I dropped out of my reporting job at Spaceflight Insider (SFI) three years ago–not because of any wrongdoing, but because my various freelance contracts in the aerospace business were starting to interfere with my ability to write stories for SFI. I was facing what government contracting folks call an OCI (Organizational Conflict of Interest).
OCIs occur when something you do or a position you hold could result in direct or indirect benefit to you or your employer. In my SFI situation, I had to recuse myself from writing about some of NASA’s human spaceflight programs because I had technical writing contracts with companies competing for the contracts. Writing about any of the companies amounted to free publicity for them, and there was the potential that I might make my employer(s) look better than others by the way I wrote. It’s not like I couldn’t have written objectively, but my editor wisely understood that even the appearance of potential impropriety would reflect on his site and on me.
OCIs in the Government Contracting World
NASA, the Department of Defense, and other U.S. Government agencies take OCIs seriously, so seriously that companies and individuals can face serious legal or financial penalties if they operate under a known conflict of interest.
Example: The systems engineering of Company A has the job of helping Agency X perform design, development, test, and evaluation (DDT&E) services for specific types of agency hardware. Company A also has a manufacturing division that builds hardware that could be used to support Agency X’s mission. In this situation, Company A would have to refrain from bidding on a hardware contract for Agency X because the DDT&E division would be on the proposal evaluation board. Or, alternatively, if the contract was big enough, Company A’s management might choose to ask DDT&E to remove itself from the evaluation board so their production division could bid on the contract without any perception of favoritism.
Other situations can arise. Company A’s DDT&E and production teams might have contracts with the same agency but different departments. The production department might be building a piece of hardware that is classified or could result in work for DDT&E. In situations like that, the company might have to establish what’s called a “Chinese wall” between the two divisions to keep people in those divisions from talking to each other about the classified project because it could result in potential work for DDT&E. And yes, these situations actually occur.
As a technical writer, you might find yourself floating around departments, especially if the company is small. If you find that work you do for one department in your company could potentially benefit another, you need to inform your leaders and get yourself pulled from one department or the other to avoid the potential conflict.
OCIs in the Freelance World
My OCI challenges did not end with my journalism career. I was writing for a couple companies building launch vehicles (rockets, for those of you not in the business) and an avionics company. I could justify the multiple customers because the two rocket builders were in two different markets and so not direct competitors (heavy lift vs. small satellites). I did, however, make both customers aware of my other/outside work, promising to keep the work separate and to abstain from supporting proposals for both teams in the vague event the differently focused rocket builders competed on the same contract.
However, I ended up facing a challenge to back out of a proposal-writing assignment for the avionics company. My larger launch vehicle customer was pursuing a large lunar contract with NASA. The avionics company, a small business, was a subcontractor on a different large company’s lunar team. That was an uncomfortable phone call, but to save myself from potential legal challenges, I had to call the avionics company and back out of their proposal effort. My calculation in that situation economic: the larger company was likely to provide me with more work in the coming years.
All this is to say you need to be mindful of how your various customers interact and how they could benefit one or the other. If the knowledge you have in one area of your work could provide a substantial benefit to another, you need to back out of one commitment or the other and inform the leaders on each side what you’re doing and why. A non-disclosure agreement (NDA) is insufficient under the law. While businesses can be compartmentalized to some extent, it’s much harder for an individual to separate knowledge from different parts of his or her life. The law makes it simple by insisting that a person cannot be allowed to work for both sides of a competition-sensitive environment. Know where you stand, and protect yourself from even the hint of impropriety. It’ll save you problems in the long run.