Conflict of Interest Guidelines
The guidelines examine how the principles may be applied to specific, and often complex situations. They offer a variety of frequently asked questions (FAQ’s) and illustrative cases to assist members in considering the best way forward when dealing with situations that they encounter.
The University, and UniServices as its subsidiary, is working to strengthen understanding and improve clarity around conflict(s) of interest. The aim is to protect members, the University and UniServices by encouraging openness and avoiding behaviour that may cause any perception of bias or compromised objectivity.
For managers this means taking a developmental approach to improving their own and their staff members’ understanding of:
- what leads to a conflict of interest
- how to recognise a conflict of interest
- situations where a conflict of interest might easily occur
- what to do if a conflict of interest arises
Conflicts of interest vary widely in type and degree of seriousness. While some can be handled easily, others can be very difficult to interpret and manage. The guiding principles for managing all conflicts of interest are outlined in the Conflict of Interest Policy. These guidelines and case studies support their implementation across the University and UniServices.
Frequently asked questions
What leads to conflict of interest?
In ‘Managing conflicts of interest: Guidance for public entities’ the New Zealand Auditor- General suggests a range of circumstances where a conflict of interest can arise for people working in a public entity, such as the University. A conflict of interest arises where:
‘a member’s or official’s duties or responsibilities to a public entity could be affected by some other interest or duty that the member may have’
How do I recognise a conflict of interest?
Simply put, you will have a conflict of interest if your duties and responsibilities to the University or UniServices (as the case may be) could be affected or be perceived to be affected by some other interest or duty that you may have.
If your other interest or duty could lead you to make a different decision, or take a different course of action, then, you have a conflict of interest.
The same applies to any other member.
What if I know that I won’t let my interests get in the way of my duty to the University or UniServices and to other members?
Perception is very important. A member may conscientiously avoid letting their external interests influence their role at the University or UniServices, but even so, you should ask: could a reasonable observer in the circumstances still consider that your decision or action could be biased or affected by some other interest you might have?
Members have to be fully aware of the reputational damage that a potential conflict could cause to themselves, to the University or to UniServices.
It is far better to be open and proactive in managing a potential conflict of interest than to have to deal later with any accusation of bias or covering up something.
How can I help my staff to be aware of situations in which they may have a potential conflict of interest?
You can help by raising general awareness of the likelihood and the effects of a conflict of interest in your area. If there is a specific instance where this might happen, you should bring this to the person’s attention for appropriate consideration, and then discuss with them their proposed strategy for resolving the issue.
If conflict of interest is a major concern in specific activities conducted by any member of your staff, you may also look to provide them with additional education and training in recognising and resolving conflicts of interest.
Who is responsible for identifying and disclosing a conflict of interest?
The individual member is responsible for identifying and disclosing a conflict of interest as soon as they become aware of it.
The manager to whom a conflict of interest is properly disclosed is responsible for deciding what action (if any) is needed to deal with the situation, and to record any action taken.
What if the issue is complex and it’s not obvious whether any action needs to be taken, or what that action should be?
Many situations are not clear cut. This requires members to assess the seriousness of the issues and use discretionary judgement relating to a particular situation. Seeking advice from your manager is usually a good first step.
Who else can I go to at the University for help in dealing with a conflict of interest situation?
There are a number of people at the University who have a wide range of experience in dealing with conflicts of interest. You could seek advice from senior colleagues in the relevant professional areas, including:
- General Counsel
- Equity Office
- Risk Office
- Research Office
Who else can I go to at UniServices for help in dealing with a conflict of interest situation?
There are a number of people at UniServices who have a wide range of experience in dealing with conflicts of interest. You could seek advice from senior colleagues in the relevant professional areas, including:
- UniServices general managers
- People and Culture
- Corporate Counsel
Conflict of interest - case examples
The following case studies illustrate some situations where a conflict of interest could arise at the University or at UniServices. These include:
- Direct and indirect financial interests
- Gifts and hospitality
- Access to information
- Personal relationships
DIRECT and INDIRECT FINANCIAL INTERESTS
Case 1: I work at the University and I am also a director and shareholder of a small company that produces highly specialist measuring equipment. Our company is seeking to supply this equipment to the University.
