Season's Greetings: A Few Reminders on Holiday Gifts and Ethics

Picture of wrapped holiday presents
12/10/2021

The holiday season is a time of celebration. However, even during the holiday season, ethics rules apply.

To make sure you don't mistakenly violate these rules, here is an overview of holiday ethics guidance.

Holiday gifts from outside sources

Generally, you may not — directly or indirectly — solicit or accept a holiday gift:

  • From a prohibited source, or
  • That was given because of your official position at the Department.

If you believe that a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts would question your integrity or impartiality because of your acceptance of the gift, you should always consider declining otherwise permissible gifts from outside or prohibited sources.

What is a gift?

Under the ethics laws and Standards of Ethical Conduct, a gift is any item of monetary value.

Holiday gifts can be:

  • Tangible gift items, such as a book or t-shirt, gift cards, food to share in the office, free meals; and
  • Invitations to and free attendance at in person and virtual events, which include receptions, sporting events, or other entertainment.

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 the performance or nonperformance of your official duties; or
  • is an organization a majority of whose members are described above.

*Employees of Bureaus and Offices listed in 5 C.F.R. § 3501.102(a), prohibited sources are determined based on whether the person or entity is seeking official action, doing or seeking to do business, or conducting activities regulated by your Bureau or Office, as opposed to the entire Department.

Common ethics exceptions under which you can accept gifts

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

Gifts from close friends and family

If the gift comes from a person with whom you have a family relationship or personal connection and that person is also a prohibited source, consider consulting with an ethics official about whether the gift should be accepted. 

Gifts from federal employees and contractors

If your friend is also a federal employee or a federal contractor, additional restrictions may also apply.

Small Packages: $20/$50 Exception

During the holidays, you may accept gifts (but never cash) that are from a prohibited source or offered because of your official position under the $20/$50 exception.

Under the $20/$50 exception, these gifts must have:

  • An aggregate market value of $20 or less per occasion and
  • The aggregate market value of the individual gifts that you receive from any one non-federal source does not exceed $50 in a calendar year.

Gift Cards

General use prepaid gift cards, such as those issued by credit card companies or financial institutions (such as Visa or Mastercard) are considered cash under the ethics rules and may not be accepted. Store gift cards, including mall gift cards or gift cards for a single online marketplace, are not considered cash, and may generally be accepted.

Holiday Parties and Receptions

When it comes to holiday parties and receptions, there are several things you should keep in mind to have a happy, healthy and ethical holiday season.

Widely Attended Gathering (WAG) Exception

An event is widely attended if many people are expected to attend and if people with a diversity of views or interests will be present.

You may accept the gift of free attendance to an in-person or virtual widely attended holiday event, with prior supervisory and ethics approval (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.

Virtual Holiday Events

A virtual holiday event is considered widely attended if:

  • Many people are expected to attend,
  • People with a diversity of interests will be present, and
  • There is an opportunity to exchange ideas and views among the invited persons (such as “virtual break out rooms”).

Some virtual events may not qualify as widely attended gatherings, so reach out to an ethics official for guidance.

Invitations to Holiday Celebrations

Accepting holiday party invitations from family, friends or neighbors is generally allowed under the ethics rules. However, free attendance to events, depending on the circumstances, may be considered a gift under the Standards of Ethical Conduct.

If

Then

The invitation to an in-person or virtual holiday party, open-house, or reception comes from a non-prohibited source and is not offered to you because of your official position.

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 (such as most holiday receptions and open-houses).

Read the Authorization for Free Attendance at a Widely Attended Gathering (DI-1958) to learn more.

Lobbyist Gift Ban for Political Appointees

If you are a political appointee, you must follow the lobbyist gift ban in the Ethics Pledge in addition to the guidance above. Contact an ethics official for additional guidance on how the lobbyist gift ban applies to holiday invitations and gifts.

There are other gift exceptions that may apply to gifts. Refer to the Departmental Ethics Office website and consult with an ethics official.

Holiday Gifts Between Employees and Office Celebrations

Generally, 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.

This rule applies to:

  • Tangible gifts exchanged personally between employees both inside and outside the office,
  • Office-wide gift exchanges,
  • Holiday office celebrations held both inside and outside the office, and
  • Any other gifts exchanged between employees.

When You Can Accept Gifts from Other Federal Employees

During holidays, subordinates may give, and supervisors may accept, unsolicited gifts (other than cash) of $10 or less.

Gift Collections

Gift collections made via an online or other crowd-sourcing tool are subject to the same rules. If you are organizing a gift collection that includes employees earning less pay than or a subordinate to the recipient, consult with an ethics official for guidance on compliance.

Gifts Between Peers and Subordinates

There are no legal restrictions on the value of gifts given to peers or subordinates.

Office Holiday Celebrations and Gift Exchanges

Employees may make voluntary contributions to an office holiday celebration held either inside or outside the office.

Voluntary Contributions

A contribution is not voluntary unless:

  • It is made in an amount determined by the contributing employee, and
  • If an amount is recommended for participation, then employees should be advised that they may choose to contribute less, or not at all.

We recommend that senior supervisors not solicit voluntary contributions from employees earning less pay or from a subordinate.

Consider including the following statement in communications: “employees are free to contribute less or nothing at all” to ensure that employees are contributing voluntarily. Finally, an employee who declines to contribute may not be excluded from a holiday celebration that is held in the office during business hours.

Gift Rules for Contractors

Contractors are not typically considered federal employees under the gift rules. Gifts from contractors would generally be governed by the rules on gifts from outside sources.

Federal employees are not prohibited from including contractor employees in office holiday gatherings, but any voluntary contribution accepted from a contractor for an office holiday celebration must come from the contractor employee personally, and not their employer. The employee who oversees work performed by contractors should avoid soliciting even voluntary donations from the contractor employees for an office holiday celebration.

Gift Exchanges and Donations

If your office holiday celebration will include an online gift exchange or seek voluntary donations via an online or other crowd-sourcing tool, then seek additional guidance from an ethics official before proceeding. There are specific considerations for gift exchanges that include employees earning different amounts of pay as well as supervisors and subordinates.

While using these online or other crowd-sourcing tools is not prohibited, the public nature of the online platforms, which often list the names and donation amounts of donors, can create inappropriate pressure for employees to donate. Also, the one-size-fits-all nature of crowdsourcing websites does not account for the fact that ethics rules apply differently to gifts from outside sources and gifts from employees.

Keep Gift Office Exchanges to $10 or Less

Gift regulations apply differently to different employees: gifts from subordinate employees or those making less pay than the recipient are restricted, while gifts from superior employees or those making more pay are not, so keep the value of the gifts in any office gift exchange to $10 or less.

Resources

  • Departmental Ethics Office. There are other gift exceptions that may apply to gifts you are offered or give during this holiday season. Find additional information and ethics guidance on DEO’s website.
  • Gifts. Under the ethics regulation, a gift is anything that has monetary value which you obtain for less than "market value." Learn what a gift is and when you accept or give one.
  • Gift FAQs: DEO Ethics Reference. Find answers to frequently asked questions related to gifts.
  • DOI Ethics App. Find federal ethics laws and rules, forms and contact information for ethics officials. Get guidance on questions about conflicts of interest, gift acceptance, misuse of position and concerns about impartiality. You can also learn about the latest ethics updates and deadlines for various ethics requirements.

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