All corporate board members have fiduciary duties and a duty of loyalty (care and skill) to the corporations they oversee. If one of the directors chooses to take action that benefits them at the detriment of the firm, they are harming the company with a conflict of interest.
A conflict of interest involves a person or entity that has two relationships competing with each other for the person’s loyalty, such that serving one interest results in working against the other interest. The person’s vested interests raise a question of whether their actions, judgment, and/or decision-making can be unbiased. In a conflict of interest a director chooses personal gain over duties to the organization in which they are a director, or exploits their position for personal gain in some way.
Directors need to manage conflict of interests as these can lead to the transactions and decisions being nullified. It may even lead to prosecution.
Some conflict of interest is fundamental ad pervasive and therefore has to be avoided by a resignation e.g. if a director holds significant shares in a competitor, the conflict of interests will persist making his duty impossible. In that case the a director decides whether to dispose of the equity or to resign form the Board.
In some cases the conflict is temporal and so can be managed. For example if a director holds shares in a company bidding for a once off contract, the director can manage the conflict of interest by declaring his interest and recusing himself from the decision- making process for this contract.
Within the Companies Act (2008) Section 75 there are some specific conflict of interest situations which must be addressed and managed in accordance to the Act. A director must be knowledgeable of these situations and manage himself accordingly.
A conflict of interest must be declared when the matter comes up on the Agenda. The affected directors should make a full disclosure and contribute to the matter without lobbying. Immediately after that he should leave the meeting that will deliberate on the matter.
Some people erroneously believe that by simply declaring the interest they have fulfilled the obligation to manage the conflict of interest. I was once acquainted with an organization in which most of the service contracts awarded by the Company were to the Group CEO’s siblings. The belief in the organization was that since the GCEO had informed everyone of the interest, then everything was okay.
Some conflict of interest matters may not be material enough to be a problem statutorily but they may case a perception challenge that can damage the company’s reputation. For example if an executive director disposes shares that he owned just before a massive loss of stock prize based on an options contract that was due, this may be legitimate but it still cases reputational risks. A disinterested observer would be concerned.
Directors have a fiduciary responsibility to disclose conflicts of interest and to act with unfettered discretion. Where directors breach this duty they stand to attract civil and criminal sanction. Conflicts of interest have the potential to damage the company as any board decision taken in which a director has an undisclosed personal financial interest is void.