So, You Want to Teach? Know the Ethics Rules Before You Do

Last edited 08/27/2021
Picture of empty college classroom

With the new school year approaching, now is a great time to discuss the application of the ethics rules to outside teaching positions, most notably as college or university professors.

Adjunct professors are often characterized as paid employees of their respective college or university, and as a result, under the criminal conflict of interest statute the financial interests of those institutions are imputed to Federal employees who teach at them.  That means Federal employees, in their official capacity, are prohibited from participating personally and substantially in any particular matter that they know will directly and predictably effect the financial interests of their college or university employer.  This restriction applies to both particular matters involving specific parties (i.e., grants, contracts, investigations and some meetings) and particular matters of general applicability (i.e., regulatory rulemakings, policy matters and legislation that affect a discrete and identifiable class or group).

Additionally, the Standards of Ethical Conduct prohibit Federal employees from receiving compensation for teaching which relates to their official duties.  Teaching relates to an employee’s official duties if: (1) the activity is being undertaken as part of the employee’s official duties; (2) the invitation to engage in the activity was extended primarily because of the employee’s official position rather than his or her expertise on the particular subject matter; (3) the invitation to engage in the activity or the offer of compensation for the activity was extended by a person who has interests that may be affected substantially by the performance or non-performance of the employee’s official duties; (4) the information conveyed through the activity draws substantially on non-public information; or (5) the subject of the activity deals in significant part with: (a) any matter to which the employee presently is assigned or to which the employee had been assigned during the previous one-year period; (b) any ongoing or announced policy, program or operation of the employee’s agency; or (c) in the case of a non-career employee, the general subject matter area, industry, or economic sector primarily affected by the programs and operations of their agency.  However, Federal employees may accept compensation for teaching relating to their official duties in contravention with statements (2) and (5) above, so long as the course requires multiple presentations and is offered as part of the regularly established curriculum of an institution of higher education, elementary school, or secondary school.

The Standards of Conduct also prohibit Federal employees from using Government resources—including property and time—to engage in outside teaching activities and employees are likewise prohibited from referring to confidential or non-public information during such activities.  In addition, Federal employees are prohibited from using or referring to their official title in connection with their outside teaching activity; however, employees may include their official title as part of a biographical summary that refers to several of their other biographical details when such information is given to identify them in connection with their teaching provided that their official title is given no more prominence than other significant biographical details.  Finally, certain non-career employees may be subject to additional ethics restrictions. 

If you have any questions concerning this guidance or any other ethics topic, you are encouraged to contact an ethics counselor.  Contact information for the Department of the Interior’s Departmental Ethics Office and bureau ethics counselors is available at

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