Navigating gift policies in the season of gift-giving

Gift-giving in the workplace, while possible year-round, records an uptick as the winter holidays approach. The university's gift policy doesn't prohibit gift exchanges among co-workers. Grounded in Iowa law, it's intended to curtail outside donors who -- with a gift -- might seek improper influence on a university employee for their own gain now or later, said university counsel Michael Norton. The policy in effect provides employees a shield against such intent.

Gifters from outside the university

When a university employee receives a gift from someone outside the university, the best option, Norton said, is to tell the giver of your obligation as a state employee to not accept gifts -- and politely refuse it. That includes sending back a gift that arrives by mail or courier.

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University gift policy
Regents policy manual, chapter 2.1(4.F.iii.)

"We haven't had a lot of issues with gifts," Norton said. "I think most employees handle the situation by showing appreciation for the gesture and explaining they can't accept gifts as a government employee. That is the very best way to handle it."

A second option is to share the gift with the larger university, he said. That could mean sharing a fruit basket with your office mates or a student organization, or placing a desk clock in a conference room for all to enjoy. Gifts to the university aren't prohibited; personal gifts are, he noted.

The same rules apply to "thanks for your business" gifts vendors may send this time of year: Share it with the office or find another university office to give it to, but don't take it home or keep it for personal use.

Iowa State doesn't have a clearinghouse for nonperishable gifts to its employees, Norton said. But he encourages employees to document how a personal gift was used by the university.

Exception: Exchanging gifts is OK

The gift policy allows an exchange of gifts of equal value, Norton said, and this comes up periodically in interactions with international guests. If you purchase a gift with your own funds and exchange gifts -- of similar value -- with someone outside the university, you're able to accept their gift. It's also permissible to exchange university-provided items (for example, a blanket or framed image), but the item received must be put to university, not personal, use.

Gifts valued under $3, even when they come from a restricted donor, are permitted, according to the gift policy.

Giving gifts to co-workers

The university gift policy doesn't prevent employees from giving each other gifts purchased with their own money. Norton encourages all employees to be aware of messages -- intended or not -- conveyed with gift-giving in the workplace. Avoid gifts that would make the recipient uncomfortable. Supervisors who give their employees gifts should strive for uniformity and professionalism, he said. Gift swaps, in which co-workers bring a gift of a specified value for an unspecified office mate, also are appropriate.

Chapter 2 of the state Board of Regents policy manual also permits supervisors to give gifts to their subordinates, but prohibits subordinates from giving their supervisors a gift valued at $3 or more. This regents policy applies the "improper influence" intent from the state code to supervisors' hiring, promoting and salary-setting authority.