Ask the Ethicist — Questions & Answers


Posted: December 22, 2009

Q. What should a FRA employee do with free items (pens, calendars, tote bags, radios and food) left by a vendor?

A. As mentioned in the Dec. 18 issue of Fermilab Today, the Code of Conduct prohibits employees from accepting any gratuity, gift or special favor from individuals or organizations with whom FRA is doing business or proposing to do business. The policy states that “except for advertising novelties of minimal value, gratuities shall be refused or returned.”

This means that your actions depend on what the vendor leaves. Items such as calendars, pens and tote bags generally qualify as advertising novelties of minimal value and can be accepted. An item such as a radio probably does not qualify and should be refused or returned. Food is trickier. If you can politely refuse the food offered, you should do so. If the food is left behind, place it in a public area for general consumption. This helps remove the appearance of a conflict of interest.


Posted: December 22, 2009

Q. What should an employee do with a personal gift offered by a friend who works for a vendor to FRA?

A. Many employees regularly interact with the same vendor representative. Naturally, personal friendships can develop. A gift from a vendor-employed friend blends the line between your personal and professional life. In this situation you must remain conscious of the prohibition on gifts and gratuities and you must keep in mind the appearance of a conflict of interest created.

Whether you should accept a gift from a vendor-employed friend depends on your relationship with the person, the gift, the manner in which it was given and the appearance created by your acceptance. For example, if you received a personal gift at a separate function (e.g., dinner at your house); then you can probably accept the gift. If your interactions with a vendor only relate to their business at Fermilab, and they offer you a personal gift; you should probably decline or return the gift.

Clear cut answers are hard to come by. If you are offered a gift or have accepted a gift that you think may conflict with FRA policies, feel free to contact the Legal Office for specific advice.


Posted: September 2, 2009

Q. I was recently offered a token fee to referee a journal article. In the spirit that scientists' work should be compensated, the journal instituted a token fee to be paid to its referees. I plan on declining the token fee (about $50) because the work will involve laboratory computers and time. If I decided I wanted to receive the fee, would there be a way to ethically do so?

A. Given the information you have provided, your intention to decline the fee is correct. Technically speaking, performing the work and accepting the fee constitutes outside employment.

In general, the laboratory does not favor or encourage outside employment or personal consulting and can pursue discharge in egregious cases of unauthorized outside employment. Though your token fee is not anywhere near that level, it will require you to use laboratory computers and time, suggesting that management would not authorize the outside employment. In short, your gut instinct to decline the fee was right.

However, the laboratory does not prohibit outside employment altogether. Authorization for outside employment or consulting may be granted. Such authorization must be obtained in writing prior to engaging in outside activities. The authorization must be requested by completing the outside employment/consulting form: http://wdrs.fnal.gov/section/out_employ_form.pdf.

You can learn more about authorization through the FRA Code of Business Ethics or Conduct at http://www.fnal.gov/directorate/Legal/ethics.shtml and the WDRS policy at http://wdrs.fnal.gov/policies/policy/standardsofconduct.html. You can also contact the Legal Office at x3572 for additional help.


Posted: March 4, 2009

Q. I attend technical seminars sponsored by Fermilab vendors. These seminars sometimes include lunch and random drawings for door prizes. Should I decline the lunch and/or the door prizes?

A. Free lunches and door prizes both constitute gratuities and open up the possibility for conflicts of interest. A conflict of interest is defined as "situations when an individual has other competing financial, professional or personal obligations or interests that interfere with his or her ability to perform required duties in a fair and objective manner." In this case, a potential conflict exists because others could see your acceptance of a lunch or door prize from a vendor as having an impact on your ability to look upon the vendor objectively.

Conflicts of interest trigger several laboratory policies. The FRA Code of Business Ethics and Conduct specifically states that as an employee you shall not accept anything of value that others could think would obligate you to the giver. You can see this at: http://www.fnal.gov/directorate/Legal/ethics.shtml. This program incorporates several preexisting laboratory policies governing conflicts of interest, all of which bear on the question. For example, the Workforce Development and Resources Section conflicts of interest policy prohibits an employee from soliciting or accepting a gift from an individual or organization that the laboratory is doing or seeking to do business with. See: http://wdrs.fnal.gov/policies/policy/standardsofconduct.html. The Director’s Policy Manual, and the Procurement Manual, maintained by the Business Services Section, contain similar restrictions.

However, the policies alone do not answer your questions. They merely communicate Fermilab’s expectations of you. Fermilab staff expect you to exercise independent, prudent judgment in meeting those expectations. This means, in some circumstances, you could accept the free lunch or door prizes. For instance, if the technical seminar provided by a Fermilab vendor is given off-site and targets an audience of people other than Fermilab employees, you may be able to accept the lunch. Also consider the Q&A on de minimis gratuities discussed below. If the door prizes constitute “advertising novelties of minimal value” such as a coffee mug or pen, you would not be prohibited from accepting them. As with most ethical questions, the answers are fact-dependent.

The central question is this: Would accepting a lunch or prize cause others to question your ability to deal with the provider fairly and objectively? If the answer is yes or you are unsure, you should probably initially decline the offer and talk to the Legal Office.


