“If I’m in a conflict of interest at work, what can I do?”

Question: My husband and I work at the same company. He is a mechanic, and I am in administration. He now has resigned to work on his own.

The company is now talking about a conflict of interest, and saying that I might also have to leave.

What are my rights?

Pretoria, South Africa

Answer: Dear Anel:    

As I am sure you are aware, I am not licensed to practice law in South Africa, although I have represented many people in countries all over the world. In my experience, there is no “legal” answer to your question; However, while you may have few if any “legal” rights in this circumstance, there are certain things you can do to help yourself:

1. You should understand that everyone – including employers – has a right to take steps necessary to avoid harm to themselves, or to their interests.” You, me and everyone else, including employers, have a simple right to protect ourselves, and our interests. One way we protect our interests is to stay away from things that conflict with our interests, or pose a risk of harm to our interests. One way that our interests could be harmed is if someone is acting in a way that “conflicts” with our “interests.” Every employer I have ever heard of has a company policy that all employees must take all steps necessary to avoid “conflicts of interest.”
2. What is a “conflict of interest?” It is a fact, circumstance or relationship that “tugs you both ways.” A conflict of interest at work is a fact, circumstance or relationship that “tugs” you to act in the interests of your company, and also tugs you to act against the interests of your company. That is the “conflict” your company seeks to avoid in its employees, because employees have a duty of “loyalty” to protect and expand their employer’s interests. You may think of it this way: “A man who wears one watch always knows what time it is; a man who wears two watches is never sure.”

Here’s an example: If an employee named Mary buys a company’s cleaning supplies, and Mary’s husband sells cleaning supplies to her employer, will Mary always make sure she gets the very best price, or will she be tempted to let her husband make extra profits? Surely you can see the “conflict” in Mary’s interests in that situation, no? 

3. Is there a “conflict of interest” here? From what you have written, I see no conflict of interest. However, if your husband is going to work on his own (a) in competition with your employer, (b) to assist competitors of your employer, or (c) to sell mechanic’s goods or services to your employer, you may have – in your heart – a desire to hope he “wins” in what he does. It is normal. It is natural. It is part of your love for your husband. But your employer does not have to like it, or help you, or him. Though you did not write that in your letter, I believe (a), (b), or (c) must be the case here, if anyone is speaking of there going to be a “conflict of interest.” Your company’s Employee Handbook might give specific instances of conflicts of interests to avoid; you might check that out. 

4. What can you do? Three Things. The first and best way to deal with a real, perceived or even possible “conflict of interest” at work is to disclose it to your boss and Human Resources, so that no one can claim you did not make them aware of all the facts. I always recommend that this be done in writing. Second, you can ask that steps be taken to remove you from the “conflicting circumstance.” If your husband is selling mechanics’ goods or services to your company, ask that your duties be changed so that you are no longer the person buying those goods or services for your company. Third, in some instances – as where your husband is going to compete with your employer – you can ask that your employer simply “waive” the conflict, that is, to simply trust you to be honest as humanly possible in trying not to treat your husband any differently than others in any way, and to avoid the “conflict.”

If you would like to purchase a Model Letter that Discloses and Addresses Conflicts of Interest, simply [click here].

5. All said, the best way to address a “conflict of interest” is to avoid it in the first place. If there is any way to stop or cease the fact, circumstance or relation that brings about the conflict of interest, that is the most direct and effective way to address the problem. If, for example, your husband can decide to open up a non-competitive business, that would be easiest, and best, for you. 

Anel, you asked me “What are my rights?” They are to take the situation in hand, to face that situation in an open, honest and effective way, in good faith, to your best ability. With that, and armed with the knowledge of how to best deal with it, you may very well possibly prevail. And, I assure you, that is what I hope you do. 

Thanks for writing in. If this helps, return the favor: tell three friends in South Africa about “SkloverWorkingWisdom.”

Al Sklover

P.S.: Our Sales Affiliates make real income by recommending our Model Letters, Memos, Checklists and Agreements. You can, too. Just [click here.]

© 2011 Alan L. Sklover, All Rights Reserved.

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