Last reviewed 26 November 2020

This article forms part of this year’s Christmas series, being published on the site until the end of December.

Christmas, the season of goodwill, is also a time of uncertainty. Selecting presents for family and friends may be a problem — what did we get them last year, what did they give us, are we spending too much or too little on them?; dealing with customers by contrast seems so much simpler. However, employers should remember that while it is good to seek to keep their customers happy, it can be easy to fall foul of the Bribery Act of 2010.

This is a problem particularly for small businesses who may rely on a small number of customers. They truly cherish those customers and Christmas is an ideal time to show appreciation for the relationship in a tangible way. But is that case of wine wholly a token of gratitude or a bribe? And are they at risk of prosecution under the Bribery Act?

The Bribery Act 2010

The Bribery Act 2010 came into force in July 2011 and is enforced by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO). Under this legislation, an organisation may be liable for failing to prevent bribery. This piece of legislation also gives force to a United Nations (UN) statement that bribery undermines democracy and the rule of law by allowing people to use power improperly, distorting free markets by offering choices based on factors other than quality and value. Bribery is thus both morally and legally wrong.

The Act makes it an offence for any UK citizen, resident or company operating under UK law to offer, make or receive a bribe in any part of the world. A corporate body may be prosecuted for making or receiving a bribe or for failing to prevent an employee from doing so. Senior executives themselves could be found culpable if evidence indicates that they were involved in or failed to stop an offence, in which case they would be liable to an unlimited fine and up to 10 years in prison.

Staying on the safe side

An employer will have a full defence to such a charge if it can show that it had adequate procedures in place to prevent bribery. All employers should therefore publish a policy or rule explaining what constitutes bribery, what employees may or may not do, and what to do with evidence of actual or offered bribes. The existence of appropriate documentation may be the only defence if bribery is discovered in the organisation.

The Bribery Act, although important, is not as onerous as it may seem. Bribery is not endemic in the UK to the extent that it is in some markets of the world, therefore the burden of the law lies on organisations that do business in overseas markets. They need to have procedures and other documentation in place to evidence that they have researched the risks, checked the probity of agents acting on their behalf, informed and if necessary trained employees to spot, avoid and deal with bribery, and have employee rules communicated by senior management. Other organisations who are at negligible risk should nevertheless make clear to employees that bribery is unacceptable.

To do this, employers should clarify to their employees:

  • what constitutes a bribe

  • some helpful examples of when a bribery situation may arise — a few biros or calendars with the giver's logo are not likely to sway buying decisions, but a rolled gold Cross pen might

  • explaining that the best way a supplier can show gratitude to a customer is by maintaining quality, low cost, prompt service and a bit extra, and by expressing gratitude in a letter.

It may seem as though this approach demeans the spirit of Christmas; however, it is nonetheless important to consider and decide what to do with presents that do come into the organisation — why not put all presents on display and auction them off to employees, giving the proceeds to a chosen charity? It is unlikely then that the gifts will be perceived as bribery and puts the organisations on the right side of the legal and moral argument.

Not accepting gifts might be the easiest way to steer clear of any whispers of bribery within the organisation, but if gifts are to be accepted — regardless of what will be done with them — employers should keep the coronavirus in mind.

The pandemic has caused the world to be a lot more hygiene conscious and in doing so, accepting gifts should follow some health and safety measures. For example, the area where gifts will be stored should be thoroughly cleaned along with the gift itself. It may also be a good idea to quarantine gifts untouched and unopened for at least three days (72 hours) before distributing or auctioning. If auctions are to take place, or perhaps a raffle, social distancing rules must be adhered to — currently one-metre-plus in England and Wales. This means that the utmost care must be taken to ensure that the virus does not spread around the workplace.

Takeaway

Employers have a lot to think about this year and those who have remained steadfast for their customers and clients, or those who have faced difficulty this year, with closures, may receive solidarity from their customers in the form of gifts. It is crucial, though, that bribery does not slip through the net. All employers should familiarise themselves with the Bribery Act and develop an anti-bribery policy. Crucially, employers should ensure that all staff, and particularly line managers, understand the policy, and the consequences of not following it.