Government employees at all levels and branches of government are subject rules governing ethical behavior in the execution of their jobs. For federal executive branch employees, these are enforced by law. Slightly different rules exist for career employees than politically-appointed officials. The rules that govern the behavior of federal employees usually apply to their immediate family as well - most laws will cover their spouses and children as well.
Various laws codify different aspects of ethical behavior in the executive branch, but much of the basic groundwork was established by Executive Order 12674 signed by President Bush in 1989, and revised a year later in Executive Order 12731.
It is important to note that Congress and the Supreme Court are often not subject to these same restrictions. What is illegal for executive branch employees is frequently allowed for the other branches, or the laws are not strongly enforced. This is particularly true around stock trading, where the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act (STOCK Act) of 2012 (Pub.L. 112-105) has done little to prevent such conflicts.
The following topics are the ones most frequently encountered by federal employees, but others may also apply. Rules are also agency-specific, for instance the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has additional requirements for stock holdings & trading due to is role in regulating these financial products.
Ethics laws are very complicated, always consult your agency’s Ethics team before engaging in any activity that may be covered. The U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE) is another excellent source of information, particularly their compilation of ethics laws.
Most of the rules are designed to avoid conflicts of interest, where an employee may potentially be influenced to act on behalf of another party (either themselves or another person or organization) against the best interests of the government. In most cases these rules are designed to avoid even having the appearance of such a conflict, even if the employee is acting ethically. This is particularly applied to financial holdings, such as stocks.
The Ethics in Government Act of 1978 (Pub.L. 95-521) requires federal employees to report to the government their financial holdings, most commonly through two standard forms: the Public Financial Disclosure Report (OGE 278e) and the Confidential Financial Disclosure Report (OGE 450). Individual stocks and industry-specific funds must be reported above a certain value, while diversified mutual funds generally do not have to be reported.
If they a federal employee is overseeing matters that might be influenced by these holdings, they will generally need to either recuse themselves from such deliberations, divest from the stocks, or file for a waiver. This can often impact new federal employees coming from the private sector in technology frequently have stock holdings from their previous employers. For instance, a federal employee with significant holdings in a cloud company generally should not be participating in an acquisition for cloud services. (Also see Outside Activities below.) Agencies may request divestiture actions and waivers directly upon hiring an employee, rather than when the conflict emerges later during employment.
It may be obvious, but it is illegal for federal employees to make trades based on nonpublic information they acquire through their work. Selling or buying a stock based on learning information about, for instance, upcoming appropriations, financial investigations, a rapidly-appearing health or other emergency, or potential wars is illegal.
Note that managed accounts, either as a trust managed by a human or an automated brokerage tool may still be problematic. Federally-backed/sponsored products are usually exempt however, including the federal Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) retirement fund, treasury bonds, as well as FDIC-backed bank products such as a Certificate of Deposit (CD).
Cryptocurrencies and similar digital assets such as Non-Fungible Tokens(NFTs) present additional challenges, as U.S. law does not define crypto assets as “publicly traded securities” like stocks, and are not as tightly regulated. As such, the requirements are slightly different, but the principle is the same: employees should not have crypto holdings that could present a conflict of interest. Again, the relevant regulatory agencies will likely have even more strict requirements on crypto holdings, and may even be prohibited from trading them altogether. In 2022, OGE released supplementary guidance on cryptocurrency holdings.
In short, federal employees must be very careful about accepting gifts from anyone representing a business or lobby group or other organization that has interest in the government’s dealings directly or indirectly. In most cases, it’s safest just to reject any gifts or offers of free goods or services.
Federal employees cannot accept gifts offered because of their position or title. They cannot accept gifts from lobbyists or lobbying organizations. They cannot generally accept gifts from anyone who has interests relating to official duties or otherwise is seeking action/business from the government. Under no circumstances can a federal employee accept any gift from a foreign government, whether on-duty or off-duty, unless they have a legal authority to do so (such as the case with diplomats). A federal employee does not have to provide any justification for rejecting a gift that is offered.
There are some exceptions. Occasional small gifts under $20 can be accepted from non-lobbyists, but not more than a combined value of $50 total in a given year. Gifts from friends or family where there’s a prior relationship are generally allowed. Books or other information like trainings can be accepted but less than $100 total value in a year.
