Canadian Conflict of Interest & Ethics

Conflict of interest: it's not just for Canadian politicians to worry about. If you faced a conflict of interest in the workplace, would you know it?

Workplace ethics go beyond what many employees are even aware of.

Conflict of interest: it’s not just for Canadian politicians to worry about. If you faced a conflict of interest in the workplace, would you know it?

Lately, the news is filled with stories of allegations of conflicts of interest. Helena Guergis is alleged to have allowed her husband, Rahim Jaffer, to use her parliamentary office and position to advance his business. Dave Basi and Bobby Virk were accused of accepting money and other benefits for giving confidential information to a bidder for BC Rail. Mr. Justice Oliphant asked why Brian Mulroney did not disclose the suitcase full of cash he received from German businessman Karl-Heinz Schrieber.

Because these allegations involve politicians or people working in government, we tend to view the stories with interest but not relate them to our lives. The issues, though, are relevant, and affect all employers and employees.

I am surprised at how often an employee finds herself in a situation where her – or her family’s – personal interests conflict with her duty to her employer. While some employees deliberately take advantage of opportunities for their personal benefit, most get into trouble because they don’t understand the principles of conflict of interest. Also, as in the above stories, it may be the perception of conflict that raises concerns.  

Employers have obvious interests in ensuring that their employees remain “clean.” Conflict of interest – whether actual or perceived – can taint a company’s business partners, workers, associates, stakeholders and families.  

What is a conflict of interest? When does a perception of conflict occur? How do I keep myself out of these situations? What do I do when a conflict or potential conflict is identified? What is the purpose of a perception of conflict? These are questions that every employee should be able to answer, but many cannot. Thus, until schools start teaching ethics again, the responsibility for ensuring that employees understand these issues falls to employers.  

Employees legally owe their employers “loyalty, fidelity and good faith.” That means that employees must avoid any actual or perceived conflict of interest with their employers, and must not make use of their employers’ property, documents or information for personal gain. A conflict of interest exists where an employee’s personal interests, those of her family, or those of a business associate could influence the employee’s decisions and impair her ability to act in the best interests of the employer.
Over the next two posts, I will review the elements of sound conflict-of-interest and whistle-blowing policy, and discuss what employers should do to ensure that employees know their legal obligations, and how to keep such issues top of mind for everyone.

This blog is written by Nicole Byres of Clark Wilson LLP and made available by BCBusiness to provide general information on employment law, and is not a substitute for competent legal advice from a lawyer licensed to practice in your jurisdiction. Neither the reading of this blog, nor the sending of unsolicited comments or emails creates a lawyer-client relationship with the writer or Clark Wilson LLP.