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My company has a strict policy that employees are not permitted to accept gifts from vendors or outside contacts that exceed a very low value, about the cost of a pen or a logo t-shirt. The exception is restaurant meals, although we are expected to pay the bill with our corporate credit cards if we dine out with these connections. I understand the ethics behind the policy, but it seems somewhat silly to me. Why would it matter to me who paid the bill for dinner? Are people really that susceptible to corruption that a small gift would make such a difference? Can such policies be designed more rationally?

You may laugh at your company's rules, but they exist for a reason — and are often backed by scientific data. While your conscious mind tells you there's no way you could be swayed by a small gift or paid-for dinner, your unconscious mind may be processing the experience differently.

"There is a substantial body of research on the psychology of persuasion demonstrating that people are susceptible to very small ‘token' gifts," said Stephen Gilliland, executive director of the Center for Leadership Ethics at the University of Arizona's Eller College of Management, in Tucson, Arizona, in the US.

Gilliland cites research on persuasion by psychologist Robert Cialdini, including a study that looked at how much restaurant customers tipped after receiving a tiny gift from their server. Two small candies and a scribbled smiley face on the bill led to a larger tip, indicating that even such an insignificant present will trigger a feeling of obligation.

"Even though it may feel like it doesn't matter who pays for dinner, it is possible that this gesture could result in preferential reciprocity," Gilliland said by email.

The other problem with accepting gifts from vendors and business contacts is how it looks, he said: "Even if the act of paying for dinner has no effect on behaviour toward the vendor, it might create perceptions of undue influence among others."

You feel that a gift would have no effect on you, but how would you view a competitor who buys someone dinner and then wins a big contract? If your company didn't have a policy prohibiting this behaviour, outsiders might think you were bribing your way to success. Worse, your own colleagues could follow your lead and loosen up on other ethical strictures, undermining an otherwise ethical corporate culture.

"With ethics, managing perceptions is critical to developing a culture of ethical behaviour," Gilliland said.

Work Ethic is a twice-monthly column on BBC Capital in which we consider the ethical and interpersonal dilemmas that workers face around the world. We welcome knotty questions from readers at workethic@bbc.com.

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