There are also completely-excluded categories which staff do not need to worry about. For instance, small food items or drinks that are not a full meal - like coffee and bagels are fine to take advantage of if provided. Things like certificates, trophies, and other awards are generally allowed. Anything that’s available to the general public, and not because of an employee’s role are fine: bank loans, discounts & coupons, raffle prizes, etc. Of course, anything the government pays for directly, or that the employee themselves pays for, aren’t gifts and are acceptable.
If an employee receives a gift that is not under the exceptions or exclusions, they may return it or pay the sender for it. If it’s a food item, they may share it with their entire office or donate it to charity instead. Any small items under $100 can also be destroyed or discarded. Larger items must be forfeited to The Department of the Treasury (USDT), which will then sell the item and use the proceeds towards paying down the federal deficit.
Events are another special category. For “widely-attended gatherings” such as professional events federal staff must pay the fair market value to attend. If the employee is speaking at the event, they may have the attendance fee waived for the single day they are speaking. This is why most public-private government events have a fee to attend for private companies’ employees but are free for public sector employees, as this gets around the rule. In most cases, you should contact both your ethics team and your communications team regarding any event you plan to attend, regardless of if you are speaking or not. (Also see Public Speaking below.)
Supervisors generally cannot accept gifts from their reporting staff, except under special conditions: if it’s a very cheap item, food for the office generally, or specifically for a “special event” such as getting married, having a child, or retirement - but not recurring events like birthdays, holidays, etc.
Position and Resources
A federal employee cannot use their position for personal purposes or private gain - either for themselves or other people. This includes using work-time, their government computer, email address, office space, etc. for things other than government work. Occasionally checking personal email or social media during work or from a work computer is allowed, but there are some restrictions to what you can post and share (see Social Media below).
Staff also cannot use their title & affiliation to gain special access or privileges, or use non-public information in any way that might be inappropriate (such as discussed with stock trading above). Gambling is totally prohibited both during duty hours wherever they are as well as at any time while in-office; this includes things like betting pools for sports tournaments.
Fundraising is prohibited, including girl scout cookie sales or other fundraising for a charity. Government-sponsored initiatives are exempt from this rule, such as the Combined Federal Campaign, Feds Feed Families, or similar.
Government employees are expected to not show preferential treatment towards any single organization or business. This commonly applies in two cases:
When an agency is putting out a new procurement, or even considering to do so, vendors should be given equal access to federal staff. That is, if you’re meeting with one business, you are expected to meet with all of the other businesses for an equal amount of time. One way to handle this is by hosting “industry day” or similar events with all of the potential vendors in one forum.
When an agency official is allowed to meet with a lobbyist, it is expected that they will meet with any other lobbyists for a similar amount of time.
As such, it can be a great protection to one’s available time to not meet with any vendors or lobbyists, even when permitted to do so.
This also means that staff should not be abusing their work access for private companies or lobbying organizations, whether or not they receive compensation. Hosting meetings with vendors where there is no existing professional relationship should be avoided. Blogging or tweeting about private sector companies from government accounts even if there is a relationship should also be avoided, as this is effectively advertising the companies at the expense of government resources.
One frequent area of abuse is in using flexible authorities. Although these can be used to great effect to streamline technology acquisition and staffing, they can also be easily misused for unethical ends. For instance, in a procurement an agency may directly award a contract to a small business without a full evaluation; this is a frequent source of cronyism and corruption in federal agencies, no matter how well-justified the award is. Similarly, the Direct Hire Authorities are often abused to hire folks into key roles without proper interview processes.
Any dealings by federal staff in official capacity with their past, current, and potential-future employers or organizations other than their federal employer are also subject to scrutiny. In general, an employee can’t work on anything with people or an organization where they have a close personal or business relationship, or if it would affect their (or someone in their household’s) finances.
This includes any person or organization that they currently have or are seeking to have a business or financial relationship with, including potential future employers. (Of course this does not include individual routine commercial transactions, like purchasing things online from a company.) Note that this does include any non-federal organization that they are a member of e.g. bar association or other professional organizations.
Most agencies also have a “cooling-off period” where the staff member is not allowed to work on any matters regarding an organization they were previously employed with, for at least a year (but sometimes more depending on the position). This generally applies in reverse as well; when an employee leaves federal service, they must also follow a cooling-off period at any new (non-government) organization they join, and are prohibited from lobbying or selling things to the agency they left for a year or more. For some agencies, this may be a permanent restriction on certain matters. Note that slightly different rules typically apply for career staff and politically-appointed staff.
