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Ethical Considerations: When Is A Gift A Bribe?

Issue 11 and Volume 11.

Anyone responsible for acquiring goods or services for the fire department has experienced forms of marketing. Advertisements are placed, literature mailed (or emailed) and cold-calls are made. Two helpful marketing strategies are establishing a relationship between the buyer and seller, and creating brand recognition. Both involve buyer interaction and both can raise ethical questions.

Questions will arise about the acceptability of a vendor picking up a lunch tab, golfing, or attending a sporting event, or theatre tickets, or whether it is OK to be friends with a vendor outside of work.

They are all valid questions.

The vendor is building a business relationship in hopes his or her product or service will be purchased. Sales people know that most people prefer doing business with people they like and are comfortable with, unless the cost differences between the products and services are great.

Besides establishing a relationship, companies want you to think about their product or service. Various trinkets and small gifts are used as marketing strategy. Departments need to consider if a vendor’s ball cap is an acceptable gift or if a jacket is too much. There should be a line when a gift becomes a bribe.

Some departments have a zero tolerance policy for gifts. When thinking about implementing a policy, one should think about whether pens, pads of scratch paper and other similar items violate the rule.

The point is that seemingly insignificant issues can get people in trouble and not recognizing the potential can create major problems.

Fire chiefs and others responsible for purchasing goods and services, are more likely to lose their jobs, or receive significant discipline actions, for ethical violations than job performance.

No Clear-Cut Answers

Unfortunately, there are no clear-cut answers when discussing ethical issues. Individuals establish their ethics from family, school, religion and peers. Groups get their ethics from the collection of individuals and individuals do not think alike. Given those variables, it is easy to see why the issue is so complex and why seemingly simple ethical questions become difficult.

Muddying the waters further, consider the ramifications of a strict policy that no gifts are permitted when department members attend a conference, such as Fire Department Instructors’ Conference (FDIC) or Fire Rescue International. Many fire professionals who normally would not accept gifts and favors if presented at work, will accept the same when traveling. Attendees at various conferences collect handouts and trinkets and may even attend special events, lunches or dinners. Other than the distance from home, how does this differ?

Consider Problems

The point is that gift acceptability should be considered before problems arise. Many people have come under scrutiny based upon ethical circumstances.

If you ever find yourself under fire, it will be most likely for these reasons, not because a building burned down, or your fire prevention programs are not effective.

When looking at real world situations that have raised ethical questions, most concern expensive fire apparatus purchase.

The following are issues have really happened and have been reported in local newspapers causing some departments problems and embarrassment: the fire chief buys fire trucks from a company for which he works part time; the chief tailors bid specifications to suit one manufacturer, a truck builder’s dream because it means no competition; fire officials visit a fire truck company and charge the municipality for a two-night amusement park visit; a chief is fined for staying free at a condo belonging to a manufacturer; fire officials visit a Florida fire truck company six times, leaving people wondering if it really took that many times to make sure the apparatus was built correctly.

The point here is that certain things are legal and may even be beneficial overall. As a public entity, acquisitions must be made following the rules and standards that promote trust and confidence. Perceptions of impropriety may discredit individuals and the department. Know the rules and play by them. Disclose anything that may be misinterpreted, giving others a chance to question actions before they are “set in stone.”

Avoid Ethical Issues

A few things can be done to avoid ethical issues.

First, know the department and/or city policies. If there is not one, develop one and ask other local departments for suggestions.

The policy should address the following potential pitfalls: what is acceptable and what is not; should your department have a zero tolerance policy; should meals have a dollar limit; are nominal gifts permitted; do rules change around the holidays; is sharing the expense or “going dutch” permissible; are the rules the same concerning conferences; and finally what disclosures are required.

A good policy would include definitions guiding interpretation, such as the meaning of substantial in terms of a gift, compensation and official duties.

Spell out exact gift and gratuity limits. If none are permitted, clearly state that there is a zero tolerance policy on gifts.

The policy should clearly define differences between work and private life situations, and it should specifically forbid the use of an official position for privileges.

Some additional issues the policy should address are the responsibility to disclose public information and potential conflicts of interest, disclosure of outside business dealings, and the prohibition of department personnel from doing business with the department.

Lastly, the consequences of violations need to be clearly defined.

Once the policy has been adopted, it must be conveyed to everyone. Providing training ensures everyone is on the same page. Informal discussions regarding ethics and playing “what if” and “is it okay to …” scenarios are good ways to teach people about the policy.

Make sure the entire department agrees on the policy, particularly what is and is not acceptable. When in doubt, ask someone of higher authority. When there is no one around to ask, do not accept whatever is being offered.

A ball cap is not sufficient reason to buy a $500,000 fire truck, and most people will not base decisions on trinkets. There are, however, some gifts that will raise questions that are hard to answer. Even if they can be answered, they may create a perception of impropriety.

There is nothing wrong with sales people and vendors establishing good relationships and getting their product or service recognized. After all, that is what marketing is all about and its how the economy works.

Fire service personnel however, must know the rules so that a seemingly minor act does not get blown out of proportion.

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