Dealing with a conflict of interest

There is no universal set of rules, standards, or expectations when it comes to ethical behaviour.

There might be legal rules, either in common law or statutory provisions in a public organisation's governing legislation. They have to be followed first. Complying with the law is critical and overrides any other scope for discretionary judgement.

Secondly, there might be a relevant policy that would cover the situation, or the public organisation's code of conduct might have guidance or expectations about managing conflicts of interest.

Thirdly, if no relevant legal requirement or policy applies (or after any such rule has been complied with), there might be codes of practice for the profession that people work in - such as an ethical code for legal staff, or for accountants.

After all of those, people need to consider whether anything else needs to be done. In exercising this judgement, people need to assess carefully the seriousness of the conflict of interest and the range of possible mitigation options.

Mitigation options (listed roughly in order of lowest to highest severity) can include:

  1. taking no action;
  2. enquiring as to whether all affected parties will consent to the member’s or official’s involvement;
  3. seeking a formal exemption to allow participation (if such a legal power applies);
  4. imposing additional oversight or review over the official;
  5. withdrawing from discussing or voting on a particular item of business at a meeting;
  6. exclusion from a committee or working group dealing with the issue;
  7. re-assigning certain tasks or duties to another person;
  8. agreement or direction not to do something;
  9. withholding certain confidential information, or placing restrictions on access to information;
  10. transferring the official (temporarily or permanently) to another position or project;
  11. relinquishing the private interest; or
  12. resignation or dismissal from one or other position or entity.

It's rare for a conflict of interest to be so significant that the last two options are necessary. The most common response to a conflict of interest is to stay out of meetings or discussions on the matter (points 5-7 in the list above).

For more information, please read Part 4 of our good practice guide