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Tis the Season: A Reflection on the Gift Rules

November 30, 2021

By: Emory Rounds, Director

Giving and receiving gifts is common to many cultures around the world for marking joyous occasions, holidays, or even mourning. So why, if gift exchanges are so common, do the executive branch ethics rules prohibit accepting some gifts?

The ethics rules reflect the notion that under some circumstances gifts have the potential to improperly influence federal employees as they carry out their duties serving the public. Gifts can help to create and reinforce relationships but, while generally this is a good thing, gifts can pose problems for ethics in government.

For example, if a contractor is gifting something to the employee overseeing the agency contract, this could create difficulties: the employee may develop a preference for that contractor, or the employee may feel an obligation to return the favor while those around the employee and the public may question whether the contractor is qualified or was chosen unfairly. And, if the employee were to take action after being influenced by the gifts, the employee could break the ethics rules, break a criminal law, and jeopardize the government contract.

To prevent situations like this, the ethics rules generally prohibit employees from asking for or receiving gifts given because of their government jobs. The rules also prohibit accepting gifts from people who do business with an employee’s agency.

There are some exceptions to these rules, but they should only be used when acceptance of the gift would not cause a reasonable person to question the integrity of the government’s work. For example, gifts from close friends or family, small gifts like a cup of coffee and donut, or discounts given to all government employees, usually will not hurt the public’s confidence in government decisions. However, an expensive gift, or one given to suggest an attempt to influence an important agency decision, is more likely to cause someone to question the government’s integrity.

So, the guiding principle of the gift rules is: government employees should not accept gifts that hurt the government’s reputation or its integrity.

OGE recognizes that gifts are an important part of many cultures and traditions, which is why the rules do not prohibit all gifts. However, employees should always seek advice from their ethics official if they are offered gifts by people who do business with their agencies or if they just are not sure what rules apply.

All of us at OGE wish you a safe and happy holiday season . . . free of prohibited gifts, full of ethics advice, and packed with service to the American people.