Interview with Mary Cooley
Mary T. Cooley, M.A., SPHR, is the Principal Consultant for HR Solutions, LLC. A Human Resources (HR) professional with over 20 years of management experience in the United States and Europe, Cooley has twice been named by the New Mexico Business Weekly as one of New Mexico’s “40 under 40” who are making a positive difference in the state. Other accolades include the YWCA’s “Woman on the Move” award and the National Society of Human Resources’, “HR Educator of the Year” and “Most Passionate HR Professional.” Cooley has been an instructor with the University of New Mexico’s Anderson School of Business and Management Development Center for seven years. Currently, she is a doctoral candidate in Organizational Learning and Instructional Technologies at UNM.
Dealing with conflicts of interest often falls within the purview of HR professionals. With her vast experience in management and human resources, we knew Mary was the right person to talk to about this subject.
New Mexico Ethics Online (NMEO): Why do you think so many organizations get into trouble because of conflicts of interest?
Mary Cooley (MC): Conflicts of interest are inevitable. That’s the pivotal statement. Human nature leads people to seek comfort; to seek like-minded people with common interests, and so, conflicts of interest often arise. To think otherwise is naïve. Organizations in New Mexico, especially, should consider the possibility of conflicts of interest. Most New Mexico businesses are small, employ few workers and often bring people they know and trust into their organizations, blurring the line between employer and employee, and allowing conflicts of interest to feed on themselves. A business in New Mexico, as an example, employs fewer than 20 people, most of whom the business owner has known for years and trusts implicitly. Not only could it be difficult for friends to question the owner’s decisions, but also, the owner could easily give friends special consideration and favors. It’s a difficult situation.
NMEO: What can organizations do to reduce the likelihood that a conflict of interest will occur?
MC: Although conflicts of interest are inevitable, they can be mitigated with good systems in place. Organizations with a conflict of interest policy are better poised to avoid them. Employers and managers should acknowledge the potential for conflicts of interest – call a spade a spade – and be proactive. They should set a policy, which itemizes conflicts of interest and offers operational tools to deal with them. With a policy in place, employees should be confident the policy will be treated with honor. Employees should know that if they come forward, employers and managers will deal with the situation without retribution.
Transparency is the key in moderating conflicts of interest. Employers should make it clear that when an employee comes forward, they can count on management to deal with it.
NMEO: Who in an organization should be concerned about conflicts of interest?
MC: Everyone in an organization should be concerned about conflicts of interest. Employers and managers in the organization should create an atmosphere of trust where recognizing, understanding, and reporting conflicts of interest are more than policy – rather a way of life. Everyone should use the “mirror test” and ask themselves if they are taking an upstanding role in the organization.
NMEO: You said “transparency is the key.” Who in an organization should be asked/required to sign disclosures? (Board members, senior staff, employees, or volunteers?)
MC: A disclosure statement emphasizes the importance of conflicts of interest to the company. As such, if the company requires a disclosure statement, everyone should be asked to sign it.
NMEO: Should an organization allow 3rd party anonymous reporting of conflicts of interest?
MC: Providing employees with methods to report conflicts of interest is one tool to address conflicts of interest in an organization. The organization should set up an outline for reporting. Employees should know who to report to. If they are not comfortable speaking with the first person in the hierarchy they would know who to report to instead. The organization might have an 800 number employees could call to report conflicts of interest or make an ombudsman available for reporting. Anonymous reporting swings both ways. The possibility of misuse exists, but creating trust and transparency within the organization diminishes abuse of the conflict of interest policy.
NMEO: How should an organization investigate/handle reports of conflicts of interest?
MC: The methods for investigating and handling conflicts of interest reveal who management is. Although organizations have a conflict of interest policy in place, it is imperative the policy is implemented. Employees’ reports of conflicts of interest should be taken seriously. Conflicts of interest disrupt the equilibrium of input and output in an organization, and when employees feel they are treated unfairly, turnover rates increase and productivity declines.
NMEO: Who determines whether a conflict of interest exists in an organization?
MC: There is no hard and fast rule for deciding who verifies conflicts of interest. Certainly, the person should be someone without a vested interest in the outcome of the situation and a person skilled in investigation. Human Resources professionals and outside experts could be solicited.