Is It Ethical to Exchange Gifts With Clients?

Can you accept gifts from your clients? Can you give them? To avoid awkward moments in your sessions, you should know where you stand on gift-giving before you actually receive one—and there are a few essential things to consider to help you decide on a policy that works
for you.

Consider Your Client

As the holiday season approaches, gift-giving poses a bit of an ethical dilemma for practitioners. Whether you’re the gift giver or receiver, think about the specific client and the relationship the two of you have. Each client is different, and some situations will require more deliberation than others. Here’s what you should ask yourself before accepting or giving a gift.

Is your client especially vulnerable or impressionable?

This is a critical question if you’re asking anything of your clients that is outside of the work you’re doing with them—especially when it comes to gift-giving. If you’re the one giving, consider if that particular client is likely to misconstrue the intent of your gift. If you’re the receiver, you have to consider that their gift-giving may be a way to express undisclosed feelings about you.

In either case, it’s probably best to avoid gift-giving altogether if it seems possible that your client might misunderstand the intention of the gift.

Does your client have cultural expectations around gift-giving?

If tokens of appreciation are expected and honored within your client’s culture, that’s an argument in favor of accepting a gift from them. However, if a gift comes with an obligation to reciprocate, that may be problematic. You should also consider whether giving gifts would leave the client feeling like they had gotten special treatment in some way. You’ll want to make sure a gift doesn’t come with any expectation of favors or other forms of special treatment in
the future.

SimplePractice | Ethical Gift-Giving

Consider the Gift

Whether you’re giving or receiving a gift, the actual item itself makes a big difference. Some items are usually okay to give or accept, but not all things are. If you approach the situation with nuance as opposed to having an absolute policy, you can have a little more flexibility and opportunity to take the specifics of each situation into account.

Giving Gifts

When you’re doing the gift-giving, think about if it’s meaningful for the work you’re doing with that specific client. Items like journals, self-help or instruction books, music, or meditation soundtracks can be seen as gifts, but they’re also tools for your clients to continue your work together on their own time. If you decide that any of those items are in the best interest of your client’s progress, they’re usually okay to give as a gift.

Receiving Gifts

If you’re receiving a gift, you probably will have to judge on a case-by-case basis. Is the gift something innocent or innocuous, like a card or baked goods? Or is it something expensive, or with more emotional connotations? In general, you shouldn’t accept any gifts that might give your clients the wrong idea about how you feel about them.

On the other hand, refusing a card or something similar just out of principle can actually be more hurtful to your clients. This is especially true if you work with children, or if your client is vulnerable. Even if you explain that you don’t accept gifts from anyone, your client may feel hurt or betrayed, which can damage your relationship and the work you’re
doing together.

One other thing to think about when receiving cards, artwork, flowers, or similar gifts is whether your clients expect the gift to be displayed in your office—and what the implications of that would be. If it makes sense, you can also open that discussion up with your clients as the situations arise.

Items like journals, self-help or instruction books, music, or meditation soundtracks can be seen as gifts, but they’re also tools for your clients to continue your work together on their own time.

Consider the Context

Sometimes, the decision to accept or decline a gift will just come down to specific circumstances. If it’s an appropriate occasion for gift-giving like a birthday or holiday—and you’ve included the previous considerations—it’s most likely appropriate for you to accept.

In general, it’s always a good idea to review legal, ethical, and workplace rules on giving and receiving gifts. Most professional codes of ethics simply encourage you to carefully consider the impact of giving or receiving a gift, in line with cultural considerations. But some states set limits on gifts, and some workplaces have certain policies, so it’s important to know the specifics in your area and workplace.

To avoid putting yourself—or your clients—in a position where you have to make a split-second decision about a gift, spend some time thinking about what your gift-giving policy is going to be with these considerations in mind.

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