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When the finish line is close, the pressure to bribe increases

I wrote Bribing not to lose for the FCPA Blog because I wanted to share what crosses the mind of someone on the front-lines of international business when confronting bribery in the field. By reflecting on my own illegal conduct, I hope to encourage compliance leaders to calibrate their programs to real-world situations.

As Scott Killingsworth shares in his own work on behaviors, “none of this, of course, is an excuse for unethical or illegal conduct.” When I was targeted by the Justice Department, they wanted to know what I did, and I had fourteen and half months while I was in prison to reflect on what I was thinking.

With all that in mind, I’d like to share another idea: Escalation of commitment.

It’s the practice of committing additional resources to a failing investment in the hope of achieving a positive outcome, even when evidence indicates “that staying course is unwise.” (Escalation of Commitment, Theresa F. Kelly and Katherine L. Milkman, 2013 abstract here in PDF).

For front-line international business teams, the sales process usually begins with expensive travel, often transporting costly samples, with weeks or even months away from home. Hundreds of hours are spent preparing presentation materials, bringing in support personnel and resources, with endless practice sessions until it all feels right on that final day of presentation, usually in the office of a public official.

The end user usually has questions afterwards, and the cycle often starts all over.

And at some point in that long and pricey process, it’s not unusual or surprising to hear a supervisor ask: “When are we going to see a return for all this expense.”

When that question is answered with “we got the deal,” what happens afterwards, if there’s a demand from the other side a bribe? Does the sales person disengage and disclose, or does he or she think that given the expense already incurred and the pressure not to fail (in the context of the supervisor’s query), that it makes sense to escalate the commitment, which in this case means paying the bribe?

What if the employee (conspiring with an intermediary) agrees to pay, only to be followed by another request? We know that requests for small bribes pop up throughout the procurement process in many low integrity regions.

Kelly and Milkman’s research demonstrates  that “an individual is more likely to commit additional resources to a bad investment if he/she was the one who originally endorsed it.”

That’s a troubling dynamic. And the authors add even more peril: “[T]he closer a project is to completion the more likely decision makers are to exhibit escalation” when they’re “caught up in the desire to finish the project.” Before I started following behavioral research, I would have called it “tunnel vision.”

That’s my experience. The closer to the finish line, the greater the risk of escalating the commitment, and “bribing not to lose.”

The good news is that there are some really workable behavioral and organizational solutions. Stay tuned.


Richard Bistrong is a contributing editor of the FCPA Blog and CEO of Front-Line Anti-Bribery LLC. He consults, writes and speaks about compliance issues. He can be reached via his website, twitter and e-mail.

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