While the holidays offer opportunities to share the holiday spirit and exchange gifts, it is important to remember the Standards of Ethical Conduct still apply.
“For the most part, the same ethics rules apply to the entire Executive Branch of the federal government,” Lawrence Wilde, an ethics counselor with the Army Materiel Command Office of Command Council, said. “This is because the ethics rules are based on federal statutes and on a set of regulations issued by the Office of Government Ethics. Some agencies, like (the Department of Defense), also have a separate subset of ethics rules for special situations, but the basic holiday guidance discussed here applies to the entire federal workforce on Redstone Arsenal.”
For example, office parties are unofficial events, and appropriated funds can’t be used to pay for them, according to a holiday reminder on ethics that was distributed to the workforce.
Contributions to the party must be voluntary and party organizers cannot solicit outside sources to pay for the party. The workplace holiday celebration may be publicized by an email announcement and by posting a few flyers within the work area.
The use of government resources should be modest and reasonable, according to ethics guidelines.
“I’d like to first underscore that no one is required to give or accept gifts or participate in any office parties,” Wilde said. “It must be entirely voluntary. Lots of issues arise at this time of year, but the most common mistake is failing to check into the ethics rules before planning office gift exchanges and making gifts to supervisors.
“Not only can this result in violations of the ethics rules, but it can lead to the embarrassing and awkward situation of having to return an improper gift.”
Gifts from subordinates to supervisors cannot exceed $10 and cannot be a cash gift.
Workers can share food, refreshments and the cost of those items in the office.
An employee may provide personal hospitality at a residence that is of a type and value customarily provided by the employee to personal friends, according to the guidelines.
If an employee invites a subordinate to a social event at a supervisor’s residence, the subordinate may give the supervisor a hospitality gift of the type and value customarily given on such an occasion.
“The gift rules are part of the broader standards of ethical conduct for federal employees,” Wilde said. “Recognizing that the federal government is a hierarchy, the gift restrictions serve to protect lower-ranking employees from feeling undue pressure to give expensive gifts to superiors.
“By the same token, the $10 restriction protects the superior from accepting lavish gifts from subordinates that might raise an appearance of favoritism and a lack of impartiality and compromise their ability to lead the organization.”
Other ethics rules pertain to gift from contractors.
“The goal of those restrictions is more to preserve the public’s trust in government.
Government personnel may not accept gifts, nor attend parties, open-houses, and receptions from contractors, contractor personnel, or other outside organizations, but contractor employees can be invited to attend a workplace holiday celebration.”
However, their attendance must be at no cost to the government. In addition, government employees are encouraged to be mindful of avoiding the appearance of partiality or favoritism when inviting contractors.
“Regarding parties, I think problems most commonly arise when contractors are involved,” Wilde said. “Because of the restrictions on accepting gifts from outside sources, federal employees who are invited to holiday parties hosted by defense contractors should seek ethics advice before attending to see if an established gift exception might apply.”
Wilde cautioned it may be easy to forget that the service contractors working beside federal employees everyday don’t work for the government.
“Government supervisors don’t have the authority to give service contractors time off to attend an office party. The participation by employees of service contractors in office parties should be approved by their employer and should be at no cost to the government.”
DOD personnel may accept a gift, even from a contractor employee, when it is based on a bona fide personal relationship, such as a relative or close personal relationships arising out of the workplace.
“I would say that the significant impact of the defense industry on Redstone Arsenal, and the large presence of service contractors in many of our federal workplaces, pose unique ethical challenges,” Wilde said. “In general, the conflicts of interest and federal ethics rules that bind federal employees do not apply to contractors.”
Because the ethics rules for gifts between federal employees are different than the rules concerning gifts from outside sources, such as defense contractors and private organizations, Wilde said successful navigating the distinction can be especially difficult during the holidays.
While a large emphasis is placed on what government employees can’t do this time of year, there are some things they can do.
DOD personnel may accept attendance at events when the invitation is solely based on outside business or other employment relationships.
Also, DOD personnel may accept invitations that are free and open to the public, all government employees, or to all military personnel.
DOD personnel may accept invitations offered to a group or class that is not related to government employment.
DOD personnel may accept food items consisting of soft drinks, coffee, pastries, or similar modest, nonalcoholic refreshments not constituting a meal.
“On one level, the ethics rules are mandatory so there’s no choice,” Wilde said.
“Internally, when employees fail to adhere to ethics rules, it erodes organization standards. An organization in which employees feel they can disregard the ethics rules is also one that cuts corners elsewhere, which affects its effectiveness and readiness.”
The federal standards of conduct ethics rules are intended to protect the integrity of the federal workforce and, by so doing, preserve the trust of the American people.
“Our government can’t function without maintaining the trust of its citizens,” he said.
“A foundational element of this trust is the perception that the federal workforce values public service above private gain. The importance of maintaining this confidence is why avoiding impropriety is vital for federal employees.”