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The Gift Rules Do Not Take a Holiday

December 13, 2013

by Walter M. Shaub, Jr.

As TV, radio, movies, social media, the internet, and just about every other form of commercial communication ceaselessly remind us, this time of year has become a season for gift-giving and gift-getting. Even in the workplace, there can be social pressure not to be a “Scrooge.” Employees may feel they have to accept gifts in the spirit in which they are offered or even give gifts to others. But in the federal workplace, the ethics rules prohibiting gifts do not take a holiday.

The gift rules apply every day of the year to federal employees in every executive branch agency at every pay level. Generally speaking, they prohibit a federal employee from soliciting or accepting a gift that is given because of the employee’s official position, given by anyone who does (or seeks to do) business with the employee’s agency, or given by anyone who is regulated by the employee’s agency. This time of year, employees need to be especially mindful that the gift rules apply equally to gifts in the form of free attendance at events, such as holiday parties. 

There are also rules restricting gift giving between federal employees. Generally, employees may not give gifts to their supervisors or accept gifts from their subordinates. Cash is never an acceptable gift, and this includes cash contributions to purchase holiday gifts for supervisors. The ethics rules even limit gifts between employees at different salary levels, in the absence of a personal relationship. This does not mean that there can be no holiday cheer in the federal workplace, for employees can always bring in food and refreshments to be shared with the whole office. 

Naturally, there are some commonsense exceptions. For example, the ethics rules do not generally bar employees from accepting gifts from their spouses, children, or other close family members. Likewise, an employee can accept a cup of coffee when it is offered. Employees may also accept certain items of nominal value, regardless of the source; however, cash can never be accepted under the gift rules.

More detailed guidance is available on OGE’s website, which provides a summary of gift rules, a link to the rules on gifts from outside sources, a link to the rules on gifts between employees, and a variety of legal advisories on gift rules. Employees with individual questions should contact their agencies' ethics officials. For a lighter, but more detailed look at the gift rules, you might enjoy reading a holiday poem that OGE has circulated a few times over the years.

I appreciate that turning down a gift can be awkward, but the gift rules are there to protect our institutions of government. They are part of a larger structure of ethics that aims to guard the integrity of government against conflicts of interest, improper outside influence, and even the appearance of impropriety. That is an aim worthy of the season.