Conflict of interest guideline

Introduction

This guidance material accompanies the RMIT Staff ethics and integrity policy and the Conflict of interest policy process and assists in identifying actual and potential conflicts of interest (COI). Individuals are expected to make themselves aware of actual or potential COI scenarios and must declare them immediately as they arise. Staff members who temporarily have delegation of authority should also consider whether they are now in a COI scenario.

Declarations are made by following the Conflict of interest policy process. Occasionally an individual may find themselves in an actual or potential COI situation and will not have time to follow the proper process – for example arriving to interview a candidate who you realise you know personally only after you see them. On these occasions the individual should immediately pause the proceedings and discuss the scenario with the appropriate personnel and agree next steps.

The Staff ethics and integrity policy defines a COI as:

When a staff member acts, or appears to act, on behalf of someone other than the RMIT Group, or in carrying out their duties to the RMIT Group has, or appears to have, a self-interest of which the RMIT Group is unaware, and from which the staff member makes a profit or gain, or that is actually or potentially adverse to the best interest of the RMIT Group.

Acting on behalf of someone other than the RMIT Group may also include the omission to act. Also it should be noted that an action which is adverse to the best interests of RMIT does not require the individual in question to make a gain – for instance a decision not to offer a contract to a particular supplier taken for the wrong reason might also be a conflict of interest.

The categories below are areas where there may be an actual or potential conflict of interest. Descriptions and examples of COI included in this document are not intended to be exhaustive.

1. Links and associations to other organisations including directorships, memberships, governance roles, employment, volunteering etc

Membership on a company board, board of management or directorship of any external organisation must always be declared. Supervisors should assess potential risks and ensure the University’s commercial interests and reputation is protected. In particular risks must be mitigated where there is the potential for:

  • the individual to act in a way which is not, or is perceived not to be, in the best interests of the University;
  • financial loss or loss of opportunity to the University;
  • improper or unfair gain to be made by another entity or person;
  • damage to the University’s reputation or resulting negative press;
  • boundaries to be blurred between the University and its interests, and an external organisation and its interests;
  • the University to be involved in legal proceedings because of the individual’s role with the external entity.

Examples

  • A staff member is a director of a private company which performs work on behalf of RMIT University.
  • A staff member is a director of a company that the University is bidding with or is bidding against for a contract or research funds.

2. Engaging in private paid outside work (excluding contractors and consultants)

Staff may choose to undertake private activities. If so, they will be required to declare any private activity for which they receive payment and which also meets any of the criteria below. However a current staff member may not be engaged by RMIT as an independent contractor.:

  • The activity has any relationship or association to their professional role within the University, including memberships on boards of management and directorships; or
  • The activity directly or indirectly involves the professional expertise for which the individual is employed at the University; or
  • A benefit provided from RMIT flows to an entity which is associated with the individual, their relative, or a third party with whom the individual has a close personal relationship; or
  • Any activity which may adversely affect the reputation of RMIT and/or its subsidiaries

Examples

  • Tendering for a consulting contract as an individual/on behalf of an organisation in a field which is related to the work the staff member conducts as a RMIT staff member.
  • A staff member who works for a family business providing services to RMIT University where those services are unrelated to the professional role of the employee within the University.

3. Engaging in activities which adversely affect your ability to perform your duties or meet your work objectives

This is any activity regardless of payment or reward which is to be undertaken during the required/expected days or hours of duty at RMIT or which may impact upon the ability of the individual to properly perform their duties. Such activity must be declared.

This also includes being offered concurrent work in other RMIT areas. Staff must always inform the manager of their substantive position of such an offer prior to acceptance. Any potential or perceived conflict of interest involving accepting additional work in other areas within RMIT must be discussed with the managers of both areas.

Examples

  • Working on a non work-related private endeavour during work hours.
  • A staff member holds a substantive role as a VE Teacher in School X. The staff member is offered additional teaching duties in School Y on a casual basis resulting in an excessive workload.

4. Staff member or staff member’s family and friends receiving money, gifts and benefits from individuals or organisations

As a general principle, individuals should not seek or accept favours or gifts for services they perform in connection with their RMIT employment from anyone who could benefit by influencing them in their official capacity. Included in this category are gifts in kind (such as free or discounted accommodation, meals, travel or entertainment), which go beyond common courtesies consistent with ethical and accepted business practices. This principle extends to favours and gifts extended to a staff member’s family.

If the University is engaged in a tender process, no gift, no matter how small or insignificant, should be accepted from any tenderer. Staff must never accept gifts of money.

If a staff member feels they have been offered a benefit or gift as an attempt to induce or influence a favourable decision/outcome, they should immediately report this to their manager. This should be done regardless of whether or not the benefit or gift was accepted. The staff member’s manager should immediately report the circumstances to the relevant member of the Senior Executive. If the gift was accepted this will require a declaration.

a) Token gifts and benefits as part of normal business

From time to time, staff dealing with external organisations may receive token benefits as part of normal business relationships. Token benefits may include souvenirs, mementos and symbolic items of low material value. They may also include moderate acts of hospitality when meeting with organisations to develop a working relationship with the University.

