Does reciprocity stop workers from doing the right thing?

The norm of reciprocity creates a sense of obligation

Our natural inclination to return a favour can warp our judgements and lead us into dangerous territory.

Reciprocity is a fundamental of our lives. It has been called one of the rocks upon which society is built.

Societies and organisations are sustained because the norm of reciprocity creates a sense of obligation and motivation to behave towards others as they behave towards us.

Some argue that we are wired to reciprocate. Interesting research in the US looked at what happens to the waiters’ tips when customers are offered a small piece of chocolate together with their bill. You guessed it: tips increased by 18 per cent.

But how might reciprocity affect us if we are targeted by clients or associates who are trying to corrupt us?

We have to remember that, commonly, we feel obliged to reciprocate gifts or favours. We tend to feel we owe something to those who have given them to us, even if those gifts are of little or no value to us.

Related: What accountants should do where there's a conflict of interest

This knowledge about how the “other” side of reciprocity may be working for the benefit of those who want to corrupt someone – be it in the private or public sectors, a member of the accounting profession or not – is valuable.

It raises the alarm and shows how susceptible we may be to all the freebies, such as gifts, hospitality and entertainment, we are offered by clients, suppliers or anyone who may benefit from the decisions we make at work.

“Reciprocity … makes us susceptible to the lures of those who wish to bribe or corrupt us.” 

Corruption relies on reciprocity. The generosity of those who want to improperly influence us creates the feeling of obligation. Of course, in corruption, different methods are used.

In some instances, gifts may be offered to establish the sense of obligation or to test the waters. They are seen as less offensive than bribes, thereby safer – the reason they are usually given openly, not secretly.

Reciprocity is about treating others like they treat us, but reciprocity may affect our behaviour in a negative, as well as positive, way. It may distort our decisions and provide unfair favourable outcomes to those who have provided something to us, particularly if that something is of value to us but even if it is not.

It makes us susceptible to the lures of those who wish to bribe or corrupt us.

Gifts and favours by stakeholders are likely to affect decisions and behaviour. In the case of the medical profession, even “gifts” of very little value offered to doctors by pharmaceutical companies have been found to impact doctors’ behaviour and prescriptions – the reason gifts have been banned in some jurisdictions.

We must remember, however, that human beings do not always act out of reciprocity but also out of duties to others, such as those accepted by professional accountants and contained in the code of ethics of the profession.

We should also remember that it is better to be, and be seen to be, uninfluenced rather than to try to overcome the motivational force of reciprocity by accepting gifts and favours.

This article is from the December issue of INTHEBLACK

Watch now: Why accountants are superheroes (video)

December 2015
December 2015

Read the December issue

Each month we select the must-reads from the current issue of INTHEBLACK. Read more now.