Editorial: Conflict of Interest                   (Archive, originally late 2003)

 

In the workplace, conflict of interest refers to a situation where a person’s commercial or professional loyalty or objectivity in doing his job may be compromised by an outside interest of the person. We are used to hearing the term used with respect to outside business ownership interests of executives or public officials. In conjunction with SEC rules, we hear the concept in discussed with separating brokerage and analysis functions in the financial services industry (“Chinese walls”).  For non-executive employees, the concept comes up more vaguely in conjunction with issues like trade secrets, confidentiality, and non-compete clauses. Sometimes the term can refer to nepotism. But, in the Internet and high-tech age where anyone can make himself a celebrity without supervision, we have to look at the term with respect to publicity also.

 

I know that I have leveraged technology and drawn attention to myself and my own writing with the Internet (“Google hacking”) and other low cost technologies.  When someone does something similar, there is a small but unknown risk that public attention could affect others in the workplace, family, or place of residence.  Also, the unsupervised use of technology, even at home, can run the risk of unexpected downstream problems, such as implied confidentiality breaches or risks of being perceived with unethical operations like spam. So I have, at least starting with my own case, drawn up some principles that limit the kind of work someone who seeks to sell himself publicly should do.

 

In a general way, someone who promotes his own views with low cost technology in the public space should not have direct reports, should not evaluate students (as with grading them), make underwriting decisions about customers or stakeholders. Nor should a person who speaks for the company publicly or represents one point of view in a public setting, so this brings to mind problems for public relations, trial lawyers, lobbyists. Indeed, if one is paid to sell someone else’s ideas in oublic (“we give you the words!”) how can his own ideas be believed?  Nor, should a visible public speaker work, at least in a permanent salaried capacity, for an organization that represents only one point of view (such as a church) or that sells to a limited subset of people (a “fraternal” employer). And it seems like common sense (and sometime law) that jobs in law enforcement, intelligence, and the uniformed military services may require keeping a low public profile.

 

It’s OK, though, to be a technician, a peon, a contractor or free-lancer, or in most cases an hourly as opposed to “professional” worker.  It’s OK, for example, to sell things in a retail store as long as one stays in the store doing the job.

 

I would expect employers to gradually become more aware of the potential problems in this area, and employers should announce their policies candidly, particularly on websites before applicants register with them online.

 

But as many good jobs go overseas, many people find it hard to maintain a standard of living without going into sales or marketing.  Because the more “routine” jobs of the past (including software application development and implementation) are consolidated and may be outsourced, employers tend to expect that their professionals be interested in representing their narrow interests publicly. There is a natural progression now from technical work not only to management but also to sales—and this means taking sides, adversarialism, and keeping quiet about controversy and intellectual dishonesty if necessary to make sales and provide for a family!

 

A few personal history details are relevant here. When I was working on my first book centered largely on the military gay ban, I was working as a computer programmer for a company that specialized in selling life insurance to military officers. This seemed like a conflict of interest, but fortunately my company was bought by a larger company, and I transferred to the headquarters of that new company, taking me away from family and creating some serious family eldercare problems later.  In retirement, I have worked as a substitute teacher, among other interim jobs. One assignment in special education brought me into a situation where I might have been required to perform more intimate duties. Because I am publicly visible as a gay person, I felt that I needed to decline because the student, not being able to give consent, might have legal privacy rights violated, by analogy to the reasoning that supports the military gay ban. Teaching is a more promising profession in this new global economy, and if I enter if for good, I, as a matter of good faith, would have to emphasize teaching older adult or  almost adult” students and maintaining mastery of academic subject matter, since I have reached my sixties without having raised or care for young children. If teaching were to involve giving grades, then I could no longer be active as a self-publisher.

 

It is noteworthy that the military “don’t ask don’t tell” would prohibit a gay soldier from disclosing homosexual orientation even in “private” to a family member. Of course, this policy has been used as an excuse for witch-hunts, but using a general “conflict of interest” principle could have allowed gays to serve without undermining unit cohesion as long as they did not bring their sexuality into the barracks. That is because the military generally gives most members (including NCO’s) subordinates in the chain of command and therefore military policy generally should require its members to keep a low public profile anyway.

