Conflicts of Interest

In 1999 I applied for a job in Adelaide. The job was to establish a new program for young deaf people focusing on developing positive mental health. The man who was groomsman at my wedding was the boss of the organisation offering the job.  One might have thought that I would be a shoe-in for the role. Unfortunately not.  My friend recognised, very early, that to be part of the interview process would be an enormous conflict of interest on his part. He stepped out of the process and appointed an interview panel of neutral people even though he had a keen interest and passion for the position on offer. Such integrity is very rare. In a world where people seek control and power my friend wanted to make sure the process was as fair as possible and that no-one could claim that it was one of those JOBS FOR THE BOYS. Subsequently I won the job and had the misfortune of having to share  an office with my friend for over a year. He is not a morning person, he makes my wife seem like a Teletubby in comparison.

In 1998 I applied for another job as Services Manager. The make up of the panel was a stark contrast. The panel consisted of two people that lived together, the CEO and the chair of the organisation. The person that interpreted the interview was the girlfriend of the CEO and the chair was the sister of the interpreter. Very much a family affair. I had been part of the board of this organisation for a number of years. I had come into conflict with three of the people on the panel when part of a selection panel for the new CEO in 1995. It was acrimonious. What had occurred is that a woman had come out on top of the process – three votes to two. Two of the panel members refused to recognise the decision. To cut a long story short somehow the panel managed to select the person for the job that had originally finished last in the selection process. A classic example of cutting off your nose to spite your face. In my interview for the Services Manager position at least three of the panel of four had a clear conflict of interest but chose to remain part of the interview process. Not surprisingly I didn’t win the job and it is alleged, though I have never been able to prove it, that the eventual winner of the position was a close friend of the Chair.  Perhaps the eventual winner won the position on merit BUT the conflicts of interest of the panel members that needed to be addressed were not. It cast  unnecessary doubt on the integrity of the whole process.

In more recent times we have seen that people who are employees of service organisations for the deaf that are also part of peak bodies that potentially could be required to handle complaints or campaigns directed at the organisations that employ them. Indeed we have seen the situation where a person employed by one organisation competed against another organisation that the same person was part of the Board for a services contract. Now I am not suggesting that anything underhand happened but again this is a clear conflict of interest. Potentially the person could have inside information that could benefit one organisation over the other. It is not likely to happen but because the conflict of interest exists it raises questions over the integrity of the process.

Now clearly the  deaf sector is very small. It has a pool of talented people and most of them know each other. Some have come into conflict and some have skills that they want to spread as far as possible to benefit deaf people.  Very often there are glaring conflicts of interest. I firmly believe that one should not be involved in an interview process where past conflicts or relationships are likely to lead to a person prejudging an applicant. Because the deafness sector is so small and everyone knows everyone this very often happens. There are also potential conflicts of interest for individuals who have a business stake in the deaf sector.  Can you imagine, for example, if the CEO of the Commonwealth Bank had millions of undeclared dollars invested in the National Australia Bank? In politics imagine if the Government was about to select the organisation to roll out the National Broadband Network and the minister responsible had a share portfolio with Telstra. Such scenarios would and have caused scandals. There is a reason why conflicts of interest must be declared.  Sure the deaf sector is not quite dealing with issues of the scale in these examples but when glaring business conflicts of interest exist they need to be addressed or it casts a shadow over the integrity of the sector and sadly the usually well meaning individuals as well.

Currently I also have a conflict of interest. I write for The Rebuttal and am part of the Board of Deafness Forum Australia. In The Rebuttal I raise issues that are sometimes not the position of Deafness Forum Australia, in fact they sometimes are in direct conflict with the position of Deafness Forum. I am sometimes critical of Deaf Australia and by being critical I directly contribute to the conflict that exists between Deafness Forum and Deaf Australia. Although I get no financial gain from The Rebuttal I realise that the views I express are really a conflict of interest in regard to my position on the Board of Deafness Forum. While I believe strongly in the values of Deafness Forum it may well be the organisation is better served and has more integrity if I am not involved. It is a dilemma that I am currently mulling over very seriously.

Conflicts of interest in the deafness sector are the elephants in the room. Some exist at political and business level. There are people involved who could be accused of flogging their own agenda to death for financial and political gain but no-one will speak out about it.  There are whispers in the background but no-one will come forward and openly discuss it.  Perhaps it is time, for the benefit of the whole sector and for the development of integrity and trust, that the elephant is acknowledged and tamed.

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3 thoughts on “Conflicts of Interest

  1. I find the deaf world too small to be coherent on many issues, it is true they do have a small pool of very astute and clever people with talent, but as with most that way, egos will rise to the surface and it then becomes some sort of kudos one-upmanship. I look in despair as I see these able deaf taking combative stances against each other, the deaf world needs all the people it can get with a message and direction that transcends the petty issues of deaf politics. I confess after near 20 yrs I gave up trying to cooperate with many campaigns and people because either they quickly resorted to some ‘private club’ or a clique you were in or out of, you couldn’t get anything done. The sheer waste of deaf talent borders on the criminal, there seems no-one or no group or no definitive direction for many deaf at all, dog eat dog, the fittest and most able survive the rest hope for the best. 😦

  2. Gazza, I would suggest that it should in fact be *compulsory* for those seeking or holding a “public office” with whatever organisation to publicly state their personal beliefs and positions on key issues related to their official roles. How else will people/orgs know who to vote onto a board etc? Those who get to vote have a right to know what they are voting for.

    That is not to say that once in public office that any individual has a right to undermine specific operational decisions made by the organisation by adverse comment etc.

    • Anon

      We are seeing a trend where acountability is everything, where control by a few is scourned upon, where people should have a right to say what they feel and object to decisions made, so long as they stick to the issues and do not make personal attacks. It is important, I think so anyway, that these members who vote Board members in to serve them understand specific debates and how decisons came about .. if there is strong opposition from a minority on a Board that opposition should not be censored in the name of false solidarity. I think it is ok for individuals to say that they disagreed with the decision of the collective and why so long as no personal attacks are made. This isn’t undermining if it is done without malice, it is simply open communiction and the paying members have right to know what goes on in the Board room.

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