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Richard Bistrong: When corruption becomes normal

Alison Taylor described on the FCPA Blog how employees are “socialized into paying bribes and encouraged to believe that corruption is an inevitable and necessary response to the hard commercial realities.”

Some organizations, she said, “create a perfect environment for corruption when they set norms that allow employees to excuse themselves.”

I have no disagreement with Alison’s work. My only caveat is that on the front lines, it’s often even worse and more personally perilous than she describes.

In the field, especially in low-integrity regions where corruption might be seen as the norm, there’s often a lethal mix of end users, intermediaries, and even competitors who all share a corrupt intent. Relativity sets in, and thinking becomes, “In this place, everyone plays unfair.”

In such environments, the ethical center shifts from hoped-for compliance standards to what’s actually happening.

Alison also describes the front-line mentality as “if we don’t do it, someone else will.” She’s right.

Far-flung sales and marketing teams across organizations and industries often congregate in hotel bars and at trade shows. Their small talk and “war stories” both amplify and validate the relativistic landscape. The chit-chat often becomes puffed up tales about who had to pay the biggest bribes to get something done.

Alison Taylor’s talk about the “war for survival” in business reminds me of organizational psychologist Jamie-Lee Campbell, who said: “In times of war, everything is allowed, as long as it serves one’s own survival.”

A salesperson trying to make a living in a high-risk region who’s looking for an excuse to pay a bribe never has to look too far.


Richard Bistrong is CEO of Front-Line Anti-Bribery LLC. He consults, writes and speaks about compliance issues from his experience as an international sales VP and conviction for violating the FCPA, where he pleaded guilty and served fourteen and a half months in prison. He can be reached via his website, twitter and e-mail.

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  1. Excellent article Richard.

  2. Very well written and to the point.

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