My first proper job was buying bits for aircraft. They were small but important bits, that are necessary for getting private jets and other air vehicles off the ground. These small, important bits were sourced from a number of suppliers in a competitive market. Although I was a new graduate and a nobody, I was spending upwards off a million pounds a year on these small bits, on behalf of the aircraft manufacturer that employed me.
I got invited out for a lot of lunches when I did that job. As I got better at the job, I was given responsibility for buying more and more expensive bits for aircraft and got invited out to more and better lunches. It’s almost as though my purchasing power and the lunches were in some way related.
Lunches as well as desk calendars were all I was permitted to accept from the suppliers of the small and big aircraft bits, because otherwise I might be influenced to act in my own best interests and not the best interests of the company I worked for.
One time, someone in my office got sacked for breaking the Lunch and Desk Calendar Only Rule. I heard that a supplier of his had paid for his new kitchen. The new kitchen was not an unconditional gift, even though everyone involved might have pretended it was just a nice thing to do. There are no unconditional gifts or monetary kindnesses in the commercial world, only buying influence and favour.
The saying that was drummed into all of us buyers during the mandatory anti-corruption training was: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch”. Even a lunch is buying your favour, whether you think it is or not. It is a transaction and you will pay for it in one way or another. You will also pay, one way or another, for the seat in the box at the rugby club, the short break, the party at the chateau and the jet travel there and back, even if you’re unaware of the deal you have entered into.
If you are unaware of the deal that you have entered into, this is most likely because of flattery. Part of the transaction is about making you feel extra special and chosen out of everyone because of who you are and your fun, wit and intelligence – not because of the position and influence you have. Flattery works really well, but only for the flatterer in the long term. The flatteree gets to go to a nice party by a lake or wherever, perhaps with famous people who also believe they are there because they are great people, not because they have entered into a commercial arrangement. Sooner or later they will all come to realise that the flattery that was showered upon them was fleeting and empty and that they have given away far more than they had bargained for.
My new book The Strange and Curious Guide to Trauma is published on 21 March 2022 and is available to pre-order here.