United States Office of Government Ethics, Preventing Conflicts of Interest in the Executive Branch

Remaining Impartial
February 26, 2016

An executive branch employee must remain impartial when performing Government duties. A criminal conflict of interest statute, 18 U.S.C. § 208, prohibits certain activities by the employee when the activity affects the financial interest of the employee's spouse or minor children or entities in which the employee serves in a position such as trustee or director.

The situations described in the statute, however, are not the only ones that the employee must avoid. The Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch (5 C.F.R. part 2635) describe additional situations that raise the appearance of a loss of impartiality. The regulation also explains the steps the employee must take when those situations arise.

Situations that raise concerns about the appearance of a loss of impartiality

An employee is called upon to participate in a particular matter involving specific parties and the employee knows that:

  • The matter is likely to affect the financial interests of a member of the employee's household
  • One or more of the parties to the matter is or is represented by one of the following:
    • A person or organization with whom the employee has or seeks a business relationship;
    • A person who is a member of the employee's household;
    • A person who is a relative with whom the employee has a close personal relationship;
    • A person or organization for whom the employee's spouse, parent, or dependent child is serving or seeking to serve as an officer, director, trustee, general partner, agent, attorney, consultant, contractor, or employee;
    • Any person or organization for whom the employee has, within the last year, served as officer, director, trustee, general partner, agent, attorney, consultant, contractor, or employee; or
    • An organization, other than certain political organizations, in which the employee is an active participant.

Example: As part of his job with an executive branch agency, Phillip inspects manufacturing establishments for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Phillip's brother has just purchased a plant that Phillip is assigned to inspect. If Phillip participates in the inspection, his impartiality may be questioned.

Actions that an employee must take in situations that raise appearance concerns

  • Decide whether a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts would question the employee's impartiality if the employee participated in the matter.
    • The employee may seek assistance from the agency ethics official or the agency designee (person designated by the agency to address appearance problems).
  • If the employee decides that a reasonable person would not question his or her impartiality, the employee may participate in the matter.
  • If the employee or the agency designee decides that the employee's impartiality would be questioned, the employee should not participate in the matter.
  • Participation is permissible if the agency designee determines that the interest of the Government in the employee's participation outweighs the concern that a reasonable person may question the integrity of the agency's programs and operations.

The information on this page is not a substitute for individual advice. Agency ethics officials should be consulted about specific situations.