In itself, this type of benefit should not be regarded as a COI and need not be declared. However, a continuing pattern of such token benefits, outside of the specific business relationship, may constitute a COI. If in doubt, staff should seek guidance from their manager before accepting a gift. Individuals should never request or actively encourage such gift giving

b) Gifts of greater than nominal value

Gifts to the organisation/work area of more than nominal value – for example a painting, or a piece of equipment - are acceptable, but should be declared.

Example

  • A staff member with decision making powers in relation to a tender accepts a gift from a person associated with a company who is tendering the work from the University.

5. Staff member or staff member’s family or friends indirectly receiving a benefit or self-interest by unfairly/unreasonably preventing benefit to other parties

Staff members should ensure everybody gets a fair opportunity and that means making decisions for the right reasons. This doesn’t just mean avoiding decisions which unfairly benefit others (see section 6 below) but also avoiding decisions which unfairly prevent benefits. The benefit or self–interest may be intangible.

Examples

  • Three service providers tender for a piece of work. The decision maker rejects one of the service providers based upon a personal/family relationship with the director of that company.
  • A supervisor decides not to re-hire a casual staff member because of a personal/family relationship.

6. Personal and family relationships with individuals including staff, students, suppliers, customers, decision makers etc

a) Employment related

Staff members must not take any active part in any employment or academic processes in respect of another staff member (or potential staff member) with whom they have a family, or close personal relationship. Such processes may include but not limited to the following:

  • recruitment and appointment
  • direct reporting relationship
  • promotion
  • reclassification
  • review panels
  • disciplinary processes and decision making
  • staff development opportunities
  • conditions of service
  • planning and development review
  • workplanning and performance appraisal
  • research grant assessment

Partners, family members or close friends of existing staff should only be employed where an appropriate independent merit selection process has been observed. Applicants should declare such relationships.

A person who has authority to employ a staff member cannot authorise the employment of a family member or close friend. In exceptional circumstances, the employment approval must be gained from the delegate’s immediate manager.

Partners, family members or close friends cannot be in a direct supervisory relationship to each other. However, the existence of a close personal relationship with a staff member should not constitute a bar to the employment, promotion, granting of tenure or transfer of any individual.

A staff member in an acting position cannot sign off on their own recommendations. They can only be signed off by their manager. Staff must declare any COI as it arises.

b) Supplier related

Purchase of goods and services must be made on the basis of merit.

The University should not have any dealings with companies in which members of staff or their relatives have an interest unless it is in the interests of the University to have such dealings and there is no identified or perceived COI.(Unless the COI has been declared and actions taken to mitigate the COI).

If an entity makes an offer or submits a tender to supply goods and/or services to the University, then both the individual in question and the entity must declare their interest following the Declaration of Potential or Actual Conflict of Interest Process. To ‘have an interest’ requires something more than having an insignificant shareholding in a large corporation.

c) Student related

Where a staff member:

  • is currently involved or has recently been involved in a close personal relationship with a student; and/or
  • is currently involved in an employment relationship or service provider relationship with the student;
  • is related to the student; and /or
  • is currently involved in a business relationship with the student; and/or
  • associates or socialises with the student privately

then the staff member must declare the relationship following the Declaration of potential or actual conflict of interest process.

Other than in some exceptional circumstances that staff member must not take any part in any academic or administrative decision making processes in respect of that student. Such processes can include:

  • selection for entry to the University
  • selection for any undergraduate or postgraduate program offered by the University
  • assessment procedures
  • classification for honours
  • selection for any scholarship or prize
  • supervision of a research graduate
  • honours or postgraduate supervision

Staff are responsible for removing themselves from the resulting potential conflict of interest with no disadvantage to the student concerned.

Examples

  • A staff member regularly employs their child to undertake casual administrative work during holiday periods without undertaking any merit based selection process.
  • A staff member who has 20% ownership of a labour hire firm which provides staff to the University.
  • A staff member with responsibility for selection, assessment or supervision of a student’s work who also has a personal or family relationship with that student.

7. Involvement in the preparation, letting, evaluation, opening and awarding of tenders

All members of staff must complete the COI declaration form (DOCX) if involved in a tender. This is required even if there is no apprehension of a conflict. For further details see the Financial management policy (unresolved).

8. Current research activity or affiliation with other research organisations and entities including IP complications

An individual who is a RMIT University researcher must always declare any potential or actual conflicts of interest in their research.

Example

  • The signing of a grant application or a research contract on behalf of RMIT by a researcher who has current associations (and obligations) with another research or commercial organisation.

9. Use of University resources or branding for personal benefit

Staff must declare any activity which is not University business and:

  • which uses (or proposes to use) RMIT resources, labour, facilities or equipment; or
  • which proposes to use the RMIT name or branding and/or make reference to RMIT University.

Prior written approval from the delegated authority is also mandatory. When assessing risk managers must consider if the staff member has current valid public liability and professional indemnity insurance cover for any activity which is to occur on campus. The individual must supply relevant Certificate of Currency in relation to such insurance annually.

Where the delegated authority approves the use of RMIT facilities for private activity the cost of using the University resources must be identified, and the full recovery of the costs agreed to.

Example

  • Staff member wishing to host a private function on site or make personal use of RMIT premises.

Breach of Staff ethics & integrity policy

Failure by a staff member to remove themselves from any actual or potential COI or to declare the actual or potential COI can lead to disciplinary action. A staff member who becomes aware of a COI scenario regarding another member of staff should inform that member of staff of the existence of the actual or potential COI.