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Richard Bistrong: Sometimes the best books about compliance aren’t about compliance

At the Federal Prison Camp in Lewisburg PA where I spent fourteen and a half months, one personal liberty inmates were allowed was reading. Under Bureau of Prison rules, hardcover books could be sent directly to inmates from the distributor, e.g. Amazon, after being opened and inspected by correctional officers.

As I started to ponder my incarceration before self-surrendering in 2012, I decided that reading would be one of my primary goals (being a GED instructor would be the other). I chose to focus on political science (the area of my Master’s degree), current events, and subjects that I always wanted to know more about but never had the time to cover.

That last category was perhaps the most interesting. I read about the Revolutionary War (The Men Who Lost America by Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy), the period between the two World Wars (Those Angry Days by Lynne Olson), and WWI (The War That Ended Peace by Margaret MacMillan). 

Every month or so I would write a short review of each book that I read during the prior month. I sent the reviews to the 30 or so family and friends on my email list. I would then walk those books over to the prison library and donate them. I eventually read 64 books during my 62 weeks in Lewisburg.

I still have the reading list. It’s a rare positive souvenir of incarceration that I decided to keep.

*     *     *

After my release, I kept the commitment to always be reading a book or two. Here are a few that topped my list for 2016. As I’ve said before, sometimes the best books about compliance aren’t about compliance.

Blind Spots by Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel. As the authors share in the introduction, the book is designed to “alert you to the blind spots that prevent all of us from seeing the gap between our own actual behavior and our desired behavior.” And the authors provide substantial evidence that “our ethical judgments are based on factors outside our awareness.” They talk about elements of behavioral research that  demonstrate why compliance programs often fail by the “contortion of the decision making process.” This is behavioral science with practical applications to compliance.

The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth by Tom Burgis. He’s a Financial Times correspondent and knows the Africa resources beat better than anyone else. He shows how the resource “industry is hard wired-for corruption,” and how “the ability of the rulers of Africa’s resource states to govern without recourse to popular consent goes to the heart of the resource curse.” This story is told through the ongoing saga of Beny Steinmetz, BSG Resources, and Rio Tinto, among others.

Giving Voices to Values by Mary C. Gentile. Speaking up is about a lot more than whistleblowing. The author sets out to “equip future business leaders to know what is right and how to make it happen.” Gentile talks about the challenges of “how to act on one’s values in a particular situation.” She focuses too on the importance of unpacking rationalizations before acting upon them, to “reduce the power of these decision-making biases.” Gentile shows how each of us can all live up to values, even when that’s not easy. This book is now a permanent part of my compliance library.

A Better World Inc. by Alice Korngold. Is regulation still the primary driver of corporate ethics? Perhaps not. As Korngold says, “companies are learning that they must be attuned to the needs of the world’s population in order to maximize profits.” They need to operate in “healthy and sustainable environments,” serving customers who have the “economic capability and longevity to purchase their products.” It’s a road-map for corporate responsibility and global engagement. It was the last book I read in 2016. I couldn’t image a more inspirational message about how we can achieve a better world.


Richard Bistrong is a contributing editor of the FCPA Blog and CEO of Front-Line Anti-Bribery LLC. In 2010 he pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to violate the FCPA and served fourteen-and-a-half months at a U.S. federal prison camp. He now consults, writes and speaks about compliance issues. In 2015 he was named one of Ethisphere’s 100 Most Influential in Business Ethics. He can be contacted by email here and on twitter @richardbistrong.

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  1. I recently read, "Where the Law Ends" by Christopher D Stone. It's an oldie but goody. I came across it in a footnote to something else I was reading and picked it up on ebay for about $4 or something. It was written in 1975 so it's a bit dated in places. But I thought it had a lot of good, though provoking comments for any compliance professional. The time spent reading it was time well-spent.

    What are other compliance people reading – that they are glad they picked up. (I've been through some dogs recently – which I will allow to remain nameless.)

  2. Two suggestions, one book and one article: 1) Panama Papers by Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier. It was a very interesting reading, especially the role of the compliance area in the Law Firm. 2) Navigating the Realities of Emerging Markets by Matthias Kleinhempel. It is one of the best articles that reflects the complexity to adapt a global compliance policy in a corruption context.

  3. Congratulations about your commitment to read! Thank you for books reviews!

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