Selling free stuff from work - ethical or not?
August 21, 2007 4:40 PM   Subscribe

My sister works for a big entertainment company. Occasionally they give her free stuff from one of their projects...posters, mugs, etc. She wants to sell some of it. One of her coworkers thought that this might be unethical. We weren't sure why that would be. Is it ethically ok for her to sell some of her swag or not? Why?
posted by kms to Work & Money (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
As a journalist, I get a LOT of TV swag. I would not sell it because I paid nothing for it and got it as a result of my job. Therefore, any money earned from it should go to my job, and I could get the reputation as someone who has a hand out for free stuff and thus can be easily bought by a media company. (Plus...who would buy a "Two and a Half Men" beach towel? Besides you, Wendell.)

But if she's not a journalist, I'd say her only concern is if the company would be upset by this. They're giving it to her -- do they have restrictions on what she does with it?
posted by GaelFC at 4:46 PM on August 21, 2007

I don't think it's unethical to sell swag, but if her employers find out and decide to make an example out of her, she could get fired. That's a stupid reason to fire someone, but having worked for a big entertainment company myself, I've seen plenty of people get fired for dumber reasons.
posted by roger ackroyd at 4:46 PM on August 21, 2007

As long as she isn't requesting extra swag from her company in order to sell it, but instead is just selling stuff that is given to her unsolicited, then I don't see any ethical problem.
posted by gatorae at 4:47 PM on August 21, 2007

You should write to Randy Cohen (aka 'The Ethicist') and ask him. I can't really formulate an ethical argument against selling those items, but I share in you sister's coworker's gut questioning of such a move. It'd be interesting to hear what Cohen has to say.
posted by taliaferro at 5:09 PM on August 21, 2007

I work for a big entertainment company and we are specifically told not to sell all the free stuff we get. There are apparently folks watching ebay for it and people have lost their jobs.

Seems like something that should be spelled out pretty specifically by HR.
posted by fillsthepews at 5:11 PM on August 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

As others have noted, it's not unethical (the swag was given to her, which makes it hers to sell) , but it might be against company policy. She loses nothing by asking the powers-the-be whether there is a company policy about this. And, at a "big entertainment company," there almost certainly is.
posted by dersins at 5:16 PM on August 21, 2007

Well, it's tricky. The free music I used to get in my early 20s supplemented my lousy income & without it I couldn't have paid my rent. But at a different job, when a dj heard that I allowed a friend-of-a-friend to pay me $10 for concert tickets I couldn't use (that were actually worth $40), he gave me a giant lecture filled with a great deal of "I am ashamed of you" and I got shit for it for AGES. You would've thought I had sold secrets to the Russians, endangering national security the way people acted.

I didn't sell anything after that, and now lately I've been looking at all of the accrued swag crap that sits in my garage and I've been tempted to put it ebay. Honestly, why throw it away? So I say if you can be covert & under the radar, go for it within reason. More often than not, the jobs that gave me the most swag were the ones that paid me the least so it evens out as partial income, I figure.

Anybody wanna buy a big uncut sheet of metallic ink Alias trading cards circa 2003? Howzabout an original Hot Wheels truck prototype circa 1996?
posted by miss lynnster at 5:34 PM on August 21, 2007

Oh, but I should add... I'm not encouraging anyone to take advantage of it & use it as a black market kinda thing. That's pretty wrong. I just think here and there, on occasion, it's harmless.
posted by miss lynnster at 5:37 PM on August 21, 2007

You (the rhetorical "you") have an ethical responsibility to tell your employer that you've sold or donated (if you deduct the donation) swag because, in either case, the swag has become compensation and it has not being accounted for properly. In the US, not telling your employer would be (minor league, but still unethical) tax fraud -- you and your employer would owe FICA taxes (and perhaps others) on the swag's value.

If your employer adds the fair market value of the swag into your paycheck tax calculations, it's really just a noncash bonus and there is no ethical problem with selling it.
posted by backupjesus at 5:45 PM on August 21, 2007

I worked in retail in an entertainment genre, and we'd receive minor give aways, etc. It was against policy to turn around and sell it, and I recall (I think!) a manager at another store in the company being fired for doing such.

