A recent study by Transparency International, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending global corruption, surveyed 11,000 business executives. The survey studied the business ethics of the world’s top 30 exporting countries. The end result of the study was a stacked ranking of the nations most likely to offer bribes.
The top ten countries most likely to offer bribes are as follows:
7. South Africa
9. Saudi Arabia
10. South Korea
Having done a fair amount of business internationally, I am very aware of the gift giving protocols in Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe. I accepted this practice as part of doing business abroad. I gladly complied. And, I got gifts in return (nothing of substance, but gifts nonetheless). No big deal I thought. Maybe this is your experience as well.
So what is a gift and what is a bribe? From my point of view, a gift is something of value given without the expectation of anything in return; a bribe is the same thing given in the hope of influence or benefit. Gifts and bribes can be actual items, or they can be tickets to a sporting event, travel, rounds of golf, or restaurant meals. Thus, the difference between a gift and a bribe is simply the expectation that comes with it.
Returning to the survey, there is an obvious direct correlation with poverty; emerging export powers India, China and Russia ranked among the worst. Anecdotally, you can presume that poorest countries are the most likely to bribe; it is safe to say that these countries also had the least amount of government regulation regarding corruption.
Is it ethical to accept a gift? I think the answer is yes, but when it comes with strings attached you have crossed the line. In this case, accepting the bribe is as bad as offering it. Let’s also say that you will know a bribe when it is offered. It just won’t feel right. I challenge you to consider the worth of a business relationship that begins with or is based on bribery; this type of relationship is a house of cards at best.
So, how is an entrepreneur, who is desperate to begin a new business relationship, avoid bribes? First, each country has its own cultural norms regarding gift giving and its own laws regarding corruption; the issue of corruption is particularly thorny when selling to foreign governments. Take the time to prepare before you travel; research the gift giving practices ahead of time; consult your attorney (if not your priest or rabbi). Second, consider the adoption of a gift policy for all employees at your firm; this can act as a good compass for doing business internationally and might provide a safety net when you are put in an uncomfortable situation.
I can only advise you to proceed with caution and to only give and accept gifts. Beyond that, it just is not worth it.
John Bradley Jackson
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