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I am conference chair for a professional organization and am in the midst of the Request For Proposal (RFP) process for finding our host hotel. I visited the first responding hotel to have a look around and clarify some of the details in the RFP for them. After the look around, they ushered me into the hotel restaurant where we sat and scrawled notes on the RFP. They offered to buy me lunch but I declined--in fact I'd eaten lunch before our meeting because I figured they'd offer and I was unsure about appropriateness. I have another such meeting with another potential venue today. I've been told by a previous conference chair in our organization that this is typical.

Is it appropriate to accept a free lunch from the hotel in this sort of scenario?

  • Would you be happy this to be a headline in a major newspaper? "Hotel selected as venue for CORUPCOM after lavish lunch for main organiser." If so, go ahead. – Captain Emacs Mar 2 '18 at 15:22
  • @CaptainEmacs The world wide web is huge. Find me a headline like that in any major newspaper. – Chris E Mar 2 '18 at 15:26
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    Well, a German federal president was pushed to resign because he had accepted an invitation for a hotel (I think) for a few hundred Euros from a friend. Of course OP can do as they choose, but the scrutiny these days is so tight that any undisclosed invitation of decision makers by parties with vested interests opens ample way for one's removal from job if it should suit somebody. The guideline with the headline is a good test of whether one might consider the situation problematic or not. Not a hard rule, of course and everyone needs to be comfortable with their level of tolerance. – Captain Emacs Mar 2 '18 at 17:18
  • You were viewing the hotel to see if it's fit for purpose. Testing the food is arguably one aspect of that. As long as you didn't get lobster and caviar I'd say it's fine. But whatever your dept/local gov policy states supersedes any argument you may have, however valid it may seem. I'd find out that first, then decide. Getting gifts in the public sector can be very frowned upon, as it is often tied with corruption and a means to influence things – James Mar 3 '18 at 15:55
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Since you work for a state government (according to a now-deleted comment), you really should contact someone in your organization, whether it's an ethics department or even HR, but you need to be really careful about accepting any gift when you work for the government. But states (and in particular, your state) may be different.

Look at a flyer for a conference where they provide swag. On the registration it almost always says to indicate if you're a government employee and then states that you won't be allowed the swag.

In the private sector, that wouldn't be a problem. But in government, it may well be and you need to get an answer for sure from someone other than your manager. Until you get an answer, I wouldn't accept anything.

  • Great. Swag. I asked the question because I seem far more sensitive to this issue than any others, and I was hoping to verify that I'm being excessively cautious. I've been to small regional conferences, national conferences, and international conferences and I've never been asked (or considered for myself) conference swag as an issue. T-shirts, bags, that sort of thing. What about the tchotchkes one inevitably accumulates from exhibitors? Now I'm all sorts of paranoid! :) At any rate I'll chat with my supervisor--she's actually a perfect resource and I shoulda gone to her earlier. – id est laborum Mar 2 '18 at 16:22
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    @idestlaborum as I said, it varies. But I promise you, I've seen that on registration materials many times and it includes either an outright denial of stuff (so it can't be considered remuneration) or at the minimum a strong warning. and when I mean swag, I'm talking about things with actual value, not incidentals. Like when microsoft gave away phones to conference attendees years ago. It's just best to know all of your rules before going in, that's all. – Chris E Mar 2 '18 at 16:27
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Is it appropriate to accept a free lunch from the hotel in this sort of scenario?

In most cases, yes, that's appropriate. It's common for a potential vendor or partner company to pay for lunch, travel expenses and minor incidentals as part of their presales process. While these companies are indeed trying to ensure that you're well taken care of, there are limits to what they spend on this. Simply put they can ensure that you don't have to worry about anything for as long as you're with them on business. But if they were spending outrageous sums of money on you or you otherwise get the impression that it feels more like attempts at bribery than common courtesy, that would be inappropriate, unprofessional, unethical and in some countries illegal.

So yes, it's common for the host of a meeting to pay for lunch and that goes double in your case since the hotel's catering is presumably also something you'd want to evaluate. Of course keep in mind that there's a decent chance you're getting the chef's very best in these situations.

The one thing you should be wary of and which was pointed out in a comment is that some companies and some governments have very strict rules on this kind of thing. Typically you would know if that applies to you but if you're in doubt you should hunt down your employee handbook, talk to your manager or HR.

Beyond that, I'd recommend using the following rule of thumb when it comes to accepting freebies: if the idea of mentioning what you received to a colleague, manager or customer makes you uncomfortable, that's a clear sign that you should probably decline whatever is offered.

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    I would say that there's a difference between lunch in service of the process, as opposed to incidental. Food samples to evaluate catering, having a discussion over lunch, and paying for lunch for someone visiting from far enough away that they would be hungry even if they ate right before leaving, would be in the first category. But if it's just "Hey, here's some free food", that would be in the second category. There definitely should be someone in the OP's organization able to give guidance on this. – Acccumulation Mar 2 '18 at 17:35
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    The closing rule is a golden one imho – Paolo Mar 4 '18 at 7:46
  • @paolo I'd agree except that I'm an introvert so mentioning pretty much anything to pretty much anyone makes me at least a little uncomfortable. :) – id est laborum Mar 8 '18 at 14:21
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It comes down to your own personal ethics (and your companies, of course).

Personally; I accepted hospitality once, in 1996, from a photocopier company, and I heard about it for the next year from them. I've never done it since, apart from with existing suppliers and unrelated to any upcoming business.

If you want to know about the quality of food and service from a restaurant, I'd visit beforehand, without revealing my identity. Pay for the meal, and then decide if your clients and customers would appreciate the establishment. You can then proceed with the RFP in the knowledge that they can deliver.

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I assume it's acceptable to post an answer to my own question describing how I ended up handling this situation.

TL;DR: I'll decline any future lunch offers.

I'm a state employee in the US (originally stated in a comment on an answer that was deleted) however I'm not seeking to represent my employer here. I'm working on behalf of a non profit professional organization (a point I expect was perfectly clear in the question and in the RFP). So I was leaning toward accepting a meal from respondents before talking to my supervisor. She also does similar work for a similar organization and saw no issue. She also pointed out this strange $50 threshold that I'd forgotten about. I'm not sure if that's in actual statute or just a guideline, but apparently someone with sway in my state feels that everything that's worth bribing for is worth more than $50. So we can accept gifts up to a value of $50, and lunch for one is certainly under $50 at the places I'm hitting up. Gold. I get to eat free.

But then... In an attempt to separate my personal life from professional matters I've typically used my work contact info for myself when representing my organization. There it is right on the RFP in big letters id.est.laborum@my.state.gov. I've hitched my horse to the state's wagon.

Furthermore, I'm in an enviable financial position that I plan to explain to my son something like this once he's old enough: "Your parents and grandparents and great grandparents all helped provide you with the resources to recover from a whole lot of little screw ups. One really big screw up is all it'll take to make sure you don't provide your son with that same assurance." After considering that I realize that paying for lunch at a hotel restaurant one or twice is within my means, but being dismissed on ethical grounds (however astronomically unlikely that is given all the factors above) is not.

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