In what might be described as a “companion guide” to my Ethikos article Does Compliance Need More “Darkside,” I had a chance to read Scott Killingsworth’s work in the same edition, The Irrational Calculator: Sales at the Crossroads of Compliance.” Reviewing Scott’s comment that when it comes to the “depressing list of factors that conspire to perpetuate a corrupt procurement environment…it’s even worse than Bistrong portrays,” I didn’t think that was possible. Now I understand why.
Scott demonstrates that due to a number of factors, for those at the front-lines of international business, the default ethical behavior can be unstable due to the dynamic that “we cannot be objective about a decision when we have a personal interest in the outcome, such as a big commission.” He is absolutely correct, and for those in the field who might index the social goals of anti-bribery compliance against the short term ‘win above all else’ bonus plan, that “bugs in our mental software” might amplify our “appetite for accepting business risk” in pursuit of immediate rewards.
If this sounds daunting and perhaps frightening for a compliance officer, take note of Scott’s warnings. For those on the front lines of business development, who are tasked with growing sales and earnings even in low integrity regions, he pulls back the curtain when he states “sales people can calculate precisely the amount of the personal reward that is at stake in a sale,” whereas “on the other side of the equation we have the not-so-clear risk of getting caught at some indefinite point in an uncertain future.”
Scott accurately states that “nobody would bribe if they believed they would get caught, lose their job and go to jail (author’s note: CORRECT!)” yet look at the world of anti-bribery enforcement. The last FCPA trial was in 2012 and as Paul Pelletier points out in a WSJ op-ed on April 20th 2015, The Foreign Bribery Sinkhole at Justice “the average time to conclude foreign bribery cases has increased to more than seven years.” In sum, that does not add up to a “if I do this for sure I will get caught” moment. With such a mindset, where business teams work in high-risk regions, the proliferation of corruption and corrupt requests can, as Scott states “lead to ‘ethical numbing’ where corrupt behavior comes to seem so routine that one’s sense of its wrongness, illegality or risk fades and is simply not in the picture at the crossroads of decision.”
Indeed, as I frequently reference in my own writing and presentations, my first encounters with bribery occurred early in my international sales career where agents and third parties shared that as part of their success and success fee, they were engaging in corruption. While this is what I refer to as “nodding my way through breaking the law” as Scott points out, “each successive step is judged acceptable, and the next step is compared only to the preceding one, not the starting point.” (Second author’s note: CORRECT!) Thus, when requests came later in my profession where I had to do more than just “nod” my way through corruption, I was not in some sort of state of shock at it all.
Scott wraps it up best when he states “motivated blindness can keep us from recognizing red flags if we would have something to lose by noticing them.” And therein lies the “self serving bias,” which bring me to final agreement with Scott as I shared at the outset: “It’s even worse than Bistrong portrays.”