Gifts and Hospitality Policy: 3 Essential Tips
With these rules you can create clarity for your employees and take action against corruption in your company
An expensive bottle of wine here, a dinner in a luxury restaurant there – what can be a problem-free gift in some situations can become a compliance issue in others. Dealing with gifts and hospitality is not an easy task for companies. And for employees “on the frontline” – in sales, business development or purchasing – there is often uncertainty.
Guidelines on gifts and hospitality help companies to combat corruption
The first step in ensuring your company deals with gifts and hospitality correctly is having a policy that defines rules and processes. Many large and medium-sized companies have these rules in place. These rules and processes provide for the following:
- Definitions of scope and different types of corruption
- Explanations defining what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable practices in the context of gifts and entertainment
- Reducing the active and passive risk of corruption
- Protecting the company and its employees from the risk of criminal prosecution
- Providing a clear indication to employees, business partners and other external parties of the company’s values regarding the prevention of corruption.
These elements need to be included in any policy on gifts and hospitality
An effective policy on gifts and hospitality needs three main elements: scope of application, defining gifts and invitations as well as when they can and cannot be accepted.
1. Scope of application
The scope of the guidelines should not only cover permanent employees but all persons performing functions on behalf of the company. This includes sales agents, consultants, trainees, apprentices, interns, freelancers and other groups. Including family members in the scope is also sensible. For example, inviting the managing director of a prospect to a conference can be issue-free – but inviting their spouse or partner along free of charge is unlikely to be acceptable.
2. Defining a gift or invitation
The policy should define what constitutes a gift or invitation:
- Gifts generally refer to items of value given to or by employees. They can be consumer goods, branded items, discounts or cash. Common examples are a bottle of wine or a box of chocolates.
- Hospitality includes meals, beverages, and travel and accommodation expenses. Typical examples are business meals, client trips, site tours, cultural, sporting events and holidays.
Definitions of corporate gifts and entertainment are far reaching and include:
- Restaurant meals
- Invitations to trade fairs
- Payment of business travel expenses
- Financial credit
- Free services
- Provision of premises
- Gifts that an employee of the company gives to a relative or acquaintance
- Hiring a relative for a job or internship
- Study grants for children and relatives
The policy should precisely state what types of gifts and entertainment are covered. Ideally, the different types should be illustrated with practical examples. These can also be incorporated into training courses and internal communications.
3. Acceptance and refusal conditions
Where does corruption begin? The main objective of any gifts and hospitality policy is to define appropriate rules and criteria. In this context, the intention of the gift giver is important. Is there reason to believe that a gift or invitation was given with deceitful intentions?
a) Local legal context
Clearly, gifts and invitations must be permitted under applicable local laws. These can vary considerably from country to country which can lead to confusion for employees. Some companies have dealt with this by implementing strict and globally applicable limits for gifts and invitations to ensure that they do not violate any national laws. This can however lead to situations where local customs aren’t taken into account and can reinforce the perception of compliance being a “spoilsport”. As a result many companies implement country-specific rules (find out more from our blog article “Strategies for dealing with gifts and invitations”).
b) Purpose and motivation
The policy should clearly define the circumstances when gifts and invitations may be given or received. For example, gifts should not be used to
- Obtain an improper reward or advantage.
- Exert influence or pressure on suppliers, business partners or other third parties.
- Obtain, retain or extend a contract or a beneficial contractual clause.
- Obtain licenses or governmental agreements.
- Receive exemption, in whole or in part, from the payment of taxes or fines.
- Obtain information about a competitor’s offer or an ongoing procurement process.
- Speed up procedures such as the granting of visas, the issuing of official approvals, the granting of customs releases and similar.
The FCPA’s guidance identifies certain key characteristics for when gifts and entertainment are considered appropriate: “Some hallmarks of appropriate gift-giving are when the gift is given openly and transparently, properly recorded in the giver’s books and records, provided only to reflect esteem or gratitude, and permitted under local law.”
c) Reason or occasion
What is the occasion and why are gifts and invitations being offered? Occasions such as anniversaries, birthdays, project completions or social events such as Christmas or New Year can be legitimate occasions for gifts and invitations. However, if there is no obvious reason for the gift, the giver or recipient needs to be able to explain the reason for it.
When a recipient demands certain benefits or concessions this is clear warning sign and is usually an indication of unfair advantage and blackmail.
Timing can also play an important role in assessing whether a gift or invitation is important from a compliance perspective.
The following times or time periods can be problematic when it comes to giving or receiving gifts or invitations:
- During ongoing tenders
- Before signing contracts
- Before voting
- Before granting permits or authorisations
- Before issuing licenses
- Before changing laws or regulations
Companies might prohibit gifts and invitations during these periods or set up an internal review process that critically examines planned gifts and invitations during these times.
