Maintaining a level playing field is essential to preserve the integrity and value of your association awards program. To ensure fairness in selecting winners, take steps to identify and address conflicts of interest.
Do you remember a time in childhood when someone was chosen for something special and the choice felt unfair? Maybe it was two classmates vowing to pick each other first when choosing teams. Or a coach always putting his son in the game for the important plays. Or maybe even the opposite, when you, as the coach’s kid, did not get tapped to be pitcher.
In those cases, it did not matter that the chosen one had athletic ability, because the choice appeared to be based on relationship and not merit. And that felt unfair. The playing field did not seem level.
The same dynamic can taint even an otherwise successful association awards program. In addition to raising legal concerns, a selection process in which winners are, or appear to be, chosen based on a special relationship, rather than merit, destroys the value of the award.
So what should you do to make your award selections more objective and fair?
First, develop well-defined, clear criteria for winning the award—and then follow those criteria. The call for nominations and publicity for the award should clearly explain the criteria that will be used. Then, have all members of the selection group rate each candidate on the criteria. Not only is this more fair, but it will help others trust the legitimacy of the award. If no candidate fits all of the required criteria, consider re-issuing the call for nominations with modified criteria.
Define who is not eligible to nominate candidates or win the award. Members of the award selection committee should not nominate candidates or be directly involved in helping particular candidates with their submissions. Clearly, committee members should also be ineligible to win. Executive staff should be excluded as well.
Implement a specific process to consider possible conflicts. Before you decide who will serve on the selection committee, ask the possible members to formally report any prior interactions related to the award, such as working with an individual to prepare materials. Explain any criteria that would exclude a person from serving on the committee, such as serving as head of a department that nominates candidates each year or other significant involvement, and screen for these exclusion criteria as you consider prospective members.
Even after the selection committee is in place, conflicts of interest may arise. Once the candidates for the award are determined, ask the committee members if any have a conflict, and give helpful examples of possible conflicts. Questions to consider:
- Given the importance of networking, selection committee members may be acquainted with most or all of the candidates for the award, but do any have a special connection?
- Would someone looking at the selection group from the outside think that one or more of the candidates would get special treatment because of a relationship?
- Could the selection committee members be perceived as having an opportunity for personal financial or reputational gain by the selection of a particular candidate?
Remind the committee members that the question is not whether each of them would be objective and fair, but rather whether others would think a relationship they have could impact the outcome.
Consider family and business relationships. Spouses and affiliations with other organizations can also lead to conflicts. Does any selection committee member’s spouse have a relationship that could result in a real or perceived conflict? What about duties owed to other organizations or institutions that would lead to a specific choice?
Don’t forget to consider negative conflicts. Has any member of the selection committee had a negative interaction with a candidate that might cause them to harbor animosity? Are any members direct competitors or rivals of a candidate? While often overlooked, negative conflicts can destroy the goodwill the award is trying to create.
Manage any actual and perceived conflicts of interest that are discovered. Consider whether a selection committee member with a conflict should recuse from discussion and voting on a particular candidate or should not participate in the selection process at all. In some cases, disclosure of the possible conflict will serve to manage it. In others, disclosure alone will not protect the process from perceptions of unfairness.
And that is an important goal. By considering actual and apparent conflicts of interest and managing them appropriately, an association can minimize the perception that its selection process is unfair and protect the positive value of the awards it bestows.