‘Tis the season for holiday events, gift exchanges and tokens of appreciation. For corporate America, it is a time to show appreciation for customers, clients and business partners. But when those customers are public sector officials and employees, a well-intentioned fruit basket or invitation to the holiday office party can lead to trouble.

Whether giving or receiving, it’s important that all participants understand the laws that regulate gifts, meals and entertainment. Ohio’s ethics laws prohibit a vendor or anyone doing or seeking to do business with a public agency from giving that agency’s employees a gift of “substantial value.” If your company is regulated by a public agency, gifts to those employees are similarly restricted.

The Ohio Ethics Commission recently issued a helpful Holiday Edition of its newsletter for public employees and officials. Here is the corollary for private sector employers to remember and some tips for how to show your appreciation...and stay out of jail.

DO: Consider hosting an open house or other casual event that would provide an opportunity for your public sector customers to mix and mingle without partaking in the “things of value” at the event.

DO: Invite your public sector customers to holiday events, dinners or customer appreciation parties, but make sure that they know and pay the per-person cost of the event or meal. To make it easier for public sector customers to attend and meet their ethical obligations, include a note in the invitations that specifies the cost and provides a contact person for questions.

DO: Be cognizant that some public sector employers adopt zero-tolerance policies or policies that are more stringent than legally required. While modest gifts may be legally permissible, some of your customers may need to decline your gift anyway.

DON’T: Make it difficult or awkward for your customer to decline, donate or return a gift if they must. Don’t try to talk the recipient into accepting your gift.

DO: Consider sending a personal note of thanks, copied to the recipient’s supervisor, that compliments the public employee for a job well done.

DON’T: Send lavish gift baskets, cash or expensive gifts to a public office. Keep it modest!