Do you find yourself eagerly going to trade shows, grabbing the sponsor’s free bag and filling it up with as many goodies as you can, like a kid at Halloween? Do you automatically expect certain “perks” from businesses you negotiate with to service your meetings? If you do, you’re no different from most of your fellow meeting planners or, in fact, most people doing business today. But Dr. Bruce Weinstein, “The Ethics Guy,” says its time to say no to freebies and the marketing come-ons that, he contends, hurt businesses in the long run.
While Meeting Professionals International (MPI) and other industry organizations have established guidelines for “best business practices,” the ethical impacts of FAM (familiarization) trips, perquisites (perks), points, commissions, use of proprietary information and other common industry issues are still hot button topics. The proliferation of business scandal headlines shines a light on these practices, serving to raise awareness — and questions.
What is the right thing to do, and how do we know? Why should we care about ethics when so many others don’t? Does taking the high road benefit us? Is there one ethical framework that applies to everyone?
Weinstein, a syndicated columnist whose show, “Ask the Ethics Guy,” is aired weekly on CNN, says the answers are obvious: “We all know what’s right based on ethical principles common to all religions, cultures, and (civilized) societies. Taking the high road isn’t just the right thing to do; it benefits us. And unethical conduct creates the worst public relations a business, profession or person can have.”
Weinstein not only insists on the high road, he takes a hard line approach that he admits is not always the easiest or the most popular. “I would be the least favorite guest at a party,” he says. “People might write me off as a kook, but if the whole community would stop [giving perks and free gifts], it would save money and eventually divert the marketing budget line to the service line.”
That’s his bottom line — the impact saying no would have on the whole business community. “Just imagine the good … if one element of the industry is saying no. It’s totally win-win.”
He believes the result would mean better salaries for service employees and better service for the industry.
Weinstein likes to pose questions. “If you collected no baubles, bangles or beads — no goodies to take home — does that hurt your ability to serve your client … What would the down side be? None,” he says.
“What’s the balance between a good relationship and a blinding one? Impartiality,” he says, arguing that it is impossible when gifts and favors are exchanged. “When we get a gift, we feel obligated to return it. It’s how gift-giving works. There are always strings attached.”
Even if you feel you can remain impartial, able to judge whether a facility is the best one for your client based on all parameters apart from any handouts, Weinstein argues that in a perception-based industry appearances are important, and no one should take the risk of compromising himself or herself.
“Ethically, it’s simple,” he says. “Raffle off the gift to the clients at dinner.” Better yet, he suggests, wear a red circle pin with a line over the word ‘swag’ to the next event you attend.
Theresa Breining is president and CEO of Concepts Worldwide and a frequent industry speaker on ethics. She advocates strict policies on gifts, points and discounts, but says context needs to be taken into account.
If we were all machines, it wouldn’t matter, but we’re people,” she says. “We make emotional decisions. If you’re looking at comparable hotels, it’s about who you remember. Small mementos, not expensive gifts, help to be remembered.”
The timing of the gift can resolve an ethical dilemma, she adds. “If I’m looking at three hotels and one offers me a free room, I’d say, ‘no, thank you,’ but there are no hard rules. I have a responsibility as a meeting planner to use my good judgment to see if someone is trying to bribe me for my business.”
FAMs are good, if not abused, Breining says. And free meals offer planners the opportunity to get a sense of the ambience of a restaurant. Again, she points out, it is a matter of context.
“We will be judged by the kind of decisions we make. If I go to hotels and bring my family and expect all expenses and meals to be covered, that’s over the edge. Meeting planners do it and it hurts all of us.”
Breining offers the following advice:
Gifts — Give them to charity. “We get loads of baskets and we like to share the love.”
Points — “We have a policy that no individuals get points ever and we, as an organization, never get them. The clients do and it’s their decision whether to give them out individually. We do try to help them and guide them in doing that.” Airline points, she says, are another thing and again, it’s all about context. Also, she adds, “I have no problem with asking for industry rates. I might ask for a comp if it’s for a site inspection for a specific client, but if it’s personal business, I have no right to ask.”
Breining also has a problem with planners who gather all the elements of a meeting package from another party and then say, “no thanks” and use the ideas anyway. She calls such behavior a huge ethical violation. Another violation? “Meeting planners who are greedy and beat up vendors.”
Agreeing with Dr. Weinstein, she concludes, “People have a sense of what isn’t right.”
Breining’s firm, Concepts Worldwide, is a full-service meeting management company based in San Diego, Calif. conceptsworldwide.com
Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D., is the author of the new book, “Life Principles: Feeling Good by Doing Good” (Emmis Books, 2005). TheEthicsGuy.com.