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I am currently in charge of contracts for my employer.

In the recent e-mail to the current holder of the service contract for the company, I casually stated that I wished to have a few Bonsai trees in the garden.

After returning home from a vacation, I found three trees in the garden. In my mailbox, there is a short thank you letter signed by the contractor.

I want the trees but I certainly didn’t mean for the contractor to buy them for me. I suspect that the contractor interpreted my e-mail comment as a hint that I wanted him to provide me with some trees.

I'm worried that the contractor has a copy of the e-mail. If the contractor sent my boss a copy of the e-mail, it might look as I'm trying to get a bribe from the contractor. Can the trees be considered as a bribe and what would I do to secure my job?

  • 51
    In your home garden or the company garden? I would be more concerned that a contractor knew where I lived if they showed up in your home garden. – pboss3010 Oct 1 at 11:49
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    Why does the contractor know your home address to even leave said trees...also in what business conversation can one casually mention the want for bonsai trees... – morbo Oct 1 at 13:35
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    I think Joe's on point here, but why would you make "casual statements" like these, unrelated to business, to a contractor, @user110370? Also, how did this contractor find your personal home address? Did you also share your private home address "casually"? That makes me a bit more suspicious about this, since personal home addresses are not things people generally share "casually" with others... – code_dredd Oct 2 at 0:06
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    Might help to add a country tag. Different countries have different laws and attitudes regarding what constitutes bribery and whether or not it's acceptable. In some places, it's the cost of doing business. – AffableAmbler Oct 2 at 3:15
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    To those who say, "why did you say this to a vendor?", I don't see anything strange about that at all. I have casual conversations with co-workers, vendors, and customers all the time. I'm not a particularly sociable person so I don't go into my life story, but the idea of saying, "Yeah, this weekend I'm going to work in my garden, and I'm hoping to get some bonsai trees soon. So how about this contract?" doesn't seem strange to me at all. – Jay Oct 2 at 18:07

13 Answers 13

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At my job, we are told to immediately report potential corruption/bribery to our line manager/a specific person depending on the scenario.

If you get ahead of this and own up to it with your boss, the contractor cannot use it to blackmail you at a later point, which may incur more serious consequences.

You may be able to keep the trees, you may have to give them up. At the end of the day, I imagine your job is more important though

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    While I echo your opinion, I believe the safest course of action is to return the gift to the sender. Leave no room for interpretation of intent. – Sourav Ghosh Oct 1 at 12:02
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    Perhaps another option would be to pay the contractor his standard rate for the trees and keep a copy of your payment. – James Oct 1 at 12:36
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    @SouravGhosh, the best way to make your intention known is to tell your manager or company ethics department if it has one. Get it on the official record that you are doing the right thing. Then return the gift. – Seth R Oct 1 at 14:45
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    Digging up trees is not generally a good thing. Insisting on paying for them would be a much better solution – user90842 Oct 1 at 21:11
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    @GeorgeM bonsais are usually in pots. If these are in the ground (sometimes you plant them in the ground to grow for a few years) you'd be perfectly safe to dig them up as I cant imagine they've been there very long. In any case, its just a plant, I think OP's job and livelihood is more important. – solarflare Oct 2 at 4:01
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Send a request to the contractor for a bill, then pay it. Be sure to check that it is a fair market price, and not a discount, or that could still be construed as influence peddling/bribary.

No freebie = no bribery.

Then, mention this to your employer, mention that there has been a misunderstanding, and that you have already taken steps to correct it. Apologize both to your employer and the contractor.

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    I like this, but also be sure that the amount billed and paid is a fair-market value and not at a discount. (The receipt is kept, of course) – spuck Oct 1 at 18:12
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    I see so many pitfalls remaining with this strategy. If you pay the wholesale price, it can be viewed as a bribe to you. If you pay the retail price, it can be viewed as a bribe from you. There are further issues proving that you received the trees, and that you paid for them. – Acccumulation Oct 2 at 15:31
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    @Acccumulation a fair retail price avoids both. asking for the bill reinforces that it was an oversight, as does speaking with both the contractor and the boss. – Richard Says Reinstate Monica Oct 2 at 17:08
  • Retail price includes profit margin. And bonsais are more likely than other prdoucts to be one-of-a-kind and not have any clear "market price". – Acccumulation Oct 2 at 19:06
  • @Acccumulation I've worked for the government, and I've worked with the government. There is literally no prosecutor on earth that would be bothered at checking just how much of a profit was a fair markup unless it was extremely egregious, or a discount so deep as to be considered a gift. You are chasing a non-issue – Richard Says Reinstate Monica Oct 2 at 20:06
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Can the trees be considered as a bribe and what would I do to secure my job?