 

Do my comments, as far as civilian employment goes, undermine efforts to promote and pass some version of ENDA (Employment Non-Discrimination Act) with respect to sexual orientation (an active issue since 1993)?  Even in states without anti-discrimination laws for gays (like Virginia), employers would usually feel reluctant to enforce policies such as what I hint at above, for fear for adverse publicity if nothing else. But there is no contradiction to ENDA-like laws here. However, the overriding issue is that an individual is always accountable that he or she makes a living in an ethical manner, as well as for presenting proper experience. Someone should not work directly for someone that he or she personally criticizes publicly (outside of collective bargaining mechanisms) for eventual self-promotion, or for someone who finds that person morally repugnant. Likewise, with child care jobs, a never-married and never-parent person is unlikely to have the personal experience necessary to make it appropriate to earn a living (or “easy money”) at an incidental or interim child care job. 

 

Decentralized discussion on the Internet of major controversial issues, as in blogs, does bring more subtlety and depth to the understanding of how people may be affected by public policy changes in unintended and unexpected ways. The Internet, at the risk of promoting these new conflicts of interest, does give the public a way to “connect the dots” and does democratize public discussion. The model, however, that most people have of democracy is to throw money at politicians and adversarial special interest groups that can get them and their families their way.

 

In the meantime, I realize that I will eventually respect my own “Chinese wall” and find third-party support for my own writing and make it pay its own way.

 

People do have a right to join groups to advance mutual interests. People have a constitutional first amendment right to expressive association, assembly and petition, and by law workers have a right to organize for collective bargaining. People have a right to associate for the purposes of mutual adaptive support, and the family has always been the first layer of socialization for this purpose. But to the extent that individuals depend upon memberships for their own well-being, they owe back a certain loyalty. The biggest challenge remains in balancing one’s own individual expressive rights with the demands of groups (families, employers, churches, communities) with which one co-depends.

 

There is one other angle to the “conflict of interest” question that affects writers, and that, of course, is what we commonly call “journalistic integrity.” Reporters are commonly required to avoid any outside interests that could jeopardize the public’s perception of their objectivity in reporting.  Pundits and commentators are generally known for their points of view and may be paid for their submissions, but they should not be paid by specific entities to promote very specific issues. For example, Armstrong Williams, a well known black conservative pundit, accepted $241,000 from the Bush Administration’s Education Department to promote “No Child Left Behind”; Williams provides a murky explanation regarding the advertising side of his business but admits he used bad judgment and has already faced cancellation from at least one newspaper. Freelance writers who must make a living from their writing often may believe that objectivity is not required, and that being paid to help sell someone else’s point of view or ideas is part of the business. Then, Maggie Gallagher got a contract for $21,500 from the Department of Health and Human Services to support President Bush’s $300 million initiative to encourage marriage to strengthen families (Howard Kurtz, “Writer Backing Bush Plan Had Gotten Federal Contract,” The Washington Post, Jan. 27, 2005). Gallagher admits that for a long time it did not occur to her to disclose the contract publicly, and this shows me how poorly thought out the ethics or lack thereof of being paid to preach someone’s message really is today.

 

The moral validity offering of writings for free on a public space (the World Wide Web) cuts both ways. Free content from an individual may be closer to the truth, but it may seem to lack accountability as would normally be provided with profits and sales figures. On the other hand, some jobs do not allow new jobholders any outside income, including the sale of their own intellectual property. This practice happens with life insurance agents. But Grokster could reinforce copyright and the concept of intellectual property control to the point that this practice is seen as counter to public policy.

 

 

 

©Copyright 2004 by Bill Boushka, subject to fair use

 

Suggested employer blogging policy

 

White paper on employee-owned intellectual property

File sharing

Conflict of interest rules

Blogging conflict of interest

Job search rules

Self-publishing trends

My membership in guilds and unions

 

See also Howard Kurtz and Ceci Connolly, “Administration Paid Commentator: Education Dept. Used Williams to Promote ‘No Child’ Law,” The Washington Post, Jan. 8, 2004

 

Return to controversial issues page

Return to home page