Conflict of interest (COI)
It's normal for University Officers to have conflicts of interest in a large organisation like UWA. Identifying and disclosing a conflict of interest isn't a judgement on anyone's character or actions – it's simply the first step towards managing the conflict.
A COI occurs when a University Officer’s private interests compete with their obligations to UWA, and therefore could improperly influence, or be perceived to improperly influence, how they perform their official University duties.
Private interests include:
- your own personal, professional and business interests, and
- the interests of individuals and groups you associate with, including friends, relatives and competitors.
It is essential that all University Officer read the Conflicts of Interest Policy and its associated procedures and guidelines. This will explain the importance of declaring any conflicts, and where appropriate, working with a relevant Officer to work out how to manage the COI. You can seek advice from line-management, specialist work areas, and staff in Human Resources on what you may have to declare, any management plan, and how to declare this to the University.
How can I identify if I have a COI that has to be declared?
It is important that you check the policy, undertake any training, and discuss with your line-manager. Further below are some scenarios you may wish to consider.
Does everyone have to make a COI Declaration?
Students are not required to make a COI Declaration, but all University Officers are. University Officers are:
- Committee Members;
- Staff Members (including employees, clinical academics, honorary, adjunct and Emeriti);
- individuals acting in the name of the University on a Financial Commitment; and
I supply goods and services to the University do I have to declare any conflict of interest?
Yes, you are required to make any required declaration during any tender process, or where a COI arises once you are engaged on the contract.
I’ve been asked to be on a recruitment panel for a position in my division. A good friend of mine plans to apply for the job. I believe I can remain on the panel and be impartial. Could you advise?
Though you may be able to remain impartial, there is still a perceived conflict of interest because it could be alleged that you influenced the other members of the panel due to your relationship with your friend. If your friend does apply for the position you should disclose the conflict of interest and withdraw from the panel.
My office has some menial work that needs doing on an ad hoc basis, such as stuffing envelopes and data entry. I don’t want to advertise because I’ll be inundated with applications. Can I just employ my child to do the work? I know they’ll do a good job.
No. This would be an actual unmanaged conflict of interest both in relation to the recruitment and the probable role of you as supervisor. In circumstances such as this, transparent recruitment practices still have to be adhered to.
A researcher’s child wishes to do project work in my team in a similar area to their parent. Are they able to?
This situation must be avoided. It will present an unmanaged actual conflict of interest both in relation to the recruitment and the probable role of the parent as the supervisor.
A new research project is awarded and a team member’s partner is identified as the best person to fill the new research position. Can they be employed?
This could be perceived conflict of interest. However, it may be able to be managed, provided that the partner was identified as the best person for the role as part of an appropriate recruitment process without any involvement of the team member.
The management strategy would need to include that:
- the partner is supervised by someone other than the team member
- the team member does not make any decisions or approvals concerning the partner (e.g. expense or travel approvals, or decisions on employment renewal).
Can a staff member appoint a family member to a casual appointment and approve their casual time sheets?
No, this will never be appropriate. Regardless of how impartial the senior staff member tries to be there will always be a perceived conflict of interest.
I am a lecturer for the School of Engineering and notice a vacancy in the School of Medicine that I think may suit my brother. If my brother applies, do I need to disclose a conflict of interest?
There is no conflict of interest as you are employed in a different school to where the vacancy is advertised, and are therefore unlikely to have any role in the recruitment for this position. To avoid any perception of a conflict, you should not try to propose or recommend your brother to anyone who is managing the recruitment.
My wife and I are employed in the same school as part-time academic staff. Some of our teaching is within the same course. Should we disclose a potential conflict of interest?
When spouses are employed at UWA there will always be opportunities for conflicts of interest to arise. To avoid problems with current or future conflicts of interest, you should disclose these situations to your supervisor so that appropriate management action can be taken where necessary.
I currently work at UWA and also study at UWA. Is this a conflict of interest?
