During the holiday season, gift giving occurs as a natural part of social relationships. For example, it is not unusual to be invited to a holiday party and to bring a bottle of wine as a gift to the host.
But can a federal employee do that if the party’s host is the boss? The answer is yes — if the bottle of wine is a hospitality customarily provided by the employee to personal friends.
But beware: Subordinates’ gifts to bosses ordinarily are taboo, and a gift such as a bottle of wine at a holiday party, while allowed in some circumstances, could raise questions.
These questions and their answers all come from the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), an independent agency created in 1989 from what had formerly been a part of the Office of Personnel Management. OGE’s gift to federal employees is its detailed and somewhat obtuse (but completely lucid to designated agency ethics officials and most OGE employees) Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch. These standards, found at 5 CFR Part 2635, include a subpart specifically regulating gifts among federal employees.
The general rule is no gifts should be given by employees to supervisors or to employees who earn a larger salary than the gift giver. The prohibition is on both giving and accepting the gift. There is no provision that prohibits a supervisor from giving a gift to a subordinate.
But the general prohibition against gifts to supervisors has exceptions. So, either remember these exceptions or take the default and safe position of no gifts. Or ask your designated agency ethics official for advice. These agency officials are supposed to respond promptly to ethics questions from employees. Put your question and all relevant information in writing — probably e-mail — and you will receive a written answer.
Here are a several examples of gift giving from subordinates to supervisors that OGE, through its regulations, says are permissible.
• If you come back from a vacation at the beach, you may give your supervisor a bag of saltwater taffy purchased on the boardwalk for $8. The gift can only be given occasionally and under circumstances where such gifts are ordinarily exchanged. This gift falls under the less-than-$10-per-occasion and other-than-cash exception to the ban on gift giving to supervisors. Similar occasional gifts include food and refreshments to be shared among several employees in the office and personal hospitality of a type customarily provided by the employee to personal friends. This exception means that you may occasionally bring in cupcakes for those in the office, including the boss, to share, and you may invite your boss to your home for a holiday party.
• Another instance where gift giving to supervisors is allowed is a special, infrequent occasion. Examples are weddings, illness, or the birth or adoption of a child. The gift for each of these occasions should be consistent with a gift you would give to a personal friend who is not a supervisor.
• It also permissible to give a gift to a supervisor when the subordinate-supervisor relationship is ended because the supervisor is retiring, resigning or being reassigned. So a going-away party for the boss accompanied by a party and a gift is allowed.
OGE recognizes that on special, infrequent occasions, employees may want to solicit voluntary nominal contributions from co-workers. This type of solicitation is allowed so long as the amount of the contribution and whether to contribute is voluntary.
One thing the OGE regulations make clear is that Christmas does not qualify as a special, infrequent occasion because it comes once a year. So if the boss gets married or is sick, feel free to contribute to an office collection if you so desire, but give the Christmas tie to your brother-in-law.