Yes, they can be considered as a bribe. Why take chances?

The best course of action here, is to play safe. Return those trees to the sender, send them an email thanking them for the trees, and mentioning you never intended to ask them to provide you with the trees. This will be useful in both ways:

  • You will have a clean record of your intentions, and and action history of how you handle / deal with an attempted bribe.
  • The vendor will also understand your stance on bribery and possibly never repeat these actions anytime soon.

Also, keep you superior informed of the event and your action.

Finally, add a self-note: Keep official communication limited to official business.

Better safe than sorry.

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    I think you could shorten your sentence about the vendor from "possibly never anytime soon" to "hopefully not repeat" or similar. It's a bit of a mouthful. Upvoted – bytepusher Oct 1 at 22:11
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    Wouldn't sending the trees back make the relationship sour? Most people have no use for three random trees, I'd rather suggest paying for them. – Džuris Oct 1 at 23:20
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    @Džuris - Yeah, it's a judgement call on whether to return them or pay for them, probably best determined by the OP based on their relationship with the contractor. Fundamentally, I think the advice is: Don't keep them without paying for them. – T.J. Crowder Oct 2 at 8:03
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    Although this is probably an option, OP may find that if he/she/xi/xer reports it to their own HR dept, they may get to keep them. – Richard Oct 2 at 21:46
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"Can the trees be considered as a bribe.."

Two things to consider: First, as @JoeStrazzere already mentioned you should check your company policies regarding 'gifts'. What is considered a gift and in which context did you receive such.

Second, check your local laws in terms of value-limitation. In my country gifts above the value of € 70 could be considered a bribery in both - the public & the private sector..

"What can i do to secure my job?"

Thankfully return them to the contractor or reimburse the contractor for the exact amount he paid and keep a 'receipt'/document stating such reimbursement which is signed by both parties.

As a final note: Please consider in the future that a private wish-list is for Santa Claus and your close ones and has nothing to do in a business-mail to one of your service-contractors..

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    +1 for Santa - the lesson to be learnt. – Crowley Oct 1 at 21:05
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    I disagree with the last sentence. If you are working with a contractor or a client for long periods, and if you are a manager/commercial/director you will surely have to talk "casually" to your clients to ensure a good relationship. I often talk to one of my clients about his house because he likes to talk about it. Another client talk to me about bikes and I have once told I would love to have some kind of bike. That's not wrong and that's part of the job. And I do not expect him to send me a S1000RR :D – LP154 Oct 2 at 8:59
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    @LP154 I agree with 'having a casual chat about X or Y' - but telling someone that you 'wish to have X or Y' could, even mistakenly, be considered as a request for bribery.. – iLuvLogix Oct 2 at 10:52
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One member of my family was in a line of business where the public facing people received plenty of large and small gifts from business partners (import/export with regions where expensive gifts are a part of the business culture). The company policy was to accept these gifts with gratitude and bring them to the company where they were stored until the next annual Christmas party, where they were then distributed among all employees in form of a raffle. This was a pretty good solution for several reasons:

  • Nobody was forced to awkwardly reject a gift from a precious business partner as inappropriate.
  • Nobody had to defend themselves against bribery accusations.
  • Those people in a not very "bribable" position also had a chance to end up with an expensive gift.

However, a bunch of trees isn't something you should just give to some random person who might not even have a garden to plant them. So I think that the fairest thing you can do is to thank the contractor for the generous gift to [your company] and try to find a public place on your company premise to plant these trees so that everyone in the company can enjoy them.

