An offer you can’t refuse: the difficult distinction between gifts and bribes

Japanese yakuza gangsters have made significant donations to tsunami relief efforts. AAP

Should we bother to ask whether some gifts and donations could be interpreted as thinly veiled bribes, or is the distinction always clear?

A recent example of the potential ambiguity of gift-giving was when Japan’s mafia style gangs, the Yakuza, gave enormous donations and practical assistance following the nation’s disastrous earthquake and tsunami.

This large scale crime syndicate have been sending truckloads of supplies while withholding the source of the funding and avoiding any public fanfare. In 1985, after the Kobe earthquake, the Yamaguchi-guchi – Japan’s largest Yakuza group – were also involved in donating funds to the relief effort.

The members of the Yakuza are not unaware of, or chose not to capitalise on, the public relations benefits associated with putting one’s hand up to help, in a national time of need.

That this act of “altruism” may nonetheless be tainted by less pure intentions goes without saying, yet the silence surrounding this expression of generosity, leaves the situation highly ambiguous.

On the other side of the law, the reputation of the Victoria Police was tainted some time ago due to a scandal that emerged after police officers accepted “gifts” from criminals.

This example of misguided gifting violated the core principles of the Office of Police Integrity, and undermined the effectiveness and ethos of the entire police force. This is not an isolated scandal, but simply a bullet point in a long and continually updating list of corruption and bribery charges that spans across nations and sectors.

The ambiguity of gift giving and philanthropy activities has also been evident in the corporate sector. Recent corruption scandals in both Australia and overseas, have made it obvious that companies can face overwhelming public relations disasters, and even legal prosecution, if gifts are interpreted as bribes.

The Australian Wheat Board has gone through this process, destroying a lot of goodwill and damaging its reputation along the way.

I would suggest that corporate philanthropy, however, is not always a bad thing. Corporate donations to political parties and politicians, such as the recent case in NSW, may not necessarily be as corrupt as cynics might imagine.

Philanthropy does not necessarily imply any wrongdoing; however, given the various shades of gray, it is imperative to legislate clear parameters to ensure that donations to political parties are not a legally condoned transactions, purchasing favours.

Corporate social responsibility is newly in vogue as a way to create a good impression on the public. Heavyweight corporate philanthropy should not be seen as opaquely corrupt and negative, but as underscored by a pragmatic altruism that can potentially benefit all stakeholders.

After years of study and practical experience, I believe that gifts are not just expressions of ethical or unethical intent, but also function as binding social practices in business and personal relations.

People give gifts to fulfil their desire for sociability, or to subtly obtain some favour in return. On the other hand, people receive gifts because they don’t want to embarrass the gift giver, and they reciprocate so as not to humiliate themselves.

The notion of reciprocity can create a feeling of indebtedness towards the benefactor: this feeling of indebtedness can spin a web of obligation that hints at some of the more malevolent facets of gift-giving.

Donors will always need to pay attention to the possible perversions lurking in their gifts such as the desire to assert dominance or to violate certain social norms and ethical values.

Gifts often express a struggle for prestige, a symbolic combat in which the social positioning of the donor and recipient is at stake. Giving gifts effectively and appropriately is the art of walking this tightrope of ambiguity.

Bribery eats away and breaks down the tissue of morality and the trust that binds relationships and communities. It is in the self-interest of corporations to be perceived as trustworthy, reliable and accountable.

Bribing one’s way through business deals may provide some short term windfalls, but reputation is often the collateral that is lost when things go awry.

Understanding the nuances of gifting practises, within both business and cultural contexts, will help individuals and companies to walk the fine line between what is appropriate and what is criminally unethical.

Despite its inherent and rather dangerous ambiguity, gifting and philanthropy should be understood as a worthwhile ethical and social practice that can enhance relationships and a company’s public image.