January 13, 2012

Executive benefits can have ethical strings attached

'Tis the season... to get free stuff! Few offices last month went without at least a few gift baskets with fine munchies to share, usually from vendors looking to gain, retain or regain our business.

The opportunities for individual non-profit executives to cash in, however, continue year-round. Anyone with discretion over where to deposit a company's cash is routinely and repeatedly solicited by every bank representative to move all personal accounts over to that bank. I've been offered premier or elite checking for myself, just because the organization I run already has boatloads of charitable dollars sitting there, earning hefty interest and fees for the bank. So naturally, they want me to be personally invested there, and beholden to them, lest I ever think to pull out the $50,000 or $500,000 my nonprofit (or even a business) is keeping there. So what if their services aren't as good or as affordable as the discount bank down the street... They're giving me and my family PREMIER CHECKING for free!!

In the course of discharging my executive duties, I've sometimes "had to" ride VIP helicopters and lie flat on business-class flights, spent night after night in five-star European hotels, lounged with world leaders in Baroque palaces, and dined in gourmet kosher splendor at Le Telegraphe and Juliette in Paris (both, of blessed memory). And those long, late-night strolls along Geneva's Lac Leman, visits to the Livadia Palace of Yalta fame, and hanging out at Mumbai's Breach Candy Swim Trust. But this was all part of my job, and there's no way to pass on such benefits to those junior staffers stuck back at headquarters. However, there are some benefits that can and should be shared, especially because some of us do get to live pretty well on occasion.

I've received VIP tickets to special events, bottles of wine, and a dozen other kinds of items I can't even remember. One reason I can't remember is that I've distributed them equitably among my co-workers, or served them around at the holiday party or in a farewell toast for a departing colleague. Once, I brought home a fancy Lamborghini model for my son, but only after first making certain that no one else in the office wanted that particular slick promotion from American Express (though getting the remote control would have been contingent on signing up for their services...).

Once, when I was still quite junior, I scored tickets to the President's Box at the Kennedy Center, just because I was the guy working late in the office when my boss couldn't find a babysitter. 

It's vital to (1) distinguish between trivial gifts and significant fringe benefits; (2) ensure that everyone in your operation gets a fair chance at sharing in whatever fruits are appropriately received (some items really should not be accepted at all); and (3) be accountable and transparent at all times. These points are essential to protecting the rational process of making decisions in the best interests of the organization, to maintaining your own ethical and professional standards, and to strengthening rather than undermining the team spirit and mutual trust among your team. But really, it's just common decency.

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