independent, unbiased answers: our approach to conflicts of interest

Consumers and businesses rely on us to give fair, independent and unbiased answers. And we have the power to issue decisions that are final and binding. So we take conflicts of interest very seriously - and take active steps to ensure that they don’t arise.

We have a policy in place to deal with conflicts of interest at all levels - and not just in relation to individual complaints. If something could be seen to give rise to a conflict -  even if we don’t think there’s an actual conflict -  this policy will apply.

We ask ombudsmen and senior managers to declare their interests when they join us, and then again each year. For example, they should declare if they have a financial interest - or any other interest - in a financial business that we consider complaints against.

We expect and encourage all our staff to tell us as soon as they become aware of any circumstances that could give rise - or be seen to give rise - to a conflict of interest on a complaint they’re trying to resolve (whether or not the potential conflict has been raised by the parties to a complaint). The complaint will then be passed to someone else to investigate and decide.

conflicts of interest: our policy

what’s a conflict of interest?

A conflict of interest is when someone’s judgement or actions at work are - or could be - affected by something unconnected with their role. This includes any circumstances that affect - or could be seen to affect - someone’s independence or impartiality.

what does that mean for us?

It’s our job - by law - to be independent and impartial. So we treat conflicts of interest very seriously.

Our staff need to tell their manager as soon as they discover any circumstances that may - or may be seen to - lead to a conflict of interest. This applies at any time, and whether or not they are dealing directly with customers’ complaints.

It goes without saying that ombudsman employees should never use the fact that they work for the ombudsman to their advantage.

Even if an individual may be confident that there’s no conflict of interest, we need to think about how the situation might look to someone else. Perception really counts. So if a member of staff has any doubts at all, they must talk things through with their manager, who can arrange for someone else to deal with the complaint or issue.

what might a conflict of interest involve?

There isn’t a definitive list - but some examples worth bearing in mind could be where a member of staff might:

  • deal with a complaint that they have a personal interest in - or a complaint brought by someone they know;
  • discover that a complaint we’re dealing with involves a job they used to have at a financial business;
  • find out that someone is making a complaint about someone they know;
  • have (or have had) a close relationship with someone who dealt with a complaint at another business;
  • deal with a complaint about a business they recently worked for or intend to work for;
  • have - directly or through someone close to them - a business interest or role outside the ombudsman service which may - or may be seen to - affect their independence and impartiality;  
  • be offered a gift or offer of hospitality from one of the parties to a complaint - or any other person or organisation dealing with, or looking to deal with, the ombudsman service;
  • be offered a personal financial incentive for securing a contract for the ombudsman service.

potential conflicts  involving companies you used to work for

For the first six months our staff are with us (or 12 months for an ombudsman), they don’t get involved in any complaints about a business they:

  • used to work at; or
  • have declared an interest in, where that interest may be seen to affect their independence or impartiality.

This is to make sure there’s no actual or perceived conflict of interest in our opinions or decisions. Depending on circumstances, we may decide to extend this timeframe if we need to.

potential conflicts when you’re leaving us

Once a member of staff has told us they’re leaving, we may need to look at what they’re currently working on. If we feel that it’s not appropriate for them to continue to be involved in a particular kind of work, or complaints involving certain companies, their manager will let them know. On some rare occasions, we may require them to take garden leave.

potential conflicts with other work you may be involved in

When a new member of staff joins us, they need to tell us about any other employment or role they might have - including self-employment, appointments (as a non-executive director, for example) or business interests (including those of family members and other connected people such as business partners). They’ll need to get their manager to confirm in writing that they can carry on with any other work - if we think that’s appropriate.

If a member of staff is asked to be involved in work outside the ombudsman service while they’re employed here, they’ll need to check with us first. We can only say “yes” to it if there’s no conflict. For senior managers or ombudsmen, we may also ask them to complete an annual declaration of their interests.

offers of gifts and hospitality

We always need to think carefully about whether it’s a good idea to accept any gift or hospitality. In any case, only “token” gifts worth no more than £25 should be accepted. And all gifts or hospitality have to be formally registered with our chief ombudsman’s office.

We would need to be sure that there’s a good work reason to accept any hospitality - for example, to build a working relationship that will help sort out complaints fairly. We won’t accept any offer that might put us in a difficult position - for example, when taking into account what consumers or businesses would think if they heard about it.