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

A Refresher on the Impartiality Rule
January 25, 2017

On January 1, 2017, new government ethics training regulations  went into effect. These regulations  now require agencies to train more employees than in the past. They also place a new emphasis on four core topics: conflicts of interest, impartiality, misuse of position, and gifts. Earlier “Director’s Notes” have discussed conflicts of interest, misuse of position, and gifts. To round out the set, this Director’s note focuses on the impartiality rule.

As explained in my most recent note, executive branch employees are subject to an important set of ethics rules contained in the Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch. Underlying these rules is a principle that employees must avoid even the appearance of impropriety. The impartiality rule breathes life into this principle.

Under the primary conflict of interest law, an employee must not participate in any particular matter affecting the employee’s financial interests, and the impartiality rule  goes even further by focusing on appearance issues. This rule applies even when the employee is free of financial conflicts of interest.

Briefly stated, the impartiality rule requires an employee to consider appearance concerns before participating in a particular matter if someone close to the employee is involved as a party to that matter. This requirement to refrain from participating (or “recuse”) is designed to avoid the appearance of favoritism in government decision-making. 

The rule is not implicated by everyone the employee knows, for example, mere friends and neighbors. Instead, the rule focuses on professional and family relationships. Among others, the rule arises based on the employee’s relationship with any member of the employee’s household, an outside employer, a spouse’s employer, any relative with whom the employee has a close personal relationship, or an outside organization in which the employee is an “active” member. The rule is also triggered by the employee’s relationship with individuals, clients, and organizations the employee has served professionally as an employee, attorney, contractor, etc., in the past year.

The duty to recuse comes up if one of these individuals and organizations is involved and if a reasonable person with knowledge of the relevant facts would be concerned about the employee’s impartiality. Because the rule is somewhat technical, employees should attend required ethics training to ensure that they understand how to make impartial decisions when performing their government jobs. Employees should also contact their agency ethics officials for assistance in applying the rule in specific cases.