Once I made it to the CFO rank, the offers from potential vendors for business entertainment significantly increased. This is something that happens as a matter of course with the position and it brings its own challenges with it. You also will do more entertainment for potential clients or lenders. Again, an area that you need to be careful with, especially with the FCPA and other rules to be followed (UK anti-bribery Act as an example, but most countries have their own rules. The rules on the books in China, for example, are quite strict).
I have one basic rule about accepting business entertainment. If it could influence my decision to purchase something, then I decline. The two different ways that could happen is excessive cost or something illegal. If it would be embarrassing to have the entertainment public, then it can be used to influence you.
I have a few other rules of thumb, but not influencing my decision is the main one.
When it comes to meals and bottles of wine that I would have, if the restaurant is a place I would go to and the wine is what I would feel comfortable paying for if I was personally paying for the meal, then I am ok with it. I will only accept sporting event tickets if the giver is coming with me. If the person wants to give tickets and not be there, I usually suggest that they be given to lower level staff and I would not take them. I just make it plain that I am passing the tickets on so the staff know it is coming from me.
If I get a gift basket that has food and wine that is too expensive, I just share it with people at the office. You can always send it back if it is really over the top, but it is not so easy and can be considered to be quite insulting in some countries.
All of the above is, of course, if the company policy allows it at all. I have influence over the rules and they should never be ridiculously tight (some places like Walmart have famously tough rules there), but you do need rules with fairly low limits to discourage undue influence.
It is very hard in countries like China to avoid receiving and giving gifts. Because you are likely to be governed by the FCPA, you need to be very careful to ensure you know who is receiving the gift and if they are a government officer. This is quite tricky as the government runs or owns many companies and parts of the economy. The local bank branch manager may be considered to be a government official. Same thing for hospital administrators and other businesses. Even if you think you are following the FCPA, the actual written laws in China are very strict. They are generally not enforced, unless the government decides that they now will enforce them. So make sure this is well understood and controlled.
Business entertainment does serve a vital purpose in that it allows you to spend time with key vendors like your bankers outside of formal meetings at your offices (or theirs). If you are going to be relying on their advice and work, it certainly is important that you get more information than just a rehearsed pitch in your office. A meal gives you a lot more time to get to know them and what you learn outside the office can give you some clues on if you should use or trust them. If you are reasonable and careful in the entertainment you accept, you also are sending a signal to them that it is the results and their cost that matters, not if they can get yiu Super Bowl tickets.
Business entertainment does not only have to be with external vendors. You can take your staff or key people in other departments out as well. At times you can break an internal impasse by taking the discussions out of the office. Obviously you should not abuse this (policies like the most senior person pays helps to reduce abuse), but the occasional meal with people from inside your company can help a lot more than another meeting reviewing a spreadsheet. Sporting events are harder to justify, but some beers and cheap bleacher seats at a baseball game are not expensive and a good way to reinforce the workplace bonds. Business entertainment also gives you a chance to relax the formal chain of command that many feel pressured to follow inside the office. I have received quite a few good suggestions from my staff over a meal after work. Suggestions that were not forthcoming inside a work conference room.
If you are entertaining internal staff, you need to make sure it is in a fair and professional atmosphere that does not exclude your staff of the opposite gender. Usually, I prefer a larger, mixed group in that case as it can reduce gossip, but if you treat everyone with respect and as fellow employees, not dating material, your reputation will be good and there will be less need to have public “chaperones”.
I do tend to watch how much I drink when I am out at a business entertainment event. I don’t drink that much anyways, but as the CFO you need to set an example. As fun as it may appear at the time, getting drunk just isn’t wise and you risk others drinking to excess with you and then later getting behind the wheel in a car. You are responsible for your company, do not forget that you are responsible for your staff as well.
That is not to say that you should not drink at all. Some countries like Korea, Japan and China seem to feature drinking a lot as part of the expectation of a business meal. Regardless of expectations, I always have been careful to not overdo it. You also need to be more careful when fighting jet lag as drinking really does not help and may make it worse.