An Abridged Guide to the Standards of Ethical Conduct in Government and Overview of Other Legal Issues



The DoD General Counsel is the Designated Agency Ethics Official (DAEO) for DoD employees, both civilian and military, who serve in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, most DoD Field Activities, and the Joint Staff.


If you are not positive that what you are about to do is appropriate, ask your ethics counselor. One mission of ethics counselors is to advise personnel on accomplishing their goals without violating the standards of conduct. In fact, disciplinary action for violating the standards of conduct will not be taken against you if you act in good faith reliance upon the advice of your ethics counselor following a full disclosure of all relevant circumstances.

This section provides a general summary of the rules. It does not include every rule, exception, requirement, or all the factors that must be considered in making certain ethics-related decisions. If you are unsure of your actions, call your ethics counselor before you act.

Please note that the President may issue an Executive Order (EO) or other document adding further ethics restrictions as has been done in the past. Contact your respective ethics official to confirm whether you are subject to and what are those restrictions.

General Principles of Public Service
Remember: Violating ethics principles may result in disciplinary or corrective action, including criminal prosecution. Protect yourself from disciplinary action by seeking the advice of your ethics counselor


What is a Gift? A gift is anything of value.

What is Not a Gift? Here are examples of items that are not defined as a “gift”:

  • Modest items of food and refreshments (like coffee and donuts) when not served as a meal

  • Prizes in contests open to the public

  • Greeting cards and items with little intrinsic value, such as plaques, certificates, and trophies, intended only for presentation

  • Commercial discounts available to the public or to all Government civilian or military personnel

  • Anything the Government acquires by contract or otherwise legally accepts

  • Anything for which you pay market value    

Gifts From Outside Sources

Rule: You may not accept a gift given because of your official position, or by a prohibited source.
Regardless of any exceptions that allow accepting gifts, it is always impermissible to:

  • Accept a gift in return for being influenced in the performance of an official act. This is a bribe!

  • Solicit or coerce the offering of a gift.

  • Accept gifts from the same or different sources so frequently that a reasonable person would think you are using your office for private gain.

  • Accept a gift in violation of a statute.

What is a Prohibited Source?
A prohibited source is any person who is, or any organization a majority of whose members are:

  • Seeking official action by DoD

  • Doing or seeking to do business with DoD

  • Regulated by DoD, or

  • Substantially affected by the performance of your official duties

Gifts That You May Keep

Remember, you do not have to accept a gift. It may be prudent, depending on the circumstances, to decline a gift, even when it is allowed by a gift exception:

  • Gifts valued at $20 or less, but not cash or investment interests, and not more than $50 in total from one source in a year.

  • Gifts motivated by personal relationships.

  • Certain discounts and similar benefits offered by professional organizations; or  

    • to groups unrelated to Government employment (such as AARP) or in which membership is related to Government employment, if the same benefits are available to other, similar organizations (e.g., discounted loans to Government credit union members).

    • by a non-prohibited source to any group not determined on the basis of grade or rank, type of responsibility, or pay.

  • Gifts resulting from your or your spouse’s outside business activities such as free attendance provided by a state, local government, or tax exempt civic organization when there is a community relations interest.

  • Gifts accepted under specific statutory authority, such as certain gifts from a foreign government or gifts offered to a wounded or injured DoD employee.

  • Certain educational scholarships and grants.

  • Free attendance, food, and entertainment (not travel) when provided by a sponsor of an event on the day that you are speaking or presenting information, or of a widely attended gathering, provided that your supervisor determines that your attendance is in the agency’s interest. If the sponsor has interests that may be affected by your duties, an additional conflict of interest determination is required.

  • Free attendance, food, and entertainment (not travel) provided by a person other than the sponsor of a widely attended gathering, if the market value of the gift of free attendance is $375 or less and more than 100 persons are expected to attend, and your supervisor determines that your attendance is in the agency’s interest. If the person has interests that may be affected by your duties, an additional conflict of interest determination is required.  

  • Meals, lodging, transportation, and other benefits in connection with employment discussions.

  • Awards for meritorious public service or achievement and honorary degrees.

  • Travel benefits and free attendance from political organizations in connection with certain political activities.

  • Food and entertainment (not travel and lodging), at social events, if the invitation is not from a prohibited source, and the event is free to all attendees.

  • Gifts of food and entertainment (not to exceed the per diem rate) at meetings or events attended in an official capacity in foreign areas, when not provided by a foreign government and non-U.S. citizens participate in the meeting or event

NOTE: Many of these gift exceptions are not available to political appointees if the gift is from a registered lobbyist or lobbying organization.

Foreign Gifts

Rule: Federal employees may accept gifts from foreign governments if the gift is below “minimal value” which is currently $375 and below. Check with your ethics counselor about appraising the gift.

Disposition of Improper Gifts

Rule: If you are offered a gift that you cannot accept, you should promptly: decline the gift, return the gift, or pay the donor the gift’s market value.

Gifts Between Employees

Rule: You may not accept a gift from an employee who earns less than you unless you have a personal relationship with the employee and you are not in the chain of command
Rule: You may not give, make a donation toward, or solicit a gift for someone superior to you in the chain of command.

