What is uprightness? Integrity is an iceberg like that. Above the waterline, we can clearly see the visible part, but the bigger part is beneath the water. And an individual, an organisation, or an entire nation may sink by colliding with either.
Laws, rules, and business ethics manuals are found in the recognisable sections of the iceberg – let’s call them written ethics. You can get fired, fined, or put into prison by breaking them.
Written ethics guidelines are typically pretty much black and white – because people like them to be grey where there are grey areas. If a real, independently validated service is performed, a consultancy contract follows ethical requirements. Otherwise, that would be a bribe. That’s why responsible firms scrutinise consultancy arrangements and do not allow government officials and their families to be compensated.
We are passionately debating the International Corrupt Practices Act in my multinational marketing and logistics classes. Many claim that for US enterprises, the FCPA poses a downside. But as dynamic markets enter the United Nations bribery conference, the field of play is levelling up. 38 nations, including 34 members of the OECD, have introduced new rules – as stringent as the FCPA. A UK bribery bill newly introduced is tougher than the FCPA, which forbids any bribery, not just government officials.
While cultures and ethical standards evolve over time, the worst happens when individuals, organizations, cultures, and entire societies lose their moral compass. Witch burnings, the great inquisition, slavery, and genocide were the result of a collective moral collapse.
The iceberg above the water line can be shrouded in fog at times. Then, citizens and organisations feel that they are untouchable, that bribes are a reward or a reasonable cost of doing business for getting elected. Detroit’s Mayor and City Council President created what is now believed to be a “criminal enterprise” seeking contractors’ bribes. Bribes were a cost-line item for Siemens (not related), meticulously paid for in good German fashion – even with a budget.
The trouble with bribery is that it is a slippery slope. A short-term gain may be generated by corruption. I lost a contract with the Central Bank of Nigeria years ago to a rival who was able to pay the right people. But with the contract award, the abuse did not end; further bribes were needed to pass approval checks, free up currency for payment, etc. Corrupt enterprise, in the end, is typically bad business.
Perhaps the fog never lifts, but don’t count on it.