Professional Distance and Conflict of Interest at Work

During the seventies and eighties, organisations started to realise that the improper use of power and authority and undeclared and/or ineffectively managed conflicts of interest, posed a significant risk to their integrity and public trust. 

The requirement for ethical business dealings focuses the spotlight on conflicts of interests and the factors involved in creating the perception of conflicts of interest in the workplace. 

It can be difficult to maintain a suitable professional distance with colleagues, subordinates and suppliers, particularly if a significant friendships have been formed outside the workplace. There is an increased risk when managers, employees and co-workers communicate on social media. Employers must also be vigilant about the risks of inappropriate levels of professional distance with clients or colleagues, especially in circumstances where such behaviour may lead to, or can be perceived as, grooming of vulnerable persons. 

When it comes to conflicts of interest, it is best to completely avoid any behaviour, which may result in the creation of a real or perceived conflict of interest. For this reason, many professions address this specifically in their Codes of Conduct or may draft specific conflict of interest policies, which set out expected and appropriate standards of behaviour. 

In our planned six-part series we'll unpack the key elements of professional distance and conflict of interest, from maintaining professional boundaries to determining the difference between a lapse of judgement and grooming. 

BREACHING PROFESSIONAL BOUNDARIES   

According to Dr. Anna Corbo Crehan, from the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne, questions of professional distance occur when two or more people involved in a professional relationship also have an additional relationship, such as one based on love, attraction, friendship or family. "So then, professional distance is the space a professional must keep between their professional relationship with another, and any other relationship they have with that person. By keeping this space, a professional can fulfil their professional and personal obligations, and be seen to do so, in a way that is impartial and/or non-exploitative in regard to the other in the relationship", she says. 

Breaching professional boundaries can also refer to the failure to manage conflicts of interest. A particularly close relationship between co-workers, especially those involving persons in a position of authority, may create the perception (whether real or imagined) of inappropriate work-related benefits or advantages being bestowed on a close associate because of the friendship. 

The most common types of conflict of interest are financial, such as where a monetary advantage is bestowed or a financial saving made, and personal, where a clear benefit is provided to the recipient such as a promotion or an opportunity for advancement or training and development. 

The best way to avoid perceived conflicts of interest is by maintaining clear professional boundaries, especially by those in a position of power, such as employers, supervisors, managers, or instructors. In extreme circumstances it may be prudent to completely avoid forming any relationships with colleagues outside of work.

CODES OF CONDUCT AND DIFFERENT PROFESSIONS 

Many professions abide by specific Codes of Conduct, which set out and govern acceptable standards of behaviour in their specific industry and provide comprehensive guidelines as to what is considered appropriately maintained levels of professional distance in that industry. 

For example, an inappropriate level of closeness may mean one thing in the context of a school teacher, and another thing in the context of a physical therapist. Professions such as nursing, teaching and social work need to have an additional emphasis on protecting vulnerable persons (such as children, the elderly, the disabled, of the mentally ill) from unscrupulous persons of the effects of inappropriately close relationships. 

In other professions, such as aged care or legal services, it is vital that professional distance is maintained to avoid any perception (whether actual or imagined) of financial abuse and conflicts of interest, when a client confers excessive financial benefits on the service provider. 

One recent example of a breach of an industry specific Code of Conduct involved a police officer who sold confidential information and provided accident locations to a tow truck driver, who gained a financial advantage from arriving on the scene ahead of competitors. 

On many occasions, a failure to maintain an appropriate professional distance occurs inadvertently or without any intentional wrongdoing. While it is beneficial for colleagues to develop good relationships with their co-workers, it is important for all employees to be able to maintain a perception of professional distance so that it does not appear as though they are incapable of making impartial business related decisions. 

PROFESSIONAL DISTANCE AND SOCIAL MEDIA 

In the modern workplace, social media has become a virtually omnipresent phenomenon. With the advent of many different types of social media platforms, including LinkedIn and Facebook, there are many opportunities for workers to remain connected. 

Most employers recognise that social media is a platform that is both complimentary to, and additional to, other methods of communication and engagement used by them. Most employers also understand the beneficial networking functions of social media, particularly in the case of LinkedIn, however there is a far greater risk of boundaries being crossed or lines being blurred when communicating through social media. 

There can be particular difficulties in utilising social media when dealing with vulnerable people such as students, the disabled or persons with mental health issues. As a general rule, it is inappropriate for work colleagues or employers to share overly personal information or material on social media. Most workplaces have a clearly set-out social media policy. It is important that employees are made aware of its contents and application and are encouraged to use social media in a responsible, reasonable and ethical manner, in accordance with the employer's Code of Conduct. 

Broadly, if content is critical of a colleague, affects his/her reputation, is personal, hurtful, potentially embarrassing to a co-worker, or otherwise inappropriate, it could easily breach the requirements of professional distance.   

DETERMINING GROOMING, OR AN ERROR OF JUDGEMENT. 

An important aspect of maintaining professional distance involves taking steps to avoid situations where it could be perceived that 'grooming' is taking place. This is essential not just in the context of children, but other people who are deemed to be vulnerable, including the elderly, those with disabilities, or those involved in situations where there is a power imbalance. 

The act of grooming is a criminal offence in many Australian states. It is a term which generally refers to deliberate and sustained contact with a vulnerable person in order to obtain their trust and prepare them to participate in the groomer's intended purpose, which may be sexually, financially or otherwise motivated. 

As a responsible employer, if somebody reports concerns about potential grooming, or you observe the possibility of such behaviour occurring, it is important that a workplace investigation is conducted to determine whether the contact is in fact grooming, or merely represents a lapse in judgement.

DEALING WITH A BREACH OF BOUNDARIES 

The best litmus test when assessing appropriate levels of professional distance between managers and employees, between co-workers or between employees and clients, is whether there could, in the view of a reasonable person, be a perception of inappropriate behaviour, conflict of interest, favouritism, nepotism, or even grooming. 

If there is any possibility that such assumptions could be made, then it is likely that professional boundaries are being crossed. 

If you have doubts regarding a potential conflict of interest or breach of professional distance, then it is best to get an impartial third party to investigate. Our services include full and supported workplace investigations and training. Contact WISE Workplace today to find out how we can best be of assistance.

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