Posted: March 4, 2009

Q. If I win a prize in a public sweepstakes sponsored by a Fermilab vendor, should I decline the prize?

A. You will most likely not have to decline the prize. If the prize is made available to the general public it does not present a potential or actual conflict of interest. However, before participating in the sweepstakes or accepting a prize from a known Fermilab vendor you should ascertain whether: (1) the prize is truly opened up to a public sweepstakes, (2) your participation in the sweepstakes is as a member of the public and not as a Fermilab employee, (3) you did not use Fermilab time or equipment to participate in the sweepstakes, (4) you are given no greater advantage than any other member of the public, (5) you are not prohibited by the sweepstakes rules from accepting the prize as a result of your Fermilab employment and (6) accepting the prize does not create an actual or apparent conflict of interest with your duties to FRA.


Posted: March 4, 2009

Q. Is there a conflict of interest if I place requisitions with a company that my spouse works for? If so, what should I do?

A. A conflict of interest is defined as "situations when an individual has other competing financial, professional or personal obligations or interests that interfere with his or her ability to perform required duties in a fair and objective manner." See Fermilab's definition at: http://wdrs.fnal.gov/elr/glossary.html#conflict.

FRA policy requires its employees to avoid actual or apparent conflicts of interest. See the FRA policy at: http://wdrs.fnal.gov/policies/policy/standardsofconduct.html.

Because your spouse represents a potential vendor with whom you might place requisitions, the potential for a conflict of interest is high. It certainly presents a situation in which your financial and personal obligations are implicated. The best course of action is to notify your immediate supervisor of the potential conflict of interest, discuss possible alternative arrangements for fielding requisitions with your spouse's company, and then present the problem and potential solutions to the Legal Office.


Posted: December 12, 2008

Q. I submitted an article to a magazine regarding a product we use at the lab. It is written as a tutorial (beginner level) and doesn't reference Fermilab. I completed this article after work hours. The article is in the review process now and I can stop it from being published. Can you advise as to whether this is a conflict of interest with Fermilab?

A. Your submission reveals personal effort on a product you use here at the laboratory, presumably in the scope of your employment. You have undertaken to write and submit a tutorial for publication related to this product. You prepared this tutorial after hours, which implies that you did so on your own time and using your own equipment. You do not state whether you are being compensated from any outside source for your work on the tutorial submitted for publishing.

Given these facts, neither an actual or apparant conflict of interest is present. If, however, you have received any compensation or will receive any other form of benefit for the pubilcation, you should disclose this fact on this form: http://wdrs.fnal.gov/section/out_employ_form.pdf.


Posted: December 12, 2008

Q. I am considering running for my local city council in the upcoming election. I cannot see any way that this would create a conflict of interest or appearance thereof related to my employment at the laboratory, but I direct the question to the Ethicist in the event there is something I have overlooked.

A. I fail to see an actual or apparent conflict of interest arising out of your running for or serving as a city council member. Even a federal employee, who is prohibited from running for certain offices by the Hatch Act, could run for the position you seek. See the Act here: http://www.osc.gov/documents/hatchact/ha_fed.pdf. If you are elected and the position is paid, you would be required to submit an outside employment form. The form is available at: http://wdrs.fnal.gov/section/out_employ_form.pdf. If you are elected and are not paid, it would be wise to inform the city attorney of your FRA employment so that he or she can properly counsel you on ethical limits of your new office.


Posted: December 5, 2008

Q. I once invited a DOE employee to lunch as my guest. When I reached for the check, the employee said with a laugh, “I guess this is de minimis, so it is OK.” What did she mean? Was picking up the check OK?

A. In this case, it was ok for you to buy lunch. Like employees of FRA, DOE employees are bound by ethical constraints. One constraint is a prohibition against accepting gifts, including meals, from a contractor. As with all rules, an exception applies and permits receipt of individual gifts under $20 in value (the de minimis reference) so long as gifts from one source do not aggregate to $50 in a calendar year. Because the lunch tab was less than $20 for your DOE guest and because you had not picked up prior tabs or provided any other gifts that eclipsed the $50 aggregate limit, you could buy lunch. A similar restriction applies to FRA employees and is found in the personnel policies maintained by WDRS. http://wdrs.fnal.gov/policies/policy/standardsofconduct.html


Posted: December 5, 2008

Q. Sometimes, I write/take photos for the local newspaper. I do this outside of work hours, but are there still times when this activity can be a conflict of interest?

A. The simple answer here is yes, there are times when writing and taking photos for a local paper could be a conflict of interest. Referencing the same policy noted above, a conflict of interest exists when an FRA employee has or appears to have a personal or financial interest that could influence the objective or proper exercise of the employee’s duties. Note that an actual conflict need not exist. The mere appearance of a conflict is enough. Diagnosis and disclosure are key. For while an actual conflict or the appearance of a conflict may exist, this does not mean that you may not still write and take photos for the local paper. Any actual or apparent conflict may be mitigated and you can continue contributing to the local paper. The Fermilab Legal Office will help you in reaching that determination.