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Harry Cassin
Publisher and Editor

Andy Spalding
Senior Editor

Jessica Tillipman
Senior Editor

Bill Steinman
Senior Editor

Richard L. Cassin
Editor at Large

Elizabeth K. Spahn
Editor Emeritus

Cody Worthington
Contributing Editor

Julie DiMauro
Contributing Editor

Thomas Fox
Contributing Editor

Marc Alain Bohn
Contributing Editor

Bill Waite
Contributing Editor

Russell A. Stamets
Contributing Editor

Richard Bistrong
Contributing Editor

Eric Carlson
Contributing Editor

Can you tell the difference between acceptable networking and wrongful hiring practices?

Prudential PLC’s CFO resigned earlier this year because of an investigation into a code of conduct violation.  A recent WSJ article reveals that the breach was in connection with the CFO’s efforts to help the son of an insurance regulator in Hong Kong, who had approached him about a potential job opportunity.

The regulator led the Insurance Authority of Hong Kong’s oversight of Prudential PLC and other life insurance companies. She too left her job at the Insurance Authority at the termination of her contract this summer. The company has declined to comment on the case to the Journal.

Networking and doing informational interviews are the norm in business for job seekers. It’s an understandable approach to recruitment, as hiring managers would generally prefer to hire someone that comes with a known reference than one selected at random by an algorithm. But when do relationships cross the line towards nepotism and unethical favoritism?

Conflicts of interest in hiring can be a murky area of ethics for employees. Many believe that using your relationships and networks are critical to finding a good hire. LinkedIn’s top tip for how to get hired by a large company is to develop a strategy to get an internal referral. Reconnect with an old friend, they suggest, or befriend someone who works there.

Yet favoritism and conflicts of interest are among the highest incidents of observed unethical behavior in practice, according to the annual Global Business Ethics Survey (GBES). The Ethics and Compliance Initiative has been administering this research for 20 years. One of their conclusions from the 2023 results is that the observations of all types of misconduct are at an all-time high level, at 63 percent.

Two-thirds of employees around the world indicated that they’ve observed at least one instance of a violation of a company code, policy, or law. Among the top observed misconduct is favoritism among employees, and inappropriate hiring practices.

The discrepancy between the norms of hiring and these survey results may be because of the differing characterizations of conflicts of interest. A common description of a conflict is a circumstance when you or your company benefits at the expense of another person or company – e.g., the company makes money by doing a financial trade that benefits the company but not the client, who suffers a loss. Consistent with this view, when there are decisions that make everyone better off, then it’s not a conflict. Both parties are better off when that decision is made, so it’s a win-win.

An alternate view is that even when both parties benefit, there is a potential conflict of interest when one party stands to benefit and could sway the situation without full disclosure of those influences; or when there are personal relationships involved that could have skewed the decision-making in favor of a third party.

I’ve observed these divergent perspectives when teaching. One case I often use involves an employee who is responsible for hiring company vendors. He’s identified two vendors that are, on paper, equally qualified. In a casual conversation with one vendor, the employee mentions that his wife has a rare cancer and is struggling to find good care. The vendor knows a specialist at the local hospital and can get her to the top of the list for treatment.

The case is designed to heighten the emotional sensitivity of the situation, yet the key takeaway should be that the employee should remove himself from the decision-making process and let someone else lead. Students often resist that recusal is necessary because the employee can make everyone better off.  By choosing the vendor who has the relationship with the hospital and helps his wife at the same time, it’s a win-win!

Managing conflicts matters not only because favoritism is unfair to others, but also because it could be an early warning signal for other issues. In 2016, JPMorgan Chase paid a $246 million penalty to settle FCPA charges relating to their referral hiring program in China. Over the seven-year period reviewed, the company retained $100 million in revenues by hiring approximately 100 interns and employees of high-level government officials. These practices seemed to have slid down the slippery slope beyond favoritism to bribery.

Being precise about the definition of a conflict of interest can help thwart potential misperceptions. Prudential PLC said the CFO’s resignation was “in light of an investigation into a code of conduct issue,” according to the WSJ, that was “flagged by Prudential [PLC’s] HR function as a potential conflict of interest.”

Ethics training should also go one step further to provide guidance on conflicts of interest. Many companies provide employees a bonus for referring their friends to the firm. This referral practice is not problematic but when embedded within a goal-oriented, high-paced business culture, employees need clarity to identify the line where banking on personal relationships is indeed a win-win.

Editor’s Note: Prudential PLC (based in the UK) is not affiliated with Prudential Financial (based in the U.S.).

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