Holiday guidance on gifts, contractors, holiday parties

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Provided by FEMA's Office of Chief Counsel

With the holiday season approaching, now is a good time to review some of the rules and regulations federal employees must follow concerning exchanging gifts with fellow employees, interacting with contractor personnel, and attending holiday parties. The FEMA Office of Chief Counsel extends its best wishes for your holiday season and offers the following guidance to assist you in avoiding violations of ethical standards of conduct. This guidance only addresses a few areas of potential concern and does not cover every situation. For further reference, see 5 C.F.R. Part 2635 (the Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch) §§201- 304.

Visit FEMA's Intranet Ethics and Office of Chief Counsel webpages to review the FEMA Holiday Gifts and Parties Podcast

During the holiday season, many FEMA offices hold parties and receptions involving food, drink, and even gifts. In addition, these events may include contractor employees, who are not federal personnel (even though they work side-by-side with us). This guidance addresses some considerations you need to take into account.

FEMA political appointees and Schedule C employees should also remember that they may not accept gifts from registered lobbyists (under the federal Lobby Disclosure Act) or lobbying entities, which can include party invitations pursuant to the Obama Ethics Executive Order.

Gifts From Contractors:

The general rule is that federal personnel may not accept gifts from contractors or contractor personnel.

  • Exception #1: Federal personnel may accept gifts (other than cash) not exceeding $20, as long as the total amount of gifts that an employee accepts from that contractor does not exceed $50 for the year.
  • Exception #2: Federal personnel may accept gifts from a contractor employee worth more than $20 that are based on a bona fide personal friendship. (Such personal gifts must be actually paid for by the contractor employee from that individual's personal funds AND NOT a company expense account.)
  • Exception #3: Federal personnel may generally attend a contractor's open-house or reception, and accept any gift of refreshments if it is a widely-attended gathering, and the employee's supervisor determines that it is in the agency's interest that the employee attends. See Paragraph #7 below on attending Contractor Sponsored Parties. FEMA employees may not attend contractor parties except while in a leave status.
  • Exception #4: Federal personnel may accept invitations (even from contractors) to holiday events or receptions that are open to the public or all government employees.
  • Exception #5: Federal personnel may accept invitations offered to a group or class that is not related to government employment. (For example, the building owner where your office is located throws a holiday reception for all of the tenants of the building.)

Gifts Exchanged Between Federal Personnel:

General Rule: Supervisors may not accept gifts from subordinates or federal personnel who receive less pay.

  • Exception #1: During holidays, which occur on an occasional basis, supervisors may accept gifts (other than cash) of $10 or less from a subordinate.
  • Exception #2: Supervisors may accept food and refreshments shared in the office.
  • Exception #3: If invited by a subordinate to a social event at the subordinate's residence, supervisors may accept such personal hospitality of the type and value customarily given on such an occasion.
  • Exception #4: 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. (Please note, there are no legal restrictions on gifts given to peers or subordinates, however, common sense should apply.)

Rules Applicable to Contractor Employees:

Many contractors have rules of ethics or business practices that are similar to the federal ethics rules. Federal employees should take these rules into consideration before offering contractor employees gifts or opportunities they may not be able to accept.

Office Parties. Gift Giving to Superiors. Gift Exchanges & Private Parties:

  1. Office Party (non-duty time): Your office is having a holiday party during the non-duty lunch hour or after work and asks each person attending to pay $5 to cover refreshments and to bring a pot luck dish or dessert. Contractor employees may attend, pay $5, and bring food because these contributions are not considered to be gifts, but a fair share contribution to the refreshments. Remember, contributions must be voluntary, so soliciting must be done with care to ensure there is no pressure. Also, ensure this is non-duty time for the contractor employees as well.
  2. Office Party (duty time): Consult the contracting officer and ethics counselor before inviting contractor employees to a function during their duty hours. The government usually may not reimburse a contractor for its employees' morale and welfare expenses. The contractor has to decide whether to let its employees attend and forego payment for their time, or insist that they continue to work.
  3. Gift to Supervisor: Your office wants to give the office supervisor a gift. However, you can not solicit other employees for contributions to a group gift. (Group gifts are permitted only for special, infrequent events such as retirements.) As for contractor employees, you can not ask them to contribute anything, as it is considered soliciting a gift from a prohibited source. Even if contractor employees volunteer to contribute cash, it may not be accepted because the $20 exception does not apply to cash.
  4. Exchange of Gifts: Your office, including the contractor employees, wants to exchange gifts at the party. If gifts are chosen at random or traded, there are no monetary limits (except common sense) because the purchaser of the gift does not know who will eventually receive it. Gift exchanges in which employees purchase gifts for other employees whose names they drew at random are more troublesome. Where contractor personnel are involved, a $20 limit eliminates concerns so long as the total from the contractor does not exceed $50 that same year. Where an employee may buy a gift for a superior, the $10 limit is prudent.
  5. Private Parties (Federal Personnel): One of your government coworkers is having a party at his house and has invited office personnel, including contractor employees. A gift of food and refreshments to a contractor employee does not violate government ethics rules. The contractor employees may want to check with their contractor's rules before accepting since many contractors have independent ethics rules. If the contractor employee brings a hospitality gift, it may not exceed $20. If such a gift is edible, even if it exceeds $20, the host may accept it on behalf of all the guests and share it with them.
  6. Private Parties (With Contractor Employees): If a contractor employee is having a party and invites government personnel, normally government personnel must decline, since the food, drink, and entertainment is a gift from a prohibited source. Several exceptions may permit attendance, however. Under the $20 rule, if the average cost per guest does not exceed $20 and $50 per year from the contractor, government personnel may accept. (However, if the cost per guest is $40, the "I won't eat more than $20 worth of food" defense will not work.) Also, government personnel may accept if the invitation is based on a bona fide personal relationship with the contractor employee. Finally, if the party qualifies as a widely-attended gathering (involving a large number of persons representing a diversity of views) and the employee's supervisor determines that it is in the agency's interest for the employee to attend, the employee may enjoy the food, drink, and entertainment. Government personnel who desire to take a gift to show their appreciation for the hospitality should consult with the contractor employee to determine if he or she may accept such a gift in accordance with the contractor's rules of ethics.
  7. Private Parties (Contractor-sponsored): If the contractor is sponsoring an employee's party or open-house, and you are invited by the contractor (or an employee of the contractor), you may not attend unless one of the exceptions in paragraph #6, above, apply.

Fundraising During the Holidays at Work:

Many offices combine their holiday parties with Combined Federal Campaign activities, which is the only officially sanctioned fundraising in the federal workplace other than special approval given by Office of Personnel Management for specific disaster (e.g., Hurricane Sandy) relief fundraising by federal agencies, such as providing contributions for Hurricane Sandy relief agencies directly rather through the CFC Campaign.

FEMA offices may combine CFC fundraising events, approved by the FEMA Ethics Office, during the CFC Campaign season which coincides with the Winter Holiday season.

Also if an office decides to support Toys for Tots, or collect winter coats for homeless people, or canned goods, these sort of “in-kind” collections may be done as part of an office holiday event, as they are not considered fundraising events so long as no money changes hands.  If your office management has any questions about such events, please have them contact the FEMA Ethics Office.

Have a wonderful holiday season. Please remember that this guidance only highlights common questions, and does not cover every situation. Use good common sense.  

If you have any questions or concerns, please contact the FEMA Ethics Office. Happy Holidays!!

Paul Conrad, 202-646-4025
Elizabeth Jerke, 202-646-2479
Ebbonie Taylor, 202-646-4025

Last Updated: 
12/13/2012 - 12:51
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