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NEWS | Dec. 3, 2015

Holiday gift giving ethics

By 1st Lt Anthony Chanrasmi 87 ABW/JA

With the holiday season in full swing, the 87th Air Base Wing Legal Office wants to provide the JB MDL community with some general guidance on the ethical rules relating to gift giving and office parties so that everyone can enjoy the holidays in an appropriate manner. 

Gifts to a Supervisor

Defense Department employees generally may not give gifts to a supervisor.  However, a subordinate may, on an occasional basis, including any occasion on which gifts are traditionally given or exchanged, give a gift (excluding cash) to a supervisor if it has a total market value of $10 or less.  Also, a subordinate may bring food and refreshments into the office, if they will be shared among several employees, and supervisors and subordinates may share in the expenses of an office party.  Finally, 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.

Gifts to Subordinates, Peers, and Coworkers

No ethics rule prohibits giving a holiday gift to a subordinate, but giving a gift to just one or some of your subordinates may create an appearance of favoritism.  Similarly, no ethics rules govern the giving or receiving of gifts between peers or coworkers.  However, common sense (and good taste) should apply.

Gifts from Sources outside the DoD (including contractor employees)

DoD employees generally may not accept gifts from a "prohibited source" (i.e., a DoD contractor, DoD contractor employee, or a person or agency seeking to do business with or having interests substantially affected by the DoD).  However, under the $20/$50 rule, you may accept a gift (excluding cash) with a market value of $20 or less, as long as the total value of the gifts you accept under this rule from one source in a calendar year does not exceed $50.  Also, under the personal relationship gift rule, you may accept a gift if it is clear that it is motivated by a family or personal relationship.  Senior leaders should be cautious of using this exception with people who are their friends because of their official position.

Also, enlisted members E-6 and below may accept gifts other than cash valued greater than $20 if from a charitable or veterans service tax-exempt (i.e., 501(c)(3)) organization.  Other ethical rules, including the ban on acceptance of gifts intended to influence the enlisted member's performance of his official duties, still apply.  Finally, no service member may solicit a gift from a tax-exempt or any other organization.

Gifts to Contractor Employees

There are no ethics rules that prohibit giving a holiday gift to a contractor employee, but be aware that the DoD contractor may have a policy that prohibits accepting gifts from government employees.

Greeting Cards and Care Packages

Seasonal greeting cards and care packages are considered personal mail and cannot be purchased or mailed using appropriated funds.  DoD 4525.8-M_AFMAN 33-306, DoD Official Mail Manual, para. C1.4.9.

Using Subordinates to Work Holiday Parties

An employee shall not encourage, direct, coerce, or request a subordinate to use official time to perform activities other than those required in the performance of official duties or those authorized in accordance with law or regulation.  Employees should use official time in an honest effort to perform official duties.

Gift Exchanges

If your office has a gift exchange (e.g., white elephant) where the gifts are randomly chosen or traded, no monetary limit is required.  For gift giving where names are assigned or drawn at random (e.g., Secret Santa), a $20 limit is appropriate if contractor personnel participate, and a $10 limit is appropriate if supervisors participate.

Holiday Parties

DoD personnel may not solicit outside sources for contributions (including funds, food, and gifts) to their holiday party while acting in an official capacity.  Private organizations operating pursuant to AFI 34-223 may fundraise and solicit for holiday parties that they organize with prior approval from 87 FSS, 87 ABW/JA, and 87 MSG.  Such fundraising should only occur in a personal capacity not affiliated with the DoD.

For more information on holiday ethics, see the DoD Standards of Conduct Office memo on Holiday Guidance at and the Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch at 5 CFR 2635.  If you have any questions on holiday ethics, contact an ethics counselor at the 87 ABW Legal Office at 609-754-2010.


The holiday season - a time for good cheer!
For egg nog, for parties, for friends to be near.
But I must be careful
Lest I accept free
A gift not permitted, no matter how wee.

Part two six three five of the 5 CFR
Explains in detail the relevant bar.
It defines the term gift
To mean all things worth money.
That's NBA tickets or jars full of honey.

Some gifts may be taken but some are verboten.
The source is the key - it's the rule that I'm quotin'.
When from me or others
The source seeks some act,
I must find an exception or I could be sacked

Even others who give can cause problems for me.
If my job prompts the giving - my position, you see.
But lucky for me,
Some exceptions exist.
They're in subpart B and should not be missed.

I can pay market value if the gift I do like,
Or I can at my option say "go take a hike."
I can always say no,
But I need not decline.
If worth twenty or less then the gift can be mine.

This exception has prompted some very loud hollers.
It says gifts are okay if worth twenty dollars.
But surely the public
Is certain to see,
I could never be bought for a sandwich and tea.

Restrictions apply so it does not suffice
To pay twenty bucks for a gift twice the price.
And in any one year
I can't use it, of course,
To go over the limit - fifty dollars per source.

For gifts that a friend or my sister might send,
The rules recognize I don't want to offend.
Regardless of value,
It only must be
That their motive to give wasn't business, but me.

The rule's much the same in the case of my spouse
Who happens to work as she can't stand our house.
Although her employer
Is one of those sources,
I can go to their fete and avoid more divorces.

In the case of most parties, the rule's not so clear
As the agency must have an interest, I fear.
If worth more than twenty
And it's no friend true,
Then I'd better seek guidance or I could be blue.

When foreign officials are giving the gift,
The rules are less strict so I don't cause a rift.
I can take it if
Fair market value U.S.
Is three hundred fifty dollars or less.

I can give to my boss to a limit of ten -
A baseball, a cap, or a blue ballpoint pen.
If not to my boss
Or my chain of command,
To a friend I can give more without being canned.

I always look forward to my office party.
We're all in good moods and the food is so hearty.
If no arm is twisted,
Collecting is okay
To make sure that everyone has a good day.

But finally, how would these rules affect me
If I served the President as "appointee"?
I know that appointees
Must sign when they're hired
A short ethics pledge (or they risk being fired.)

The same rules apply to a person who signed
Except there's an extra gift rule that's enshrined:
No gifts from a source
Listed as "lobbyist" -
Though no friend or kin is required to be dissed.

So go forth with good cheer and know there's no reason
To think that the gifts rules will ruin your season.