Can I take part in the normal decision-making process for the selection of this measuring equipment at the University?
This situation presents a clear conflict between your roles in each organisation as you have a direct financial interest in the outcome of this selection process. Where your duties to the University could oblige you to select a competitive supplier, your personal interest and duty to the company of which you are a director may reasonably be interpreted as pushing you towards favouring that company, or potentially giving it an advantage over others.
Being completely open allows your manager to ensure that any decision about the equipment is unbiased and reduces the risk of any bias or perception of bias in the decision itself.
The first step to take is to disclose your interest to your manager.
You should then take no part in the discussion concerning that equipment. It may be that your knowledge about the equipment could be useful to the University in making a decision, and in such case your manager may approve your being asked to provide input concerning this matter but only so that you can provide specific information. You should not be involved in making the decision.
Case 2: I am a member of a procurement committee at the University.
My partner is a director of a company that is submitting a proposal to carry out public relations work for the University. I understand that I will need to declare my interest to the chair but because I have a particular skill set I think that I should be involved in the assessment of the various applicants.
Does my interest prevent me from participating in any part of the procurement process?
In this case you have an indirect financial interest in this matter, and, as you have already identified, you are clearly required to disclose this interest.
It would not be appropriate for you to be present during any deliberation with respect to the matter, unless the chair decides otherwise. This might happen if you have particular expertise that the chair believes would be of considerable assistance to the decision makers, but this would rarely be the case in these particular circumstances.
You certainly should not take part in any decision about the matter.
The most appropriate course of action would be for you to withdraw from all discussion and decision making in relation to this particular procurement process. You could provide input separately to the chair, but this would be appropriate only if the chair asked you to do so.
Case 3: I am currently completing a PhD. To this end I have been carrying out research into the effectiveness of various products, including a product developed by my own company. I am excited by the outcomes of my research so far. It looks like my research will prove without doubt that my company's product is very effective and therefore highly marketable. So you can imagine my disappointment when, after I told my supervisor about this, he said he had concerns about some of the research that I was doing. Is there a problem?
Unfortunately there is. You have a clear conflict of interest. The University ofAuckland Code of Conduct for Research requires researchers to disclose financial and other conflicts of interest that could compromise the trustworthiness of their work in research proposals, publications and public communications as well as in all review activities. Any research involving a product developed by a company that you own falls within this requirement. You should seek advice from your supervisor as to how the conflict might be managed, so that the integrity of your research is not compromised. At the very least you will be required to make a full disclosure of your role in the company at the outset of your thesis.
Case 4: I work as an academic and my son has developed a really good software system for tracking biological research progress. His system is now used across several leading universities around the world. I have no role or influence at all regarding the usage or purchase of software. My son has mentioned to me that he intends to approach the University to see if it wants to purchase a licence to use his system. Do I need to take any action?
While you have no direct involvement in your son's commercial activities, the best way to proceed in this case would be to disclose the situation to your manager. Then everything is 'out in the open', right from the start. If any questions are asked down track then it will be easy to respond, especially if there are any allegations of impropriety. Therefore, simply disclosing your interest to your manager and having it recorded by him/her is likely to be sufficient in this case.
GIFTS and HOSPITALITY
Case 5: As part of my role I am involved in selecting contractors to carry out work for the University and managing the relationship with those selected. The project manager of one of our current developments has offered to fly me to another city to look at a similar project that they have just completed. He has also kindly offered to get me tickets for a local rugby game, with hospitality at the company’s corporate box. I’m concerned that this could be seen to bias my judgement in their favour should they apply to undertake further contracts in the future.
This is potentially a significant conflict situation. As a manager who influences decision-making in this area you cannot be seen to be either receiving gifts or hospitality, or socialising with any one party to the potential disadvantage of others.
You should report this matter to your manager who in turn should discuss the matter directly with the supply company.