In most of these situations, an agency’s ethics office will require staff to disclose these relationships in advance. This is often done as part of the onboarding process, but it is recommended that employees be proactive in their disclosures to avoid any perceived conflicts later that could be grounds for investigation, dismissal, or - worst of all - a procurement protest from a vendor (e.g. the JEDI debacle).
Non-professional work unrelated to your agency are excluded, such as being a member of a recreational sports league. For union members activities relating to your union duties are excluded.
Although these may seem like obvious things to avoid so far, it must be noted that one cannot even give the impression of impropriety. A good example of this is when a federal staff member is looking to leave government service for the private sector. Any organization they speak to about employment in any capacity, other than to explicitly reject the idea of working for them, is considered “seeking employment” and subject to the rules above.
That means if a recruiter or headhunter contacts you and you reply with anything other than an outright rejection, it becomes a conflict of interest for any ongoing or future dealings. This is also true if you contact an organization or just submit a resume through a generic form - even if you have not talked about compensation or any position. Seeking employment “ends” if you or the organization in question explicitly state they are no longer interested; however if you just submitted a resume and two months go by without contact, seeking employment automatically ends. However, it still must be disclosed and documented in the meantime!
Keep in mind that changing your LinkedIn status to “open to work” doesn’t automatically begin the “seeking employment” phase with a specific company, but if you then receive an email or message from a recruiter it may. Again, check with your ethics office first.
Basically, a federal employee cannot represent on someone else’s behalf in dealings with the government, whether paid or unpaid. E.g., you cannot assist a friend with their immigration hearing at The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), or contact the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) regarding an audit of your spouse’s business. You may represent your spouse or children in legal hearings, however, or act as a witness in any legal investigations.
Of course, you are always allowed to submit Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, or ask a government agency for public information. You are also allowed to provide feedback in personal capacity to government feedback requests like Federal Register notices - just don’t use your title or agency unless you are doing so in official capacity on behalf of that agency.
Political activity is any action taken toward the success or failure of a political group, candidate, or political party. Under the Hatch Act of 1939, political activity of any sort is illegal during work hours or using any government resources. No campaign-related items are allowed at work, including signs, flags, stickers, coffee mugs, etc.
Moreover, political fundraising - that is, actively soliciting other people to give money to candidates or parties - is illegal for government employees at any time, but staff may still privately make individual donations to candidates. Note that federal political contribution limits still apply.
This does not prohibit discussing news/common topics that may be involved in political arenas, such as gun control or abortion.
In most cases, public speaking of just about any sort - including both giving actual talks or trainings, as well as authoring articles or blog posts - should be cleared with both the ethics office and communications team in advance. This approval should be sought even if you are not participating in “official capacity” - that is, representing your government agency - and regardless of whether or not the topic is related to your official government work. If you have an ongoing engagement - such as a personal blog or podcast - you should also seek blanket approval for these upon joining the organization.
The clearance process for these will vary depending on the content, audience, and nature of the medium. The process is also slightly different at each agency. E.g. blogging about government technology policy might be totally acceptable at some agencies, but being a member of a radical anti-government punk band will probably raise some red flags at The Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Just remember to follow the Position and Resources guidelines above, by not working on these projects during work hours or with government devices.
It is also important to note that clearance should always be requested before speaking to any member of the press, regardless of if the interview is “on the record” or “on background.”
Social media usage also has specific rules. For instance, on your public profile, you are allowed to list your job/title/agency, but not as an official endorsement of anything. That is, you cannot post something like “as the Chief Enforcement Officer of the US Department of Hypothetical Examples, I can say this is the absolute best made-up example.” You don’t generally have to include the common disclaimer on your profile or posts stating that it is your personal account and you are posting in personal capacity, but it is generally acceptable to do so to avoid any confusion.
As stated previously, you are generally allowed to occasionally check your personal social media during work hours. However, keep in mind that if you’re using a government computer or network, the agency (like private sector employers) can legally monitor any such activity, including reading your email or any posts made, without needing to seek a warrant to do so; as such you’re better off not doing so.
You are allowed to follow and even re-post political candidates, elected officials’, or political party messages - but you should avoid doing so during work hours, even under the “occasionally” rule above. However, as stated under Political Activity above, staff absolutely cannot do any sort of political fundraising-related activities, which includes re-posting any fundraising posts from these groups.