Exceptions to the Rule

On an occasional basis, such as holidays or birthdays, you may give to a superior or receive from a subordinate non-monetary gifts of up to $10, personal hospitality provided at a residence (or an appropriate host/hostess gift), or food or refreshments shared in the office.

On special, infrequent occasions, of personal significance (such as marriage, illness, or birth or adoption of a child).

On special, infrequent occasions, that terminate the chain of command, such as retirement, resignation, or transfer you may: solicit voluntary contributions up to $10/person for a group gift, give an appropriate gift to a superior, or accept appropriate gifts from subordinates and group gifts that do not exceed $300.


Conflicting Financial Interests

Criminal Rule: You may not do government work on a particular matter that will affect the financial interest of:

  • You;

  • Your spouse, minor children, or your general partner;

  • Organizations with which you are negotiating or have an arrangement for future employment; or

  • Any organization for which you serve as an employee, officer, director, trustee, or general partner.

If you think you may have a conflicting financial interest, consult your ethics counselor immediately to determine the appropriate remedy.

Bribery and Graft

Rule: You may not seek or accept anything of value, other than your salary, for being influenced in the performance of your official duties.

Commercial Dealings Between DoD Employees

Rule: You may not knowingly solicit or make solicited sales to personnel who are junior in rank, grade, or position (or their families). This includes insurance, stocks, real estate, cosmetics, household supplies, and other such goods and services.

Representation of Others in Matters Affecting the Government

Rule: You generally may not represent anyone outside the U.S. Government before a Federal agency or court, or share in any compensation for such representations made by anybody else, if the Government is involved in the particular matter. There are limited exceptions that include special exceptions for “special government employees” such as experts or consultants.

Supplementation of Federal Salary

Rule: You may not accept compensation from any source except the U.S. Government for your services as a Government employee. This rule does not apply, if:

  • you are a “special Government employee” or

  • you serve without compensation, or

  • the gift or other item of value can be accepted in conformity with the rules governing gifts from outside sources (such as a public service award) or gifts between employees.

Impartiality in Performing Official Duties

Rule: Maintain your impartiality. Do not participate in any particular DoD matter if the matter is likely to affect the financial interest of a member of your household, or a person with whom you have a “covered relationship” is involved in the matter, and a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts could question your impartiality. Who may be in a “covered relationship”?

  •  A member of your household or a relative with whom you are close,

  • Someone with whom you have or seek to have a business relationship other than a routine consumer transaction,

  • An organization (other than a political party) in which you actively participate,

  • Someone with whom you had, within the last year, a close business relationship, such as partnership or employment, or

  • Someone with whom your spouse, parent, or dependent child has (or seeks to have) a close business relationship, such as partnership or employment.    

Misuse of Position

Rule: You may not use, or permit the use of, your Government position, title, or any authority associated with your office to:

  • induce or coerce another person to provide any benefit to you or anyone with whom you are affiliated

  • imply that DoD or the Government endorses personal activities

  • endorse any product, service, or enterprise, except as provided by statute or regulation

Use of Government Resources
Rule: Use Federal Government equipment and property, including communications systems, only for official purposes or authorized purposes as approved by your supervisor.

Rule: Use official time in an honest effort to perform official duties and do not ask subordinates to perform tasks outside their official duties.

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Rule: As a general rule, you may not engage in fundraising in the workplace. You may raise funds for organizations in your personal capacity outside the workplace, however, you may not use your official title, position, or authority when doing so, nor may you solicit subordinates or prohibited sources.

Teaching, Speaking, and Writing

Rule: You may accept payment for teaching, speaking, or writing that is unrelated to your official duties and that was not prepared on official time.

If the work identifies your employment by DoD you must make a disclaimer expressly stating that the views expressed are your own and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.

Outside Activities

If you file a financial disclosure report (OGE Form 278 or 450), you need your supervisor’s prior written approval before you engage in business activity or compensated employment with a DoD “prohibited source” (defined above in the section on “Gifts”). Presidential appointees and certain non-career employees have additional restrictions.

Rule: You may not have outside employment or activities that would materially impair your ability to perform your official duties.

Political Activities
Most Federal civilian employees may actively participate in political campaigns and other partisan political activities. However, they may not engage in such activities on duty, or in any Federal workplace, vehicle, or while in uniform. Further, they may not use their official title, position or authority when engaging in partisan political activities.

While the Hatch Act loosened restrictions on partisan political activity for most Federal civilian employees, Federal laws still limit the partisan political activities of military personnel, employees of certain law enforcement and national security agencies, and career SES employees. Certain political appointees are subject to additional restrictions by DoD policy, i.e., they may not engage in any activity that could be interpreted as associating DoD with any partisan political cause or issue.

If you plan to engage in any partisan political activity, you should consult your ethics counselor.


Seeking Employment

Rule: If you are seeking non-Federal employment (e.g., sending resumes to select employers), you may not do Government work on a particular matter that will affect the financial interests of any of your prospective employers. You must give a written disqualification statement to your supervisor.

Post-Government Employment

Always consult your ethics counselor before separating from the Government. He or she will advise you on the restrictions that will apply to your activities in the private sector in light of your specific duties and level of responsibility as a Government employee.  

Contact Information: 

Telephone: 703-692-5121


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