Custom or trade practice is no defence

Article exclusively contributed by Independent Commission Against Corruption

Paul worked for a travel agency as a tourist guide. His dedication and hard work won the trust of both his boss and his clients and he was soon promoted to the post of supervisor. At a university alumni event he met John, a recent graduate, who had just joined a different travel agency and asked for advice about how to get on in the industry.

In particular, John said he was aware that tourist guides derive a large proportion of their total income from tips and commission from the shops where they take tour groups. He asked if there were any general rules or practices in this area which he should be aware of.

Paul explained that the usual principle determining if it was proper or legal for tourist guides to accept tips or commission was whether their employer had given permission.

He pointed out that some shop owners might offer commission "secretly" for introducing new clients. As an example, he told John about the time he had taken a tour group to a jewellery shop according to the prescribed itinerary. However, one couple darted off to the shop next door and bought a lot of expensive items there. The owner of that store thanked Paul for bringing in two big spenders, "rewarded" him with lai see, and offered a regular commission if he introduced other customers.

In the circumstances, Paul refused to take the lai see because his company's policy prohibited all staff from accepting any commission in relation to its business. Since the two tourists had obviously been impressed by the store, he did though recommend to his manager that it might be included on future tour itineraries.

After hearing this, John asked what would happen if one of his own relatives suggested bringing more tourists to a certain shop simply as a favour. In his view, it would then be up to the tourists to decide whether or not to spend any money.

As before, Paul stressed that the key thing was to ascertain if one's employer was in agreement. Even though the guide might receive no personal gain, the arrangement itself could be open to criticism as showing favouritism. To avoid any conflict of interest, any special relationship with the shop owner should be declared to the tour company's management.

Paul added that professionalism and integrity were essential in winning an employer's trust and meeting the expectations of tourists. He advised John that bending the rules or cutting corners would inevitably lead to problems. To emphasise the point, he mentioned a recent case of a ticketing agent who had accepted advantages from a customer for giving priority access to special discount tickets. When the management found out, the case was referred to the ICAC for investigation.

To confirm his own understanding, John later checked Section 9 of the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance (PBO) which states that it is an offence for an employee, such as a tourist guide, to solicit or accept any advantage from shop owners for bringing in customers without the permission of his travel agency. The maximum penalty for the offence is seven years' imprisonment and a fine of HK$500,000.

Though people may argue that it is a trade practice to accept commission from shop owners, Section 19 of the PBO states it is not a defence to claim that any advantage accepted or offered is customary in any profession, trade, vocation or calling. A court of law will make its judgement based on whether permission has been given by the recipient's principal.

Accepting secret rebates is regarded as a corrupt act under the law and it is equivalent to abusing one's official position for personal gain. It is also a PBO offence for ticketing staff to accept advantage from customers for manipulating the distribution of discount tickets.

John also learned that, apart from committing a PBO offence, tourist guides accepting illegal rebates may also breach the Travel Industry Council's Code of Business Practice on Inbound Package Tours.

For enquiries about this article or ICAC services, please contact the programme coordinator, business sector at (tel) 2543 0000, (fax) 2545 5036 or (e-mail)

Q & A relating to ethical issues
Q1 How should a tourist guide handle gifts offered by a business contact?
  • Understand the law and assess whether the acceptance of the gifts will lead to any violation of the law, such as the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance (PBO).
  • Assess if acceptance will breach any professional or trade-related code of conduct. For example, under the Travel Agents Ordinance, inbound travel agents are required to register with the Travel Agents Registry and become a member of the Travel Industry Council of Hong Kong, which requires members to follow its codes of conduct and regulations concerning the acceptance of gifts and hospitality.
  • Comply with the company's code of conduct.
  • Decline any offer of illegal advantage which involves a corrupt motive.
  • Report to management or the authorities.

  • Q2 How should a tourist guide handle a conflict of interest?
  • Observe the company's policy on handling conflicts of interest.
  • Declare any possible conflict of interest whenever such a situation arises to avoid misunderstandings and possible allegations of misconduct.
  • If there is any reason for uncertainty, you should be ready to declare your interest whenever the extent of conflict is in doubt.

  • Taken from Career Times 21 October 2005

    (Last review date: 23 August 2013)

    讚好 CTgoodjobs 專頁,獲取更多求職資訊!

    Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the contributor

    Free Subscription