on a trade floor?"
I think that some of the issues are easily solved. For many government employees, there's simply no question. They're not allowed to take things from vendors -- or often other people when they're on government business -- so the matter is settled. That's pretty much a "zero-tolerance" arrangement, and it sometimes seems silly, although there's a good reason for it.
Government employees need to be, like Caesar's wife, "above reproach." Even the slightest hint of impropriety can cause concern. At the same time, it's easy for small favors to grow into big ones and raise the issue of corruption. So it's probably better to err on the side of silliness, rather than take the chance of setting the stage for a scandal.
For everyone else, as far as taking trade show trinkets or throwing your card in a fishbowl to get a prize, it seems that this is a different case altogether. The purpose of these gimmicks is to get you into the booth or to get your name and contact information for a company marketing campaign. I don't think that anyone believes you're going to buy $50,000 worth of software because someone gave you a T-shirt. If you do, then your company has much bigger problems than the T-shirt, and so do you.