Guidance for federal employees on gift giving

By Steve Geisler, ANAD Legal OfficeNovember 19, 2020

ANNISTON ARMY DEPOT, Ala. -- The Holidays are almost here (and 2021 is right around the corner), so it’s time for the Legal Office’s annual tradition of providing guidance on gift giving for Federal employees. Although the rules may seem Grinch-like, these rules have an important purpose – to avoid the appearance of favoritism or corruption – and may save you from making a serious misstep!

General rule: A gift of cash may never be given or received between Federal employees or contractors. Furthermore, a Federal employee may not accept a gift (meaning anything of value) offered because of the Federal employee’s official position. Issues involving Federal employee gift giving come up in two situations: (1) subordinates giving gifts to supervisors, and (2) contractors giving gifts to Federal employees.

Gifts among federal employees

Official Superiors (Supervisors): The general rule is that you may not give a gift to an “official superior,” which is anyone above you in the chain of command. An exception allows supervisors to accept food and refreshments shared in the office and share expenses of an office party. Also, you may give gifts to supervisors on an occasional basis, including on any occasion on which gifts are traditionally exchanged (for example, Christmas), as long as each gift is worth $10 or less. There is also a hospitality exception: if a subordinate is invited to a social event at a supervisor’s home, the subordinate may give the supervisor a hospitality gift of the type and value customarily given on such occasions; traditional rules of etiquette should be the guide.

What if my boss is having a baby? For “special infrequent occasions” of personal significance (for example, marriage or the birth of a child), employees may give a supervisor a group gift if the total value of the gift does not exceed $300.  Solicitations for contributions are limited to $10 per employee and must be voluntary.

Co-Workers: There are generally no legal restrictions on gifts exchanged among co-workers receiving the same pay. An employee may not accept a gift from a co-worker receiving less pay unless there is a personal (meaning beyond work), non-supervisory relationship between the co-workers.

Gifts from contractors                     

The general rule is that a Federal employee may not accept anything of value from a contractor or contractor employee (or from any other “prohibited source”) – not just during the Holidays, but anytime. There are some exceptions to this rule, including “modest items of food and non-alcoholic refreshments, such as soft drinks, coffee and donuts, offered other than as part of a meal,” and “greeting cards and items with little intrinsic value, such as plaques, certificates, and trophies” – and there is what is called the “20/50 exception.”

Does that mean my contractor friend can give me a year’s supply of fancy coffee drinks and donuts for Christmas? No!! This is where the “20/50 exception” comes into play. Allowed gifts from prohibited sources must be worth $20 or less, and must total no more than $50 per year. And never, ever, cash.  But remember: even though this exception might apply, if accepting the gift gives an appearance of favoritism or corruption, the gift should be declined.

You can also receive gifts from a prohibited source (such as a contractor or contractor employee) if the gift is based on a personal relationship (such as from a family member). There are other exceptions to the rule against accepting gifts from prohibited sources, so call the Legal Office if you’re unsure.

While we all enjoy gift giving during the Holidays, these rules are important. As public servants, we have an obligation to avoid the appearance of unfair influence, whether through subordinate-supervisor gift giving or by accepting gifts from Defense contractors. So, be of good cheer and know you are now equipped to successfully navigate the rules of Federal employee gift giving.

If you need any clarification as to gift giving or receiving, please call the Legal Office at (256) 235-6518 and ask to speak to an Ethics Counselor.