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The roar of the crowd, clinking champagne flutes, and gourmet cuisine… it’s the Big Game, and the season of extravagant corporate hospitality packages is in full swing.

Welcome to the high-stakes minefield of conflicts of interest: where the boundaries between business and pleasure blur and the reputation of your business hangs in the balance.

What exactly is a conflict of interest?

While we all appreciate gifts, a COI arises when a professional favor could sway someone’s judgment. The allure of luxury perks can compromise objectivity, leading to decisions that could prioritize personal gain over the company’s best interests.

When strings come attached

Major events like the Olympics, World Cup, Wimbledon, F1 championships and the Super Bowl are a hotbed for COIs. The allure of premium tickets, VIP access and luxurious accommodation can be tempting – it’s easy to rationalize that these gifts are just a way to build relationships, but they can quickly blur the line between genuine relationship-building and unethical influence.

Let’s say your sales director buys courtside seats to a major basketball game for a potential client. On the surface, it seems like a generous gesture. You might even have the budget, performance and expense code to back it up.

But what if that client is responsible for deciding which company wins a lucrative contract with their organization – and your company is one of them? 

How does someone prove a gift didn’t impact their decision-making, when the value can be so high?

Cultural and geographic considerations – it’s not always clear-cut

What’s acceptable in one culture might be a red flag in another. Small gifts might be customary in some places, while elsewhere, even modest gestures could be unethical. In highly regulated industries like healthcare and finance, even a pricey business meal could violate anti-corruption laws.

There are a huge number of laws affecting what must be included in COI policies around the world. Here are just a few of them:  

United Kingdom:

  • Bribery Act 2010: Prohibits bribery in both public and private sectors. Additional regulations apply to specific sectors like healthcare (ABPI Code of Practice) and financial services (FCA rules).


  • German Criminal Code (Strafgesetzbuch): Prohibits bribery and corruption across all sectors, with specific regulations for healthcare (Transparency Code of the German Pharmaceutical Industry), government and financial services (Banking Act and Securities Trading Act).


  • Sapin II Law: Imposes strict regulations on gifts, requiring transparency and limitations on value. Specific regulations apply to healthcare, government officials (overseen by the French Anti-Corruption Agency) and financial services (regulated by the Autorité des Marchés Financiers).

United States:

  • The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA): Prohibits U.S. companies from bribing foreign officials to obtain or retain business.
  • The Anti-Kickback Statute: Prohibits offering or receiving remuneration for referrals to services covered by federal healthcare programs.
  • The Honest Services Fraud Statute: Prohibits schemes to prevent another from receiving honest services, e.g. through bribes or kickbacks.
  • The Ethics in Government Act: Imposes restrictions on gifts and benefits that federal employees can accept.

The devil is in the details: The challenges of COI compliance programs

So, you’ve got a conflict of interest written up and ready to protect your company from ethical missteps. But hold on – are you sure it’s actually working? The truth is, even the best-intentioned COI programs can fall flat if they’re not designed and implemented with care.

Here’s where things can get messy:

  • The “I didn’t know” reasoning – A policy buried in a dusty employee handbook won’t do much good if no one knows it exists. If employees aren’t trained on how to spot and report conflicts, or when they should disclose a potential conflict of their own, they might not recognize what a COI is, let alone how to report it.
  • The favoritism trap – Inconsistent enforcement will create an environment of resentment and distrust. A COI policy is only as good as its application to everyone, no matter which team or individual is involved.
  • Too scared to speak up – If employees are afraid to speak up about potential conflicts – whether due to fear of retaliation or a lack of faith in the system – you won’t even know they’re there until something bubbles to the surface.

Building a COI program that actually works: Your COI policy to-do

A winning COI program is about a culture of integrity reinforced by rules – not simply expecting rules to become reality overnight.

  • Keep it crystal clear – Your COI policy should be written clearly in local language, with concrete examples everyone can understand. 
  • Train like you mean it – Make COI training engaging and relevant to the roles of your people. And don’t just do it once – make it a regular part of your company culture.
  • Open the lines of communication – Create a safe and confidential way for your people to report concerns, including conflicts of interest. Signpost your policies and underline consequences for retaliation.
  • Investigate like a pro – When a conflict is reported, don’t sweep it under the rug. Conduct a thorough and impartial investigation to get to the bottom of the issue, then monitor for reoccurrence.
  • Play fair – Apply your COI policy consistently. Holding everyone to the same standards sends a powerful message about your commitment to integrity.

Identifying a conflict of interest in the hospitality context often requires a nuanced understanding of the situation and a keen eye for potential red flags. It’s not always about the dollar amount of a gift or the extravagance of an event. It’s about the intent behind the gesture and the potential for it to influence professional judgment.

Look beyond the surface and ask yourself, whether giving or receiving a gift:

  • Could this gift or hospitality influence, or seem to influence the recipient’s professional judgment?
  • Would a reasonable person perceive this as an attempt to gain favor or influence?
  • Does this gift violate our company’s policies or any relevant laws or regulations?

If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” you need to take a step back and consider the best course of action and who to consult.

Don’t let conflicts tarnish your reputation

Building relationships and fostering business opportunities require a clear head, a firm grasp of the rules and a commitment to ethical principles. A chat about the game over a light lunch with your contacts is a far cry from thousands spent on top-box tickets and chilled champagne.

As with anything in risk and compliance, you must know the regulatory requirements before you can make personal judgements on what is and isn’t ethical.

Don’t let conflicts of interest turn your winning streak into a scandal. Our COI disclosure management software helps you define how your people can build genuine relationships while staying compliant, ethical and protecting your company’s reputation.

Remove the uncertainty out of regulatory requirements around conflicts of interest – and get back to enjoying the game. For more in-depth information on how to effectively manage COIs, join our upcoming webinar on Friday June 21, 2024. Can’t make it? Complete your registration and you’ll receive on-demand access once the webinar airs!

Register now!