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.