So I Nth the "check your company policy." At worse, donate it to a charity, if your friend simply wants free space.
posted by Atreides at 6:10 PM on August 21, 2007

If you're gonna do it, don't ship said swag to eBay customers through the company mailroom (Which is how one of our assistants got fired).

I say if it's something that could not resonably be expected to be able to be used within the course of her job (i.e. old old project, etc), where it ends up is nobodys business but hers.

Its probably against company policy though.
posted by softlord at 6:43 PM on August 21, 2007

I used to work for a video store and got tons of free posters and promotional materials. I haven't sold any of them, but I was told that if I did sell them, I would have to report the money to the IRS as "income" (since I received them from my job). Don't know if that's correct, but it's something to think about.
posted by amyms at 7:33 PM on August 21, 2007

A relative works for a radio station and gets access to all sorts of swag ranging from demo cds thru front row concert tickets. They can give the stuff they get away but they can't sell it.
posted by Mitheral at 8:59 PM on August 21, 2007

I work for a couple comedians and there are a couple of nationally syndicated radio shows and tv shows that get pissy to the point of severing all ties with acts if they find out acts have been selling show goods on ebay/craigslist/etc. Therefore, we do not sell any of these goods. We always get written permission when we give the stuff away (normally for charity) - just so we know we've covered all the bases.

If the company is a big entertainment company (like you said it was) they probably have a couple assistants or interns who watch ebay and craigslist. (They may just be watching to find out where stuff leaks from first.)
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 9:46 PM on August 21, 2007

Ethically, if it is a commercially available product, I think it would be similar to selling something given to you as a gift. It isn't wrong per se, but it is uncouth.
If it is a specialty product given to special audiences, crew, etc. it may be that the production of the items is done in a way that does not legally allow for the company to sell it for profit without violating a customer or licensing agreement, and as such could be detrimental to the company.
Everything else aside, I know of an office worker at Sony pictures that sold a few swag movie posters and lost their job over it.
posted by arruns at 9:51 PM on August 21, 2007

I think the only way that would not be frowned upon (and maybe even so) is if your friend were to do a one time big ol' garage sale of accumulated swag all at once. Especially if the stuff was fairly old. For instance, I have "a friend" who has a huge collection of concert t-shirts from being a roadie (and later house sound expert for a big arena) for years. This friend would not want to sell them, but if he did, I would think that was fine.

Transferring stuff from the project directly to eBay would definitely not be cool (even if not technically prohibited.)
posted by ctmf at 10:57 PM on August 21, 2007

You should write to Randy Cohen (aka 'The Ethicist') and ask him.

why? Randy Cohen is just this guy, you know? Why should he make your ethical decisions? FWIW he has no degree or credentials in the "field", such as it is (didn't study philosophy or get a grad degree), although that is really secondary to my point, which is that ethics are ultimately a personal matter. you are the one who has to live with who you are. You make these choices, and by making them, you define yourself, and every small choice you make further carves out the character you're becoming

I don't think it's unethical to sell swag, but if her employers find out and decide to make an example out of her, she could get fired

But how do you separate what you do from how it is related to the larger picture? If it's not unethical to do something, it should be, broadly speaking, something you can do proudly, unless there is currently injustice within the company. If you disagree with the company policies, then you could argue that they are being unfair - except they are the ones who gave you the gifts to start with. So you are arguing that they should not have the right to give you gifts with strings attached, gifts that you cannot sell.

If you really want to go about this in a purely ethical manner, then I would say the thing to do would be to check with the company that it's ok to sell company gifts, to argue that it ought to be as loan-gifts are not really gifts, and to put it all in your tax return if you do in fact sell anything, as it was income from work, ultimately. (and I don't see why a company would be against their 'swag' getting sold to the wider population, so it could easily work out).

But again, it is up to you to work out what is important to you about this, what being ethical means to you... there is the personal element and the social element, and you can consider both (is this the sort of person I want to be? and, is this universalizable, ie, if everyone did it, would this society still work?), but you cannot come to absolute, mathematical conclusions. All you can come to are judgments, which are famously imprecise. And in the end, you have to take responsibility for your own judgements.
posted by mdn at 9:25 AM on August 22, 2007

She should ask her manager. If she's concerned that s/he wouldn't approve, then it's probably not a good idea.
posted by stonefruit at 10:09 AM on August 23, 2007

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