Further explanation of this area can be found in the University’s Gifts and Hospitality Policies
ACCESS to INFORMATION
Case 6: I run a research programme that will potentially be of great benefit to industry. Because of my role at the University I am privy to certain information in this area that is not in the public domain. I have been approached by a key player within the industry to take on a directorship with a company involved in this sector. However, I am concerned that they will then expect access through me to information that is currently not available to them by other means. What should I do?
In the first instance you should talk directly with your manager. If you accept the offer of a director's role, you will need to discuss your concerns with the company, and get assurances from the outset that they will not put you in a position that conflicts with your role at the University.
It may end up that you will have to decide which role you will keep, and which you will drop.
Case 7: I have recently found out that a colleague of mine who w o r k s in procurement has been involved for some time in an intimate relationship with a senior manager of a supply company that bids for and delivers major contracts at the University. As far as I am aware the relationship has never been disclosed. It seems to me that their undisclosed relationship compromises their impartiality significantly. What should I do?
In the first instance it would seem appropriate to speak to your colleague about your concerns and about their personal responsibility both to disclose the matter to their manager and to follow whatever steps are agreed to avoid or manage appropriately any potential conflict of interest that could arise.
If this is not a suitable option in the circumstances, then you should speak to your own manager about your concerns. Your manager will then to talk directly to your colleague's manager, who should deal with the matter in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Conflict of Interest Policy and the Conflicts of Interest Procedures.
Case 8: I represent finance on a faculty committee and the committee is currently deciding on appointing a new accounting firm. As an accountant by training, this is an area in which I have a great deal of specialist knowledge. However I see from the next agenda that a choice between three companies will be discussed and agreed.
A very old personal friend of mine is the owner of one of the three companies and
I feel that my impartiality in this instance might be called into question.
You need to disclose your position to the chair of the committee as soon as the matter comes to light. It would be best to do that before the meeting, however, if that is not possible then you should disclose your relationship with one of the companies at the beginning of the meeting. The chair can then decide whether, given your specialist knowledge, you may contribute at all to the discussions and decision making process.
The chair may, for example, ask you to disclose your relationship to other members of the committee and participate in the discussion, but withdraw or remain silent for the decision. Or the chair may decide that in this particular case you should absent yourself during that part of the meeting.
Case 9: I have a vacant position for a junior member of staff. My manager has approached me to interview his nephew for the position. I feel very compromised as I would not wish to embarrass my manager if the young man were not to be selected.
The best way to proceed would be to point out (politely) to your manager that his nephew will need to participate in the University's usual open recruitment process, making him aware that this will be arranged. You could also point out that both you and he will be conflicted and therefore neither of you should participate in the recruitment process, at least not in the parts where his nephew is involved. You could also (or alternatively) raise the matter directly with HR.
Case 10: I am currently serving as a member of a scholarship panel. My niece has applied for a scholarship in my area. I am quite certain that given all of my previous experience I am well able to fulfil my role on the panel without bias towards her. Do I really need to step down?
In this case you need to be aware that outside observers may still reasonably perceive that you have a conflict of interest. For example, how would other candidates feel if it came to light that you played a part in a process that subsequently appointed your niece ahead of them? In fairness to them and to your niece, you need to disclose your interest and step down from any involvement in this selection process. This allows her to compete on an equal footing and to be assessed impartially.
Case 11: My husband and I are both senior academics in the same field and we are currently jointly supervising a postgraduate student. Unfortunately, after continuing disagreement about research methodology, the relationship between my husband and the student has in effect broken down. The student has recently requested that my husband be removed as his supervisor. I have not been asked to stand down but is it appropriate for me to continue in my role as either sole supervisor or as joint supervisor with someone else?
It may be that the student feels or comes to feel that your view of the research that he is doing may be biased by your close personal relationship with his (ex) supervisor. You may also feel compromised. For example, if you need to give any (further) critical feedback, this may be mis-interpreted by the student as bias. For this reason you may not wish to continue as a supervisor. In this situation, you should seek the guidance of your faculty’s Associate Dean (Postgraduate) or the Dean of Graduate Studies, who will be able to assist you in finding an appropriate way forward.
Case 12: I am a senior lecturer at the University, and my daughter has just started her studies here. This may mean that she will attend lectures and submit assignments in some subject areas for which I am responsible. I want to avoid any possibility of being compromised by having to deal with matters relating to her academic performance. What should I do?