This type of situation is not unusual in universities. If your study activity doesn’t interfere with your employment, this is probably not a conflict. However, you may need to disclose a conflict of interest if either:
- the appointment is in the School you study with, or
- your role gives you access to records or information that a student would not normally have access to.
I have a part-time job at UWA and a home business in a related area. Sometimes more work is needed at the UWA job, but I can’t do the extra hours because I need child care. I could do the extra hours if I could do them through my business and therefore work at home and look after my children at the same time. Can I do this?
Your existing situation, where you are undertaking work for UWA on a part-time basis and related work at home for your own business, is a potential conflict of interest. You will need to submit a conflict of interest declaration that details:
- whether this creates a conflict of interest, and
- if so, what strategy is in place to manage any conflict.
Beyond that, there are two issues to consider here:
- working from home, and
- working as a contractor and not an employee.
You would first need to have a conversation with your supervisor about the work demands of the position and the budgeted costs to cover that position. If indeed additional work is required and can be allowed for in the budget, options could be explored as to how this could be accommodated. Any decision on extending your hours in a work from home arrangement or alternatively engaging an additional employee would need to be carried out in compliance with UWA’s recruitment policy and guidelines.
The second issue – whether you could carry out this work through your business as a contractor – is problematic because it would be very difficult under tax laws for you to be treated as both an employee and a contractor for exactly the same work for the same principal. It is unlikely that UWA would wish to enter into this type of arrangement.
I am a fractional appointee. Is it OK for me to continue to run a private practice? Do I need to disclose this?
Part-time academic staff members do not require approval to undertake private academic-related outside work in their own time. This assessment will be left to your discretion. You will be expected to carry out any private work outside your UWA appointment hours.
The situation may be different if the activities of the private practice compete in any way with UWA’s activities. If that's the case, you should discuss this with your supervisor or Head of School to determine whether this conflict needs to be disclosed and whether such conflict can be managed.
As part of my UWA role I see patients at a UWA clinic. Can I refer these patients to my private clinic for related services that can’t be provided at the UWA clinic?
No. This would be an actual conflict of interest where you would be benefiting privately from your role at UWA.
You would need to discuss the clinic's referral arrangements with your clinic manager or other senior employee. It may be possible for your practice to be included on a clinic referral list, as long as patients are able to select an appropriate provider from the list and you don’t influence them in this choice.
Can a part-time staff member (paid a salary via payroll) also be paid for casual work via an invoice in their company’s name?
There may be some circumstances where this is appropriate. For this to be the case:
- the two roles would need to be unrelated to each other
- the employee in their salaried role should not have had any influence over the other engagement
- the other engagement needs to have been procured under an appropriate procurement plan as a consultancy, and
- the work commitment of the second role also cannot impinge on the work needs of the salaried role.
I am employed as a part-time tutor in the School of Dentistry 3 days a week. On the other 2 days I am employed as a dental hygienist for a private practice. Do I need to disclose a conflict of interest or lodge an 'outside business interests' form?No, there is no conflict between the two roles, and part-time academic staff members do not require approval to undertake private academic related outside work in their own time.
I have some funding available within my grant to engage a person to build a website. My brother can do this for me. Is this a problem?
This is an actual conflict of interest, and you should not proceed.
You should refer to the Procurement Policy and consider whether or not you will need quotes. It will depend on issues such as the value of the project.
If your brother provides a quote, you will need to:
- remove yourself from any decision-making
- disclose the conflict of interest to your manager, and
- ensure that you do not give your brother any information.
I am on the board of directors for company ‘ABC’. Can I get ‘ABC’ to do some consultancy work for my work unit at UWA?
As a director of ‘ABC’ you are likely to derive a benefit if you contracted ‘ABC’ to do any work for UWA. This would represent an actual conflict of interest.
It may be possible for other employees to manage a transparent tender or procurement process for this work and ‘ABC’ could provide a quote/tender. But you must have no involvement at all in the procurement process.
