Holidays Pose Ethical Challenges

The holidays can be full of stress on a number of levels, but they also create some unusual ethical situations. Here are a few to be careful of:

Is there anything wrong with regifting? What else can I do with the presents I get that I don’t want or need?

This is one of those situations where ethics and etiquette intersect, and you need to keep both in mind. First, etiquette generally requires that you show gratitude and appreciation that someone was willing to think of you, even if you hate the style, color, or the very idea represented by the present. You don’t have to lie (and probably shouldn’t) by saying you like it, but you should at least say something like “thanks for thinking of me.”

As for what you do with the gift (assuming there’s no polite way to exchange it for something you prefer), that’s a trickier question. There’s nothing ethically wrong with giving it to someone else if you think that person will like it and appreciate it. You obviously shouldn’t take undue credit (like claiming you spent hours looking for the perfect gift), but recycling is not intrinsically wrong. It is unethical, however, if you think the new recipient won’t like it anymore than you do. In that case, you’re just being lazy and insincere in order to fulfill an obligation. The best solution may be to give the gift to charity, assuming it will likely prove useful to someone.

Everyone in my neighborhood gives the mail carrier a present at Christmas. I’d like to do that, too, but I’ve heard it’s illegal for him to accept it.

You heard right. Federal law prohibits postal employees from accepting monetary gifts in any amount so if you give a check or cash, you are tempting your mail carrier to break the law. That’s unethical, and the fact that everybody else does it (and that the mailman accepts it) is no excuse. What you are allowed to do is offer a noncash gift with a value no greater than $20. That’s the ethical way to go.

Every year my company puts a Christmas tree in each department and holds a contest for the best decorations. My supervisor puts a lot of pressure on us to participate, which I find offensive. For one thing, our department includes a few Jews and one Muslim, but even some of the Christians think this is a waste of work time.

Your boss is absolutely wrong and someone should politely tell her that what she’s doing is unethical. No one should ever be forced to participate in an activity that is even remotely religious in nature. This should be strictly voluntary. That said, if your boss has created a real sense of teamwork and a collegial work atmosphere, people may enjoy contributing regardless of religion. But it must be voluntary.

In 2009, when the economy was really hurting, my company canceled the annual holiday party and instead gave the money it would have spent to a local food bank. We all applauded that, but now we’re back to holding a party. Times are still tough and I think the ethical thing to do is to keep donating the money to those who need it.

While I personally agree with you (perhaps because I’ve always hated holiday parties), this is really a decision for the company to make. Holiday parties serve many purposes; they are a way of thanking the staff, promoting camaraderie, and spreading good will. Managers are entitled to decide how important it is in the overall scheme of things. At the same time, helping those less fortunate is an ethical responsibility. If times are better for the company, I would hope they could still make a contribution, and I’d urge you to recommend that.


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