What every manager should know about (4/5): Corruption and Bribery

Introduction

Now that large corporates have to adhere to EU regulation 2014/95/EU, managers should be more familiar with a number of non-financial topics. The EU regulation on the disclosure of non-financial information asks firms to provide information on environmental, social and employee matters, respect for human rights, anti-corruption and anti-bribery matters.

In this post, the spotlight will be on corruption and bribery. I will give you definitions of bribery and corruption, explain why businesses can benefit from fighting corruption and bribery, and will show you how to implement an anti-corruption policy.

Corruption and bribery, an attempt at a definition

Transparency International (TI) defines corruption as ‘the abuse of entrusted power for private gain’. In addition TI says: ‘It can be classified as grand, petty and political, depending on the amounts of money lost and the sector where it occurs.’ I use TI’s definition of corruption, and not the definition given by the EU in its regulation, because the EU regulation does not include a definition. Nor does the EU provide a definition of bribery. So, instead, to find a less concise definition than the one used by TI, I consulted the anti-corruption convention endorsed by the highest number of states, the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC). However, UNCAC also couldn’t agree on the right definition…

According to Leslie Holmes, the reason why defining corruption (and bribery) is so difficult is threefold. In Corruption, A Very Short Introduction, he writes that cultural reasons, jurisdictional reasons and scholarly reasons all contribute to definitional confusion.  To solve this – and to elaborate on the definition offered by TI – Holmes proposes a 5-step approach to identify corruption, which I will use in the remainder of this blog:

  • the action (or omission) must involve an individual (an official) or a group of officials occupying a position of entrusted power;
  • the official has a degree of authority in decision-making;
  • the official must commit the act (or omit to do what he should) at least partly because of personal interests or the interests of an organization to which he belongs, and these interests must ultimately run counter to those of the state and society;
  • the official acts in a clandestine manner, and is aware that his behavior is or might be considered illegal or illicit. If uncertain about the level of impropriety, the official opts not to check this because he wishes to maximize his own interests;
  • the action or omission must be perceived by a significant proportion of the population and/or the state as corrupt.

Corruption encompasses both economic improprieties, such as embezzlement and bribes, and social improprieties such as appointing family (nepotism) or friends (cronyism). (Please note that cultural norms might label the same activities as corruption in one culture, but not in another; this is the reason for including the last step — i.e. the action must be perceived as corruption — in the approach to identify corruption.)

The difference between corruption and bribery, thus, becomes clear: bribery is a form of corruption. The OECD further defines bribery by listing some instruments for bribes: gifts, hospitality and entertainment, customer travel, political contributions, charitable donations, sponsorships, facilitation payments, and solicitation and extortion.

Considering the possible elements of corruption above (i.e. bribery, embezzlement, nepotism and cronyism), bribery is arguably the salient form of corruption in the business world. This is perhaps the main reason why the terms ‘bribery’ and ‘corruption’ are almost used interchangeably in guidance documents targeted at the business world. The OECD Good Practice Guidance on Internal Controls, Ethics, and Compliance, for example, uses ‘ant-bribery’ exclusively. When the same OECD joins forces with the United Nations and the World Bank to draft the Anti-Corruption Ethics and Compliance Handbook for Business, however, the nomenclature is ‘anti-corruption’ instead of ‘anti-bribery’. This confusion of terms should not deter us, though. Bribery is a form of corruption. When a guideline calls for business to implement procedures to combat corruption, I think it’s a safe bet that they want you to implement procedures to combat bribery. In the remainder of this post, I will use the terms interchangeably.

Why should businesses care about corruption and bribery?

Your business should obviously comply with rules and regulation (such as EU regulation 2014/95/EU) on the disclosure of your policies and results in preventing corruption and bribery. There are a number of reasons why governments and international organization would push for such regulations (all that follows is, again, from Corruption, A Very Short Introduction):

  • Societal reasons. Corruption can lead to reduced aid. It can lead to increase inequality and a sense of ‘them and us’, or to reduced social capital and low levels of trust, and higher (organized) crime rates. A specific example where society pays the price for corruption relates to the construction industry where corrupt safety inspectors ignore malpractices in return for bribes, leading to unsafe buildings. (Also see my blog on human rights and the Rana plaza disaster.)
  • Environmental reasons. Corruption and bribery can be a problem in issuing permits for natural resource exploitation. One problem that you have surely heard about is illegal logging in countries like Brazil and Indonesia.
  • Security reasons. ‘For a state to exercise its defense, law enforcement, and welfare function properly it needs adequate funding; if corruption reduces government revenue, this has detrimental effects on the state’s overall capacity to protect its people. There is a strong correlation between weak states and high levels of corruption.
  • Economic reasons. Countries that score high on perceived corruption (see for example the corruption perception index 2016 from Transparency International) face lower levels of Foreign Direct investment, have lower tax revenues, and often face issues like ‘brain drain’.

In addition to the reasons that governments and international organization would offer to combat corruption and bribery, surely there is a conspicuous reason for business to do so as well: free competition. Businesses depend on free markets and free competition. Without it, your firm could lose out on business unfairly. It is one thing to lose business to a competitor where there is a level playing field; it’s an entirely different thing if you lose business to a competitor who engages in bribes to secure sales. The UK Secretary of State for Justice, in his foreword to the guidance for business to the UK Bribery Act (2010), says:

Addressing bribery is good for business because it creates the conditions for free markets to flourish.

