December 2, 2014
by Walter M. Shaub, Jr.
The holiday season is upon us again, with homemade treats, gift baskets, assorted other goodies, and invitations abundant in workplaces across the country. Whether you are on the giving end or receiving end of a gift to a federal employee, however, be careful to observe the government's ethics rules.
As is the case in every season, the ethics rules generally prohibit executive branch employees from accepting gifts from outside the government if the gifts are given either because of their official positions or by prohibited sources. Prohibited sources include those who seek official action by the employees' agencies, do business or seek to do business with their agencies, conduct activities regulated by their agencies, or are substantially affected by the employees' own duties.
Gift-giving between federal employees is also subject to limitations. Generally, federal employees may not give gifts to their supervisors. Likewise, they may not accept gifts from their subordinates or other federal employees who are paid less than they are paid.
There are some reasonable exceptions to the rules. For example, an employee may accept gifts from a spouse, child, or other close family member. Regardless of the source, an employee normally may accept items of nominal value and light refreshments, such as a greeting card, a cup of coffee, a cookie, and the like. The rules also permit an employee to accept a gift, other than cash, from a coworker worth up to $10. Likewise, an employee may accept a gift, other than cash, from the public worth up to $20, as long as the total value of all gifts from any one source does not exceed $50 in a calendar year. Offers of free attendance at certain events may be accepted if approved by the employee's agency ethics officials.
Employees who are offered impermissible gifts should decline or return the gifts. Sometimes employees find declining gifts to be awkward, usually because they are afraid to seem rude or ungrateful. While these are legitimate concerns, situations in which employees must decline gifts present opportunities to educate the public on the government's high standards for impartiality and integrity. Employees can explain that they are not rejecting the expressions of generosity or gratitude that the gifts represent, even though strict rules for public service prevent them from accepting the gifts. While the ethics rules may seem to dampen the spirit of the season, they protect the government from even the appearance of impropriety. With that in mind, the best way for a member of the public to show gratitude for a federal employee's good services is usually to offer a simple, "Thank you."
For more guidance, I encourage you to visit OGE's website. The website provides a summary of the 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 the gift rules. Employees with individual questions should contact ethics officials at their agencies. For a more whimsical look at the gift restrictions, we are again circulating our ever popular holiday poem.