Christmas Gifts At Work: Where The Holiday Spirit Meets Office Politics

Office supplies are *not a good Christmas present
Office supplies are *not a good Christmas present
Jean-Marc Vittori

PARIS – As the end of the year approaches, it is difficult to escape the gift-giving madness.

Santa has the family covered, of course, but the office is a different matter. Here, a postman replaces the old man with the red coat. The person who sent the present is rarely from Lapland – most often he is supplier or a client. This practice is strictly supervised in order to avoid corruption.

In most companies, the rule is that the recipient of the gift has to send it back if it is worth more than 50 or 100 euros. Here at Les Echos, for instance, we have rules on gifts – yes, some journalists do get presents, often from generous communication services. The ethical charter of our newspaper stipulates: “Journalists must turn down any gifts that could be considered inappropriate, excessive or liable to jeopardize their objectivity.”

Excellent principle. Except that economists have shown that even small gifts aren’t as harmless as they might seem. Ulrike Malmendier from UCLA and Klaus Schmidt from Munich University carried out an enlightening experiment. They assigned different roles to the students, and told them that financial compensation would be contingent on their decisions. Someone played the buyer, someone else played the expert responsible for the buyer’s purchasing decisions and two others played salesmen, one of whom was granted the possibility to give a small present to the expert.

The experiment was repeated many times, and the result was quite surprising. If the two salesmen had a product of equal quality but no gifts, their products would have the same chance of being chosen by the buyer. However, when a salesman gave the buyer a present, his chances of being chosen doubled.

“The gift seems to create a special bond between the giver and the receiver,” say Malmendier and Schmidt, confirming previous studies from sociologists and anthropologists –who observed this phenomenon in many other situations, like for instance the Chinook Indian tribe and their famous potlatch (a gift-giving festival).

Even more surprising: bigger gifts have less impact than the smaller ones. With a gift three times bigger, “the decision-maker will only favor the salesman 50% of the time, instead of 68% beforehand.” It is as if the person receiving the gift was rebelling against a perceived corruption attempt. This is a perfect embodiment of the French proverb: “Small gifts maintain the friendship but big ones spoil it.”

Other studies showed that the person receiving the gift found it hard to evaluate how he or she is affected by the gesture. A U.S. survey found that only 39% of medical interns admitted that their prescriptions were influenced by the pharmaceutical companies that gave them gifts, but 84% said their colleagues’ prescriptions were affected.

Best incentive: a bonus or a gift?

Employers can also give useful gifts. Three researchers: Sebastian Kube from the Max Planck institute, Michel André Maréchal and Clemens Puppe from Karlsruhe University, observed three groups of students who were paid to catalogue books in a university library. This was temporary job – meaning it was easy to judge the employees’ efficiency. The first group was paid the salary that was advertised. The second group was told after a few hours’ work that they would be granted a 20% bonus. The last group was given a thermos bottle presented in wrapping paper, equivalent to the 20% bonus. The second group did a slightly better job than the first one – the employees said the bonus made them work harder. On the other hand, the third group worked… 25% faster. The thermos ended up being the most profitable choice despite the fact that 90% of the students, when questioned afterwards, said they would prefer getting a bonus instead of a gift.

Obviously, it doesn’t mean every employer would profit more from the distribution of thermos bottles to their employees. A professional career stretching over months or years is far more complex that a student’s part-time job.

However, there is a conclusion that can be drawn from these studies: presents in the workplace have a behavioral impact overruling their original economic purpose. The symbolic, human, social aspect of the gesture plays an important part. One thing to take from this is that kindness in the workplace has its benefits, something that can be reassuring during economic uncertainty. Another thing is that we should be as wary of the smaller gifts than as the bigger ones.

Les Echos' Society of Journalists, be advised: we might need to add a few modifications to our charter, although I want to be clear: last year’s magnum bottle of champagne from that communication agency had no effect whatsoever on my attitude toward them.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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