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Confronting corruption: My own perfect storm

In her recent post on the FCPA Blog, Alison Taylor said organizational and team culture and norms are overwhelmingly important in explaining why and how corruption occurs. “The person at the desk next to you is a far more important source of how things really work and how to get things done than the code of conduct,” she said.

She based her findings on interviews with 23 anti-corruption activists and experts. I was one of Ms. Taylor’s 23 respondents — perhaps the most unlikely.

I’ve been writing and speaking about my own “perfect storm” of rationalizing bribery since my release from a Federal Prison Camp in late 2013. While there, I had plenty of time to reflect on the problem of corruption.

Without excusing anything I did, as I knew my conduct was illegal and unethical when I did it, I ultimately concluded, after constructively engaging with compliance professionals since my release, that the compliance community often forgets about the international field personnel who work in remote offices and are the “sharp end” of anti-bribery compliance.

So here’s a respectful reminder: International business personnel usually aren’t lawyers, auditors, or investigators. They’re salespeople, tasked and compensated to grow and develop business. They often work in “frontier markets,” where both growth opportunities and huge compliance risks abound.

Salespeople have a larger appetite for risk than other workers. So in the “frontier markets” there are concentrations of employees with high-risk profiles, exposed to high-risk and low-integrity environments.

That encapsulates much of my own experience. And I can say with personal perspective that although “tone at the top” and “should compliance report to legal” are great and needed debates, they aren’t all always immediately helpful to those who confront corruption on the front-lines of international business.

Perhaps we should spend more time thinking about Alison Taylor’s finding that “there are situational and behavioral factors that clearly predict corrupt outcomes.” What are they, how do they start, and what are the unspoken messages?

I realize today that I’m not giving any answers. But I can say for sure that bad behavior (including my own) can truly become a “compliance lesson learned” for others.


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 Comment

  1. While I agree that, "The person at the desk next to you is a far more important source of how things really work and how to get things done than the code of conduct," leadership and codes of conduct most definitely matter. That is why all military commanding officers are required by statute to, "to show in themselves a good example of virtue, honor, patriotism, and subordination; to be vigilant in inspecting the conduct of all persons who are placed under their command; to guard against and suppress all dissolute and immoral practices; and to correct, according to the laws and regulations of the Navy, all persons who are guilty of them" (10 U.S.C. 5957; see 10 U.S.C. 3583 and 8583 for the same leadership standard in the Army and Air Force respectively). This leadership standard was written by John Adams and approved by the Continental Congress for the Navy in 1775, and extended by Congress in 1997 to the Army and Air Force.

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