I attended a conference last week in which I was a host, a presenter, and an attendee. I am part of the board of directors for this conference so I had a little more work to do than a regular conference attendee. I tell you this in order to set up what happened to me during our closing session.
As is customary for our conference, people attending lunch on the last day are given a raffle ticket that makes them eligible to win one of several door prizes. This is our way of thanking attendees for staying for the entire event. As I walked in the door for lunch I was handed a ticket just like everyone else attending. I didn't think much about it because I never win anything anyway. The grand prize this year was a 32-inch LCD/Plasma TV.
Lunch proceeded on schedule and after our guest speaker was finished it was time for the drawing. The MC had a bucket in which the tickets were placed and a member of the audience was called upon to draw the winning tickets. To my surprise, the number for the grand prize was mine! I looked at my ticket again, stood up, and then said "I have the winning ticket, but please draw again."
The people seated at my table looked at me incredulously. They must have thought, "What an idiot!" I know my wife did when I told her <grin>. I sat back down and chuckled. I then explained to my table mates that it wouldn't look good for a member of the conference board to win the grand prize. Yes, I know that I also paid to participate in the conference, that I had the same chance as everyone else to win (as in only one ticket) and that the winner was chosen randomly by an audience member. But after having said all that, if you read a headline that announced, "Board member wins grand prize" and you didn't have the previous information, what would you think? Would it smell a little fishy to you?
A conflict of interest can be defined as "a situation in which a person has a private or personal interest sufficient to appear to influence the objective exercise of his or her official duties as, say, a public official, an employee, or a professional."
Source: Chris MacDonald, Michael McDonald, and Wayne Norman, "Charitable Conflicts of Interest", Journal of Business Ethics 39:1-2, 67-74, August 2002. (p.68)
While the definition above is accurate, I would also add that organizations, particularly those in the public arena, seek to minimize the appearance of conflicts of interest, whether or not the actual circumstances meet the letter of the law per se regarding conflicts of interest.
In my example above, did I truly have a conflict of interest? I think one could make the argument that I didn't. However, the appearance of one is actually quite strong in my opinion. As a board member for the conference I didn't want anyone to ever entertain the idea that there might be some impropriety regarding anything related to the conference. In hindsight, I should have just passed on the raffle ticket, thus eliminating any chance that the situation might arise. However given the circumstances, I have no regrets. I feel like I did the right thing and the audience, many of whom I have work related interactions with, will either consider me a fool or my credibility with them went up a few points. I hope it is the latter.
Conflicts of interest are rarely black and white, cut and dried. How does one go about determining if they have a conflict of interest? I personally use the smell test and it rarely fails me. Does the situation or action smell fishy? Or in more scientific terms, is anything about what I am about to do or say make someone unfamiliar with the particulars suspicious of my motives? If the answer is yes, I tend to put on the brakes. Obviously conflicts of interest are a judgment call and while I depend on my gut feeling for many things, if the situation is a big deal or I want to double check my gut, I ask for assistance. Depending on the situation, that could mean my management team, Human Resources, Legal Counsel, or an Ethics Commission - or sometimes all of them depending on the subject matter.
Because conflict of interest decisions sometimes have to be made in the spur of the moment, I advise conservatism when making them. It may lead to a missed opportunity (such as the TV), but I would rather miss out on a "good deal" than deal with the repercussions of a bad choice. Some may consider this sound advice; some too may consider it too conservative. Having worked in the public sector the majority of my life, I've seen some very messy consequences of conflicts of interest. I tend to try to learn from the mistakes of others rather than have to experience them for myself - and I have seen enough to tell me that I never want to "go there" if I can help it. Besides, I didn't have room in my rental car for the dang thing anyway.