It may still be an issue if you are the senior employee and the tender is managed by employees who report either directly or indirectly to you. There may be a perception that if ‘ABC’ are granted the work that the decision makers felt constrained to award it to ‘ABC’ because of your relationship with the company.
Can I purchase equipment from a family business because I will be given a discount?
All purchases need to follow UWA’s procurement process. It would be an actual conflict of interest for you to purchase equipment from your family company without any other procurement process. It would unfairly benefit the family company and disadvantage any other potential suppliers.
I am a full-time employee at UWA. I also have a private company that supplies goods to UWA. Is this OK?
This is a perceived conflict of interest, particularly where the employment and the procurement occur within the same school or organisational unit.
There may be situations where this can occur at UWA, provided that the procurement process for the purchase of the goods:
- was independent and transparent
- complied with UWA’s Procurement Policy, and
- was not influenced by the employee with the conflict, and no unfair advantage was gained due to their involvement.
Regardless, you should complete a conflict of interest disclosure and discuss it with your supervisor or the Head of your organisational unit.
My parents own and operate a chemical supplies company that has been supplying UWA with products for years. I have secured a research assistant role in the School of Music. Do I need to disclose a conflict of interest?
No. As there is no connection between the two areas there is no conflict of interest and nothing to disclose.
I am a Research Integrity Advisor and an issue of academic integrity has been raised with me. The researcher who is the subject of the enquiry is a relative of mine.
This is an actual conflict of interest. You will need to excuse yourself from providing any advice to the enquirer and should refer them to another Research Integrity Advisor.
I am on the scientific advisory panel of ‘XYZ’. Can I apply for funding from ‘XYZ’ for my research at UWA?
You would need to refer to the conflict of interest policies of the XYZ funding body and comply with those. If the funding body does not have any policies on conflict of interest, your obligation would still be to disclose the conflict.
I am the sole director of a private company that is commercialising my IP, generated at another university. Can I use this IP at UWA for research purposes?
If the use of this IP will incur a cost for UWA, you would need to:
- disclose your interest, and
- where practical, excuse yourself from any involvement in the procurement process.
Where this is not possible due to the nature of the research or the relationship of the research with the IP, a conflict of management plan would need to be put in place and be approved by the Head of School or equivalent.
I do research into obesity. Can I accept funding from a company that sells fast food or confectionery?
Yes, you can accept this funding. However, you would need to disclose the source of funding and any conflict of interest in any publications about the research.
I am on a scientific advisory committee for a foundation that funds research. UWA researchers regularly apply to this foundation for funding. Can I be part of the application review and funding decision process?
You would need to refer to the foundation’s conflict of interest policies. If their policies cover these circumstances it is likely you would need to excuse yourself from any involvement in the round of funding applications that included applications from UWA researchers.
For example, the ARC has a Conflict of Interest and Confidentiality Policy that has provisions to identify and manage conflicts of interest such as this.
Travel and gifts
I have been invited to speak at an interstate university in the department where my partner works. Can I use my consultancy or strategic funds to cover the cost of my trip?
All travel funded from university funds must be for legitimate university business, such as research, presenting research or representing the University in an approved capacity.
If you can demonstrate this and approval is granted by the appropriate supervisor, the use of your consultancy funds would be appropriate.
Due to the potential for conflict of interest in the purpose of the trip, you must disclose the role of your partner so that your supervisor has all the necessary facts to make an informed decision
I visited an overseas university and my hosts wanted to give me cash to thank me for visiting. They were already paying all my expenses, so I didn’t accept it. Is it appropriate for me to accept cash in these circumstances?
If your visit was as a representative of UWA and occurred in what would be your usual UWA working time, you were correct not to accept the cash. As a UWA employee you are not permitted to accept monetary gifts, such as cash, cheques, money orders, traveller’s cheques and direct deposits.
If your visit was to review a school or present a public lecture during your normal working time, they may offer payment (not cash) and it would be appropriate for you to accept that and have it paid to UWA.
