Columns

Recognizing and Disclosing Conflicts of Interest

By Brandy Bippes | Guest Columnist

This column features ethics scenarios and issues that may affect technical communicators in the many aspects of their jobs. If you have a possible solution to a scenario, your own case, or feedback in general, please contact column editor Derek G. Ross at dgr0003@auburn.edu.

Conflicts of interest are nothing new in industry, and technical communicators are just as likely to run into problems as anyone else. But how do we make decisions when we are confronted with questions that might boil down to something as “simple” as family vs. job? After all “conflicts of interest” are conflicts because they ask us to choose between often-inseparable components.

In this month’s Ethics column, Brandy Bippes offers one of those “simple” cases for our scrutiny. In doing so, she asks us to consider where our loyalties lie when life gets complicated. She also asks us to think about the sorts of ripples that occur in our lives when we are forced to make these decisions. This month’s ethics column, I have to add, is particularly timely given issues that have been in the news recently regarding our new President and his business associations. While our desire is not to take a definitive political stance here, it is our job to ask you to ask questions about any decisionmaking process related to technical and professional communication. And so, as you read this month’s column, we ask that you also apply the questions Brandy asks to the business and power relationships you see taking place around you.

As always, we welcome your responses. Let us know your answers to the questions we’ve posed, your thoughts on our roles as technical communicators in general, or send us your own ethics cases or column ideas. Please send your responses to derek.ross@auburn.edu. Responses will be printed in an upcoming issue of Intercom as space permits.

—Derek G. Ross

Carol has been a Technical Communications Specialist for Agency 412, a nonprofit organization, for ten years as a co-editor of government grants. A number cruncher, Carol helped Agency 412 receive $1.2 million annually in public grants and government funds.

Agency 412 received many community accolades, including the Mayor’s Community Involvement Commendation about eight months ago, just before Carol went into early labor and was forced into an extended hospital stay. Grant co-author Sandra was assigned Carol’s duties while she trained a new temporary hire named Justine. Their supervisor, Joe, was anxious to fill Carol’s position so the secondary funding renewals could continue as scheduled. Justine’s credentials demonstrated a highly-qualified candidate whose background included financial and report-writing experience with a few large-name companies. The urgency of Carol’s absence caused Joe to hire Justine without a full background inquiry. Carol’s brother Blaine, who had dated Justine for three years, convinced Carol that Justine would be a good replacement. While Blaine once served two years of probation for petty larceny, his probationary period had ended, and Carol knew her brother had learned his lesson. Carol recommended Justine as her temporary replacement but did not disclose the nature of her relationship with Justine or her brother’s legal history.

Carol returned to the office last week. The team briefed her on the current status of the project, noting concern that Carol’s expertise in analyzing the quantitative figures had been greatly missed since Justine left three weeks ago. Carol discovered nearly all Justine’s reports included figures which didn’t match any of the company’s historical documents. Additionally, Carol noted the figures used in the original drafts of the funding applications didn’t match the final edits that had been modified and approved by Justine. No matter how many times they ran the numbers from the raw data, the team could not reproduce the figures on Justine’s reports. Nearly $300,000 in public funding had vanished along with Justine, whose contact information and identity were false.

The Mayor was counting on Agency 412 as the city’s flagship agency of public advocacy. Sandra is ashamed she didn’t admit her lack of confidence in handling quantitative data. The public funding agent (PFA) refuses to admit wrong-doing in accepting the errant reports because Carol and Agency 412 had always provided accurate data—they believed Agency 412’s data to be accurate and authorized the funds without error checking. PFA insists all the funding contracts should be considered null and void, and Joe should be held accountable for the missing funds.

Carol is now several hundred thousand dollars in debt with hospital bills. Carol’s husband wants her to accept a position she has been offered across town for a substantial salary increase that also includes a substantial workload increase and travel commitments that will keep her from her family a great deal. This leads to an important question: Given Carol’s position, is supporting her family financially more important than sorting out Agency 412’s problems? Carol’s husband has an old back injury which might prevent him from watching their children for more than 4-8 hours per day. Further complicating the issue, Joe helped Carol’s husband with some legal matters after his back injury.

