The Two Types of Conflict of Interest Dilemmas

By Marty Taylor

The Institute for Global Ethics has spent the last 20+ years providing tools for people to negotiate right-versus-right (RvR) ethical dilemmas. In IGE’s world, some ethical dilemmas are conflicts of interest (COIs). We call other COIs right-versus-wrong (RvW) moral temptations. How do we distinguish between the two? The best litmus test is the personal advantage test. If the decision-maker’s COI requires a choice between serving others and serving self, especially in a venal way that disadvantages others, it is likely to be an RvW moral temptation. Let’s examine the following two examples.

You make the final decisions in procurement for your enterprise. Two suppliers competing to win a contract offer nearly equal products at the same price. Deciding between the two is difficult. One of the suppliers offers an attractive intern opportunity to your college-age daughter. He says it’s a coincidence. It seems like a “win-win,” and a “no brainer”, because no one is hurt by the offer and your daughter would benefit. However, your decision would compromise the procurement process, and your daughter might win a prized internship unfairly because of the contract, not because of merit.

Your ethics officer would see this situation as a COI—or perhaps the appearance of a COI—and require that the supplier offering the internship be removed from the selection process—the optics are bad. Moreover, accepting the internship would be inappropriate with any current or future supplier. It’s a RvW moral temptation. Your family benefits and your company’s stakeholders might get a rotten deal.

Now, a different situation—you’re still a procurement officer. Your colleague who does site visits has become sick just before a critical visit to a contract relationship you manage. As a willing team player, you’re expected to take over the site visit. But this weekend you are also expected to support your high-school son’s efforts in a regional music competition. Your wife is house-bound with her elderly parent. With more notice, she could have arranged care for her parent. You can miss the competition, leaving your son alone, or you can cancel the site visit which will disturb the supplier and your department. This is a RvR ethical dilemma—an individual (your son) versus community (your company) dilemma. Both choices are right, but there’s no position that can achieve both needs. It is also a COI—the needs of your son conflict with the needs of your job and there’s no clear resolution.

Our Ethical Fitness® process helps people to analyze and resolve their dilemmas. But they are still dilemmas! Conflicts of interest are frequently ethical dilemmas, but the negative connotation for COIs comes from the unfortunate choices people make to achieve selfish ends at another’s expense.

Marty Taylor is the Director of the Center for Corporate Ethics (a division of the Institute for Global Ethics), a former longtime employee of Eastman Kodak Company, and author of the bestseller, The Joy of Photography. He speaks and writes about ethics in business whenever possible. He can be reached at



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