Even if companies define fixed value limits for gifts and invitations, cumulative amounts can exceed the limits. Regular, smaller gifts equate to a one-off, more expensive one. To prevent this, companies should also bear in mind the frequency of gifts and invitations when writing their policies.
Annual limits can be a solution. These can be defined per team, department, branch, unit or external partner. In order to ensure these groups keep to the limits, a gift register is essential. Software solutions make it easier to keep track of the gift value totals and can automatically ensure compliance within annual limits.
As with most rules, there will be occasional exceptions. For exceptions there needs to be a clear process for approval by management and/or the compliance officer along with the provision of appropriate documentation.
f) Public officials
A gift or invitation can affect judgment. When public officials are involved this needs to be given special consideration. Many public authorities have internal rules on this topic. Not only in relation to public officials themselves, but also their family members, affiliated foundations and organisations.
It is important to be aware of any benefits your company provides to public officials or related persons and organisations. Company’s internal review and documentation processes should be more stringent for these instances, for example, a two-stage review and approval process involving the line manager and compliance function.
The following should generally be avoided when making gifts to public officials:
- Cash payments
- Frequent or valuable gifts or invitations to corporate entertainment with high monetary value
- Gifts or invitations in connection with public tenders
- Benefits with the intention of improving the relationship to exert influence or pressure in the future.
g) Gift type
Benefits in the form of cash payments, securities or commodities should not generally be permitted, including:
- Cash or means of payment similar to cash like bank transfers
- Securities such as stocks and bonds
- Gold, precious stones and other precious metals
- Vouchers and gift cards
- No-interest or low-interest loans
These types of gifts should not be permitted, particularly for public officials. They are also prohibited by law in many jurisdictions.
Gifts and invitations that are business-related are generally less problematic than benefits that do not have an obvious business connection. Business-related examples include invitations to conferences or other events that relate to the person’s role or business, product-related advertising materials, or hospitality during business events or meetings. On the other hand, invitations to private trips, leisure events, gifts to partners, family members or other persons outside a professional context should generally not be permitted.
There is general agreement on one thing: the higher the value of a gift or other benefit, the greater the risk of corruption. Clearly, a ballpoint pen with a company logo does not present any issues, but an expensive Swiss wristwatch should be viewed more critically. Where should the line be drawn?
There are no clear answers to this question. The appropriate value of a gift depends on local customs, national purchasing power and the status of the giver and receiver. While a gift to a managing director in Switzerland may be regarded as harmless, the same gift to an official in India may indicate corrupt practices. For some gifts it is difficult or even impossible to determine the monetary equivalent.
This does not make it easy for companies or their employees to deal with the topic of gifts and hospitality. Some companies tackle this by defining value limits per country.
Using a software solution offers many advantages in this respect. Country-specific value limits can be defined, and different approval processes can be triggered depending on the recipient and other factors. Automated processes help save time for employees, management and compliance officers.
j) Transparency and the “press test“
Covert donations usually indicate misconduct. If the corresponding expenses are not listed in the donor’s books or are listed under a false name, this needs to be investigated. Companies have faced lawsuits because private holiday trips for public officials have been disguised as “training” or “factory visits”.
A good test recommended by the French anti-corruption authority, AfA, the “press test”: would the company’s reputation be damaged if the gift or invitation in question was exposed in the press? If the answer is yes, the request should be declined.
k) Rules and guidelines of other parties
Of course, the rules and guidelines laid out by other parties also play a role in the context of benefits. Does the organisation of the person who is to be given a gift or from whom an invitation was received have a policy on gifts and invitations? If so, does the benefit fall within what they consider appropriate?
Conclusion: having robust guidelines and rules is only half the battle
It’s done: the most important rules for gifts and hospitality in the company have been defined, the most common cases have been clarified, and everything has been recorded in the guidelines. But the work does not stop there: the second step is to ensure that employees know the rules and are able to apply them. When the answer isn’t immediately clear, there should be a process through which employees can get help quickly and easily.
And last but not least, it is important for companies to have control over gifts and hospitality. If individual gifts are to be viewed critically in retrospect, a gift register is essential: who was given what by whom and on what occasion? The gift register should at least provide these answers in order to make decision-making processes clear and reduce liability risks.
In general, rules and checking processes should not lead to employees in sales, purchasing and management feeling frustrated and surrounded by red tape. Smart and automated processes help to create the right balance between reliable compliance and business focus. The use of specialised software helps enormously to reduce internal friction and at the same time ensures robust compliance for gifts and hospitality.
From establishing appropriate rules, defining procedures and responsibilities, to internal communication and employee training