If the thank-you was instead a small gift of nominal value, this would be something you could accept. Refer to the Gifts, Benefits and Hospitality Policy for guidance on what constitutes nominal value and which gifts may need to be reported.
I have been discussing a research collaboration with a potential new industry partner. We don’t have a formal agreement or project established. They have offered me an all-expenses paid trip overseas to finalise the project details. Can I accept their offer?
It will depend on the circumstances of the potential arrangement.
If UWA is attempting to attract research funding from an industry partner and it will be to UWA’s advantage for you to personally attend to finalise the details, this may be appropriate. You would need to discuss the circumstances with your supervisor and it would be advisable to have the arrangement formally acknowledged as between UWA and the potential industry partner. You should seek advice from UWA Legal Services as to whether there should be some form of disclaimer in the event of the arrangement not proceeding.
However, if there may be some competition for the collaboration and an industry partner has not been finally selected this would not be appropriate because this would create a perceived conflict in making a final decision on selection of the industry partner.
I have been seeking tender responses from IT companies to provide computers and develop software for my research project. One of the companies has invited me to their company and will pay for all my travel and accommodation. Can I accept this offer?
No. It would not be appropriate to accept this offer.
When seeking tender responses it is important that each tenderer is afforded equal opportunity and provided with the same tender information and conditions.
Accepting this offer would:
- create a perception of bias if this company was successful
- result in a flawed tender process that could be disputed by unsuccessful tenderers.
I’m employed in the student services area of UWA and am working on a project about the level of facilities provided for students. I will be travelling to other universities to examine their facilities. My sister works in the student services area of one of the universities I’m visiting. Do I need to disclose a conflict of interest?
No. There is no conflict of interest in this situation. In fact, it may be an advantage to know someone in the area of interest at one of the universities.
Student supervision, placement and assessment
I'm an HDR student and have started dating my principal supervisor's housemate. Because of this, I see my supervisor socially quite often. Should my boyfriend move out? Can my supervisor continue as my supervisor? Does it make a difference if my boyfriend is not an academic at UWA?
Your relationship with your boyfriend could result in a close social relationship between you and your supervisor. This could lead to a perception of favouritism.
You should discuss the situation with your supervisor and any other supervisors involved in your HDR program. There may be opportunities to vary the extent of the supervisor’s role so that any assessment or decisions in relation to your student work or opportunities is made jointly by all the supervisors.
Whether your boyfriend is an academic at UWA is only relevant if he is also involved in your HDR study. That would be a separate conflict of interest issue to consider.
A clinical educator has asked me to offer a placement to a student who is a family friend. Can I offer the placement to the student?
No. The student will need to apply in the same way as all other students.
My daughter is enrolled in a program where I work. Are there limitations on my involvement in program activity because of this?
Yes. You should immediately disclose your potential conflict of interest and discuss the situation with you supervisor. A management plan can then be devised so that you have no involvement in any of the decisions, assessment processes or examination processing involving your daughter.
A student found me on social media and asked to be my friend. Is that OK? Does it matter whether I’m a professional or academic staff member?
The best practice would be to keep your professional and social lives separate. This may not represent a conflict of interest at the time of the request. However, situations may arise in the future where this could create a conflict of interest for either an academic or professional staff member as the student progresses through their studies and the role of the staff member changes over time.
I manage academic programs for the School of Education. My daughter wants to apply for a scholarship offered by the School of Music. Do I need to disclose a conflict of interest?
No, as it is unlikely that you would have any role in deciding or processing scholarship applications for another school in the faculty.
I am a PhD student and I have just started casual teaching at UWA. I have several friendship groups and some people are now in my class do I have to stop being friends and block them on social media?
This needs to be considered carefully and discussed with the Unit Coordinator. It is important that there is no real or perceived conflict of interest, and that no-one can have a concern that your friends are getting any preferential treatment.
It is recommended that you limit any social media contact, be professional in front of others, and work with your Unit Coordinator so that you are not involved in any marking.