Today I write from Berlin, staying in what was old East Berlin. Last week I spoke at an event in Malaysia. Both societies that have experienced and are experiencing (respectively) political, social and economic change that was once unimaginable.
As the tide washes out on corrupt regimes, compliance and commercial leaders arrive who want to take advantage of new opportunities in developing and emerging markets. During my week in Singapore and Malaysia, it was exhilarating to sit with hundreds of compliance and business leaders who want to keep their workforces successful and safe during difficult marketplace challenges. And some of those challenges come from financial pressures within the organization, causing inevitable tension between the pressure to succeed and the pressure to comply.
As my week in the region was yet another reminder that we are not in a “one size fit’s all” world when it comes to anti-bribery challenges and solutions, here are a few observations and themes that I saw throughout my visit:
Isolation. I often share how, during my life as a sales executive, I thought I was on an island, that my decision making didn’t impact innocent customers and employees. I never saw myself as the guardian and gatekeeper for my former employers’ reputation. To me, working alone, remotely and thinly supervised, I sadly thought of my conduct as a win-win, whereby my company enjoyed tremendous sales increases, my channel partners moved to the next opportunity, and poorly paid public officials got a little something to make ends meet.
I didn’t appreciate the daunting responsibility that was entrusted to me. I didn’t understand my role as an ambassador of my former employer’s values on the front-lines of business, no matter where I operated. During my visit last week to Asia, that was something I discussed with audiences in detail. How do we get everyone to embrace the crucial idea that ethics, compliance and the law applies to them 24/7, no matter how far from HQ where they might work and reside?
Dangerous Silence. We also talked about how to encourage people to speak up, not only about something that they might see or observe, but about themselves. That can be a special challenge in Asia. Again, during my prior work life, I decided on behalf of my employer that they didn’t want to know what was going on in high-risk markets (I kept what Amy Edmonson refers to as “dangerous silence”). This problem can be even more pronounced in regions, such as Asia, where respect for seniority and hierarchy is both professionally and personally deep-rooted.
Even with robust compliance training, some employees might still think they have a personal responsibility to decide entirely on their own “what management really wants.” That was a trap for me. As Catherine Bulgarella has shared in some of her work, delegating those decisions to the front lines of business, either by design or default, can put an entire workforce and the company’s brands at great risk.
Shortcuts. Audiences in Asia talked about compliance challenges created when business shortcuts are tolerated. That happens more often when personnel are “close to the line” of meeting their objectives and need some “small” advantage to get them to the finish. For example, that can be when accounting violations like channel and distribution stuffing are tolerated by business leaders.
I’m often asked, “What do channel stuffing and bribery have to do with one another?” My answer is simple: Everything, and it’s a stubborn problem. When I talk to business leaders about my experience with distribution stuffing, including not writing down bad debt to make plan, well, that’s when their eyes usually fall from my presentation to the floor. That’s not good.
When its an “open secret” that an organization tolerates shortcuts to make target, a clear and harmful message flashes across the enterprise: win above all else. Especially in regions where ethics and compliance is a new way of thinking and operating, where emerging markets are opening at a rapid pace, with young and energetic sales teams eager to demonstrate success to their supervisors, we all need to be extra attentive to any sign of “open secrets” and “dangerous silence.” Both can emerge quickly and cause long term harm.
My week in Asia talking with a new generation of compliance leaders about “keeping people successful and safe” was absolutely invigorating, jet-lag and all. As the week ended, my enthusiasm was starting to outstrip the ability of my voice to keep up with it all. But thanks to some wonderful, local herbal teas, I made it to my own finish line — without any shortcuts, and with a special thanks to all my hosts.
Richard Bistrong, pictured above, 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 was named to Compliance Week’s list of Top Minds in 2017 and was one of Ethisphere’s 100 Most Influential in Business Ethics in 2015. He was named by Thomson Reuters in 2018 as a Top 50 Social Influencer in Risk, Compliance and RegTech.
His award winning compliance training video, Behind the Bribe, produced in cooperation with Mastercard, was released in 2017. To request a demo of the full eleven-minute video or a licensing fee schedule, please click here.