The best course of action would be to disclose your relationship to the relevant course co-ordinators dealing with the courses that she is taking, to ensure that any assessment of her work is dealt with by other colleagues
Case 13: I have been awarded a research grant which enables me to appoint a research assistant. My partner is well qualified to do this work. Can I arrange for the work to be offered to him?
This is a clear case of conflict of interest which requires that you must not be the person who decides on this appointment. You need to advise your manager of the situation. You may choose to tell your manager also that you consider your partner to be well qualified. However the decision about appointment must be made by someone other than you, and be based on a fair and transparent advertisement or after calling for expressions of interest.
Case 14: My head of department is going to appoint a teaching assistant for a course I am teaching and I would like to give this work to a student I am supervising. Can I suggest this?
If the responsible manager is not aware of your relationship to this student then you must declare it. As the supervisor you may be in a good position to judge the suitability of someone for such a position. However it is possible that others might consider you biased in favour of the student you are supervising. It is preferable that decisions to appoint be made through a transparent application or expression of interest process, where all potential candidates can be assessed on their merits. Whether supervisors of candidates may be part of an appointments committee for such positions is a matter to be determined by the academic head/unit, but if there are others available it is better that they not be.
Case 15: I am needed to provide specialist expertise for the selection panel for applicants for admission to a programme. I have been teaching some of the applicants outside the University. Is this a conflict of interest?
This could be seen as a conflict of interest and it certainly needs to be declared to the rest of the selection panel. If the chair of the selection panel considers that your expertise is essential to the selection process, then s/he may decide to allow you to express your views on applicants. It is preferable that you are not involved in making the final decision.
Case 16: My previous spouse has applied for a position in my department. I no longer have any contact with him and we do not have the same name. Do I need to declare the relationship to anyone?
It is important that you make this information known to the department head or manager and that you refrain from being involved in decision making about the appointment. Previous close relationships can be seen as biasing one either for or against a candidate and in the interests of fairness in the process are to be declared as a possible conflict of interest. The basis of your conflict need not be divulged to anyone other than the responsible manager if you do not wish it to be.
Where can I find further good examples of dealing with complex situations?
The Office of the New Zealand Controller and Auditor-General provides further illustrative case studies which describe some complex potential conflict of interest situations, and provide helpful guidance on their resolution:
- Case study 1: Funding for a club
- Case study 2: Family connection to a tenderer for a contract
- Case study 3: Employment of a relative
- Case study 4: Public statements suggesting predetermination
- Case study 5: Decision affecting land
- Case study 6: Gifts and hospitality
- Case study 7: Making a public submission in a private capacity
- Case study 8: Mixing public and private roles
- Case study 9: Personal dealings with a tenderer for a contract
- Case study 10: Duties to two different entities
- Case study 11: Professional connection to a tenderer
For the purpose of this document:
Chair is the nominated chairperson of the committee
Chief Executive Officer means the Chief Executive Officer of UniServices
Committee means a group of people constituted as a committee by the Vice-Chancellor or delegate or by the Chief Executive Officer or delegate to carry out duties in accordance with specified terms of reference, and includes any board or committee constituted by a board
Conflict of interest exists where the responsibilities of a member of the University or UniServices are, or could be, affected by some other personal, financial or academic interest or duty that the member may have in relation to a particular matter or person. The term conflict of interest includes any actual, potential or perceived conflict of interest
Member(s) includes all Council members, members of committees and boards, staff members, honorary and adjunct appointees, students, contractors, subcontractors, consultants, associates and business partners of either the University or UniServices (as the case may be)
Relationship means a connection that could affect how other people view the member’s impartiality
Note - For example, if the matter involves or affects a family member, or an organisation to which the member belongs, or a business of which the member, or a close associate, is an employee/ shareholder
Staff member refers to an individual employed by the University or UniServices on a full or part time basis
UniServices means Auckland UniServices Ltd
University means the University of Auckland
Key relevant documents
Include the following:
Outside Activities Undertaken by Academic Staff Policy and Procedures