A second reason why business should care is to maintain its reputation. The numerous corporate corruption cases which surfaced in the last years didn’t do much good. Holmes gives some examples:

The focus so far has been on the negative impact of corruption in the narrow sense (i.e. that involves state officials). But in the 21st century, the general public has become far more aware of the potentially devastating effects of corruption in its broad sense. As one Western corporation after another – Enron (USA), WorldCom (USA), Parmalat (Italy), Siemens (Germany), AWB (Australia), to name just a few – has been shown to have been engaging in misconduct, including bribery and kickbacks to secure overseas contracts, so the public’s trust in the corporate sector has plummeted.

The Economist, in a review on a new book about corruption, puts it like this:

Corruption is never far from the front page. In recent weeks, thousands of Romanians protested against plans to decriminalize low-level graft, and Rolls-Royce was hit with a [$835m] penalty for alleged bribery. Meanwhile, long-running corruption scandals continue to roil political and corporate leaders in Brazil and Malaysia. The growing attention has spurred governments to pledge action, as dozens did at a global anti-corruption summit in London last year.

Anti-corruption policies thus help companies (i) to defend free markets and (ii) build their reputations as trustworthy and reliable business partners. One way to do this is to explicitly report on bribery and corruption (just as the EU directive demands). Some see this as an extension of corporate governance reporting (see my blog on new governance) and propose to add it to other corporate governance disclosures. Holmes describes the evolution to a quadruple bottom lining as follows:

Since at least the early 1990s, more and more companies have been presenting their annual reports not merely in terms of financial performance – the traditional ‘bottom line’ – but also of their social and environmental achievements. (…) This triple bottom lining – also known as the 3Ps approach, namely ‘people, planet, and profit’- is usually presented as ‘sustainability reporting’. But in recent years, there has been a push to add a fourth bottom line, governance. This would include reporting on what a company has been doing to reduce bribery and corruption. It is argued by proponents of this ‘quadruple bottom lining’ that firms would benefit from reporting a fourth line, since it should enhance a company’s reputation.

To be able to report on your efforts to prevent bribery and corruption — as Holmes describes, and the EU regulation demands — you first have to implement the proper procedures within your firm. This is the subject of the next paragraph.

How to implement an anti-corruption policy

In implementing an anti-corruption policy, you could revert to one of the many guidance documents available. I already mentioned the UK Bribery Act Guidance and the OECD Guidelines. What follows is a (very) short overview of best practices from the Anti-Corruption Ethics and Compliance Handbook for Business drafted in a joint-effort by the OECD, the World Bank, and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). This is not so much a step-by-step guide on how to implement an anti-corruption policy, but an exhaustive list of things to keep in mind while drafting, implementing and following up on your policies and procedures to combat corruption.

  1. A risk assessment, addressing the individual circumstances of the corruption and bribery risks faced by your firm and its business partners, should be the basis for any anti-corruption program.
  2. Support and commitment from senior management for the prevention of corruption. Senior management’s involvement should be strong, explicit and visible.
  3. Develop an anti-corruption program. The program should at least include your firm’s anti-corruption efforts, including values, code of conduct, detailed policies and procedures, risk management, internal and external communication, training and guidance, internal controls, oversight, monitoring and assurance. The program should be applicable to all employees.
  4. Oversight of the anti-corruption program. Top management appoints a senior officer to oversee and co-ordinate the compliance program with adequate level of resources, authority, and independence. The senior officer in charge, reports periodically to top management.
  5. Clear, visible, and accessible policy prohibiting corruption. Here, you can think about preparing and disseminating an internal anti-corruption manual.
  6. Detailed policies for particular risk areas. Areas often mentioned are: gifts, hospitality and entertainment, customer travel, political contributions, charitable donations and sponsorships, and facilitation payments.
  7. Application of the anti-corruption program to business partners. Here, you should consider all business partners you may need to include in rolling out your compliance program, such as contractors, suppliers, agents, lobbyists, consultants, auditors, representatives and distributors.
  8. Internal controls and record keeping. This refers to proper financial accounting procedures and other checks and balances.
  9. Communication and training. Periodic communication and periodic documented training for all employees.
  10. Promoting and incentivizing ethics and compliance. The firm’s commitment to an anti-corruption program should be reflected in its human resource practices. It should be clear that compliance with the program is mandatory and that no employee will suffer demotion, penalty or other adverse consequences for sticking to the program, even if it may result in losing business.
  11. Detecting and reporting violations. The anti-corruption program should provide a safe space, and encourage employees and others to raise concerns and report suspicious circumstances.
  12. Addressing violations. Your firm should consider appropriate disciplinary procedures to address, among other things, violations of laws against corruption and bribery, and the company’s ethics and compliance program.
  13. Periodic reviews and evaluations of the anti-corruption program. Install periodic reviews to assess if improvements to your program are needed.

What’s next?

The ESG-topics covered in this series have some common aspects. First, they could all be seen as posing a risk to your company’s efforts for profitability (or even your license to operate). Second, it could be argued that they are not a core element of your firm’s mission but are ‘hygiene’ factors that do not immediately lead to higher profitability per se, but could hurt profitability if not properly managed. Third, external communication on these topics goes beyond communicating to such direct stakeholders as shareholders, customers and regulators. These three common aspects lead me to propose that ESG-topics should be viewed and managed as an integral topic from both an organizational structure as a business process point-of-view.

In my final post on the EU directive and related ESG-topics, I will, thus, revisit the advice given in previous blog posts, and try to synthesize these in a unifying approach towards managing ESG-topics relevant for your organization.

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