One of the critical ways in which the public sector differs from the private sector is in the rules for receiving gifts. In the private sector, it is common practice to send customers, prospects, and those who direct business your way a token of thanks for doing business with your company. This common private sector practice, however, can cause problems in the public sector. Most state laws prohibit receiving gifts in exchange for official action (we call it bribery), but ethical dilemmas extend to random gifts that aren’t in exchange for official action.

Take the example of a company that sends a box of oranges to the head of a state agency at Christmas with a note that says, “Thank you for all your hard work for the people of our state.” Let’s assume this company didn’t do business with this agency. Isn’t it ethical for the head of the agency to accept oranges? Here are some questions to consider if you were the head of the agency:

1. Does state law allow the receipt of the gift? In Idaho, state law permits the receipt of ancillary gifts up to $ 50.00 in value. Oranges are unlikely to cost more than $ 50.00, so conclude that state law does not prohibit you from accepting them.

2. Does your specific agency have rules on receiving gifts? Some agencies go beyond the minimum limits of the statute and prohibit the receipt of any gifts. We assume that there is no agency-specific rule in this case.

If your state law allows it and there are no agency-specific rules to ban it, you might assume it’s ethical to accept oranges and you’d be technically correct. Here are a few other things, however, to consider, specifically the “gift equation”.

First, remember that you only control one third of the “gift equation” – you know what the gift means to you. You rest assured that receiving this gift will not affect your decision making in your official capacity. After all, who would be “bought” from a box of oranges, right? What you don’t control, however, is the other two-thirds of the “gift equation”: what giving the gift meant for the giver and what it looks like to the public. As far as you know, the donor of the box of oranges is sitting at the counter of a diner in your community and telling his business associates like “next time a contract with your agency comes out it will be ‘in'” because now it is. in your graces. Also, you don’t know what the gift receipt will look like to the public in your community. What may be “technically legal” may seem inappropriate to the public. The appearance of impropriety is a critical part of public sector ethics. It’s a constant reminder that public sector officials are held to a higher standard.

The “gift equation” reminds us that we control only one third of the situation regarding the acceptance of gifts in the public sector: what the gift means to us. What the donor thinks he receives and how it appears to the public are beyond our control.

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