Cookies: Yummy, But Ethically Treacherous

It’s hard being in the ethics business. For one thing, people tend to assume you’re a 365-day-a-year Scrooge, showing up to say “Bah Humbug!” every time anyone tries to have a little fun. Then again, some people with “ethics” in their title do a good job of earning that rep.

Take, for example, this story from The Times-Picayune: St. Tammany Parish library staff must turn away holiday treats

After asking the state Board of Ethics last month whether library staff can accept inexpensive and homemade Christmas gifts from grateful patrons, St. Tammany Parish library officials last week received the board’s response: Bah, humbug.
Even small gifts, such as “cakes, pies, houseplants, etc., from patrons of the library for their performance of the library employees’ duties” are off-limits, according to an advisory opinion issued by the ethics board.

Why such a strict policy, applied to a library, of all places? Apparently the Louisiana Board of Ethics was simply trying to apply the rule consistently, the same rule that applies to all state employees.

[According to] the Board of Ethics attorney… the point of the law is to put all state employees, even those with fewer opportunities for impropriety, “on the same playing field.”

It’s easy enough to understand the desire to have an across-the-board policy that applies equally to all state employees. Librarians, perhaps, don’t wield a lot of discretionary authority. Cops clearly do. But in between there are all kinds of bureaucrats who have some discretionary authority and whose exercise of that discretion ought not be influenced by irrelevant factors like gifts. Having a single rule that applies to all is considerably easier than trying to fine-tune a sliding-scale rule for different kinds of employees.

But maybe it’s harder to understand the need to outlaw — for anyone — seemingly trivial gifts like cookies. According to the story above, the Board says that “public servants employed by a governmental agency are prohibited from receiving anything of economic value from patrons.” On this, just a couple quick points.

1. It’s not that unusual for organizations to forbid gifts altogether. Of course, the fact that such policies are common doesn’t make them right, but it’s useful to know that the State of Louisiana is not unique in its approach: lots of other organizations have taken the “just say no” approach, too, and it’s reasonable to think that they may have good reasons for doing so.

2. Some organizations have policies according to which token gifts of very small value (pens, calendars, etc.) are OK, whereas more expensive gifts (a case of wine, tickets to a championship football game, etc) are not OK. A plate of cookies or a house plant would likely count as a token gift, under such policies. However, it’s not clear that that’s a really useful distinction. There is evidence suggesting that the problem doesn’t lie entirely in the value of the gift: even gifts of trivial value can establish social bonds with the ability to influence decision-making.

(For more on the empirical evidence in this area, see: Conflicts of Interest: Challenges and Solutions in Business, Law, Medicine, and Public Policy, edited by Don A. Moore, Daylian M. Cain, George Loewenstein , and Max H. Bazerman.)

2 comments so far

  1. Anonymous on

    Should this apply to teachers as well?

  2. Chris MacDonald on

    Yes, I think it should apply to teachers. And university professors, too.But I think in those cases it’s incredibly important that it be a school policy, rather than left up to the ethical judgment of individual teachers or profs. Otherwise, teachers and profs are put in the position of having to offend students — some of them children too young to understand.p.s. I think this should apply to gifts that has been purchased. I think a reasonable exception could be made for gifts <>made<> by a child.

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