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    Good system, except that trees are living organisms and could never be expected to live till the holidays, especially after being planted. – user90842 Oct 1 at 21:14
  • @George Well, many trees live for years, although they are kind of hard to move after a little while so you do have a point. – David Z Oct 2 at 7:08
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    While Bonsai trees are tiny cute little trees that you can put on your desk, special care is needed for it to live long and strong. I doubt that a backroom (or similar) is an okay place for a Bonsai tree, where it may be untouched for months. Good idea in general, not a good idea in this context. Same for other living organisms. You wouldn't keep a puppy in a backroom too right? The suggestion to place it somewhere where everybody can enjoy is a very good idea, but Bonsai need special care. Again, good suggestion, but not for this context. Still, +1 – Ismael Miguel Oct 2 at 8:30
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    "Nobody had to defend themselves against bribery accusations." This system doesn't work flawlessly to prevent this. If contractors buy your 5 man company 5 lamborghinis, whether you raffle them or not is irrelevant. Statistically, everyone's still getting a lamborghini. You're just randomly distributing the bribe. – Michael Oct 3 at 13:32
  • In some ways, maybe the raffle is even worse because it increases the potential influence of the bribe from one person to everyone. Do you keep employing the contractor who provides the nice expensive raffle prizes or the cheap crappy ones? As a decision maker, do you risk everyone at the company being aware that you were the one to ditch the vendor with the best gifts? – Michael Oct 3 at 13:38
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Tell your manager or compliance department in writing and fast. If you tell them casually, they might "forget" this and you could be in trouble.

Find out what the cost of these bonsai should be. There is usually a value limit on acceptable gifts from commercial partners. 100 USD comes to mind here, but there should be a number provided by the legal department of your company. If they're worth less than this altogether, you're fine. If each tree is worth around this, then maybe you can keep one, and the company should auction the others and donate the money for charity. If they're all worth much more, then likely you won't be able to keep any.

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What can i do to secure my job?

Mention it to your direct manager casually.
While you didn't intend to push around your contractor, you have a situation that might be interpreted as some form of illicit payment.
A minor slip-up will not hurt you, but covering it up definitely will.

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    Can you please explain what you mean by mentioning it to your manager "casually"? – Captain Man Oct 2 at 16:36
  • "Casually" may convey to the manager the idea that the OP is mostly ok with the contractor buying the bonsais, and that he just wants the manager to condone the act. No need for drama, this is solvable but this is definitely not a "minor slip-up" and minimizing it would look bad on the OP. The OP already did a mistake by expressing his desire for bonsais, the contractor actions makes it clear that at least him sees it as an opening for bribery, so the OP needs to show that he takes this very seriously as the first step to solve it. – SJuan76 Oct 2 at 23:40
  • @CaptainMan Casually as in elevator pitch instead of reserved appointment. If he/she reserves an appointment then OP treats it like a major violation himself/herself, which will make the manager think it is a major violation. – user3819867 Oct 7 at 7:32
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I found three trees in the garden. In my mailbox, there is a short thank you letter signed by the contractor.

Yes, it looks like bribery for two reasons:
1. You received something which you asked for
2. The giver left you a note to make sure your gratitude is returned.

Mention it to your employer immediately.
If there isn't a specific person, tell your boss.
Verbal first if you want, but also do it in writing.

Explain that there was a miscommunication - tell them that to resolve this, you're asking for a fair market price bill from the contractor.
Offer to show that bill to them when you receive it, so your employer can agree that it is fair market value.

Then tell the contractor that you're sorry for the misunderstanding, but you won't be able to accept their gift due to company policy. (Don't let them be surprised)

Congratulations!
You just bought trees that you didn't plan on owning (yet).
If you decide you don't want the trees, the price you need to pay to the contractor is for both the delivery and for the removal.

I assume they were planted, but maybe that's wrong - if they're just in pots you can take them back yourself and probably not pay anything - verify with your company first.

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The approach suggested by many other answers here (insist on returning or paying for the trees, and internally notify your boss or HR) has a couple of possible downsides:

  • Most importantly, the contractor may be upset about their gift being ungraciously rejected.
  • Less importantly, you end up either out of pocket and/or without any trees. (This is not the primary issue here, but hey, it'd still be nice to keep the trees you wanted!)

If you think that this was truly meant to be a bribe, then those downsides are an acceptable price of doing the honourable thing. However, it seems like this was a financially trivial gift (a quick Google suggests we're talking about tens of dollars) from a party with whom you had an existing relationship. You are in the best position to judge, but it sounds like in their minds it may have been nothing more than an innocent show of appreciation for your previous work, with no more corrupt intent than saying "thank you" or providing snacks or beers when you visit their offices.

