In Wolfburg, Germany, at the global headquarters of the world’s largest automaker, there was little concern among VW’s engineers that they were doing anything unethical or illegal when they created “cheating” software for emissions tests.
Instead, as Jack Ewing describes in his masterful book Faster, Higher, Farther, The Volkswagen Scandal, “strange as it may seem to outsiders, many of those involved did not perceive that what they were doing was morally wrong.”
It does seem strange indeed. But in fact it’s not uncommon for companies, where information is often siloed and compartmentalized, to be clueless when it comes to their own criminal behavior. To prove the point, look at our news about FCPA enforcement and investigations. Those stories should cause us to rightfully ask, “Where was the C-suite, where was the board?”
But what about sales order processing, finance, manufacturing, and shipping and receiving (to name a few)? Any or all of those support functions might have helped process a possible corrupt order, even though their specific touch point might have looked only unusual, if not illegal, at that point in the sales cycle.
The question, then, is why didn’t any of those support functions communicate what they knew or at least suspected?
Here’s why. Sales order processing, logistics, and finance could literally be multiple time zones apart. In our multinational world, supply chains, data processing, finance and distribution, and other critical functions are often based continents apart, where goods and paperwork flow across real and virtual time zones in our hyper-speed transactional world.
Yes, functions need to better work together, or a lot of risk can fall between the organizational gaps. But is this a solvable problem?
An article from the May-June 2019 edition of the Harvard Business Review argues that it is a challenge, but one that if properly addressed, can lead to value creation, internally and externally.
In Cross-Silo Leadership, Tiziana Casciaro, Amy Edmondson, and Sujin Jang argue for the deployment of “cultural brokers to promote cross-boundary work in one of two ways: by acting as a bridge or as an adhesive.”
Bridge brokers are “go-between(s), allowing people in different functions or geographies to collaborate with minimal disruption to their day-to-day routine.” They add how “bridges are most effective when they have considerable knowledge of both sides and can figure out what each one needs.”
Adhesives, on the other hand, “bring people together and help build mutual understanding and lasting relationships.”
In our anti-bribery world, I see adhesives as critical to connecting compliance and commercial teams, while making sure that support functions embrace their role as compliance and ethics ambassadors, all the way from the manufacturing floor, to sales order processing. Adhesives, the HBR authors say, “facilitate collaboration by vouching for people and helping them to decipher one another’s language.”
We don’t have to look far to find bridges and adhesives. Executives “can develop more brokers by giving people at all levels the chance to move into roles that expose them to multiple parts of the company.” The good news is that in the compliance field, that seems to be happening, and occurring more frequently.
It’s no longer unusual to see compliance teams coming from different parts of the organization, outside the traditional legal function, including HR, sales and engineering. I have also seen compliance leaders move into commercial functions, a talent flow that surely strengthens the fabric of the company’s ethics and compliance culture.
Another way to create bridges and adhesives is to organize “cross-silo dialogs.” I’ve seen compliance leaders chair “compliance committees” (globally, regionally, or both) that bring disparate functions together. It might be the first chance for many present to talk about how business is really getting done. During those meetings, there’s no shortage of participation and lively discussion when the subject turns to objectives and incentives.
Whenever we find ways to reach across divides and silos for information and support, we’re likely to find new areas of risk. Perhaps it will be an order for an extraordinary amount of sample products for a health care practitioner, which in reality serves as a conduit to bribe doctors. Or, in my case, a sales order for a small Caribbean island buying explosive grenades they didn’t need.
At VW’s headquarters in Wolfburg, or in any number of our anti-bribery enforcement actions, perhaps a bridge or adhesive from compliance to manufacturing, a business unit team, or the other way around, would have uncovered “innocent” efforts to move from one process to the next, before the risk shipped out the door.
Richard Bistrong, pictured above, is a contributing editor of the FCPA Blog and the brand ambassador for Gabbi, the compliance check-in app. He’s the CEO of Front-Line Anti-Bribery LLC and was named by Thomson Reuters in 2018 as a Top 50 Social Influencer in Risk, Compliance and RegTech.