Ethics, Gifts and the Holiday Season

The holidays are here!  It's natural to want to share our holiday cheer with our coworkers through gifts and parties, but it's important to remember Air Force ethics rules while you celebrate.  Even during the holiday season, Standards of Conduct still apply.  Here are a few tips to help you avoid unknowingly violating ethics standards.

I hear there are gift rules... so what is the definition of a gift?
A gift is anything of monetary value, such as cash, meals, paperweights, trips, concert tickets, and services. A gift is not a cup of coffee, modest refreshments that are not part of a meal, or items of little intrinsic value such as greeting cards, plaques, and certificates intended solely for presentation.  Car pooling and similar arrangements are not seen as gifts, provided there is a proportionate sharing of cost and effort.

We want to have an office party, what is the policy on food and refreshments shared in the office?
Provided that the events take place in the office, the donors participate, and all contributions are voluntary, you can have an office get-together, even if some of the beneficiaries are supervisors.
I'm a supervisor and I'm hosting a party at my house, can I accept a hospitality gift from a subordinate guest?
Yes.  You can accept a hospitality gift from subordinate employees and other employees that receive less pay than you.  However, the gifts must be of a type and value that is customarily given in connection with the receipt of personal hospitality, such as a bottle of wine or a bouquet of flowers.

What are the prohibitions on gifts between employees?
You cannot give a gift to, or contribute to a gift for, your official supervisor, unless it is under $10 (see the $10 Rule below).  You also may not solicit a contribution from another employee for a gift for either your or that employee's official supervisor.  Finally, you may not accept a gift from someone who is paid less than you, unless that person is not your subordinate and a personal relationship justifies the gift.

I have been working with someone for a very long time, and we have grown to become friends. He/She is higher ranking than me, but is not my official supervisor. May we exchange gifts?
Yes.  Under the general prohibitions, employees may not accept gifts from other employees who receive less pay, unless, in this case, the employees are not in a superior-subordinate relationship and a personal relationship justifies the gift.  Because of this, you and your friend are free to exchange gifts of any value, at any time.

The $10 Rule:
There is an exception that allows you to give, and allows your supervisor to accept, a gift (other than cash) with a market value of $10 or less on an occasional basis.  This pertains to occasions where gifts are traditionally given like birthdays, Bosses' Day, or other annually occurring holidays.  You may also collect voluntary contributions of nominal amounts (not exceeding $10) for a gift to recognize a promotion to a position outside of your supervisory superior-subordinate relationship.  Also, employees may contribute to an office social fund that is used to purchase gifts.  It is imperative, however, that employees are made aware that they may contribute as little as they choose, or not at all.  No one should be pressured or coerced into contributing.

My supervisor has been hospitalized and I would like to send her a flower arrangement. Am I limited to $10?
No, you do not need to abide by the $10 rule in this case.  On special, infrequent occasions of personal signifigance like illnesses, marriages, deaths in the family, or births or adoptions of children (but not holidays or annually recurring events), you may give a gift worth more than $10.  Also, on occasions that terminate the superior-subordinate relationship, you may give gifts to an official supervisor and accept them from subordinates or other employees receiving less pay.  On these occasions, the market value of a gift or gifts from a subordinate (or a group of people donating, which includes subordinates) may not exceed an aggregate value of $300.00.  This rule applies to retirement gifts as well.

The $20/$50 exception:
This exception allows you to accept gifts of $20 or less on a single occasion, but no more than $50 per calendar year, per source.  The "source" is the entire organization, so you may not accept gifts exceeding $50 just because different employees in the same organization pay for them each time.  If several gifts are given to you at the same time, you must decline and separate items accordingly to keep the total $20 or less.  You may never accept monetary gifts, and you may not pay the difference for gifts exceeding the $20 limit.  Finally, you cannot accept gifts so frequently that you appear to be using your public office for private gain.

What is the basic gift rule that applies to me as an Air Force employee? 
As an Air Force employee, you may not solicit or accept a gift that is given because of your official position or that is given to you by a prohibited source.  The exceptions are if the item is either not considered to be a gift, if it is less than $10, or if it is given based on a personal relationship by someone who is not your subordinate.

What is a prohibited source?
A prohibited source is a person or organization that seeks official action by your agency, does business or seeks to do business with your agency, has activities that are regulated by your agency, or has interests that may be affected by you when you are doing your job.  This includes any organization with the majority of their members described within one of these categories.

What do I do with a gift that I am unable to accept? 
In this case, you have a few options.  You can pay the donor the market value for the gift if you would like to keep it.  If you do not want to keep the gift, you may return it to the source.  If the gift is perishable, such as food or flowers, it may be shared within your office, it may be donated to charity, or it may be destroyed, as long as an ethics official or your supervisor grants their approval.

If you are still unsure, please feel free to come and see the ethics officer at the base legal office.  Our walk-in legal assistance hours are Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8:30 a.m. - 9:30 a.m.