March 04, 2021 3 min read
Many years ago I was working with a company in Japan on an Engineering project. I got to travel there frequently and had good working relationships with many of the engineers there.
If you’ve worked with Japanese companies in the past you probably know that gift giving is part of their culture. They would often give us boxes of fancy (and unusual) Japanese treats, and so we would usually bring some small gifts from the US that they might enjoy.
On one occasion we had the opportunity to meet one of the executives of this company. When we met with him he explained all the different products that their company was involved with.
One of their newer products was a special ceramic that could be used for knife blades. He explained that these blades never need sharpening, and so they were becoming popular in Japan.
He then presented each of us with a large kitchen knife that had a white ceramic blade. This was around 2001, and at that time I had never seen such a knife before. They had not yet begun to export them from Japan to the US.
I realized that this knife was going to be a big problem. It was obviously an expensive gift, and my company has a policy that prohibits us from accepting gifts over a nominal value (we used $25 as a guideline).
So now I was in a really awkward situation, because it’s very offensive in Japanese culture to decline a gift from someone. I also knew that my colleagues would not be happy if I declined the gift and then put them in an awkward position.
However I decided to do the right thing, and not risk getting fired from my job because of a kitchen knife.
I thanked them for the gift and explained, as politely and respectfully as I could, that our company policy did not permit us to accept valuable gifts. I asked if they knew what the value of the knife was. They sent someone to the gift shop to check, and sure enough it was priced over $100.
So they decided to give me something else from the gift shop that was less than $25, which I think was a silver pen.
I was really sad that I had to give back the knife- it was really cool and I’ve never seen one quite like it in the US. However I’m still confident that I did the right thing.
I also realize now that making that difficult decision made it easier to make similar difficult decisions after that. The right thing is not often the easy thing to do.
Giving and receiving gifts in a business setting can have ethical implications, and in some cases even legal implications. This is especially true if you deal with government officials in foreign countries.
I cover the details of gift giving ethics, and many more, in my latest class called titled Engineering Ethics On Trial: Real World Case Studies and Lessons Learned.
This is a 1 PDH course that, when combined with Ohio Engineering Ethics, will satisfy the 2 PDH requirement for renewal of your Ohio PE and/or PS certificate.
Engineering Ethics On Trialfocuses on four case studies of Engineering Ethics violations that were recently reported on by the media due to the seriousness of the charges and the sensationalism surrounding the cases.
I found it really entertaining to research these cases, and I think that you'll enjoy learning about them as well.
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