Giving Gifts at Work - Special Infrequent Occasions

Hands with wrapped gift
5/28/2021

Federal ethics regulations limit gifts between employees, particularly gifts to supervisors. The general rule is an employee may not give - or donate toward - a gift for his or her supervisor. An employee's supervisor includes the employee's immediate supervisor as well as any other employees who direct or evaluate the employee's performance or the performance of any of the employee's supervisory superiors.

One reason for these prohibitions is to eliminate any actions which could influence, or appear to influence, a supervisor or official superior's impartial conduct of his/her job -- especially in the areas of promotion, performance appraisal or other personnel actions which could affect a subordinate's paycheck in any way.  

However, a gift exception permits the giving and accepting of appropriate gifts recognizing special infrequent events provided that the events are –

  • Occasions of personal significance such as marriage, illness, or the birth or adoption of a child; or
  • Occasions that terminate the subordinate-supervisor relationship such as retirement, resignation, or transfer.

On such occasions, an employee may give an appropriate gift and may collect donations of nominal amounts within the office for contributions toward an appropriate group gift. Such donations must be entirely voluntary - employees must be free to contribute a suggested amount, a lesser amount, or nothing at all.  Of course, even if a gift from a subordinate to a supervisor falls within one of the exceptions, it would still be impermissible if it were coerced by the superior.

For example, to mark the occasion of his retirement, the members of the immediate staff of a supervisor want to give him a party and provide him with a retirement gift.  They may distribute an announcement for the party and include a nominal suggested amount for a retirement gift in the announcement for the party.  In contrast, the office staff may NOT contribute to a fund to buy a birthday present for the same supervisor.  Birthdays occur annually and are not an occasion of personal significance based on the regulation's definition.  (The same rationale prohibiting a birthday gift applies to a group Holiday gift, or for any other annually recurring event.)

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