’Tis the season to know rules on gifts


Most employees know there are significant restrictions on giving and receiving gifts related to their jobs, whether from co-workers, to and from subordinates or from customers or the public. The rules are complicated — understood, if by anyone, by those who toil in the intricacies of government ethics.

Given the holiday season and the spirit of gift-giving, it is helpful to review a few of the rules so you can avoid the common pitfalls and, more important, receive those gifts that are allowed.

For example, it used to be customary to tip your letter carrier. This is no longer allowed, and a letter carrier or any federal employee cannot receive a gift of monetary value given to him because of his position. The employee must refuse the gift. Acceptance of such a gift might be considered a violation of ethics rules and justification for disciplinary action.

Also, federal employees are not allowed to accept gifts from entities seeking or doing business with their agency or that might be influenced by their agency. They may never solicit or coerce a gift, accept a gift in return for the performance of an official act or accept a gift so frequently that a reasonable person would be led to believe the employee is using his public office for private gain.

The most widely known exception to the ban on accepting gifts is the $20 lunch with an annual cap of $50. (The $20 amount may also apply to gifts other than lunch.) The amounts were set in 1992, and lunches have gotten much more expensive in the intervening years. So be careful with the lunch exception because it may be difficult to go to a nice place and get a lunch or a dinner for only $20. If you pay cash for your portion of a lunch with a contractor doing business in your agency, make sure that the contractor writes this down on the documentation or you may be falsely accused of accepting a gift and you may lack documentation to show your contribution. It may be better for you to use a credit card to pay for your lunch.

Another exception allows attendance at widely attended gatherings. If a gathering is open to government and nongovernment employees alike, a federal employee may attend if it is determined to be in the agency’s interest and of general interest to a number of parties to the sponsor of the event.

Of course, you may also accept a gift if the reason for the gift has nothing to do with your federal employment. For example, if your sister-in-law and you have always exchanged holiday presents and she now works for a company doing business at your agency and thus a prohibited source, you may continue to accept gifts from your sister-in-law, even if the gift is worth more than $20. The same is true for gifts between longtime friends and gifts exchanged because of affiliations with organizations outside the workplace.

Federal employees are also allowed to accept gifts of nominal value such as food and drink that are not a part of a meal; certificates, plaques and trophies; and prizes from drawings or raffles open to the public.

Supervisors are not supposed to accept gifts from subordinates. There are exceptions for events like retirement parties. But, don’t give your boss a holiday present. It could present you and your boss with an ethics problem, and it sends the wrong message to other employees. Also, the ethics rules prohibit a higher-paid employee from accepting a gift from a lower-paid employee unless the employees are not in a supervisor-subordinate relationship and the personal relationship of the two employees would justify the gift.

Any questions or areas of doubt should be referred to the agency ethics official, who will tell you if you are allowed to accept a gift or whether something is even considered a gift. Have a great holiday season!


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