Thinking of Changing Jobs? Here Are a Few Words of Advice
by Mario Dion, Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner
People often change jobs. It allows them to develop their skills, face new challenges, and create opportunities.
Under the Conflict of Interest Act, changing jobs adds complexities. Regulatees, who are individuals appointed to public sector boards and agencies, as well as ministers, deputy ministers, parliamentary secretaries, and ministerial staff must comply with the post-employment provisions of the Act, some of which are in place for life. While there is a more detailed overview of these provisions on the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner’s website, I thought I might illustrate a few using the fictitious example of Avery, a mid-level ministerial staff member (a regulatee) who is considering a career change. Post-employment is something that all regulatees—there are more than 2,800 of them—need to carefully consider long before they cease working for the Government of Canada in an appointed capacity. About 700 are ministerial staff members, such as Avery.
Under the Act, Avery cannot “switch sides” when taking on a new job. The key for Avery will be thinking through how closely they may have worked with the minister during tough negotiations with a sector. While the work may have sparked a real interest in this sector, they most likely cannot act for or on behalf of a company that sat on the other side of the table during those negotiations.
Lifetime restrictions mean Avery cannot use insider information obtained while working for the minister to later advise a new boss, client, or organization, unless that information is already in the public domain.
Avery also cannot communicate or work with any person or group with whom they had direct and significant official dealings during their last year as a ministerial staff member. This same restriction applies to a large portion of regulatees.
As any regulatee begins to think about a career change, be it by making informal inquiries or being approached with a cold call, consideration for their obligations under the Act must be front and centre. Asking for objective advice from the Office is a prudent course of action, because with a certain degree of specificity, this can both guide and protect a regulatee like Avery. Advice can be sought by emailing an adviser at the Office or contacting the Office at email@example.com. In any case, under that Act, Avery will have to inform me of any firm offer of outside employment.
As a ministerial staff member, Avery is one of those regulatees with additional obligations under the act. Among these is a one-year cooling-off period during which time they are prohibited from working for or with organizations with which they had direct and significant dealings during their last year in office. Avery would be wise to plan ahead.
And, while the Act contains post-employment limitations for all regulatees, it also provides for exemptions from these rules. For example, if Avery held a more junior position as part of the minister’s staff (someone who does not handle sensitive documents or may have little decision-making power), they could apply to the Office for an exemption to the rules. My decision on this would be based upon the facts of the matter.
A waiver or reduction of the cooling-off period can be requested, but each case is looked at on its own merit. Factors would include the regulatees’ general employment prospects after leaving office, the nature and significance to the Government of Canada of the information they possessed, and the degree to which the new employer could gain unfair economic advantage by hiring them. Avery would be required to respond to each of these factors when applying to the Office for an exemption.
As Commissioner, I must weigh the information and determine if it would be in the public interest to grant a request. In all cases, when I grant a request, it is made available in the Office’s public registry.
This brings me to the advice I want to give not only to Avery, but to all regulatees who may be considering changing jobs.
First, be careful and know the rules. Read them. They are clear.
Second, if you are thinking about changing jobs, call us to review your post-employment obligations. You may even want to follow the Office on Twitter at @EthicsCanada to get the latest information, take part in educational activities, and read the summaries on our website of all the rules to which you are subject. The Act contains only a few provisions setting out the post-employment rules and how they are applied (sections 33 to 42, inclusive). Anyone subject to the Act or considering employing someone who has been subject to the Act is strongly advised to read these provisions carefully.
Third, be aware that if I learn through a complaint or the media that you have breached the rules, I will most probably want to investigate. This could culminate in a report to the prime minister that would be posted on the Office’s website, emailed widely, and shared on social media. Reports often receive considerable media attention.
Regulatees make valuable contributions to our nation through their public service. It is perfectly appropriate that they have opportunities to grow their careers after they leave their positions. The role of the Office is to ensure they do so in compliance with the Act.