Ethics Illustrated: How to Avoid Conflicts of Interest

Have you ever been faced with a decision where your personal financial interests seem to be in conflict with your government work? Where what seems good for you may not be good for your agency? It happens to a lot of us and it can be very stressful as we struggle with making the best decision. Imagine that a vendor doing business with USDA has offered your family tickets to a concert headlined by the latest teenage sensation.

Do you take the tickets and make your 13 year old daughter happy but potentially feel obligated to the vendor for future purchases? Or do you refuse the tickets but then face an evening of teenaged tears when you get home from work? It can feel like you are caught between a rock and a hard place. The good news is that by the end of this Ethics Illustrated video you’ll have the tools to confidently make the best choice in these situations. You’ll make the right choices for both yourself and for your agency avoid potential investigation and disciplinary action and feel a whole lot better in the process. The first step to avoiding conflicts of interest is to be able to IDENTIFY one. A conflict of interest can occur any time we have a financial interest or some other interest such as an outside job or business that could in some way impair our fairness and impartiality on the job. Some examples of a conflict of interest include outside activities like a second job serving on an outside board where your official duties are in conflict with your work responsibilities or owning stock in a vendor.

Also, accepting a valuable gift such as the concert tickets from a vendor that does business with the government can create real conflicts of interest. Because the next time you give more work to that vendor you may have created the appearance that you provided that work in exchange for the valuable gift something that appears unethical to others violates ethics rules and damages your reputation. Also, since you feel obligated to the vendor you may not make the best decision for the government. So by now you should have the information you need to identify a conflict. Let’s say your brother-in-law is a computer vendor and he approaches you about helping him gain a contract with your agency. Since you have a personal relationship with your brother-in-law, that clearly implicates another set of ethics rules the impartiality rules, and so you must DISCLOSE this to your supervisor or the USDA Office of Ethics. Government agencies, like the Department of Agriculture have resources to help you identify and disclose potential conflicts such as financial disclosure forms or, laws, regulations, and policies that specify that we need to go to either our supervisors or the USDA Office of Ethics with that information.

The important point is if we have identified a potential conflict of interest we need to reveal it, immediately. Once we’ve disclosed the conflict to our agency we need to immediately RECUSE ourselves from any further business dealings related to that conflict. What that means is that, although your brother-in-law is free to pursue a contract with your agency you must immediately remove yourself from participating in any aspect of that procurement or the selection process You can’t have any part in recommending or deciding whether to give your brother-in-law the work or in writing his contract.

In summary avoiding conflicts of interest means that you need to IDENTIFY the conflict you need to immediately DISCLOSE the conflict and you need to immediately RECUSE yourself from any possible business dealings related to that conflict Three simple steps to confidently making the best decision. In the situation involving the concert tickets, it’s now probably pretty clear that you have to refuse the tickets. In the short term it may not make the vendor or your daughter happy, but in the long run you’ll avoid the consequences of violating the Federal Ethics rules and your reputation for ethical business dealings will remain intact among your colleagues and you’ll be doing your part to support USDA’s strategic goal of working with integrity for American taxpayers. Now, doesn’t that make you feel better already? If you have any questions about Conflicts of Interest, gifts Impartiality issues, or other ethics issues, please contact the USDA Office of Ethics. To learn more about the Federal Ethics rules please download the USDA Ethics Mobile App, for free, on any smart phone device by searching “USDA Ethics.” We’re the Office of Ethics and we’re here to help.