Gift giving vs bribery: when is a present illegal?

  • HR Policies Documentation
James Potts - Legal Services Director at Peninsula

James Potts, Legal Services Director

(Last updated )

Whilst ‘tis the season for giving, a workplace gift could ruin Christmas if it breaks anti-bribery law…

So, if you’re planning on taking a client out for a festive meal or giving them a gift, tread carefully.

Under the Bribery Act 2010 it is illegal, directly or indirectly, to offer, promise, request, give, receive or accept bribes. If your employee is guilty of bribery, the penalty could range from unlimited fines to a 10-year prison sentence.

So, when could a simple gift ever cross into bribery territory? Ask yourself these questions or you could be unwrapping a lot more than you bargained for this Christmas…

1. What’s the intention behind the gift?

Under the Bribery Act 2010, it is illegal to give someone a bribe to get them to act improperly.

Fundamentally, it’s the intention behind the gift that will determine if there is foul play.

In the eyes of the law, sending a gift to staff to thank them for their hard work isn’t a bribe. Neither is giving clients a gift as a gesture of goodwill in the run-up to Christmas.

If you have no expectation of getting something in return, you shouldn’t be at risk.

But sometimes the real intention behind the gift doesn’t matter. If it’s unclear or there are any doubts, it could lead to an investigation. That’s why it’s also important to ask…

2. What’s the timing of the gift?

Timing is important, like if your worker gives their manager a gift ahead of a performance meeting. A judge could say this was bribery even if the employee had pure intentions.

Any gift that’s used to influence behaviour or decisions is most definitely a bribe. You should also check…

3. Is there a record of the gift?

Under the Bribery Act 2010, it is illegal to receive a bribe in exchange for acting improperly. That’s why it’s important to keep a record of all gifts, so you can prove:

  • who sent the gift
  • how much the gift cost
  • who received the gift
  • the reason for providing the gift

It’s vital to make a note of any gifts that are being sent out to clients or staff. Having a record of a gift and how much it’s worth can help prevent it from rearing its ugly head in a bribery accusation.

Giving out gifts off the record is far more likely to look suspicious and even more so if it’s a really expensive gift. Which leads on the next point…

4. What type of gift is it?

The nature of the gift matters. Why? Cash is going to look a lot more like a bribe because it’s easy to hide and cover up.

Always be wary about giving or accepting money as a gift. You should consider how appropriate it is to send the gift to a worker, employer, or customer. Lavish gifts where someone would be unlikely to return the favour could give the impression of corrupt intent, especially if the sender doesn’t even know the receiver that well.

And finally…

5. Do you have an anti-bribery policy?

Under the Bribery Act 2010, it’s illegal not to take steps to prevent bribery.

You can help prevent confusion between bribery and gift-giving by establishing clear rules for your staff in an anti-bribery policy. Your policy should lay out:

  • what counts as bribery 
  • rules around giving gifts to customers (if applicable)
  • rules around accepting gifts from customers (if applicable)
  • rules around giving gifts to colleagues
  • the steps to take if an employee thinks they’ve received a bribe
  • how to report someone who’s committed an act of bribery
  • rules around the type of gift (you might want to forbid cash)
  • requirements when sending a gift (does it need to be in the company name?)

Having a policy helps you inform staff about anti-corruption laws and how to avoid crossing the line. Don’t risk hefty legal fines, prosecution, and a damaged reputation.

Click here to download a free ready-made anti-bribery policy today, crafted by HR experts. And if you have any questions or concerns, call 0800 029 4384 to get instant advice.

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