The Office of Government Ethics reminded federal employees Monday of the rules regarding gifts and holiday parties in its ethics survival guide.

The Office of Government Ethics reminded federal employees Monday of the rules regarding gifts and holiday parties in its ethics survival guide. AH86 / Getty Images

From holiday parties to gifts, ethics czar warns feds to stay cautious during holiday season

Be careful before accepting that glass of wine at your next holiday party.

Federal employees should be wary of what invitations and gifts they accept this holiday season, the agency tasked with overseeing ethics rules said on Monday, reminding them of the limits and restrictions they face. 

Agency staff must avoid the appearance of undue influence, the Office of Government Ethics said, whether that comes from supervisor or outside entities. Ethics rules generally prohibit federal employees from requesting or accepting gifts specifically because of their government jobs and civil servants usually must refuse gifts from people who do business with their agencies.

“With the new year approaching, there will be opportunities to celebrate with family, friends and colleagues and, for federal employees, there will also be potential, but avoidable, ethics pitfalls,” OGE wrote in a holiday season ethics survival guide.

Holiday party planners must make clear when soliciting event funds from their colleagues that any participation is voluntary and supervisors should not be involved in that process, OGE said. Any gift exchanges at those parties should have a $10 cap on gifts to maintain compliance with civil service gift rules, the watchdog agency added, and no employee should feel required to participate. 

If giving a gift to a supervisor or even a colleague, OGE suggested employees also keep the gift under $10 to keep "clear of any ethics problems." Only if an employee has a "long-standing friendship" with another individual, and that person is not a superior, is a larger gift acceptable. 

The watchdog warned that even attending a party thrown by any company or outside organization that does business with an employee's agency can "pose serious ethics challenges." Feds can likely attend if invited to a party by a spouse, relative or friend, but it is "always appropriate and frequently prudent" to decline such an invitation. 

In all cases involving gifts and parties, OGE said, employees should receive approval from their agency ethics leaders. 

Ethics officials have warned that accepting gifts could create favoritism, or the perception of it, in contract awards. Employees who accept a present from a contractor, for example, could put themselves at risk of prosecution and put agency contracts in jeopardy as well.

In 2016, OGE created a new policy that created a “reasonable person” standard for feds and gifts. The guidelines sought to reorient decision-making from whether exceptions could apply to instead focus on whether someone with “knowledge of the relevant facts would question the employee's integrity or impartiality.”

Federal employees do not have to concern themselves with accepting small gifts like a cup of coffee, things with "little intrinsic value" or discounts afforded to all federal workers. OGE has cited watches, artwork, items with precious gemstones and fine crystal as examples of gifts that would generally never be permitted. Federal employees cannot accept alcoholic beverages at a holiday party hosted by government contractors. When employees receive an impermissible gift, they should generally return it or reimburse the giver. In some cases, however, the ethics office permits employees to simply physically destroy it.

Shelley Finlayson, OGE's acting director, said the holiday season brings "gift-related challenges" for federal workers. 

"We hope these tips will help the millions of federal employees who show up every day to protect the health, safety and well-being of our nation to also continue to protect the trust of the public they serve while having a joyous holiday season,” Finalyson said. 

OGE is currently without a confirmed director after Emory Rounds’ term expired earlier this year. President Biden has nominated David Huitema, a State Department ethics official, to serve in the role.