Joe—Carol’s supervisor—has always been happy with Carol’s work. He is confident Carol can sort out the reports and repair the relationships with the funders. Joe offers to take a pay cut for the next twelve months so Carol can have a temporary raise, if Carol will stay to correct the problem. Carol considers this a generous offer, but places a great burden on her with additional duties, long hours, and disclosing her conflicts of interest (COI). The job market is tight. Should Carol continue to work for Agency 412 with the conditions offered?

Carol has worked very hard to get where she is in her career. Her reputation rides on her decision to stay at Agency 412 after this scandal. She feels conflicted between her loyalties to her family and her employer. Perhaps she should stick around to repair the damage. Should she take the job across town and never tell Joe or Agency 412 about Justine? Neither position, she feels, would afford her time to explore options. She isn’t sure the new job would do more than give her a place to start over where she can hide from the truth about Justine and her own involvement.

The Problem

Carol has failed to disclose COI and her close family ties with Justine. Public funds have gone missing. Although Agency 412 rules do not require disclosure of COI, Carol may have an ethical obligation to do so.

Carol’s dedication and her close personal connection with her employer have been compromised by a series of complex issues. It’s difficult to determine where the problem begins or ends. Her failure to disclose (COI) has become problematic. Can Carol can walk away and start fresh? By disclosing her knowledge of Justine, she implicates herself and her brother. Should she tell Joe, the supervisor who places so much trust in her?

Current Ethics in the News

Conflicts of interest are nothing new, and are currently in the spotlight at a national level. Donald J. Trump’s (DJT) extensive COI and potential nepotism dominate current headlines. Because they are unknown, these matters compound uncertainty whether laws would prohibit his COI or to what extent. Time’s Altman reported legal ethics scholars, “urged Trump to take two specific steps to mitigate the appearance or existence of [COI],” by disclosing and divesting his interests, creating a blind trust, and agreeing to avoid further COI. DJT offers the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) many challenges if he refuses to disclose his finances and if his business and personal interests appear to be affected by his position. MSNBC’s Todd et al. report DJT’s proposed ethics plans to hand over “business operations to his sons and place his assets in a trust” falls short of public interest.

While Carol’s case is far removed from that of a President, both cases present a need for well-defined rules of disclosure. Carol’s undisclosed COI affected Agency 412’s finances while Donald J. Trump’s may pose threats to national security. Complex circumstances compounded by unclear rules and regulations make both cases intriguing.

Ethical Appraisal

Paul Dombrowski (2000) suggests four ways to analyze ethical behavior. Aristotelian ethics encourage focus on what is good, true, and right. Kantian ethics encourage a sense of duty: doing the right thing regardless of personal consequences. Utilitarian ethics encourage balancing good against harm. According to the feminist ethics of care, people should make altruistic decisions that won’t be regarded as impersonal governmental self-interests; rather, morality comes from benevolence.

DJT’s presidential platform promised to “drain the swamp” of governmental self-interests, but his actions, as reported by many major news outlets, suggest that this might not be the case. Though far removed from DJT’s place of power, Carol finds herself in a situation of interesting similarity—both are plagued by ethical problems arising from conflicts of interest. Is there a model of ethical behavior (either one listed above, or another) under which we might reconsider each player’s actions as ethical if they end up making choices that support their own self-interests over those of the people that depend on them? How do these two models (Carols and DJT’s) differ? How are they alike?

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank Dr. Sam Dragga and Dr. Brian Still for their contributions toward critical analysis of this difficult topic.

References

Altman, A. 2017. Experts say Donald Trump’s plan on conflicts of interest falls short. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/4631643/donald-trump-conflicts-interest-ethics-watchdogs/.

Dombrowski, P. M. 2000. Ethics in Technical Communication. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Todd, C., M. Murray, and C. Dann. 2017. Experts Agree Trump’s Ethics Plan Falls Short. MSNBC. Retrieved from www.nbcnews.com/politics/first-read/experts-agree-trump-s-ethics-plan-falls-short-n706056.

BRANDY BIPPES is a doctoral student at Texas Tech University, studying Technical Communication & Rhetoric (TCR) with a focus on intercultural issues. She holds a dual-focus M.A. English in Rhetoric & Technical Communication and TESL from Eastern Washington University. She brings several years of entrepreneurship combined with international work and study to the field. Her most recent work studies mechanisms that bring international students to U.S. universities. Brandy’s passion lies in the interdisciplinary unification of seemingly disparate studies in TCR, TESL, Anthropology, and Linguistics.

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