Study Guide

Defining a Conflict of Interest

Michael McDonald defines a conflict of interest as the following.

"I define a conflict of interest as "a situation in which a person, such as a public official, an employee, or a professional, has a private or personal interest sufficient to appear to influence the objective exercise of his or her official duties. " There are three key elements in this definition. First, there is a private or personal interest. Often this is a financial interest, but it could also be another sort of interest, say, to provide a special advantage to a spouse or child. Taken by themselves, there is nothing wrong with pursuing private or personal interests, for instance, changing jobs for more pay or helping your daughter improve her golf stroke."

As McDonald goes on to explain, the problem arises when your own personal issues conflict with other professional or public obligations. An engineering professional has an obligation to his companies or clients to work for their best interests. A public official must keep his constituents in mind. An attorney must put aside his personal beliefs and act to defend or prosecute the accused to the best of his ability.

There are multiple categories for such conflicts and many companies and universities have instituted policies to clarify when such a conflict occurs and what to do about them. The best solution in a case of conflict is to totally and utterly remove yourself from one side of the conflict. A judge in any level will recuse himself from a case if any potential conflicts of interest arise. Beyond that, an "ethical wall" is built up around oneself. That is, the judge in this case will not discuss the case with his fellow justices and will avoid influencing others on the issue.

Conflicts of Interest in Computing

Some potential conflicts in Computing could include using insider information gained in the work place to make stock purchases, owning a great deal of stock in a company and then choosing their software over a competitor's for coporate use and programing your search engine purposely to deny users from finding competitor's sites.

As most conflicts do, these tend to have a lot to do with money. For instance Compaq owns quite a bit of 2 companies that Dell buys servers and services from. Were Compaq to put pressure on these companies to not sell to Dell, this would be a major conflict of interest. It would be an attempt by Compaq to use it's corporate power to drive Dell out of business through these other companies. These companies should have the interest of their owner in mind, but this should not stop them from looking out for the interests of their customers.

The case of the search engines isn't quite so easy to see. The conflict arises from the fact that a search engine is designed to provide a service that should be fair an indifferent to the subject of the search. When one engine denies the user to type in a competitor's name and recieve an honest reply from the search engine there is a conflict between the interests of the user (the customer) and the company that created the engine. The company wants to hurt its competitor but it has an obligation to its users.


1. A purchasing manager for a major corporation owns a good deal of stock in a software company that is trying to sell its software. The decision to make this major purchase is up to the manager. Is this a conflict of interest?

2. What should the manager do to avoid this possible conflict?

3. Do you feel it would be a conflict for the manager to try to influence someone that was put in charge of this particular purchase in his place?