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Harry Cassin
Publisher and Editor

Andy Spalding
Senior Editor

Jessica Tillipman
Senior Editor

Bill Steinman
Senior Editor

Richard L. Cassin
Editor at Large

Elizabeth K. Spahn
Editor Emeritus

Cody Worthington
Contributing Editor

Julie DiMauro
Contributing Editor

Thomas Fox
Contributing Editor

Marc Alain Bohn
Contributing Editor

Bill Waite
Contributing Editor

Shruti J. Shah
Contributing Editor

Russell A. Stamets
Contributing Editor

Richard Bistrong
Contributing Editor

Eric Carlson
Contributing Editor

Compliance Training: Five reasons why you have an anti-corruption program

Here’s a strange fact. Some corporate anti-bribery policies give no reason for employees not to pay bribes. Or rather, the only reason they give is that the company doesn’t allow or tolerate bribery. Like parents speaking to children, the reason is “because I said so.”

Novartis’ policy, for example, says, “Our Code of Ethics states that we do not bribe anyone.”

Apple’s says, “At Apple, we do not tolerate any form of corruption in connection with our business dealings.”

Apple and Novartis may say more in their anti-bribery training than what’s written in their policies. If so, great.

But companies sticking with the “because I said so” script should consider saying more. Everyone learns in different ways. Why not give employees a richer understanding? Who knows what will stick in their mind and influence a future decision?

How to explain the reasons why there’s a policy against bribery?

Here are some suggestions:

Reason #1: It’s illegal. Long-arm statutes (like the FCPA and UK Bribery Act) and local laws universally outlaw bribe paying. Anyone who pays bribes anywhere risks prosecution, conviction, and punishment, as well as reputational ruin.

Tesla’s pithy anti-bribery policy says, “Involvement in bribery or corruption can result in lasting damage to our brand and our reputation. It can also result in multi-million-dollar fines and penalties, plus jail time for participants.”

That beats “because I said so” by a mile.

Reason #2: Bribe payers become hostages. Once anyone pays a bribe, they’re forever under the thumb of the bribe taker. Bent officials in profoundly corrupt regimes may be immune from bribery accusations. But bribe payers are always at risk, either in their home country or where they paid the bribe.

Another problem: Most bribes pass through intermediaries who can become blackmailers and extorters. Richard Bistrong described how that happened to him in his remarkable post for the FCPA Blog, “My friend, the agent, blackmailed me.”

Reason #3: No one can know or control the true cost of bribery. Bribes always go into the books as something else — commissions, consultant’s fees, transport and handling charges, and so on. Right off, internal controls are compromised.

It gets worse. Demands for bribes are notoriously “fluid.” Bribe takers first ask for $50,000. A week later, they double or triple the demand “because of forces in the market” or some other nonsensical justification. Once someone reveals a willingness to pay bribes, the bribe taker’s greed is unleashed and unstoppable.

There’s also the risk of fraud. Intermediaries may say the bribe demand is $100,000, but how can the bribe payer know for sure? Maybe the agent plans to skim half the money. Company employees involved with the bribe might also siphon some for themselves.

Reason #4: Bribery spawns more criminal acts. Rationalizing a bribe as “just a small one, just this time” is an intellectual trap. Bribes that help a company enjoy short-term success encourage more bribery for more purposes.

Companies committed to bribery as a business strategy typically move on from winning contracts to blocking competitors. Monopolistic behavior is usually a separate crime.

Most bribes involve money laundering, as well as bank and wire fraud. Violating trade sanctions often has a bribery connection. And on it goes.

Reason #5: Bribery is morally repulsive. The least prosperous countries are the most corrupt. Rich countries can be corrupt too, but corrupt poor countries never become rich countries.

Professor Steve Hanke’s world misery index demonstrates the link between corruption and unemployment, inflation, and bank lending rates.

The FCPA Blog has looked at the correlation between corruption and life expectancy, rule of law, freedom of the press, personal security, air safety, environmental degradation, risks of war, debt problems, road safety, and others.

Yes, graft stinks. No one expressed it better than Yale economist Susan Rose-Ackerman: “Corruption is a moral category that signifies putrefaction and rot.”


Author’s note: Our Editor Emeritus Elizabeth Spahn’s seminal 2010 article in the Georgetown Journal of International Law, “Nobody Gets Hurt,” on which this post is based, takes a deep look into the victimology of corruption.

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  1. Richard,

    This was a strong article and these reasons need to be emphasized in compliance training.

    I would add one more. This comes from the French Judge Renaud van Ruymbeke. He pointed out that at the higher end what one is doing is helping a corrupt official (or a company official) to steal from his own country’s treasury. The bribe is always priced back in to the contract. The fact that it occurs most often in poor countries makes this more insidious.

    It is the same as if someone asked you to help defraud a poor pensioner.

    Keith Hennessee

  2. This is an interesting point. Maybe what you are observing is an overreaction by companies to the emphasis on values, culture, and being positive. It can also be driven by experts telling us not to be “legalistic,” and also telling us to keep our codes short. It may be a case of what Donna Boehme described as Kumbaya compliance – let’s all hold hands around the campfire and sing happy songs and agree to do good. There is also a tendency to forget that there are different types of people in every group, and compliance cannot settle for just reaching the average employee. We need to reach them all. So certainly some people will follow the rules just because the company said to. But others need to be convinced. The prospect of jail may be what it takes to curb sociopaths. The appeals to reason and fairness may work with others.

    I also agree with your emphasis on how rotten corruption is. I often quote the words I read from one young African commentator, who called on us to “call evil by its name.” Bribery is evil. I don’t care what your corporate culture is, or how polite everyone wants to be. It is evil, and that is why the English language has that word.

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