Holiday Ethics Guidance

Holiday Ethics Guidance

The holiday season is traditionally a time of parties, receptions, and exchanging of gifts.  However, please remember that the ethics laws and Standards of Conduct do not take a holiday.  To ensure that you don’t unwittingly violate the requirements of the ethics laws and Standards of Conduct, we are sending this cheerful ethics reminder. 

Acceptance of Gifts During the Holidays

As a general rule, you may not, directly or indirectly, solicit or accept a gift from a prohibited source or solicit or accept a gift because of your official position.   

What is a prohibited source?

A prohibited source is any person or entity who:

  •  is seeking official action by the Department;
  • does business or seeks to do business with the Department;
  • conducts activities regulated by the Department;
  • has interests that may be substantially affected by performance or nonperformance of your official duties; or
  • is an organization a majority of whose members are described in the above bullets.

What is a gift?

Under the ethics laws and Standards of Conduct, a gift is an item of value, including invitations to and free attendance at events, free meals, receptions, sporting events, and certain widely-attended gatherings.

Common Ethics Exceptions Under Which You Can Accept Gifts at the Holidays

$20/$50 Exception

You may accept holiday gifts (but never cash), from a prohibited source having a market value of $20 or less per occasion, provided that the aggregate market value of the individual gifts received from any one non-federal source does not exceed $50 in a calendar year.  

Ethics Tip:  Please note that gift cards are considered to be a cash gift if they can be used like cash at multiple retailers, such as a Visa or MasterCard gift card. However, gift cards that can be used at one retailer (even if it has multiple locations) are not considered cash.

Personal Relationship Exception

You may accept holiday gifts given under certain circumstances which make it clear that the gift is motivated by a family relationship or personal friendship rather than your official position.   

Ethics Tip: If the gift comes from a person who is both a friend/family member and a DOI prohibited source, it is appropriate to seek specific advice from an ethics counselor as to whether the gift should be accepted. 
Widely Attended Gathering Exception

You may accept the gift of free attendance to a widely attended holiday event, with prior supervisory and ethics approval (Form DI-1958), when it has been determined that your attendance will be in the interest of the Department because it will further the Department’s programs and operations. 

Ethics Tip #1:  An event is considered widely attended if it is expected that a large number of persons will attend and that persons with a diversity of interests will be present.  For example, the event is open to members from throughout a given industry or profession or those in attendance represent a wide range of views on a given matter. 

Ethics Tip #2: If the invitation to the holiday party, open-house, or reception comes from a non-prohibited source, then you do not need to complete a DI-1958 and you may attend and accept food, refreshments, and entertainment if no one is charged admission (e.g., most holiday receptions and open-houses).

There are other exceptions to the gift rules. For additional information about exceptions to the general prohibitions regarding gifts from non-Federal sources, please refer to the Departmental Ethics Office website and consult with an ethics official.

Additional Ethics Rules for Political Appointees

In addition to the general gift rules discussed above, if you are a political appointee then you are covered by the lobbyist gift ban in the Ethics Pledge.  Please contact the Departmental Ethics Office at (202) 208-7960 for additional guidance on the lobbyist gift ban and holiday invitations and gifts.

Limitations on Holiday Gift Giving between Federal Employees

As a general rule, you are prohibited from: 

  • Giving, donating to, or soliciting contributions for, a gift to an official superior; and
  • Accepting a gift from another employee who receives less pay. 

Exceptions to the General Rule

  • During holidays, which occur on an occasional basis, if you are a supervisor, you may accept gifts (other than cash) of $10 or less from a subordinate. 
  • Supervisors may accept food and refreshments shared in the office and may share in the expenses of an office party.
  • If a subordinate is invited to a social event at the supervisor’s residence, the subordinate may give the supervisor a hospitality gift of the type and value customarily given on such an occasion.

Ethics Tip: There are no legal restrictions on gifts given to peers or subordinates, however, common sense and good taste should apply. 

Contributions to Holiday Parties and Office Gift Exchanges

Employees and contractors may make voluntary contributions to an office holiday party.  
Ethics Tip:  Please note that a contribution is not voluntary unless it is made in an amount determined by the contributing employee or contractor, and, if an amount is recommended for donation, then employees should be advised that the employee may choose to contribute less, or not at all.  Additionally, the voluntary contribution from a contractor employee must come from the employee, not their employer.   Finally, an employee who declines to contribute may not be excluded from a holiday celebration that is held in the office during business hours.

  • Office gift exchanges: Even “anonymous” gift exchanges rarely are—so please keep the gifts to $10 or less.

For any additional guidance regarding ethics-related matters, please contact the Departmental Ethics Office at (202) 208-7960 or  


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