Ethics Illustrated: How to Avoid Conflicts of Interest

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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.


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.