Even in that case, it's still worth covering yourself. But you can do so tactfully and tactically in a way that doesn't risk hurting your - or your company's - relationship with the contractor. Send an email along these lines, and CC your boss or HR or whoever you think it's appropriate to report gifts to in your company:

Dear Mr Contractor,

Thank you for the surprise gift of the three Bonsai trees! I never imagined when I mentioned wanting them previously that I would return home to find them in my garden - it was very thoughtful of you!

I've CCed Bob, since our policies require me to report gifts to my line manager.

All the best,
user110370

I would not voluntarily reject the gift or insist on paying for it without being asked to do so by a manager or by HR. That would simply cause embarrassment and administrative overhead for the contractors, which they may well resent - especially since the cost in labour for them of sorting out such a fuss will likely be greater than the total value of the gift!

This approach:

  • Makes clear - to all parties - that you didn't intentionally solicit the gift.
  • Clearly notifies your company of the gift, so you can't be accused of hiding it later.
  • Eliminates any potential for blackmailing you with your earlier email, by disclosing to your company that you mentioned wanting the trees.
  • Openly commits your company to a friendly outlook on the gift, rather than a hostile one that treats it as a bribe, deterring any overzealous HR people from getting angry about it and burning bridges with the contractor.
  • Clues in the contractor to the fact that there was some risk of this gift going badly wrong, and that sending unsolicited gifts to business associates can be a bad idea.

Of course, if you think the contractor is corrupt and was trying to bribe you, this approach may not sit right with your conscience; you may want to make a big deal out of it and try to get your company to cut ties with the contractor. But if you think this was an innocent gift and just want to mitigate the risk of being seen to have solicited bribes, a casual email like this seems like it achieves that with the least risk of fallout.

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I would talk to my boss immediately and tell him what happened. If you tell him and ask what you should do, then he'll know that you were not soliciting a bribe. What would be the point of soliciting a bribe and then promptly turning yourself in? If you don't tell the boss and he finds out, then it can look like you were hiding something.

If the boss says "no big deal, don't worry about it", then that's the end of it. If he says to dig them up and give them back, do it. Etc.

I don't know your company or your boss, but I would be surprised if just telling him what happened got you in any trouble. Unless he dislikes you and is looking for something to use against you, or he is hyper suspicious, your story sounds totally plausible and innocent.

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In this situation, I would send an e-mail to the contractor with this kind of content:

Hi [...],

I have received the trees you sent me. I'd like to thank you for the gift, but unfortunately I have to send them back as this could be considered as bribery by our strict company's policy. I'm sure you weren't think of anything wrong (and I was pleased by the attention) but that's the company's policy.

Regards, [...]

This kind of message has these advantages:

  • Paper trail that you won't accept bribery
  • You don't burn bridges with the contractor by accusing him of bribery

If you have a good relationship with your manager, talk to them about it. But if communication between you and them is not that good, I'd advise not to talk about it if you send this e-mail and the trees back.

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    Hmm, not sure I'd use such "open" wording... – Lightness Races with Monica Oct 2 at 11:16
  • I'd agree with the basic idea, but I wouldn't say "could be considered as bribery". That sounds like an accusation. I'd just say, "It is our company policy that we are not allowed to accept gifts from vendors." – Jay Oct 4 at 16:10
  • @Jay Maybe I should say this differently but in my opinion, explaining that it could be considered as bribery but it's not is essential to avoid burning bridge with the contractor. See my edit. Better ? – LP154 Oct 4 at 16:22
0

Do a charity

The company I work for has a rule that all freebies are collected by our warehouse guy and used for charity lottery at the Christmas party. No one can be blackmailed or accused of taking a bribe and a good cause gets a needed help.

If your company doesn't have such program, you may initiate it or even manage it, which in turn may get you the sort of recognition which resonates for a long time and opens doors to promotions and interesting stuff overall.

0

Step 1: contact your manager / boss and explain the situation
Step 2: contact your customer / client and explain the situation + offer to pay the costs of the trees. (preferably by mail)
Step 3: show your manager / boss the result; the mail you're offering to pay the costs of the trees OR the client saying they understand the situation and it was a gift.
Step 4: apologize for the confusion to all parties involved.

Dealing with this sooner rather than later would be preferable in my opinion.

protected by Mister Positive Oct 4 at 21:13

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