Conflict of interest? Who decides?

Many companies have, of course, escalation provisions for responding to allegations of wrongdoing. But do they need such provisions with respect to routine self disclosures of conflicts of interest?

At least for some companies that allow line managers to approve disclosed conflicts the answer is, in my view, Yes. That is in part because managers may – thanks to the behavioral ethics phenomenon of  “motivated blindness” – be inclined to “go easy” on a particularly valued employee who has disclosed a COI.  Line managers may also fail to appreciate in such situations the danger to the compliance program generally of an overly liberal approach to COIs – particularly to the sense of “organizational justice” at the company.

But what should an escalation provision entail? Here are some possibilities, meaning circumstances where the line manager should be required to enlist the help of HR, Compliance or Legal in addressing a disclosed COI:

– Disclosure is by a relatively high-level person.

– Disclosure is by a person in a controls function.

– Conduct would tend to diminish trust of key stakeholders in the company. (Most important of all the criteria – but also hardest to apply.)

– Conduct involves a relatively high degree of money or other tangible or intangible  interests.

– Resolving disclosed conflict would entail complicated fact finding.

– Resolving conflict would entail interpretation of legal or regulatory mandates.

Finally, and perhaps less obvious than the others, going forward, would the manager be sufficiently aware of the relevant actions of the disclosing employee to help ensure adherence to Company COI standards? In other words, can the manager act like a de facto COI monitor?

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