Corporate Ethics & Conferences

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It’s the end of spring conference season for HR dorks like me. I’ll be wrapping up my travels with the 2011 Annual SHRM Conference. This is the big one, folks. Although other HR and recruiting conferences claim to be more prestigious, this one wins on critical mass & educational offerings.

Or so the conference brochure tells me. What the hell do I know? I just show up and speak.

Attendees will be given copious amounts of swag, tons of free drinks, and they’ll have more than enough opportunities to win iPads and other cheap technological goods meant to distract them from the pain & suffering of actually working in Human Resources.

Early in my HR career, it was not uncommon for vendors to give me really nice stuff. I received expensive bottles of wine, box seat tickets to The Cubs, vouchers for great dinners, etc. And while no one ever expected a quid pro quo arrangement, the gifts were given to me with the hope of procuring something — status, access, influence.

But then something happened and suddenly it was my job to craft, administer, and reinforce corporate ethics training. No gifts over $24. When having dinner with vendors, you pay your own way. No sporting events. No free trips to learn about a product or service. No make-out sessions in the supply closet.

You get the point.

So I wonder how many HR folks at SHRM will be thinking of their corporate ethics policy as they troll the expo hall floor. If an item of swag is worth $2 but you take 20 of them (which happens), do you violate your corporate ethics policy? If you come home with $500 worth of swag from different vendors — all of whom sell products to HR — is that ethically acceptable? If you attend a tweet-up and drink for free, is that okay? If a vendor takes you to dinner, do you accept or pay  your own way?

Marketing is marketing. Sales is sales. The expo hall floor at SHRM is meant to impact your buying decisions. Every encounter you have with a vendor is meant to woo you into making a spending decision. Do you have a corporate governance policy that determines how you can interact with vendors? Can you accept buckets of swag without reporting it to your compliance officer? And how do you adhere to your company’s ethics policies and have a good time?

And for the record, I plan on hitting the Delta Dental booth and getting a few toothbrushes. (Like seven.) That’s the best swag at the conference — and no, they’re not paying me to tell you that. Although they should. I would take that money in a heartbeat!

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